Trout lite 

Shed pounds with reel-free tenkara fly rods

Credit a thousand-year-old Japanese tradition for the latest fad in fly fishing.

The new piscatorial passion is tenkara, a reel-free form of fly fishing with ultra-light, ultra-simple gear that weighs as little as 8 ounces and takes up a third of the space of a conventional setup.

A telescoping graphite tenkara rod transforms from a 20-inch stick into a 14-foot action piece as light as your wallet. It's easy on the wallet, too. A full kit can cost less than $200, the price for a quality fly reel alone.

Montana Headwall
  • Ryan Newhouse

The traditional Japanese method, well suited for the mountains, is gaining momentum worldwide and catching on quickly in Montana, particularly among the backcountry crowd.

"Tenkara allows you to dramatically reduce the weight and cost of what you bring with you in the backcountry," says Ryan Jordan, a licensed fishing guide and founder of the Bozeman-based And it snags fish in alpine lakes and mountain streams alike, he adds.

Jordan was one of the first guides in the country to focus on teaching the fixed-line method and to use it for guided trips, particularly for pack rafting and backpacking. He's not alone these days: Tenkara ("in heaven," in Japanese) even has an annual summit, the first one held in August 2011 in West Yellowstone.

More than 100 people showed up for the on-stream demo and presentations, including one by Jordan and others by tenkara converts like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and his friend Craig Matthews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone. The keynote speech came from famed tenkara master Hisao Ishigaki (who is also slated to speak at the 2012 summit, July 28-29, in Salt Lake City).

Practice is key, Ishigaki told the crowd. "You can buy the gear at shops, but you can't buy skill," he said. We Japanese like that about tenkara fishing."

Mountain villagers in Japan perfected tenkara 1,000 years ago, historians believe. Commercial fishermen wearing clothing waterproofed with persimmon resin used it to feed their families and earn a living catching trout (iwana).

Modern tenkara mimics the ancient form, albeit with a graphite rod instead of bamboo. All you get is a short braided line tied to the rod tip with a few feet of tippet and a fly (kebari) attached.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

You lift the rod enough to raise the fly from the water, whip it behind you once, and snap it forward. Once the fly hits the water, you use conventional jerks or tugs to move it across the current.

Tenkara's chief usefulness is in swift-moving streams inhabited by trout that can't afford to let anything remotely food-sized pass them by. It's also handy in winter, since your line won't freeze to the guides (there are none).

Another plus: Instead of toting enough flies, nymphs and streamers to fill a mini-fridge, tenkara mostly relies on one style of fly—a soft-hackle pattern with a dark body that doesn't imitate any one bug.

Chouinard says he's exclusively used tenkara rods for the past two years. Matthews, who partnered with Chouinard to launch 1% for the Planet—businesses that contribute 1 percent of sales to environmental groups—says he now uses his tenkara rod more than his others.

"Tenkara fishing forces you to get close to rising fish," Matthews explains. "I tell people to get close enough to see the fish's eyes."

Most fly fishers, not surprisingly, aren't eager to give up their cherished collection of rods, reels and thousands of perfectly matched and tied flies.

"But what happens is, before long, people start seeking out the places they can use their tenkara rods more than their regular rods," as Chris Stewart, a Salt Lake City-based fishing guide, told the summit. "It changes their behavior."

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