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Tenkara Fly-Fishing and Hiking in the White Mountains

Tenkara Instructor and Fishing Guide, Ken Elmer, fly fishing on the Swift River
Tenkara Instructor and Fishing Guide, Ken Elmer, Tenkara fly fishing on the Swift River

I like learning new skills and Tenkara Fly Fishing is my latest new foray. This is a minimalist, ultralight form of fly fishing using a telescoping 11-12′ carbon fiber rod (weighing 2-3 ounces), a line, fly, and net, making it ideally suited to fishing on day hikes and backpacking trips where you don’t want to be weighed down with waders and a lot of tackle. Developed in Japan (about three hundred years ago), Tenkara is ideally suited to fishing in small mountain streams where a long cast is not required.

“Go to any blue line on a White Mountains map and there will be trout in it, either native or stocked, said Ken Elmer, my Tenkara Instructor and a Fishing Guide in Western Massachusetts. The White Mountains have excellent trout fishing and there are hundreds of miles of hiking trails adjacent to mountain streams that you can only get to if you’re willing to hike to them (so they’re not over-fished).

Headwaters of the East Branch Pemigewasset River
Headwaters of the East Branch Pemigewasset River, New Hampshire

I took a three-hour Tenkara lesson with Ken right before Memorial Day and was fly fishing by myself in New Hampshire and Massachusetts a day later. It’s so easy to learn! I’d bought a Tenkara rod two years ago but never gotten around to having a lesson, and while you can probably pick Tenkara up from a YouTube video if you already fly fish and know which knots to use, I was a complete newbie (and a timid one, at that.)

Ken set up my rod with a tippet and fly, showed me how to cast (basically just a flick of the wrist), and I started fishing a riffle right away. We’d met on the East Branch of the Swift River, at the bottom of the in Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts, which is Boston’s water supply. The East Branch is the perfect beginner’s river because it’s full of trout, since the Quabbin is stocked, and bottom fed, keeping it quite cold most of the year.

Shoal Pond Brook (upstream Shoal Pond is stocked)
Shoal Pond Brook (upstream Shoal Pond is stocked). New Hampshire

Casting with a Tenkara rod is quite easy and natural to learn. There’s far less fishing line management required except for the occasional tangle which becomes avoidable with a little practice. While there are a number of more advanced casting techniques one can learn, the basic idea is to cast your fly upstream of where you think the fish are, and then let it float downstream (like a bug) where they can see it. There’s no live bait required. Your hook is part of a fishing fly that’s tied to look like a bug to fool the fish into chomping on it.

Sawyer River
Sawyer River, New Hampshire

The art of Tenkara and fly-fishing, more generally, is knowing where fish like to hide in a river or stream and when they’re likely to come up to the surface and feed. There are a lot of nuances you can delve into further after that, like matching your flies to the local bug population that they prefer to eat, tying your own flies, and more advanced casting techniques, but none of that is really necessary unless you find it interesting and enjoyable.

In order to take a lesson with Ken, you need a Massachusetts Fishing License and a pair of waders. I’d also recommend that you wear warm socks and long underwear because the Swift River is so cold (a big floppy fishing hat is also a good idea). Ken will supply all of the other fishing gear if you haven’t bought your own yet, and will tell you what to buy so you can get started quickly after your first session.

Swift River - The Tree Pool, courtesy Ken Elmer
Swift River – The Tree Pool, courtesy Ken Elmer

I was hoping to avoid buying any waders for Tenkara fishing since they’re god awful heavy for backpacking, casting instead from the river bank or rocks in the stream. But I got a good deal on Frogg Toggs Canyon Boot Felt waders, which I’m glad I did get, for fishing bigger rivers that I can drive to in New Hampshire when I don’t have time to hike to them.

Still, I’m looking forward to a few trips in the coming months where I can combine backpacking or day hiking with a few hours of leisurely fly fishing.

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14 comments

  1. awesome, ive been wanting to combine the two also. have fly fished a few times but nothing very serious. i was thinking about giving it a shot in the wild river wilderness on a trip i have planned in july.
    i dont think that tenkara is allowed in the fly fishing only waters in NH is that correct?

  2. Tenkara fishing is really a cheap response to fishing the backcountry. No reel, no fancy eye’s on the rod, just a little skill. It is nearly the ideal fishing rig for UL’ers. Flies are generally searching patterns, mostly wets. You are not seeking trophy fish, rather two or three fish to make a supper with.

    At around $200 per rod they are far cheaper than $600-900 Orvis or Sage rods. They have a HUGE advantage on smaller water where casting is often limited to 20′-30′. However, Tenkara is unforgiving. If you hook a larger fish, chances are you’ll loose him. Tenkara rods, line, and hooks are balanced to give you the best results in a narrow range. You do not generally do well with a heavy 16′ steelhead rod designed for 15 pound fish on a 6′ wide mountain stream containing 8″-9″ brook trout, for example. Sometimes the length can be a decided disadvantage, also. Blowdowns, trees, rocks, shore line scrub can conspire to grab your line at the slightest pretext of casting.

    Flies are usually soft hackled (wet) flies. A few wraps of thread or floss for a body and a few wraps for hackle (usually forward, not the traditional backward slope on American flies) and tie it off. Of course ALL flies are dry the first cast or two, but these are designed to be fished wet, ie, in the water and just under the surface. Not on it. Traditional drys, nymphs and wets can also be used, of course.

    You will love it, Philip! For about 4oz of gear, you can easily catch a trout or two for supper, often extending your food supply on longer hikes.

    • I already love it. The concentration required is really quite relaxing and a great way to enjoy the outdoors. Maybe sometime I’ll cook the fish, but for the moment, I’m happy to release them back to the stream. And I’ve lost larger fish already due to broken line . No big bother. ‘

      I suspect your article about fly fishing on the NPT helped increase my interest!

      • Bummer on the fish. I get more upset that he took my fly…usually the ONLY one that is working, ha, ha…

        Most of my fishing has been with a simple spinning outfit, lately. I got a little bubble rig to do bait fishing and fly fishing with the little 8oz fishing rig: a “Pen” rod, a small spinning reel, a bobber, some hooks, and a box of flies. Hell, I nailed one around 18-19″/~2.5 pounds last week with it. More fish than I could eat for two meals, breakfast and supper. I caught a few more, but the only way to keep them fresh was to put them back in the water.

        It is a blood sport, regardless if you release the fish or not. As far as he is concerned, the fish *will* be eaten. But careful management keeps the water and fish in good shape. Mostly, hiking in about 20mi will keep most fishing pressure off the water. I know there are some other spots I can fish by finding some red worms or grubs, and, other spots that need flies. Some spots just need to be quietly approached. A few fish per year does not reduce the creek. I leave the ones about 12-16″ and only take eating size…or an occasional trophy fish as with last week. Along with a little prayer to the trail gods for the bounty. Even the bones go back to the soil (as they will when it is my turn.)

        Tenkara fishing is just one aspect of backwoods fishing. Release all you can, but don’t be afraid of taking enough for supper. BTW, felt shoes are not considered the best since they can pick up all sorts of stuff that can be transferred to the next piece of water you fish at. I used to use them a lot, but later found out I could be doing more damage than what I thought, soo, I dropped them.

        Good Luck and Have Fun!

  3. What are the relevant laws to fishing in the White Mountains? Catch Limits? Permit Needed?

    • You need a New Hampshire fishing license. If you live out of state, it costs a bit more.

      (Once purchased however, it covers everything covered by buying a Hike Safe Card, so you can skip buying that too)

      Some rivers have a max limit on fish that you can take home per day, but there are no limits on catch and release

      There are more rules for lakes and ponds. You’ll have to look those up. It’s all on the NH Fish and Game site.

      Rivers in Whites are largely unregulated in any special way, except for short stretches of big rivers outside of Jackson, Gorham, and North Conway, which I suspect are carved out to protect local fishing guides.

  4. I bought the Cascade Tenkara rod for my son last year (it is the smallest of the rods they make). We had a blast fishing in VT and taking it on hikes in the Catskills. It is foolproof! My son, who just turned 8, accidentally put it away incorrectly by telescoping it back wrong. He was so upset (and I was first thinking this rod was now broken). But, by simply unscrewing the base of the handle, I was easily able to pull the sections out and fix it easily. In 5 minutes, we were back to fishing. It even comes with a cool carrying case. It is a great addition even for the most stingiest ULer. You are surely not going to hook a river monster with this setup and I have had my tippet break with some bigger fish, but I have hooked a 6-10in fish with these rigs — and I am not a fisherman by any stretch of the imagination.

  5. Wiggy’s has some lightweight waders that weigh under a pound for a pair. They might be an option for a hike ‘n eat… or hike ‘n starve if I was trying to fly fish.

    http://www.wiggys.com/clothing-outerwear/lightweight-waders/

    I’ve got a pair and they work quite well.

  6. From a fishing regulations, letter-of-the-law perspective, tenkara may or may not be regarded as “fly fishing.” Some state wildlife agencies define “fly fishing” as simply “fishing with a fly” while others define it as “fishing with a fly rod, fly reel, and fly.” Where the latter regulations hold, there’s been some grumbling about tenkara. Seems pretty ridiculous to me, because “fly fishing only” regulations are mainly about maintaining the health of fish and fish populations, not one’s style of angling with a fly.

  7. If this comes through a second time I am sorry. It appeared that my first comment didn’t post.
    This reminds me of the times my friend and I would 18th century style fly fish at reenactments. We did not use the traditional cane poles but used the bamboo rods you can buy at some fishing supply stores. We braided our own horse hair lines and would use either horse hair or modern leaders. I tied my own flies as I mostly fly fished at that time (8-10 years ago). The line was attached to the tip of the pole….no reel. The technique was similar to Tenkara fishing.
    Get a copy of Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler” (Correct spelling as there were no rules at that time). A good read at night while your on the trail and it explains the fishing technique of Western 18th century fly fishing, though dated as far as language goes.

  8. I’ve always wanted to try fly fishing, I’ve only ever done other types of fishing. How is it carrying the extra gear with you on backpacking trips? I would think space would be an issue more than a weight issue, do you just strap the pole to the outside of a pack? Since it is collapsible, I guess that helps quite a bit.

    • Its not that bad. I bring a collapsible rod, clippers, Ketchum release, extra tippet, A small fly box, and a net. The net is the most awkward, but it fits into my rear pack pocket.

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