Tenkara fly fishing is a minimalist style of fly fishing used for stream fishing. With an emphasis on simple lightweight gear, this form of fishing is perfect for backpackers who want a richer wilderness experience in the backcountry. There’s nothing like hiking into an isolated pool drop on a remote mountain stream and playing hide and seek with elusive wild trout to make you appreciate the simplicity of life and the power of patience.
While some people are crazy strict in their interpretation of Tenkara “philosophy” and gear, I’m more of a pragmatist, willing to use whatever gear and flies work for my local mountain streams. If you fish in New England mountain streams, where the trout are small and wily, you need to be willing to experiment and adapt techniques and fly patterns used by reel fisherman, as well as your Tenkara peers.
Here’s a look at my Tenkara Fly Fishing kit since this pictures illustrates how simple it is to get outfitted for this style of fishing. The gear shown here weighs about 12 ounces total, but I could easily halve that it I cared to. The real weight savings comes from the fact that I can fish in my normal backpacking clothes without the need for waders or wading boots. That’s the beauty of fishing smaller mountain streams where you can reach eddies along the opposite bank with a simple cast or rock hop from pool to pool.
I own a half-dozen Tenkara rods in a variety of lengths, but the rod I carry most of the time is a 12′ Tenkara USA Iwana because it has a lightweight and precise feel with excellent sensitivity so I can feel light strikes on my fly. At the same time, it has a soft enough tip action that it doesn’t overpower a small fish and pull the hook out of their mouth. I carry it in the stock Tenkara USA rod case. While there are lighter weight cases available, I use this one because I can fit a second rod into it when I feel like carrying one.
Line and Tippet
I use high visibility orange Sunline Buttobi 4 weight flourocarbon level line, usually between 9′ and 11′ long. The high visibility flourocarbon is much more sensitive than a braided line for detecting strikes and the bright color makes it easy to see when my tippet gets pulled down by a fish. I rarely need to change a line in the field, but I carry an extra just in case.
I use Frogs Hair Tippet 4x, usually somewhere between 2′ and 6′ in length depending on the stream, its depth, and the amount of wooden debris in it. I connect the tippet to the flourocarbon using a tiny tippet ring, so I don’t have to tie a knot to connect the flourocarbon to the tippet (and shorten it) every time I need to replace the tippet. I usually go through about 2 tippets a day.
I keep my line on the rod most of the time using Fuji EZ keepers, hooking a fly into the cork handle. Some people like to store their line on little reels and only attach them when they get to the water, but I’m out frequently enough that I leave everything attached and set up.
Nippers and Hemostats
The nippers are essential for cutting line and tippet. They have built-in nail knot tool which I mainly use for reel fishing, which I do on occasionally on larger rivers and ponds. The hemostats come in handy for removing deeply embedded hooks that don’t slip out of fish mouths or for mashing barbed hooks flat that I missed flattening with my vice when I tie my flies. The little ‘biner lets me connect them to my shirt or pack easily, so I can find them without having to look.
This Buff fishing glove used to be part of a pair, but I lost the other one somewhere, and haven’t replace it yet. While it provides sun protection for the top of my left hand, I mainly use it to grab hold of the fish I catch instead of using a net. The outside of the glove has an embossed silicon pattern that doesn’t strip away the protective mucus that coats fish bodies, so I can grab them, pull out the hook, and release them back into the stream. I used to carry a Tenkara net, but it was really awkward to carry in a backpack and overkill for the smaller fish I catch.
I’m probably like most fisherman in that I bring many more flies to a river than I need. But I like having a little variety, just in case the fish express a preference on any given day. This fly box holds about 130 flies, although on most days I usually only use (and lose) a couple. I tie all of my own flies because I enjoy doing it. It’s really not hard and helps to enrich the overall experience. I tie a variety of simple soft hackle patterns, wooly buggers, bugs, scuds, and terrestrials like worms and ants. Last year, I used a Stewart Black Spider almost exclusively and caught lots of trout with it. It’s quite similar to a Japanese reverse hackle but Scottish in origin, and easily tied with just thread and a starling feather.
Advice for Getting Started
If the thought of Tenkara fly fishing appeals to you, it’s easy to get started. I took a two-hour guided lesson with a fishing guide recommended by a friend and then taught myself everything else by watching youtube videos, scouring the Tenkara Bum website, and practicing on streams. Since then, Daniel Galhardo the owner of Tenkara USA, has written an excellent and richly illustrated intro book called “Tenkara” that I can highly recommend and that will help accelerate your learning process. I wish I’d had it a few years ago.