Accidental Tenkara and the Day I Learned to Fish

You probably know the feeling of arriving at ones fishing destination after much anticipation, only to find out you left an important fishing item at home. On this one particular occasion, about 6 years ago, I arrived on the river with everything except my reel. After cursing a few obscenities to myself I sat down in the car and pondered my next move. Just as I was about to head home, it suddenly dawned upon me that the Japanese used a method of fishing that uses a long whippy rod with no reel. I couldn’t remember what the technique was called but I thought that before I headed home,  I had to give this method a try. I had with me my trusty old 7ft 3wt which is a far cry from a 12ft long Tenkara rod but along with some 4X tippet and my fly box, I would make a plan.

The river where I planned to fish was a new one for me. It’s a stream that I had driven past many times in the rural areas between Franklin and Creighton. It’s called the Nonginqa River. I would bet that nobody reading this blog has ever fished the stream. It’s a small clear stream that flows out of the Ntsikeni forests and then down through the Ntsikeni village. I suspected there were fish in the stream but that needed to be confirmed. There is a section below the Ntsikeni village where the stream flows for a few km’s through an uninhabited and beautiful valley before it joins up with the much bigger Ngungununu River which had some good Trout fishing higher up stream.

I took about 20ft of 4X tippet and tied the one end to the small eye near my rod handle that’s for hooking your fly in. The other end I threaded through the eyes, and I tied on a small section of 5X tippet to which I tied on my favourite dry fly. In this way I would have some control over the line while fighting a fish or trying to cast. My rod was finally rigged up, and I awkwardly stalked up to the first pool trying to keep the tippet out of the long grass. I got into position at the tail of the pool and realised I would have to stalk up closer to get my fly into the perfect drift as I couldn’t cast far enough. My first few casts resulted in a few hookups of brambles and grass instead of fish. This was proving to be more challenging than I thought. My rod was way too stiff and short. I changed plan and shortened my line by about 3 feet. There was now only about 10 ft of line out the tip of my rod. Flicking my fly in the general intended direction was now much easier. On my first good drift I was into a beautiful Rainbow of 10″. I was soon on a roll and pulling fish of 8″ to 12″ out of almost every pocket and pool. It turned out to be one of my best mornings fishing I have ever had, though not so much from a fish catching perspective but from what I learned. It was an amazing self taught lesson in small stream fly fishing. Jason Atlee arrived later that afternoon to join me on the stream. He thankfully had a spare reel with him which I happily used. Immediately I was standing at the bottom of a pool and making unnecessarily long casts to the head of pools. Either the fish went off the bite, or I was now fishing lazily. Maybe a combination of the two but it took me a good hour or two to realise how much more effective my fishing was before lunch. I am not advocating that you throw away your reel as you sometimes need a long cast, but think carefully about how you fish before you just fish.

I will list the main lessons I learned. They are nothing revolutionary but sometimes you need something experience it first hand before you learn. Since that day I have changed the way I fish small streams.

1. Having only 10ft of line out the end of my rod meant I could only cast about 5 m. This forced me to get into a better position and really stalk the pool. Being closer to the fish meant less drag.

2. I learned about the benefits of high sticking and keeping your line off the water which also avoids drag.

3. Being closer to the fly, you will find you miss fewer takes and your hookup rate is much better than with a longer cast. There is no slack in the line so when you strike, you almost instantly prick the fish.

4. I learned how to stalk up to a likely lie rather than cast to a likely lie.

Since that day on the river I have bought a Tenkara rod which is great fun to use in the right conditions. It’s the ultimate in minimalist fishing and so for that reason alone it appeals to me. A Tenkara outfit comprises of a long 12ft +rod which is telescopic. It’s a very whippy rod that has a small tag on the tip, to which you tie your braided and tapered Tenkara leader. This leader is about 12ft long. To this you attach a 6ft piece of 5 or 6X tippet. It’s ideally suited to dry fly fishing and a doesn’t cast as well with a heavy nymph on the end. I think it would be a wonderful way to teach someone to fly fish as it’s so simple to learn. I don’t use my Tenkar rod that often but I always carry it as a backup in my pack. If the river conditions are right then out she comes and we have some fun. It definitely has its limitations but so do all rods. I prefer using it in a fairly open river where you can wade up the river bed flicking your dry fly from one pocket to the next. Give it a bash, it’s a valuable tool and you will become a better fisherman once you have got the hang of it. There is heaps of good stuff on the Internet about Tenkara fly fishing so don’t take my word for it, go and check it out.

Minimalist fishing at its best. All the gear you need for a day on the river.
My first fish ever on my Tenkara rod. Caught in a small Transkei stream.

Minimalist fishing at its best. Small day pack, barefoot, and my simple Tenkara rod.

Fighting a 3 lb Brown trout in Lesotho. After a good few minutes of fighting the fish I lost it, but it was the biggest fish I've hooked on my Tenkara Rod, and what a rush it was!


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