Equipment - Basics
Wondering what gear you need to get started? It's not surprising. If you’ve decided to get into the Tenkara way of fishing, you’re probably noticing there is an overwhelming amount of gear and advice out there (much of which is coming from people doing their best to influence you to click a link to buy their product). That's not honest advice... that's marketing.
So, the honest answer to what should I get is - "It depends". Do you already fly fish and have some gear vs. a person who is completely new to the sport and you're starting from scratch? Do you want or need to stay low budget? Where are you fishing - warm or cold waters? What type of fish are you going after? All of this matters, but in the end, it's up to you.
Below is a no-nonsense approach to gear. No matter your experience level, the good news is you need very little gear to to fish the Tenkara Way. Unlike many of the sites you come across, when we test and/or review equipment, we give input with no dog in the fight. Below we will take a beginner's look at Tenkara Rods, Fly Line, Tippet Rings, Tippet and Flies.
So what does this mean? In the end, it's just our honest and straight forward opinion. Take it or leave it, we are just trying to save many of you from the boundless (harsh and expensive) lessons we worked through while drowning our sorrows in beer. That said, we love the Tenkara way of fishing and we want the same for you. Use this as a starting point and in the end, make up your own mind and just get out there and tighten a line.
If you are just getting into Tenkara there is some basic gear you must have, and it all starts with the rod - a TENKARA fishing rod. Selecting a Tenkara rod will take a bit of research and thought on your part. But making a final decision should not be a heartburn inducing proposition.
Traditionally, Tenkara rods are made out of bamboo, but things have changed greatly. Now you can order carbon rods ranging anywhere from $60 all the way up to $500 (or more). They come in multiple lengths and some can even change their length based on need and each rod manufacturer has their own "technology" they want to boast about so they can justify all the money they are asking you to spend. In the end, you need what is right for you and your pocket book. Here are the 4 things you need to focus on when looking for a rod:
Fish - what are you going after? What is the average size?
Rod Size - How big is the body of water you will be fishing?
Handle - What type of feel do you like? Foam? Cork? Taped?
Price - What (honestly) is your budget? Why should you pay more? Can I get it for less? Does that (feature) matter right now?
So, once you do some self-examination, soul searching and number crunching, you're ready to get serious. Don't think just because someone ends up landing at the top of a search results page that they are the best place to buy or manufacturer to buy from.
We have tried (tested) a lot of Tenkara rods over the years and still to this day, one of our favorites is a mid-lower cost rod that comes in under $100. Heck, we even fell in love with a $60 rod that has been killing it everywhere we go. Yes, there are trade-offs, but that's where you have to make decisions. Are you willing to get a rod that may be 2-3oz more weight for $75-100 less? For us, the answer was yes!
Final thoughts (for now) since I'm sure a more in-depth journal entry or article will be coming soon since this seems to be one of the most often discussed topics. If you are going to go with a fixed length we recommend sticking with something around 12 ft. to start. It's a good length and very manageable. You can really perfect technique and whether you decide to go smaller or larger on your next one, you will have a good feel and technique so you're good-to-go wither way.
If you want a zoom rod, I would get something that has two to three zoom lengths between 10 and 14 ft. The idea behind different lengths is that you get a different reach for more open or closed-in casting situations and bodies of water. As an example, you can shorten the rod for smaller bodies of water, such as a small stream, or casting areas with obstructions overhead or to the side. If you go with a zoom, start with the shorter lengths to practice and develop your technique since it will be more forgiving and accurate. Once you are able to effectively and accurately cast, extend to a mid-level length and continue to hone your skills.
No matter what you choose, no matter the route you take, it should never be a source of financial, physical or mental discomfort.
Tenkara Fly Line
There's an incredible amount of confusion over what the "right" or "best" lines are to use when fishing the Tenkara way and this is one of the most important decisions you can make when Tenkara fishing. Surprisingly though, most people seem to think "line is line" and end up settling on something that makes everything they are trying to do harder than it needs to be. We don't pretend to be experts, but we will always tell you our honest opinion and what we have learned from our first-hand experience.
Types of Tenkara Lines
There are basically two types of Tenkara lines, furled and level, that you will find to choose from in most U.S. stores. Everyone has their own opinion about which to use, and when to use them. You will be able to find a number of other types available, but for most needs, these will be the go-to lines and the least expensive options. Please understand, we are NOT here to tell you which to use. We just want to provide you facts as we know them and what our preferences are for the warm waters of the southern US.
Furled lines are often referred to as “traditional” lines since they are closer to the types of lines originally used in Tenkara fishing. They are made by hand with a twisting process (that I won’t go into here) and are tapered like a standard Western fly-fishing leader. They can be made out of many different materials including monofilament, thread, and horsehair.
Furled lines usually have a large, Kevlar loop at the butt end, which is connected to the rod using a girth hitch knot. At the tip end, there is either a loop (for a loop to loop connection to the tippet) or a small metal ring, which allows you to tie the tippet to the line using a clinch or Trilene knot.
Good for a delicate presentation on the water
Handles well and ties easily
Said to have a tendency for water absorption and sink more easily
May not be good for dry fly presentation
Taper means weight and difficult to cast in windy conditions
Retained water may release on presentation and scare sensitive fish
Unlike furled lines, level lines do not have a taper (as the name suggests). They are usually nothing more than a length of straight fluorocarbon that you attach your tippet to. It’s possible to make a level line out of monofilament, but most Tenkara pros will tell you that fluorocarbon turns over much better because it is denser than mono.
Very economical and available everywhere
Excellent wind cast capability
Can be cut to any length you want without sacrificing performance
Lighter and thinner for gentle presentation
Shown to not as durable as a furled line
Requires more complicated knots to use
Can have line memory if wound on a spool too long
Our Findings and Preferences
So let's talk. Yes, most manufacturers who provide line with their rods being purchased most often send furled line. It's a lightweight braided line and is often more forgiving and easier to turn over. I have found that in the windy conditions along the Gulf Coast, this line is not very effective in day-to-day weather conditions. The wind down here is almost constant, and it's my mortal enemy - other than when it's 98° with 85% humidity outside and I am desperately trying to cool off.
It's because of the constant battle with wind that my go-to is a 4 mm level line, which is like a traditional fluorocarbon fishing line, or a fusion line. The fusion line, for me, is Western fly line. I fish a Dragontail Hellbender with a one-weight, weight forward floating (WF1F) Western fly line. I found that if I go any heavier it often overstress the rod tip during casting and can wear down and snap the tip over time. For saltwater applications, I go with a three to six weight, weight forward. I'm currently fishing (for testing and feedback) a cheap Goture Carp Rod as a saltwater rod. Look for a full report in the future.
Last thing I'll say on the subject is this, as you will notice, fly line comes in numerous colors. Just so you know, the color of the line is only for the fisherman's benefit. The different colors of the line make it easier for the angler to see their line in almost any lighting or weather conditions. It has been shown, the fish don't really care about the color of the line. It is now widely accepted that fish see them all as one color- black. But, let's be honest, would you want to eat something that was attached to a black line or thing stuck to it? That's where the tippet comes into play (see tippet section below). From the fish's perspective, the clear line of a tippet allows the fly to be connected almost transparently and be presented the best way possible. So now you are informed on both fact and opinion.
Tenkara anglers know this as one of the best (not so well-kept) secrets out there. A tippet ring is a very small ring that goes at the end of the fly line. It allows you to tie on tippet with a simple fishing knot instead of a complicated nail knot or other type of knot for joining fly line to tippet or leader. There's not a lot to say about it, but trust me, a tippet ring makes your life so much easier.
Tippet is a thin, clear polymer monofilament for attaching the fly to the line. Tippet comes in different diameters or gauges, where the larger number indicates a smaller diameter/gauge. This is usually a fluorocarbon line that comes in different line sizes. They're listed as 0x,1x,2x,3x,4x,5x etc.
The larger the number, the lighter duty the line. So, as an example: The 0x would be 15lb test and 3x would be 6 lb. I question the accuracy of these ratings. So don't get me started down that rabbit hole.
Other than that, it's pretty straight forward and the size-to-weight conversion is usually on the label...seriously, don't over think this part.
Just a heads up, this is going to be the nuts and bolts of flies. It's not meant to be some in-depth essay, because let's be honest, there's a millions sites out there discussing types of flies, how they are tied, their intent and so on. However, if you are new to the Tenkara way of fishing, it will definitely help you better understand terminology and concepts.
When you think of the fly, it's about enticement. Flies in general (when discussing any type of fly fishing) could represent a number of things, from our perspective when discussing Tenkara fishing in the warm waters of the southern US, it's everything from matching the insect, insect larva or minnow to where you're fishing. So, instead of telling you what to use, I want to talk about what some of the primary players are when looking for flies.
NOTE (soap box time): Before we get started through, I think something important needs to be brought into focus. The Tenkara way of fishing is unique from all other styles of fishing- yes, including western fly fishing. With Tenkara, the angler should put more emphasis on mastering technique and less on the fly choice. That said, let's get after it.
Dry Fly - sits on top of the water. Look around at what is landing on the water and match it. Don't overthink this.
Wet Fly - sub surface, think dead bug, or hatching or rising bug/larva
Streamer - baitfish imitation of some sort. The one you hear about the most is what is known as a wooly bugger. There a tons of colors and variations that are made to imitate everything from a plain minnow to a crawfish.
Nymph - not the female divinity (sorry-had to); think bug larvae floating in the water column or on bottom.
Poppers and Divers - mimics frogs, spiders, mice, etc.
The more experience you get with Tenkara, you will begin to understand flies can imitate multiple things in the water column. Tenkara masters form Japan often fish with only one fly regardless of conditions, type of fish, color of water or body of water.
When it comes to flies, you can go down some serious rabbit holes and it's easy to get lost and lose perspective. Just know you don't have to have a thousand different flies. Remember what I said near the beginning of all this, "...more emphasis on mastering technique and less on the fly choice."
When buying flies, you want to pay attention to reviews, be selective and then use them and learn from the experience. It's easy to blame the fly or lure, but with Tenkara, it often times comes down to the technique.
Lastly, pay attention to how they hold up. It will save you a lot of money and grief to buy quality flies that don't lose colors, easily break or unravel. That said, let me clear, that doesn't mean they have to cost a lot. Several of my "go-to" flies are under $2.00 and hold up amazing.
Just get out there and experiment and learn. Everything is better when you get out there and tighten a line.
Top 5 Tips for
Buy a rod that fits your price range. The cheaper rods are heavier and usually stronger. I'll talk about carbon fiber in a future journal entry. 8:2 action is a stiffer rod than 7:3 action. Softer is usually a little easier to cast.
You don't need anymore than 6 flies (and a duplicate of each). I will let you know that some Master's only use one fly, for everything. I can only hope I can make it that far in my process!
Olive woolly bugger
Tan or light yellow/brown kebari
Red or orange/ brown kebari
The wooly bugger can be bait fish, damsel, or crawfish imitation, and I try to go with a size 6 or 8. Everything else is a size 10 or 12. Keep in mind I fish warm waters. The concept is to try to keep it light and to have your flies imitate more than just one thing. Remember Tenkara is a generalist platform. You can certainly adopt Western Fly fishing fly hatch matching if you would like to go down that rabbit hole!
Stick with it (meaning Tenkara). The casting and catching will come.
Never stop creating and learning about the craft (- the best way is to bookmark this site and visit our FB site for tips, tricks and step-by-steps). You have something to add or give, we welcome it.
Always make sure the tippet that you use is weaker than the tip of your rod. Normally manufacturers will send tippet with the package that is best suited for use with the rod. The idea is that you want a fish breaking a tippet with a $2 fly, as opposed to, replacing a $15 tip. You're certainly more than welcome to fish with a tippet that exceeds the breaking strength or rating of your tip. I do, but I also understand it if I get a larger fish on, the rod will break before my tippet will. I am ok with that, I carry extra tips in the car and a back-up rod. One is none, two is one.