Traditional Japanese tenkara fly rods use no reel or fly line. Burt Pollock of Sandy Lake, Pa., fishes Neshannock Creek at Volant.
By John Hayes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
VOLANT, Pa. -- Much of the allure of fly fishing is the relative absence of apparatus separating angler from fish. An ancient method from the Far East takes that concept to another level.
Tenkara fly fishing begins with a fly fished wet or dry tied to a tippet attached to a leader. No traditional fly line is used. The leader loops onto a knot at the ultra-thin tip of a very light, telescoping 11- to 15-foot rod. There's no reel, therefore no drag.
Tenkara rods are believed to have been invented 500 to 800 years ago by commercial anglers who built them from bamboo to ply the mountain streams of Japan for small trout. Not mentioned in Japanese literature, the technique was first documented by a British diplomat in 1878. Tenkara was largely unknown in the West until a few years ago when a Colorado company was founded to introduce tenkara to the United States.
Burt Pollock of Sandy Lake is among the first anglers to bring tenkara to the waters of Western Pennsylvania.
"The thing that interested me the most was no reel and a 13-foot, very flexible telescoping rod," said Pollock, a fly fisherman for more than 15 years and teacher at the private George Junior Republic school in Grove City. "It's like a cane pole, but a finer tuned thing that you can cast with real precision."
Pollock field tested his new toy last fall, landing a couple of trout on Little Sandy Creek in Polk, Venango County.
"It's fun. I got caught in the trees a couple of times, but it's easier to master than I thought it would be," he said. "In traditional fly fishing, the weight of the fly line is carrying the leader and tippet. With this you don't have that, just a stiff furled leader tapering down for wet flies, or a heavy level mono leader and a tippet for dries."
Pollock plans to pack his easily stowable tenkara gear for his annual trout fishing trip to Yellowstone National Park.
"Given its length at 13 feet, it makes it a little tricky in close quarters," he said. "Here [on Neshannock Creek, Lawrence County] is perfect. You can find open patches. Very little of your line ever touches the water, which is why it's such a delicate presentation."
A tenkara rod and two-line package (one wet, one dry) runs $150 to $200. Few Pennsylvania fly shops stock tenkara gear -- Pollock had his special ordered through Neshannock Creek Fly Shop.
"On the YouTube videos, everyone's catching 8- to 10-inch trout," said Pollock. "With a 12- to 16-inch fish, or bigger -- I don't know -- that would be a real challenge."
Bringing in the big ones is possible, said Tenkara USA founder Daniel W. Galhardo, "as long as you do two things -- bring the fish very calmly to you, and avoid heavy current."
Galhardo grew up in Brazil and was introduced to tenkara fly fishing in 2007-08 when he first traveled to Japan to visit his wife's relatives.
"I was expecting to find some Western fly fishing culture that may have developed there," he said. "But as I researched I found a book referencing trout fishing with no reels, just rods that were pretty long with lines and flies. I found that tenkara was still alive in Japan."
An experienced fly angler, Galhardo said he was "very skeptical" when he learned Japanese anglers had been using one fly pattern for wet and dry fishing for hundreds of years. Under the tutelage of a tenkara veteran, however, he ultimately fell in love with its simplicity and effectiveness. When he returned to the United States, he launched Tenkara USA.
The reel-less approach reminded Galhardo of the cane poles he used as a child, he said, but the similarity ended there.
"With a cane pole you're using the weight of the bait to swing it out there. Tenkara is more similar to fly fishing -- the line propelling the fly, the casting motion," he said.
In the U.S., where separate lines for wet and dry flies are common, tenkara anglers often carry a furled line for wets and a level fluorocarbon line for dries. Galhardo uses a level line for both as he was taught by his Japanese tenkara teacher.
No split shot or other weight is used to get tenkara flies down to the fish. Tippet length, stream positioning and the long rods get the flies where they need to be drop appropriately.
Curiously, tenkara fly hackles flare forward instead of backward like those of Western flies.
"When fishing moving water, the water is not going to brush the hackle back to the body of the hook, and the fly will always retain some body," said Galhardo.
The traditional techniques and culture are explained at his company's website (www.tenkarausa.com), but Galhardo said it's "absolutely OK" for newcomers to try a "hybrid approach" of Western and tenkara practices. Despite having little retail presence, tenkara is slowly gaining attention in the States, he said, with direct-to-customer marketing generating sales that have doubled each year. Tenkara USA donates 1 percent of its sales to grassroots environmental organizations supporting mountain stream habitat.
"Part of the reason is the simplicity, you don't need multiple fly patterns, and it's relatively inexpensive to experiment with," he said. "What I'm passionate about is telling the story of what tenkara is in Japan, and giving people a path to keep their fishing simple. Mainly, I guess, I just like the idea of people fishing."