Tenkara: Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.
A Brief History and Origins of Modern Tenkara
Although the exact origin is unclear, the name Tenkara is said (by some) to come from the shortening of “tenkara-tsuri” – a phrase that meant “Fly Fishing”, where others say it means “from the sky” or “from the heaven,” which is possibly describing it from the fish's viewpoint as a flying insect that has just gently touched down on the water from above. However, the most simplistic answer (and the one I use most often) is that, "It's the traditional form of Japanese fly fishing using only a rod, line and fly."
There are many places you can look to go down a deep winding, and very interesting, detailed look at the history of the origins of Tenkara. This is not one of those places. Sorry. That said, we feel if you have interest, you should at least have some knowledge of its origins.
Tenkara is simply a rod (traditionally made of bamboo), a line and a hook (in the form of a fly). Often the rods have a corked handle with the creation of the rod usually telescoping down to about 18 inches for easy transportation. When extended, the full length of the modern Tenkara rod is usually 11 to 13 feet. There are some that are longer, some that are smaller, and some modern versions that can do both. At the delicate tip of the rod is a simple string, called a "Lillian", onto which a leader line is tied. This line, then tied to the final line which is connected to the fly, often matches the length of the rod itself. Some anglers choose to shorten the overall length of the lines for better accuracy, but it is often personal preference. The fly itself can be anything the angler wants to choose.
Since being introduced to the West, American anglers have forced comparisons between a modern version of old-fashioned cane pole fishing (which I did as a kid with my father many times) in which the angler uses a long-fixed bamboo rod to drop worms or minnows into the shallows of a pond, lake or stream and others compare it to what some people call "dapping" or "skimming". This is done using an a long (sometimes telescoping) rod to dangle and "skim" or "dap" a small lure, usually an imitation fly or frog, across the water’s surface in an effort to get top-water action.
Regardless of the comparison, Tenkara is becoming as diverse and popular as the people who make up our country. Although the "modern version" of Tenkara fishing provides credit to the Japanese to developing it into a fine art, fixed line "fly-style" fishing, has been found as far back as the ancient Romans over 2800 years ago, which lends to the argument that it is the most natural way to fish.
There are many purists who work diligently to maintain the traditions of its Japanese origins and there are many who look to simply learn a basic style and adapt it for their geographic area and needs making it their own. One thing is certain, the use of the Tenkara method in the West has grown exponentially (especially of the last 5-8 years) and has become far more varied and diverse than in Japan. Anglers in the west have moved far beyond small-stream trout and have now push the Tenkara envelope for bass, catfish, trout, salmon, and even many saltwater species.
Many westerners, for the most part, no longer adhere to the strict definitions of traditional “true Tenkara” from Japan- and in my book, that's ok. When you examine the method and style overall, regardless of the variation, I personally feel it’s a testimonial to the ongoing desire to innovate, share knowledge and expand techniques.
As my final thought, I would like to share this. From my perspective as a father, brother, friend and angler, when looking at Tenkara today (traditional or modern), what matters more than anything else is the ability to pass on a continued sense of connection to nature and the desire to focus on skill over technology.