Updated: Sep 17, 2022
"There's more than one way to skin a cat." That quote was always kind of disturbing to me, like who wants to skin a cat? However, there is definitely more than one way to catch a trout, and several different fishing styles to accomplish that feat. The first written record of fishing with a fly can be found in Isaac Walton's Complete Angler in 1600. However, in Japan a method of angling with flies called Tenkara has been used for over 400 years.
Tenkara fishing originated with the local fishermen in small mountain streams who found it an effective method of catching the area's species of wild trout. Originally the rod was simply a bamboo/cane rod with a fixed line, just like your grandfather used to catch bluegill with. Because of its light weight, Japanese anglers were able to use very long bamboo rods and reach as far as needed without the need to develop reels. In post war Japan, it started seeing a slow resurgence in interest in a few pockets. In 2009, Daniel Galhardo founded Tenkara USA with the purpose of introducing the technique outside of Japan, and it gained in popularity on the west coast where little cutthroat trout thrive. Slowly it has made it's way east, and is a very effective method for tight brook trout streams and small spring creeks.
Tenkara rods today come in all shapes and sizes, just like traditional fly rods. The whole idea is that this is a "trimmed down" style of fishing. Most rods telescopic or come in several pieces so they covert to 14" long sections. No reel is needed, just a fixed line. This line can be a variety of floating or non-floating lines, but longer than the rod itself (think around 15'). Attached to the end of the line is not a tapered leader, but just tippet about 3'-4' in length depending on you. Very different from the 9' or longer that traditional rods use, but the fish don't seem to mind. The whole setup in the end feels kind of flimsy, but does provide for great ease in tight casting and accurate roll casts.
Because the streams are small you are usually just dabbing the surfaces of pocket water, or floating flies around tight structure. The long reach provides an advantage to get over rocks, stumps, and bushes that a shorter rod would have to cast through. The disadvantage I have found is that line control is imperative, as is a quick hook set. 18' of line might be too much to manage and you can't really shorten what you have. Also, the length of some rods makes the canopy and getting through brush an obstacle. No reel means no line container and I constantly get stuck on branches and sticker bushes while getting to the stream.
Another difference is the fly itself. Using the same materials, it is a matter of style. Called Sakasa Kebari flies are tied with a reverse hackle and basic dubbing. They face upward as they float and are seen as more attractor flies as compared to the Western style in which we tend to be more realistic in our representations. These flies are not necessary to fish a tenkara rod, but are the traditional flies for the method. They are not usually available in your local fly shop yet, but several Tenkara companies are online now, and flies are able to be ordered.
If you enjoy a day of wet wading in a small stream in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with just your lanyard then maybe look into Tenkara fishing. You can fit everything you need in one pocket, minus your rod, of course. Pack a lunch and spend some time splashing in a little mountain brook and catch a few mountain brookies, too.