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).
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.
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.
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.
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.