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Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara: Ultralight Style and Simplicity

The literal translation of the Japanese word 'Tenkara' is 'from Heaven.' Fitting for a lightweight fly rod characterized by elegance, grace, and simplicity.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2009-08-18 00:00:00-06

Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara: Ultralight Style and Simplicity


The literal translation of the Japanese word 'Tenkara' is 'from Heaven.' If Heaven's character is defined by elegance, grace, and simplicity, then Tenkara fly rods may indeed be Heaven's answer for backcountry fly fishing enthusiasts passionate about ultralight gear and style.

Ryan's Tenkara Gear

  • Tenkara Ayu (3.5 oz) or Tenkara Iwana Rod (2.3 oz)
  • Simblissity Unslack Pack, modified for lanyard use (0.7 oz)
  • 10.5' Braided Tenkara Leader on Tippet Spool
  • 30M 5X Frog Hair Tippet on Spool (I sometimes add a spool of 6X and/or 7X as well)
  • Hydrophobe Floatant in Small Squeeze Tube
  • Yarn Strike Indicator
  • MicroDrop Bottle with Qty 16 Split Shot
  • Morell Small Foam Fly Box (includes weight of four dozen flies)
  • MicroZip Bag with Fishing License

Total Weight of Kit: 5 to 6 ounces

The Movie

A short introduction to what Tenkara is all about, including some fish-catching footage and expository comments from the South Fork of the Flathead River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.


Learn about Tenkara at Wikipedia.

Read Tenkara feedback at Twitter.

Read the author's blog posts about Tenkara: Post 1, Post 2.


"Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara: Ultralight Style and Simplicity," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2009-08-18 00:00:00-06.


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Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara: Ultralight Style and Simplicity
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara: Ultralight Style and Simplicity on 08/18/2009 14:50:25 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara: Ultralight Style and Simplicity

Andy Berner
(Berner9) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Tenkara Fly Rods on 08/18/2009 15:08:50 MDT Print View

Ive been looking to get one of these for awhile now. After that awesome video I might have to go make an order.

Thanks for the video Ryan

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
whats really important: on 08/18/2009 20:50:21 MDT Print View

Nice fish!

Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
Fly Fishing w/ Tenkara on 08/18/2009 20:59:34 MDT Print View

Excellent video Ryan--I like the idea of no reel-very simple and its all about the technique and perfecting the Art of UL backcountry fishing...I am very interested in a Tenkara pole now!!


Tony Beasley
(tbeasley) - MLife

Locale: Pigeon House Mt from the Castle
Re: Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara: Ultralight Style and Simplicity on 08/18/2009 21:38:15 MDT Print View

Hi Ryan,

Great video, nice fishing spot, as it is winter down under I can only dream at the moment.

How would do you think the Tenkara rod would handle a 5-6 lb Trout.


Zack Karas
( - MLife

Locale: Lake Tahoe
I'm a total noob. on 08/18/2009 21:59:22 MDT Print View

Okay, I have to admit that I understood very little of the technical description of some the accessories and whatnot that Ryan was describing. I am very interested in getting into fishing, but I don't really know a good place to start and it seems a little intimidating to me (especially as I'm a former vegetarian--don't tell the others!).

I live in lake Tahoe and was hoping to get a license this summer, but never got around to it. Does lake fishing from a shore/pier seem like a good place to start, or is river fishing where it's at?

Can someone point me in the right direction for a simple, educated, and to the point introduction to all things fishing? Thanks.

Nia Schmald
(nschmald) - MLife
Re: Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara: Ultralight Style and Simplicity on 08/19/2009 00:47:43 MDT Print View

What kind of casting distance is reasonable? Can this work in small lakes as well?

The 11 and 12 ft rods seem like a problem if there's much brush near the water. Is it? Any solutions?

Hendrik Morkel
(skullmonkey) - MLife

Locale: Finland
Great video on 08/19/2009 03:22:37 MDT Print View

Great video Ryan. I'm ordering a Tenkara set-up this or next month, can't wait for it, it seems like made for UL backpackers!

btw, what's the Song in the Video?

Thomas Tait
(Islandlite) - F

Locale: Colorado
A convert on 08/19/2009 07:50:01 MDT Print View

I bought the Ebisu pole along with a line about a month ago and created a kit similar to Ryan's. This is a light, simple, elegant style of fly fishing. The casting technique is very easy to learn. It is also very fast to set up taking about a minute or two to be fishing (Tip: keep the line/tippet/fly ready on a spool). I have fished the Arkansas and South Platte rivers along with a couple lakes in Wyoming and caught trout at each location. The Sage is going to be gathering dust for a while!

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Tenakara comments on 08/19/2009 08:19:41 MDT Print View

@Tony - How do I think Tenkara would handle a 5-6 lb trout? I caught a 23" brown with a Tenkara rod on the Madison and the rod did fine - I did have to "chase" the fish down stream. I think at some point, if you want to keep the fish, you'll have to do the bobbing routine from A River Runs Through It. The better question is "how would you handle a 5-6 lb trout" and the typical answer upon hooking one is "I'd crap my pants!" then worry about how the rod would handle it.

@Zach - education is fast and furious in the days of the internet, there's lots of good stuff out there. I'd start with this as a most basic introduction: Wikipedia Article on Fly Fishing, then type "fly fishing how-to" on Then, then go to your local fly shop and tell them you're brand new and you need help. I think one of the best ways to learn it, if you have no friends who fly fish, and a little cash, is to hire a guide. Money well spent, you'll learn to cast correctly. Also local shops can tell you about casting clinics, fishing shows, and other events. So, get plugged in there.

@Nia - casting distance is limited by the length of the line (10.5 feet) + the length of your tippet (3' to 8') minus the hanging arc horizontal distance between the tip of your rod (the terminus of your line) and where the line hits the water (equation not provided). In other words, a few feet less than the line+leader length. Casting distance is less relevant in Tenkara fishing than conventional fly fishing.

@Hendrik - the song in the video is Look for Me in the Mountains.

@Thomas - I have to laugh at your comment that the Sage is going to be gathering dust for awhile. Yeah, mine too. Reminds me of the old days of saying "The Dana (pack) is going to be gathering dust for awhile..."

Lucas Osborne
(LukeO) - F

Locale: Big Sky Country
great clip on 08/19/2009 08:35:05 MDT Print View

Howdy Ryan- Thanks for the great clip on bc fly fishing. Beautiful looking cutties in the SF Flathead. Tenkara is a really cool concept and you really got me thinking about it! We just got off a PR trip on the SF Sun and found the fly fishing for Cuts and Rainbows pretty darn good. Your fish taco recipe was savored around our fire every night. Thanks much!

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
Enjoying Tenkara! on 08/19/2009 08:57:27 MDT Print View

Great vid, Ryan! It was an earlier post here that introduced me to tenkara this summer, and I've been enjoying it since! I have the Yamame rod, and two tackle set-ups: one a Filson waist belt for when I'm not hiking, just fishing, and the other a Mayfly lanyard pouch for hiking. The folks at Bob Merritt's in Buena Park, CA, were very helpful in finding nice lightweight accessories for hiking, including the small foam boxes you mentioned (hiking set-up uses one, just fishing two). The reel, line, and heavy vest are gone for good!

Hendrik Morkel
(skullmonkey) - MLife

Locale: Finland
Thanks! on 08/19/2009 12:04:41 MDT Print View

Wow, with my Membership I also get this great Song for free! Love it. Thanks for the link Ryan.

Fred eric
(Fre49) - MLife

Locale: France, vallée de la Loire
tenkara on 08/19/2009 12:47:51 MDT Print View

[quote]if you want to keep the fish, you'll have to do the bobbing routine from A River Runs Through It[/quote]

tried to google that but no luck
i would love any explanation :)

too bad trout fishing ends in one month here, i will just have the time to try my luck for mountain lakes trouts ( ends 3 weeks after )
but after hesitating a bit, a tenkara will soon be otw to use when i do river fishing and no sea fishing hikes.
i should save 10oz that way.

Eugene Hoppe IV
(eahoppe) - MLife
erased on 08/19/2009 15:13:09 MDT Print View


Edited by eahoppe on 12/11/2012 21:55:58 MST.

Jack Newton
(figster) - F

Locale: Central Arkansas
OHT on 08/19/2009 20:26:06 MDT Print View

If shore debris is the concern, Eugene, then you're in luck as the last few winters have wrecked pole and line thwarting vegetation all over that region.

Kendall Clement
(socalpacker) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
RE: Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara: Ultralight Style and Simplicity on 08/19/2009 20:58:33 MDT Print View


Thanks... That was a great video. I think I'll get one and give it a try.


Edited by socalpacker on 08/19/2009 20:59:03 MDT.

Larry Tullis
(Larrytullis) - F - M

Locale: Wasatch Mountains
Tenkara, new version of old sport. on 08/19/2009 22:24:57 MDT Print View

Hi Ryan,

I really enjoyed your brief Tenkara tutorial and seeing the S. Fk again. I floated it 35 miles last year in my Outlaw ( and had a blast.

You got me interested again in a simpler form of fly fishing and brought back some fine memories. Some friends and I were doing almost the same thing back in the 80's after getting in some telescopic fiberglass/graphite panfish rods at a fishing store where I worked. We had great success on local streams with the 10-20 foot rods, no reel and nymphs. It was a revival of the old cane pole panfish techniques from the turn of the century.

Reel-less fly fishing actually goes back to the very beginnings of the sport in Europe in the 1500's? where long sticks of willow, greenhart or bamboo were used with short lengths of braided horsehair lines, leaders and snelled flies to catch trout, grayling, roach, pike and perch. This was long before reels, silk lines and split bamboo rods were invented.

It's like your high school cloths! If you keep them long enough, they will come back in style. Good techniques never die they just have revivals every once in a while. Thanks for reminding me to lighten, simplify and enjoy!

Mimulus Mimulus
(mimulus) - F
Tenkara appropriate for the novice? on 08/20/2009 12:15:03 MDT Print View

For those of you in the know,

Is there any reason Tenkara would not be an appropriate method of fishing to learn for a complete fishing novice (no previous fishing experience)?


Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara on 08/20/2009 20:28:35 MDT Print View

This looks like a far more sophisticated version of what I did as a kid with a line tied to the end of a willow pole. It worked really well on very narrow mountain streams (the kind that cut a deep channel going into or out of a lake) where I could stand some distance away and just drop the fly in. I also did some casting with it, too. Of course it's obvious that Tenkara has many more possibilities! I've just sent out a Christmas gift request to my grown children!

Is the song available on a recording (or download) anywhere? It's MY theme song! (and, I'm sure, that of a lot of other folks on this forum.)

Matt Mahaney
(Matt_Mahaney) - MLife

Locale: In the District
Re: Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara on 08/21/2009 07:05:52 MDT Print View

Ryan posted a link to the song above.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Backcountry Fly Fishing with Tenkara on 08/22/2009 00:17:44 MDT Print View

Thanks, Matt! I guess I was too enthusiastic about finding out more on Tenkara to read Ryan's post carefully enough!

I have now downloaded the song and played it several times. If it weren't already BPL's theme song, it would be mine! 'Walk as much of the trails 'til my dying day.' Or, as I have often put it, as long as I can put one foot in front of another--"Look for me in the mountains!"

Thanks, BPL, for making this lovely song available for us members for free!

Gary Burke
(gfburke) - F
What about preparing the fish? on 08/22/2009 10:53:16 MDT Print View

This is really cool, but what about preparing the fish when you catch it? Don't you also need to carry along supplies for cooking/grilling?

Also I have no idea how to fillet a caught fish, I suppose I should learn that. :)

WV Hiker

Locale: West Virginia
Rod case? on 08/24/2009 13:39:56 MDT Print View


You mention in your video that you save the weight of the rod case. How do you carry the rod to protect it then?

Daniel Galhardo
(dwgalhardo) - F

Locale: Boulder, CO
Re: What about preparing the fish? on 08/25/2009 01:42:37 MDT Print View

You can use a very lightweight grill if you want. But, for years I have not carried anything special for cooking the fish. Just break a twig from a tree and skewer the fish, just add sea salt on the outside. Check this out:
Trout a la tenkara

The tip of the rod and all are inside the main part, thus no need for a case.

Edited by dwgalhardo on 08/25/2009 01:44:17 MDT.

Michael Donovan
(mpdonovan) - F
How about dry flies? on 08/25/2009 18:48:36 MDT Print View

Ryan. Killer video. Can you tell me anything about how the rod (and the fish) handled on dry flies - and what size flies did you use? Cheers my dear.

Michael Schwartz
(greenwalk) - MLife

Locale: PA & Ireland
Tenkara vs Carbon Trek Pole on 08/27/2009 09:43:33 MDT Print View

Sorry, my question is from the perspective of an expert novice: I usually go a fishin only a few times a year, but got the bug again this summer and now this article on Tenkara has really caught my interest. My question is this: Why not simply multi-use a carbon (or whatever) trekking pole and tie on a line ala Tenkara style? Would this set-up be as effective? as fun? I am interested in hearing about the differences. I do realize that the Tenkara set-up would give a more "poetic" experience. Mike

Edited by greenwalk on 08/27/2009 09:45:22 MDT.

Daniel Galhardo
(dwgalhardo) - F

Locale: Boulder, CO
trekking pole on 08/27/2009 14:56:15 MDT Print View

Hi Michael,

I'm the founder of Tenkara USA. I don't think it's about a more poetic experience, but really the practical aspects of it. Unless you have a trekking pole that extends out a lot to reach, with a very fine tip to both be able to cast, and soft enough to feel pleasant to fish, it wouldn't really be a similar experience.

I'm all for improvising/ multi-use gear, and you may always even break a twig from a tree and fish, and yes, you may tie a line to a trekking pole, etc, but being able to reach farther, cast and play a fish are hard things to accomplish by improvising.

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
Not a poet! on 08/27/2009 20:46:40 MDT Print View

I just found Tenkara this summer, and have thoroughly enjoyed using my Tenkara rods! There is no way that a carbon fiber trekking pole (which I have) would replicate a Tenkara rod in fishing mountain streams! It's an elegant, simple, and effective way to fish. Kudos to Daniel for bringing this to the USA, and kudos to Ryan for bringing it to us who enjoy the mountains!

If you live in SoCal, PM me - I'd be happy to take you to a local park and let you experience Tenkara fishing directly!

James Rank
(Gravitas) - F
Ready for action on 08/28/2009 06:12:44 MDT Print View

Ryan, thanks for sharing your insight into Tenkara. My rod came in a few days ago (IWANA 12') and I'm looking forward to this weekend when I'll be trying it out in the Catskill Region of NY. The simplicity of it drew me right in.

Edited by Gravitas on 08/28/2009 06:13:42 MDT.

Michael Schwartz
(greenwalk) - MLife

Locale: PA & Ireland
More on Tenkara on 08/30/2009 06:45:05 MDT Print View

Thanks for your replies re Tenkara. I kinda knew that the Tenkara system would be far superior but I just didn't know why. Now I do understand. So now I must choose the Tenkara model that best suits my needs. Mostly I will use the Tenkara rod in mountain lakes and rivers here in Ireland but will most likley take it alon to other European countries and the U.S. So I guess the most versatile rod woudl be best. Any suggestions? I will study the Tenkara web site too. Thanks again, Mike

Edited by greenwalk on 08/30/2009 06:46:05 MDT.

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: What about preparing the fish? on 08/30/2009 22:27:02 MDT Print View

You cut on the "belly" from neck to anus and remove everything not meat (guts, eegs, blood vessels) then cut off the head and tail. Use the gills to keep it from slipping.

Cooking can consist of steaming, frying or grilling. A couple /few minutes on each side for steaming (depending on fish size) is enough. Frying makes more smell and is messier to clean up. Grilling with foil (make a reflector oven) or over a "real grill" is the tastiest.

No matter how you cook, hold the fish open flat while cooking as it makes bone removal easy.

Here's a video link--it's a bit different from the way I do it and works better on larger fish.

Gregory Topf
(notoriousGRT) - MLife

Locale: PNW / Switzerland
Validation on 09/01/2009 00:56:53 MDT Print View

I went down Youngs Creek and the South Fork of the Flathead in the Bob in an Alpacka during the second week in August with a Tenkara Kamame either in hand or strapped to my pack.

I can basically validate all of the findings in this review.

Regarding the main drawback, success was had in landing 15" to 20" fish when it was possible to follow the fish on the upper river - the stretchiness of the line and flexibility of the rod also really help to prevent breakoffs. On the lower river where larger fish have the liberty to bolt in a single direction or get broadside to a strong current, there is not much one can do except say goodbye to your fly and be thankful that you are out there.

For the casting distances that are doable with a Tenkara rod, you can get any fly where it needs to be, and stealthily at that. In fact, the stealth factor needed for close up casting is part of what made it fun, in addition to the pure functionality of the setup.

I took a spey rod onto the Deschutes in Oregon for Steelhead two weeks later. That was definitely the other end of the spectrum.

I heart my Tenkara Kamame.

Edited by notoriousGRT on 09/01/2009 00:57:50 MDT.

Larry Tullis
(Larrytullis) - F - M

Locale: Wasatch Mountains
Tenkara Yamame on 10/15/2009 03:18:06 MDT Print View

I've been using my Yamame, which was recommended as the best model for larger fish, for several months now and can say that it is both fun and effective. I usually use it setup for nymphing. It extends my reach to get good drifts over current tongues. It has landed trout to 21 inches with no problem. It's the system I grab when I just have a short time to fish. The downsides are, limited casting distance, no drag for playing larger fish, more tangles when nymphing, not good for high mountain lakes unless you can find some fish congregated close to shore as they often are at inlet and outlets. If you accept these limitations and choose the water that matches the strengths of the rod, then this is an excellent fish catching system.

George Isiminger

Locale: Southeast
Tenkara rod specifically for backpacking? on 11/20/2009 14:45:15 MST Print View


Didn't I see somewhere where you commented that you were working with Tenkara to design a rod with specific features just for backpacking? If so, what special features would it have and when would you expect it to be available?

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: .
Re: Tenkara rod specifically for backpacking? on 11/20/2009 15:07:59 MST Print View

From Ryan last night:

The BPL Tenkara rod specs: 9'10" length, 7:3 ratio, and get this! 2.7 oz and a 16" collapsed length!

(swimmer1200) - F
March Brown Convertible 3wt or 2wt on 12/19/2009 19:32:54 MST Print View

The rod shrinks on the go so you're not whacking the opposite bank of small streams or getting tangled in the overhang. This is an American rod written up in backpacker, paddler, etc. for being the best small water rod around. Check it out!

Adan Lopez
(Lopez) - F

Locale: San Gabriel Valley
Re: Tenkara appropriate for the novice? on 01/30/2010 20:44:16 MST Print View

I've fished with convention fly gear for years. Tenkara simplifies flyfishing to the extreme. you wont have to learn how to strip line, loop line in your hands, shoot line when casting, reel line properly, palm the spool, not to mention how to attach the four different lines that are used in single conventional fly rig! Tenkara is the same as what i do whenever i teach my kids to cast, i tie the line onto the tip so they dont have to deal with all these other complications. Sounds perfect for beginners. I cant wait to try one of these rods.