Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tenkara: Fun or Fad?

Pick up any flyfishing magazine or surf a few flyfishing websites at the moment and "Tenkara" will no doubt get a mention. It seems to be latest in thing in flyfishing; we've had many before and we'll have more in future, some catch-on and stay the course, others quickly fall by the wayside and are forgotten. I'd read various articles in magazines, journals and on the internet, and I was curious. Tenkara rods weren't too expensive and you didn't need much else to get started, so why not I thought and took the plunge. So is it here to stay or is it another fad? Here's my early thoughts...

Firstly it would seem that you can now buy anything from the world of flyfishing with the word "Tenkara" in front, which means it must be somehow different, work better and be essential - not! This is at it's most ridiculous when we look at tenkara flies. Why would a fly from hundreds of years ago be any better than a modern day fly that is the result of those hundreds of years experimentation, learning, using, observation, tinkering...etc? Clearly it can't be, so that's one aspect eliminated immediately! One thing that everyone should get clear, whether you think tenkara is flyfishing or not, is that we are presenting flies in exactly the same way as with conventional flyfishing. It follows then that we don't need special tippet and flies, and, if you are curently fishing with French leaders you don't even need tenkara leaders.

Not For Big Fish
I'm no tenkara expert. I bought myself a tenkara rod and a few bits back in early March and have wet a line on a few occasions. I might not be an authority on tenkara, but, when you take away all the hype, and get down to the nitty gritty, all we are doing is presenting a fly (or flies) on a fixed line. These flies can be nymphs or dries (or wets I suppose) and there is absolutely no difference to presenting flies in the same way with a conventional rod. What you don't have with tenkara is a reel, which puts you at a disadvantage immedately. So for that reason tenkara is certainly not suitable when there is a possibility of hooking a decent fish, say 1.5lb plus. I wrote recently on Twitter why tenkara isn't for big fish rivers (and my 1.5lb suggested weight isn't that big), here is what I said for those who missed it...

1. It is a fixed line technique, so when a big fish takes there is no reel to give the fish line. Yes the rod is extremely soft, flexible & forgiving, but there is only so much give & eventually the tippet will break leaving the fly (& possibly tippet) in the fish, which is clearly unacceptable. Even the Tenkara USA site instructs users to use no more than 6lb breaking strain for this very reason.

2. The second problem occurs when trying to land the fish. The only way to do it is to handle the leader & pull the fish to hand, or, preferably, net. The tenkara rod is so soft that often the fish (esp. a big fish) doesn't fight because it doesn't realise it is hooked, or it doesn't fight hard because the rod is so forgiving it feels little resistance. Then when you grab the leader the fish feels the increased tension & promptly sets off against the pull, resulting in a breakage, more than likely leaving the hook in the fish.

If a large grayling is hooked it will go downstream as all UK grayling do. Therefore it will feel the resistance & fight hard. If the grayling is in fast water the fight is amplified (big grayling in fast water can be the trickiest of fish to land). With conventional tackle you'd just let it take line off the reel on a light drag setting & continue the fight when things calm down. Of course you don't have this option with Tenkara so the result is a lost grayling with a fly in its mouth.

Any method of fishing which increases the chances of leaving hooks in fish has got to be wrong. Tenkara has it's place in such places as the Upper Tees where there are only small trout. Indeed, as far as I know this is exactly the type of fishing the Japanese invented it for, i.e. rocky mountain streams with only small fish. Where there is the possibility of hooking large fish it is not suitable in my opinion & should not be allowed.

So it is clearly not for use everywhere, but I do see tenkara as a very useful technique on upland hill streams and Scottish burns where the average size of fish is quite small. The sort of river where a 1lb fish is a specimen. The upper River Tees is one such place, as are the East and West Dart in Devon, and any similar moorland/mountain stream where the trout lie behind every boulder.

Tenkara success on the
River Ribble at Settle
Don't Break The Rules!
We must also be aware that tenkara is against the rules in some places. I suppose we could also say is tenkara fishing flyfishing? The only part of tenkara that is flyfishing is using a fly. There is no fly rod, reel or line so it can't be, certainly not as we know it. Most of the skills are transferable between the two disciplines, but they are not the same. Some fisheries/clubs will not be concerned, others will and will ban it (some already have). If the rules state "fly fishing only with a conventional fly rod and reel" then of course tenkara cannot be used.

Tenkara Fishing Techniques
In my opinion many people over-complicate flyfishing. Anglers are well know for carrying far too many flies, most of which never see the light of day. They carry a multitude of leaders and tippets for every conceivable situation and their waistcoats are overflowing with gadgets and the latest 'must-have' tools. From the things I have read tenkara is no different, with authors extolling the virtues of different leader set-ups, leader materials, techniques, etc. I like to keep my fishing simple. I have a straightforward, commonsense approach, which is about presentation. It's all about presentation. It's not about the rod, make of leader, having the latest competition winning fly, etc. Present a suitable fly, in the correct way and you will have success - simple as that (though not always easily executed). From my short experience with tenkara I have boiled it down to two techniques. It wasn't hard - common sense again. It is a fixed line method so we are limited anyway.

I fish dry fly on my tenkara rod - who wouldn't! But rather than having a variety of leaders I use just one - a tenkara furled leader with a tippet of my usual material (Hardy Marksman Copolymer), which I make just longer than the rod. This presents my dry fly very delicatley and has been quite successful. Some people prefer level leaders, saying that they can present the fly at range without drag. This may be so with a big, planted, dry fly, such as a Klinkhamer, but I have not found it to be so with a spasre, virtually weightless, CDC dry. They will still drag, so keep it simple and use an easy to cast furled leader (tenkara or traditional)!

Tenkara on the River Wharfe

When nymph fishing with tenkara, which I have probably done mostly, again, I have boiled it down to one simple, but very effective method: French nymphing. Tenkara and French nymphing go hand in hand, but then they would - tenkara was developed for that type of short line fishing and French nymphing was developed for that type of rod, i.e. long and soft. Again lots of nymphing leaders have been promoted and again I have gone for the single, simple, approach. I simply use a 350cm Hends Camou French Leader. To this I add a braid indicator (home made or Hends) and 2 flies on Fulling Mill Fluorocarbon 2lb or 3lb. The first fly is at about 4' from the indicator and the point fly about 2-3 feet from this. Simple, very effective and easy to cast.

It must be remembered that with tenkara the leader must not exceed the length of the rod by very much, because there is no reel to recover line on hooking a fish. The line, being fixed to the lillian at the tip of the rod, is out of reach until the fish is almost played out. The rod can then be liftted upwards and backwards to bring the leader to hand, and in turn the fish to hand. Of course with a leader much longer than the rod, you would have a long way to pull a fish without the shock absorbing properties of the rod.

So is tenkara fun or is it a fad? Well actually I think it is both. I really don't see it being around seriously for longer than 2 years. Long enough for a lot of people to buy a tenkara rod, try it and slowly go back to flyfishing and forget it. It offers no advantages in fishing technique and when anglers realise that they will turn away from it. So from that point of view it is a fad.

In my opinion it has one thing going for it: portability. And that is where I see the biggest advantage of tenkara and how my use of tenkara has developed. I hate carrying 2 rods on the river. In my competition days it was essential to carry 2 rods for quick change from one method to another. Now, in my post competition days, I never carry 2 rods and changing from one technique to another is both time consuming and frustrating, but still preferred to carrying another rod. And that's where a tenkara rod comes in. I carry it in the backpack of my fishing waistcoat in its closed position. I fish up the river with my fly rod, using whatever technique I deem most suitable for the day, let's say dry fly. Then I come across a lovely looking pool, with a decent flow, that looks perfect for nymph fishing. So out comes my tenkara rod, French nymph leader and flies are attached, rod extended and I'm fishing again. Once out of the pool the rod is quickly collapsed and I'm back to dry fly in the next pool. Of course I could be nymph fishing and changing to dry fly on tenkara, but that's where I see the beauty of tenkara, i.e. a quick change from dry to nymph and vice versa.

I do think that tenkara offers a bit of fun fishing on the types of rivers mentioned above, i.e. rocky, fast flowing rivers, with a large population of small trout hiding in every nook and cranny. Tenkara is at home in such places, indeed was developed hundreds of years ago for such fishing, and it is interesting and effective. But I wouldn't want to lose that feeling of my fly rod loading against the weight of the line; seeing my tight loop unfurling towards the rising trout and hearing my reel screem when I've hooked it and it sets off downstream. Long live flyfishing!

Hends Camou French Leaders are available from Tungsten Beads Plus
Hends and other indicators also available from Tungsten Beads Plus
Tenkara rod are available from Tenkara USA and Tenkara Centre UK