Suitability of the Stream.

by Jeremy Lucas, UK

I have been asked so much recently whether I prefer western-style or tenkara. This is a very difficult question to answer, because I love them both. One is aware of all the conjecture, the arguments for and against, and I'm afraid that the simple truth is that we anglers usually do have a distinct preference for one approach or the other and tend to do our utmost to 'protect' and promote whichever that might be. This is typical of our nature, of course, though while it does the sport no good at all, it might not, finally, do any harm.

So what are the main points of concern, or argument, and are they valid? A lot is made of the minimalistic simplicity of tenkara, which is perhaps obvious, but probably over-stated in comparison with western-style, because apart from having a reel in the system, the latter can be just about as simple. On all the rivers I fish, Europe-wide, I carry very little, with either approach. Indeed, I have known tenkara fishers more burdened with tackle and flies than I am when fishing with fly line.

The delicacy of presentation of tenkara is also a strongly voiced virtue, and we have to agree with this, although again, fishing western-style, with the ultra-light line weights and furls available nowadays, or particularly the leader-only approach, there is very little in it, believe me. I should add that western-style actually has a huge advantage here, particularly again with leader-only in that one can obtain beautifully soft touch down, with control, at significantly greater range than is possible with the fixed line. On the small river this is inconsequential, but the value of this increases vastly in proportion to the size of the river. Having control over line/leader length, however, from cast to cast, is also of huge value, no matter what the size of river. I fear that tenkara aficionados who do not appreciate this point are either in ignorance of this factor of control, or in denial.

Tenkara waters - Ternoise France

The problem here is keeping hooked trout out of the overhanging alders on the right bank: middle Ternoise, at Blangy sur Ternoise, northern France.

Gayling on the plum and tenkara

The perfect quarry for tenkara, on any size stream: 
grayling on the plume tip.
Dealing with hooked fish is an area of concern, it must be said, when fishing tenkara, and this is related both to the size of the fish and the scale of the river. Committed western-stylers have suggested that this issue actually confines tenkara to small rivers and small fish (as from which the method emanated). Tenkara enthusiasts, however, point to evermore adventurous exploits with larger trout and rivers. Again, the truth is that beyond those small fish and pocket water streams, we are always running a risk, and to deny this is ridiculous. I have been in enough 'marginal' situations with big rainbows and browns, in open water, to know absolutely that to have the ability to yield line via the fly reel, and to gather line, often makes the entire difference between a fish successfully brought to hand, and the irresponsible ignominy of a break. There is no rational argument that to leave a hook, or worse, a hook and tippet/leader, in a fish is a deep sin within our sport, and to risk this is where the irresponsibility lies. Try as one might, the fixed line stylers will never win this argument, I feel, even though one does know of exceptionally large trout being successfully caught using tenkara on, for example, some American rivers. I confess to being surprised by this, because when I have hooked large trout on large European rivers, I have had to move very quickly through the water – which is not always easy – in order to have any chance at all.
Tenkara waters - upper Eden

Upper Eden feeder stream; ideal for tenkara
and plume tip.

Tenkara - grayling, Eden

Grayling, Eden, plume tip.
The process of bringing a fish to hand, or netting a fish, is also a concern. I have never felt comfortable with hand-lining tippet and leader in order to bring a fish into range of hand or net (this is not a comparison about netting and hand-landing, because that is quite a separate issue: I actually far prefer bringing fish to hand, rather than netting them, because in all cases other than particularly 'squirmy' grayling, I find the unhooking process much quicker if a net is not involved, though one admits to knowing a lot of anglers who find the opposite). The point here is that with a leader/tippet any longer than the rod length, hand-lining of the tippet is always necessary. At best this is clumsy and inelegant. At worst it is a process which runs an enhanced risk of tippet breakage. In tenkara (as in western style) we are often fishing tippets down to 0.08mm, and commonly 0.1mm, and once the wonderful cushioning of a soft tenkara rod is gone - as we hand-line - even a small trout, suddenly making a bid for freedom, can produce the break. Again, there can be no doubt that the ability to yield line at this point, in western-style, often saves the break.
Perfect tenkara waters - Ternoise, Northern France

Perfect tenkara water on la Ternoise, northern France.
Tenkara waters - Ternoise

Only the fixed line can work here: upper Ternoise in deep cover. In twenty metres of river I counted nine trout, all of which would not have been accessible with western-style.

I think that responsible river guides and fishing instructors should not concentrate on the tired old ground of casting technique and fly selection (which are comparatively trivial), and should certainly not push the angler towards one approach while condemning others. Rather, they should gear the approach absolutely to the water type and conditions that face them. Beyond that, they should teach wading technique and, above all, how to expediently and safely deal with a hooked fish, of any size. The latter issues, make all the difference out there, and are water-invariant. Many of us have learned how to extend the scope of tenkara towards bigger fish and more open water situations, in which big fish can run, and we can cope with hand-lining, such that we know how to hold the tippet and allow it to slip as it is shortened to the point when we can net or handle the fish; but above all, as we broadcast this beautiful fly fishing approach, we owe it to both the sport and our quarry to teach how to do it so as to minimise any damage we do.

We are now well into the autumn/winter fishing for grayling and I am fishing mostly with tenkara, and double nymph, using either the outstanding Motive 390 or the new Try 360, the latter being supremely gentle and I have to say superbly suited to fishing for big grayling on the Eden in Cumbria and the Category two streams in northern France (the Category ones now being closed for the winter).

Do take a look at the draft details of next year's courses and hosted trips (which include Eden in Cumbria, Slovenia, Czech, the San in Poland as well as the tenkara-suited waters of the Seven Valleys area of northern France) up on my website:

Oleg Stryapunin: One day of tenkara fishing in Croatia >>