Technique


Traditional Tenkara truly has Ten Colors. A variety of methods combine to create the technique, one of the reasons  tenkara  remains effective in such diverse conditions. While the simplicity of the traditional Tenkara rig ensures a quick start for the beginner, the many nuances and complexities of Tenkara ensure it takes a lifetime to master.
In Fundamentals I, we introduce the most important aspect of Tenkara technique – presentation. We cover the basics of approach, cast, and fly manipulation.
In Fundamentals II, we round out the basics with a look at strike detection, setting the hook, playing and landing, and the release. On this page, we will concentrate on the fundamentals of traditional Tenkara technique.

Fundamentals I

Tenkara Perfect Water.  

Tenkara was developed on highly featured water with opportunistic trout. A skilled Tenkara angler can be productive on an impressive variety of waters, but Tenkara really shines under these conditions.
The size of the stream or river does not matter.
If you’re staring at a gnarled mess of pockets, runs, riffles, tongues, tonsils, counter-currents, and swirling eddies packed in 50 yards of water, then you’re staring at perfect Tenkara water.

Presentation.

Ask any experienced Tenkara angler. Presentation is the key to catching fish. We began talking out the many facets of presentation on the Philosophy page. Here, we will divide presentation into approach, cast, and fly manipulation.

Approach. 

A good approach starts with a good plan. That means paying attention to your surroundings. Try the following steps to plan and execute your approach:
  • Read the Water. Identify where you expect to find fish. Look at nearby currents, think about how they might affect your presentation, and identify the ideal position from which to present your fly.
  • Note the Sun. Recognize how it will cast your shadow and the shadow of your cast.
  • Evaluate the Terrain. Look for boulders or brush that will break up your silhouette and your shadow as you approach and then cast.
  • Adopt a Plan. Combine the info gathered in steps 1-3 and pick your route.
  • Stay in Control. Low and slow is the key to success. Hold your rod behind you so that it doesn’t intrude before you’re in position. Control body and rod as you approach.
  • Fish. Having executed your approach, you are now in position to cast.
You can remember these steps with the mnemonic “Why Some Tenkara Anglers Catch Fish”.

Cast. 

There are two elements to the cast. One is getting the fly where you want it to go. The second is getting the fly to land the way you want it to land.

1) Getting the fly where you want it to go.

This is a matter of applying the fundamentals of casting a Tenkara rod:
  • Hold the rod with your index finger on top, pointing towards the tip of the rod.
  • Place your strong foot a bit forward (usually the foot on the same side as the rod).
  • Keep your elbow close to your body.
  • Bend your elbow to 45 degrees, wrist slightly pointing the rod at about 10 o’clock. This is the starting position.
  • Bring your arm toward about 90 degrees, extending your wrist with a snap so the rod stops briskly at about 12 o’clock. Most of the motion in getting that rod to 12 o’clock should be in the wrist. This is the backcast. The backcast is the most important part of the cast. And the most important element of the backcast is that brisk stop.
  • After a brief pause, return the rod to 45 degrees. This time, flex your wrist with a snap, once again stopping the rod briskly at about 10 o’clock. This is the forward cast. Again, the brisk stop is the important part.
Congrats. You’ve just executed an overhand cast. There are many, many other useful casts you will eventually learn in Tenkara. But the overhand is the fundamental cast that should be mastered first.

2) Getting the fly to land the way you want it to land. 

Sometimes you’ll want to float your fly delicately to the surface of the water (to prevent spooking fish, keep the fly on the surface, mimic the landing of a small dry fly, etc). Other times, you’ll want to slam your fly down hard (to drive a wet fly deep, mimic a fallen terrestrial, etc).
Either way, with traditional Tenkara, you always want the fly to land first. And you want to keep most if not all of your line off the water. Only fly and tippet should touch the surface.
To control the way your fly lands, adjust the height of your casting target:
  • To ensure only fly and tippet touch, always aim at least a bit above the surface.
  • For a delicate landing, aim higher above the surface. Your line should lay out almost completely above the surface, dissipating the force of the cast before allowing the fly floats to the surface.
  • For a harder landing, aim closer to the surface. All but tippet should lay out above the surface. When the tippet straightens, the fly will slam down with the remaining force of the cast.

Fly Manipulation. 

The fundamental building block for fly manipulation is the absence of all manipulation. The upstream dead drift is the first Tenkara method that should be tackled.
To execute a dead drift following an upstream cast:
  • Immediately position your rod to remove all slack from your line, ensuring only tippet and fly remain on the water.
  • Gradually move your rod downstream to match the downstream drift of your fly.
  • As rod and fly move downstream, raise the tip of the rod to ensure no slack develops in the line.
  • Keep your rod hand steady. You do not want to introduce any motion in the line.
  • Do not pull the fly faster than the current. The object is to achieve a balance between  allowing the fly to drift naturally with the current while never allowing slack to develop in the line.
  • Before the fly gets so close you can no longer keep the line tight, begin your backcast and set up for the next drift.

Fundamentals II

Strike Detection. 

A tight line technique like Tenkara allows you to detect strikes in two basic ways. First, by feel. Second, and perhaps most important, by sight.

1) Feel.

This is the easy part.  It won’t take long to recognize the distinct, high amplitude tap of a fish striking your fly. It also won’t take long to differentiate that high amplitude tap from the dull thud of a snag. A tight line ensures that all these vibrations are transferred efficiently to the sensitive tip section of your tenkara rod.

2) Sight.

There will be times when you see the fish you are trying to catch. Any movement in  that fish when your fly is in its general area should be interpreted as a strike. There will be other times that you see a fish flash, or drift downstream and suddenly turn somewhere near your fly. These should also prompt a hookset. These things are true of any fishing technique.
But Tenkara also allows you to see the strike in the line. This is the real magic of Tenkara.  As you learn to keep the line calm and tight during an upstream dead drift, you will learn to recognize the pattern of your line as the fly and the current pulls at it. Then there will be something different. It might be an imperceptible wiggle to the side, or a pause in downstream progress, or your line might suddenly move in a direction completely opposite the current. Any change in the pattern of your line moving downstream during a dead drift is a strike until proven otherwise.
With practice, Tenkara will allow you to detect the most subtle strike – strikes that would be missed using many other techniques.

Setting the Hook. 

Trout can be quick to spit out anything that does not have the right texture or taste. Once a strike is detected, a good hookset must follow.
Tenkara allows  you to blend the hookset and the backcast into one motion. When a strike is detected, move the rod up and back in a swift, crisp motion. If the strike was true and your reaction well-timed, then the weight of a fish will come onto the rod. If the strike was false or your reaction ill-timed, then your line will go sailing in a tight loop behind you. You will have executed a backcast, can immediately proceed with redirecting your line on the forward cast, and present your fly to the next hungry fish with minimal delay.

Playing and Landing.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War introduces the concept of Weaknesses and Strengths. When your opponent is strong, yield to his will. When he is weak, exert your own will. Sun Tzu might have been a Chinese military strategist, but his concept of Weaknesses and Strengths is still the best way to understand playing and landing fish with Japanese Tenkara.
Playing. When playing fish, keep the following in mind:
  • When the fish is moving, let him move. Avoid overloading the tippet by pulling the fish in a direction he doesn’t want to go while he still has strength.
  • Let the rod do the work. Keep the rod loaded, never allowing slack to develop between you and the fish.
  • Keep your elbow tucked by your side. Raising your arm above your head might help prevent slack on rare occasions, but it is an unsteady position. You have more control with your arm low and the rod close.
  • Fish tend to run perpendicular to the direction of pull. Use this to lead your fish away from obstacles and rapid currents towards softer water. Point your rod to one side or the other, redirecting the pull until the fish picks a more desirable path.
  • A fish out of water is weaker. When the fish begins to tire and moves towards the surface, take the fight out of him by lifting his head for a gulp or two of air.
  • A fish out of water is heavier. Avoid overloading the tippet by pulling the fish out of water.
  • A short fight is a good fight. When employed correctly, these principles should shorten the fight, not prolong it. A short fight places less stress on the fish, which means he will recover faster, which means he will get back to eating and growing sooner, which means there’s a better chance you can come back next year and catch him when he’s bigger.
Landing. The same principles should be kept in mind when landing fish. There are two variations to landing a fish with a Tenkara rod. First, the lift. Second, hand lining.
1) The Lift. Simply lift your rod up and back, sliding the fish towards your net. Straightforward and intuitive, the lift is best used when the total length of your line is the same length or shorter than your rod.
2) Hand Lining. An art in and of itself, hand lining becomes necessary when your line is much longer than your rod:
  • Start with the lift. Move your rod up and back until you can reach the line with your free hand.
  • Grab the line gently between your thumb, index and middle finger.
  • Pass the line from your free hand to your rod hand, again grabbing between thumb, index and middle finger.
  • Repeat this motion until the fish is close enough to net.
  • If the fish gets a second wind and starts to run again, let him. You can give a little ground by extending your arm.
  • If he continues to run, allow the line to slip through your fingers, gradually transitioning the load back onto your rod. Wait until he tires again, and repeat.

The Release. 

We almost always release the fish we catch, and we try to do everything we can to make sure we release a healthy fish. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be as many healthy fish, and we’d have nothing to do.
A full discussion of Catch and Release principles would take up a page itself, but here’s a few basics:
  • Minimize time out of water.
  • Minimize handling time.
  • Avoid touching the fish with bare hands.
  • Avoid touching the fish with anything dry.
  • Most importantly, if the fish isn’t bolting out of your hands, help him out by holding the trout gently in an upright, upstream, underwater position until he finds his strength again.
When you’re ready to learn more, check out the Trips and Tricks page, where we’ll share additional information on all aspects of traditional Tenkara technique.