Jeremy Lucas: Evolution of Approach

Tenkara guide Jeremy Lucas
Tenkara enthusiasts have a problem, and it really needs to be addressed.  We are very quick, almost relentless, in singing the virtues of the fixed line approach; its simplicity and minimalism, and its greatest virtue - that of outstanding presentation at short range.  But there are real and damaging problems and we must not be in denial of these.  Rather we need to find solutions.

Let me be clear.  The phenomenal presentation we are used to, particularly with near surface flies such as reversed hackle spiders (sakasa kebari) or surface-bound dry flies, comes at a cost.  All is well at very short range when we use an appropriate leader and tippet, particularly in terms of length.  The presentation translates to excellent control, right up to dealing with the fish, which can be brought to hand, beached or netted without any 'hand-lining' of the leader.  As soon as we increase the leader length to very much more than the length of the rod, however, we are in trouble.  We can still achieve good presentation, and reasonable control out to the range we are casting, but dealing with the fish, particularly large or fast-moving trout, becomes fraught with hazard, and decidedly inelegant.  

There comes that point as the fish draws near to the angler when we have to move backwards or grab the leader in order to keep it under tension.  Then we have to hand-line in order to bring the fish close enough to net or unhook.  This process can be accomplished reasonably quickly with grayling and small trout, but with larger fish, especially in open water where they can, and will, run fast, tippet breaks (or rod tip breaks) and the angler's hurried, clumsy movement in the water, are all too common.  A tippet break is without a doubt one of the great sins in fly fishing.  It is, finally, hugely irresponsible to leave hook and tippet in a fish's mouth.  Sure, they sometimes lose this, but often they do not, and this is an ugly display in our sport.  

Tenkara fishing photo. Trout by Jeremy Lucas.
        Is this somewhere around the responsible limit for fixed-line presentation? A wild River Eden trout.

Rather more subtle than the above, but equally as important, is over-tiring of the fish.  When a larger than average trout or grayling is hooked, because of the very soft nature of a 5:5 or 6:4 tenkara rod, the fish is often struggling out in the water for much longer than in the western-style.  This is also hugely irresponsible of us anglers, because whether we are to kill or release our catch, then we surely should be keeping the duration in which the fish is under stress to a minimum.  Trout and grayling have a much better chance of recovering if the process between hooking and release is measured in seconds, rather than minutes.  And this too is something of which we should not be in denial.

So, the solutions?  Let us consider the implications of very long leaders.  The issue is not the casting.  It is easy to cast a properly constructed leader of 30' or longer, the full length, and with gentle delivery.  But to do so is leaving us completely out of control, with considerable leader lying on or in the surface, and hopelessly positioned when it comes to dealing with a fish, necessitating excessive hand-lining (in fact, I claim that any hand-lining is excessive).  Forget the macho nonsense about our ability to cast such long fixed leaders.  This is utterly not the point, or the problem. 

While the leader is fixed to the rod tip, the only real solution is to fish short, which means a leader no longer than the rod, and a short tippet.  This way, with the rod under stress, a fish can be either brought to hand or netted without any hand-lining.  If a fish is netted rather than brought to hand, the overall tippet/leader length can be slightly longer, but even so there is a limit beyond which the dreaded hand-lining becomes inevitable.  If a fish is beached, we can obviously fish a longer leader, though beaching in a river, means a lot of wading, climbing out of the water, and a high disturbance value.  Again, inelegant, at best.

Just think of where tenkara originated, and what fish were targeted: small mountain streams in Japan, with char and trout, rarely exceeding a pound in weight.  And the original leaders (of silk or horsehair) were very short.  We have brought tenkara down into the valleys, onto bigger rivers (and even lakes), with larger quarry, and it has been a thrilling journey of discovery; but in so doing we have not yet fully addressed the problems associated with this.  We have no means of gathering or yielding line directly, because it is fixed to the lilian at the rod tip.  A possible solution here is to develop a means of running the leader down the inside of the telescopic rod.  This would not be difficult to achieve using a ceramic tip (rather like a ceramic fly tying bobbin holder) and some means of drawing out the line at the handle end of the rod.  In a stroke this would give us variable casting range as well as the ability to yield and gather line, affording the commensurate control we have in western-style, particularly in the modern leader-only approach; which is, after all a hybrid tenkara/western development.

I have been experimenting lately with waxed kevlar (actually, easily obtainable as dental floss) for the bulk section of leaders.  I tip these (loop to loop connection) with a 30cm furl of 12 strand horsehair, which provides the casting mass.   The overall leader affords the most delicate touch down I have yet experienced, with either nymph or dry.  It has occurred to me that this material would be ideal for running down the interior of a tenkara rod, given hard-wearing ceramic entry and exit points, because kevlar will rapidly cut into softer material such as carbon fibre. 

Tenkara fishing with "presentation fly" photo by Jeremy Lucas
If we are to remain with the fixed line, however, I think we should be extremely careful in our choice of venue and the target fish, and also to keep the leader to rod length.  We should think of where tenkara is at its best, and why this is so: in small upland streams.  One does not question that tenkara is the equal of western-style on larger waters, for larger fish, right up to the point of hooking that fish, but this is where we must do some soul-searching or find solutions, as above.  We owe this to the fish, and to the wholesome development of our sport.

Comments by

I know at least one man, who  makes experiments in this direction with  seiryu rods. He started with Daiwa Sagiri MC39, found it too stiff and continue with softer NISSIN ZEROSUM 初梅 seiryu rod:

Advanced tenkara rod by Ierou Minamifuji