Tenkara and me

My introduction to tenkara

I was shown Tenkara fishing while quite young by a Chinese guy who lived most of his life in Japan. He moved to my home town as a chef in a local restaurant and I got to know him. Whilst out fishing one day in the local park, he passed by going to work. He paused at the railings behind me, lighting a cigarette, he asked what I enjoyed about fishing. Still staring at the lifeless float near the end of the line I felt the words “I really didn’t enjoy fishing” leave my lips. I found it boring but I enjoyed sitting amongst nature. I told him watching a float wasn’t my idea of fun but I’d learnt a lot about entomology (not that I knew what that word meant back then!) and the life of the creatures around the river and I was content with relaxing and not having to do homework!

A happy tale


The weather always seems better in your memory when you’re young and while the sun shone he told me about Tenkara. Sitting there listening it was like hearing  someone reading a great book to you. Mesmerised by the pictures in my head which by now were swimming with images of  Samurai warriors in their full battle armour chilling out with a fishing rod in their hands while waiting for the battle cry. I wanted to go home and find yellow pages (pre Google!) and find the nearest Samurai clothing outlet after all I had a fishing rod! He finished telling me about his days of fishing in Japan, with a guy who would have been about the same age difference as us, then he got up and headed for work. I heard his footsteps stop and a second or two later he said if I was there at the weekend he’d bring his fishing rod and show me Tenkara. He left and with scenes of Samurai warriors still dancing in my mind I wondered if he would turn up.

Once he was out of sight I’d taken my reel off and attached the line to the end of my rod and in the best Samurai pose I could muster I began to fish… and caught nothing… but I enjoyed the rest of the day.

The weekend wait


I got there early on the Saturday. In my normal clothes, Samurai outfitter’s weren’t in high demand in Lincolnshire back in the late 70’s, not one entry in yellow pages! I don’t think I even took my rod out of its bag while I sat there watching the watery world go by with a few plastic bags dancing in the current. I’d had enough by this point. I’d sat on my sandwiches and the maggots that I’d bought from the garage (you don’t get garages selling maggots any more!) were about a day away from turning into flies. I watched some guys playing football and the rest of the day fell into place… I went to be Kevin Keegan for the remainder of the day.

Graceful fishing

I’d nearly given up the idea of fishing on the Sunday but curiosity got the better of me and off I went. Crossing the bridge over the river and there he was pulling in a trout. Running down to him and watching in awe as he twisted the fish from the hook and guided it back in the river in one swift movement. Implying that he was lucky I turned up when I did, as if that was the only one he’d catch all day, which was followed by the fact he’d caught a few by then and five minutes later was landing another. Surely this wasn’t fishing? This was catching! What was the point of that? I remember the grace of how he moved and the way he knew where the fish were was an art form in itself to me. I thought “I’d never learn this tenkara” It seemed a thing you had to work for years to achieve. I had visions of going to a remote bungalow in the hills with cardboard doors for years just to learn how to hold a tenkara rod! It became clear quickly though that with tenkara it is about keeping it simple. Maybe it’ll take you a while to get really good at it but in principle, keep it simple. River craft and the manipulation of your fly. Casting and ways of casting are quickly learnt and improved over time, the importance of casting well seriously fall short of understanding your environment. I remember words of “know where your fish are” and “know what makes the fish want your fly” He was very patient, spoke little but said a lot, I learnt quickly.

First tenkara trout

Sorry I digress, let’s move back a step… We sat on the river bank and he showed me the fly he was using. In my ignorance I felt sorry for him, he only had a “daft” bamboo pole without rings on it, no reel and some “silly” fly type things and surely he’d be better off with a proper rod and some maggots (I think mine were dead at this point) I’d even lend him a float if he wanted!

Carrying on, he explained to me how to read the water, how to place the fly and move the fly whilst in the water. I took hold of the very light bamboo rod and did as he said, “flick like you are spraying someone with a paint brush… but be aware of the line” ok, so the first few attempts were shocking but I’d soon got the hang of it. Sure enough on my first day with a Tenkara rod in hand I had caught a trout. Something I’ll never forget!


The tenkara way

So began my life of fishing and not just sitting watching a float… Please don’t get me wrong, I understand that this kind of fishing is “the only way” to some people and if they find solace in this, then brilliant, it just isn’t for me!  We spent many a day over that summer and the knowledge I took from an amazing man has stayed with me. I learnt to tie Tenkara flies and western patterns too, he always said to use these types too as they are a valuable tool to have. I built a bamboo rod too it was nowhere near as cool as his but it worked and I caught many fish with it.

Since then I have done all types of fishing and I have my favourites. I love sea fishing and fly fishing but I still come back to Tenkara. Its simplicity, its challenges, its escapism and work related mental vacation I seek often. As I write this I’m mentally knee-deep in a river looking for those watery patterns of a river as my mind sets on opening the key to where the piscatorial treasures are hidden beneath.  A beautiful numbness that means peace to me.

Growing Tenkara

I was delighted when I saw tenkara becoming well-known outside of Japan and people where starting to take it seriously. I love the fact tenkara “stuff” is easier to get hold of and some websites are really “helping” to get tenkara out there. Obviously and inevitably some are going to make it a business and from that we’ll get good ones and bad ones. All we have to do is keep it real. After all, if we don’t buy it they won’t make it!

Tenkara is simply a rod (unless you want to pay for hours of work and have a bamboo one made for you) a rod should be a very affordable price.

A line, try a few different types to begin with, you will find your line pretty quickly.

A fly, A fly catches a fish, a fly shop catches a fisherman… tenkara is more about fly manipulation learn this and you’ll fish with a handful of flies and not a bag full of fly boxes.

Other stuff

If you feel the need to buy other stuff all I can suggest is to ask yourself this question “will it help me”. I love to walk along a river and take it all in before I start to fish. Carrying a bag full of stuff is nothing but a hindrance. Everything I need can fit in my pockets. I use one of our tenkara backpacks, mainly because everything I need I make sure its always ready to use in there, it’s lightweight, easy to carry and because it’s handy to store at home.

Tenkara should be something you do for pleasure don’t make it into something it isn’t.  After all, aren’t we supposed to be simply fishing?