Honryu Tenkara

Photo by Siegfried Forster
The goal of this article is to share my experience and technique with you. I am a tenkara fisher that has taught myself honryu techniques through trial and error. Perhaps I can save you the trouble of not making the mistakes I did. My influences are Japanese anglers such as Kazunori Kobayashi, Koken SorimachiKatsutoshi Amano, Hisao Ishigaki and many others. I have many many seasons of my own experience fishing western rivers and mainstreams with a fly rod, now I am fishing these same rivers with a honryu tenkara rod. I approach sharing my experiences with honryu tenkara as your peer, enthusiast, writer and practitioner.

Let's learn this together and share what we know.

I am drawn to fishing tenkara techniques in big water because it opens up opportunities for catching bigger fish. The allure of large fish on a tenkara rod is exciting! When I sight catch a large trout in thin water, I know I am doing well. Big fish feeding across currents and at depth, educated fish that are line shy and wary of drifting boats with spin fishermen ripping metal through their lane, those fish are now my target. Situations where a fly line laying on the water will ruin a presentation whereas a light colorless gossamer line is held up and suspended without announcement on a long tenkara rod. Honryu tenkara will take far longer to master than catching opportunistic trout in small streams. Honryu tenkara holds much more for me to learn than tenkara fishing mountain streams. Instead of one or the other, I choose both. One is the spice, the other is the meal, both go together.

Photo by Siegfried Forster
Honryu tenkara is a method on it's own. It isn't the substitution of fixed line rod for a nine foot five weight fly rod. I do not use a honryu rod like I would a fly rod in a river. I upscale my tenkara equipment for reach and use tenkara techniques. The attraction is simple, I am able to fish big water by breaking it down into smaller sections and fish a river like a small stream by using longer rods and lines. This is not tenkara vs. fly fishing, it is using longer tenkara rods and lines for their attributes in bigger water, not a substitute of fly fishing. Honryu tenkara is a specialized method. I am a tenkara specialist and I am approaching bigger water with equipment that is longer, 4 and 5m class rods casting 6 to 10m level lines.

Let me explain.

Like most things I do, I just jumped in and started doing it. I used entry level 4m tenkara rods and Japanese books on honryu and then I forgot what I was doing and gravitated to using my tenkara rod for a fly rod. Fly fishing was what I knew from years of experience and I was trying to do that with a tenkara rod on the same water.

It didn’t work very well, I kept trying to go back to fly fishing the river as I knew it.

I tried to use my tenkara rod for fly fishing techniques as I’ve done for many years, extended dead drifting a nymph deep in a fast flow with an indicator using cut back ends of fly lines. It was frustrating to say the least. Throwing slack then lifting the rod to set the hook was ineffective without having a line in my hand, stumbling backwards on greased cobblestones, falling down, dejected, miles from anyone alone. I would yell at the top of my lungs many times listening to the echo across the river on thousand foot cliffs, laughing, then swearing.


Why was my catch rate disappearing?

With the knowledge of my river, why wasn't I catching fish consistently?

I’m not going to let this beat me.

So I went back and started over.

I bought a proper honryu tenkara rod, rigged long level lines for it and began picking apart the river as I would a small stream, keeping a tight line. This was the key to success for me. I used my tenkara techniques in the river. I did not substitute my tenkara rod for fly fishing techniques. Not to say that would not work, it does (Yvon Chouinard's Simple Fly Fishing method) but not as well as fly fishing with a fly rod!

Let's stay focused on honryu tenkara.

I found that if I just looked at the water and utilized the attributes of a tight line, something very opposite of dead drifting a fly line, I could feel the sub surface fish take much better than I could with my fly rod. Water that I could not reach out and utilize effectively with my fly rod, I could feel subtle takes with my tenkara rod. Deep water now was available to me whereas with slack line fly fishing to get my flies down, I could not feel takes, I had to indicate eats with a fly line, I could feel eats with a tight tenkara technique.

With honryu tenkara, I could feel what I could not feel or see before when I was fly fishing.

I can do more with this simple method with less equipment, no sinking line, no throwing slack and drifting with indicators...

In my experience, I have had the luxury of time, the knowledge of hundreds of fish caught in my river. All I have to do is apply the knowledge of tenkara techniques putting the fly/kebari to where the fish are on longer rod and lines.

Let me explain a little about my background and experience in my home water.

For small streams in my area, my favorite is the Little Colorado. I have been fishing this stream for 50 years. Here, I stay out of the water whether I am fly fishing in the old days or like now, with tenkara. The rod I use now is 3.9m and I use a 5-6m line. I only use one zoom tenkara rod for all small streams and I am able to reach trout from behind the bank and I am able to work the whole width of the stream at less than 10’ across and 10 cfs (cubic feet per second.) The Little Colorado headwaters where I fish are at 10,000' in elevation and the stream runs petite yet a strong 340 miles out of the mountains and on through the desert to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado River section that I fish is upstream from the confluence of the Little Colorado. My home section there is in Glen Canyon, right below the Glen Canyon dam. Flows of 14,000 cfs are high with an average of 10,000 cfs or so down to a low of 7,000 cfs. I fish 14 miles of this river below the dam to the famous put in for Grand Canyon float trips at Lees Ferry. In this area, the river cuts an enormous canyon 1,000' deep or more. The water ranges from a few inches to hundreds of feet deep, 40 yards narrow to 100 yards wide. It's a big western river and I am enjoying exploring it for the last 25 years with a fly rod and the last few with honryu tenkara techniques.

There are a few things that I find important for honryu tenkara fishing, understanding trout behavior, hydrodynamics, food sources and proper equipment and last but not least, good casting control.

Let's quickly explore each element.

Understanding trout behavior is key to catching them. Knowing where fish are and why they are, where they are is super important. Why are they in the shallows or suspended, fining around in an eddy circulation, what are they doing where they are at? What are they eating? Trout are typically eating all the time in a temperature stable river.

Understand hydrodynamics is important too; trout will position themselves in areas where they will not have to move much to intercept food. Movement takes energy, food is fuel, energy is expended at the cost of fuel and trout do not waste precious energy to feed themselves. They will be found where they can watch for insects, worms, scuds, chironomids, midges and bugs in the flow and simply open their mouths to catch and eat and or move very little to let the current carry them to intersect the food in the river flow. Understand how water moves and flows around objects. Understanding hydrodynamics is important to all aspects of fishing. Remember, fish will capitalize on places where they suspend in the current and use it to dart in and out of opposing currents to feed. Knowing where these areas are, even down to shoebox sized rocks, 6' deep, understanding that fish will utilize areas of reduced or increased flow is important to your catching.

For targeting fish, casting accurately is everything. If you can't get the fly/kebari to the fish, they can't see it to eat it. Practice casting your rod, using a methodical approach at gauging distance and pin point accuracy. Be able to utilizing the reach of your rod and line system across currents. Keep a tight line even when pulsing a fly with the flow. This tight line tactility is where honryu tenkara shines. Being able to feel the take is important to setting the hook and a tenkara rod is faster at setting the hook than a fly rod.

Specialized equipment for honryu tenkara.

Rods designed by the experts are 4 to 5m in length and made to cast long lines. There are many to choose from. I personally choose a Gamakatsu Suimu 5m single hand rod. I pair level lines up to 10m with the Suimu. I make my lines out of clear limp fluorocarbon made for conventional casting rods. I do not use colored lines, the water I fish is crystal clear and sometimes thin. I don't need a color line to see, I'm fine with a clear line. I'm utilizing all the attributes of a tenkara system for a river and feel is just as important as seeing. River trout are much larger than small stream fish. There are times when a large trout will take a dead drifted fly and turn and swim downstream with the flow, in this case, with tenkara, I am not dead drifting, I am moving the fly at the same speed as the current with a tight line and the system will telegraph the fish taking the fly faster than a indicator or bobber. I'm using tenkara techniques in a river, not using a tenkara rod as a substitution for a fly rod.

Photo by Noah Trahan
For my net, I use a tamo. A Japanese round net is ergonomic to moving from spot to spot. I forget that it is there. When it is time to use the net, reaching for it and landing the fish is easy. There is plenty of room to secure the fish with the round shape while removing the hook. The netting is fine and the colors, the aesthetics of a finely crafted Japanese round net are amazing. I choose a little larger net of 35cm or so diameter, a small stream tamo is about 25cm. Your regular fly fishing net will work fine, a round net is not necessary.

Wading equipment should match the water conditions. Most rivers will have rounded rock bottoms of various size stones that are slick with moss. Without getting into a debate about felt vs. rubber, choose what ever type boot you like. I use a rubber sawanobori (Japanese shower climb) boot sole with neoprene socks and spats when I am shallow wading. If I am probing deeper into the river, I use a chest wader with a felt sole bootie. When I am honryu fishing the Colorado River, I am back hauled upriver and set up camp. I fish the area and then packraft back downstream however many miles to my car. Equipment must be chosen carefully in order to be compact enough to fit in a 65 liter waterproof bag, that includes my camping, sleeping, personal effects, fishing gear and the kitchen.

I am a minimalist on the river just as I am on the stream.

My honryu tenkara can be grouped into two types of adventures. One is up canyon to areas that can only be accessed by boat, camping, fishing and floating back to the put in. And two, drive up or hike to river fishing. Both are exciting yet I find the river camping, honryu fishing and packrafting back much more stimulating and focused, honryu tenkara + packrafting is my favorite.

My experiences are foremost yet I study Japanese media and speak with expert anglers on the subject in order to learn more about how other anglers practice honryu tenkara.

Photo by Noah Trahan
Recently, I have found the resource material by Discover Tenkara very similar to my own undertaking. Paul Gaskell and John Pearson are working directly with the honryu anglers in Japan to teach and share this technique. By far, the Discover Tenkara resources are easier to obtain than the Japanese material that I have spent quite a bit of time and effort requesting from friends and purchasers in Japan. My experience of fly fishing, then learning tenkara, then trying fly fishing techniques with a tenkara rod, then tenkara techniques with up scaled tenkara equipment was a long road of failure and then success. You can quickly and efficiently learn honryu tenkara by focusing on the English language Discover Tenkara tuition.

As I approached writing this for Michael Agneta's "Tenkara Angler" I wanted to expose what I consider some of the best multi-angler resources and I thought to myself, I'll just ask Paul Gaskell what his approach to honryu tenkara is.

What follows is a verbatim communication between Paul and I.

Adam: Paul, I’m writing a piece on Honryu Tenkara. I think your stuff on the subject is good. I’m of the opinion that honryu tenkara is not fly fishing in a river, it is tenkara in a river with up scaled (longer rod/line) equipment, not fly fishing, tenkara. 

“What do you think? Is it tenkara or fly fishing with a tenkara rod or both or ?” 

Can you give a few words to be included in my article? I like your contribution to this method, I would like to include your thoughts as well as references. Thanks.

Paul Gaskell: I think the best overall resource of ours is the article on this link: https://www.discovertenkara.com/blog/honryu-tenkara.html

Honryu Tenkara: Tackling Big Rivers with Big Fish
Tenkara is only for little fish in tiny streams right??

There is an earlier article (from 2014), where (as far as I can tell) we first introduced the term "Honryu tenkara" to English-speaking tenkara anglers, but that is (necessarily) less detailed than the article above where we benefited from 5 more years of experience.

The honryu tenkara tactics that I've been shown in Japan - and then practiced in Japan, Italy and in the UK - have a really different "flavour" or gut-feeling compared to "fly fishing with a tenkara rod". I think that distinction is a result of the strong background in "regular" Japanese tenkara that the people who have worked on developing Honryu tenkara in Japan possessed. Already being on a particular track tends to control the destination and you certainly feel the extension from a very distinct "Japanese" base when you see great honryu anglers in action. Some of those elements are the fly first delivery (even on long casts) the high rod fishing position - with the associated diligent holding of as much casting line off the water as possible, but you could argue that those are present in other styles of fishing too (Italian styles of fly casting can concentrate on fly-first delivery of dry flies - and competition nymphing with long leaders or traditional soft-hackle wet flies fished upstream emphasis "line off" tactics).

So I think it is the level of attention to detail - such as the subtlety of manipulation of flies (when they are not being fished dead drift) and especially the development of the skill of feeding slack down the line between each pulsation of the fly. This last point relies on a great sense of touch and a well-balanced rig of rod and casting line. It is the angler's ability to control the rebound of the rod blank during the loading/unloading while you "pulse" a kebari that is key. Done well, it creates an almost elastic-band sensation as the line draws tight and then little coils of slack travel down the line during the pause between each pulse. 

Level line is, I think, the best tool for this. I'm sure that terminology will develop over time as techniques and understanding continue to mature - but I have a personal hierarchy of terms that help me keep things straight in my own mind. I like to think of "tenkara rodding" as a useful term for using tenkara rods to tackle species or waters that are outside the rapid coldwater streams and salmonid fish that are the home turf of tenkara. This also nicely captures the use of western fly lines/rigs attached to tenkara rods - for example fishing poppers for bass. Basically, this gives people a good clue as to what's effective in different situations. So, I can be "tenkara rodding Euro nymphs" one day or I can be "tenkara rodding poppers for bass" another. That is really helpful to other people wanting to recreate the sport that you had. 

I think it's important to keep "Fixed line fly fishing" as a top-level category ABOVE tenkara. This is because there are many traditional methods of "fixed line fly fishing" around the world (tenkara is one). In Italy alone you have Pesca a mosca Valsesiana as well as "Scurriazzo" and "Frusta Fiorentina". That last fishing style has at least a little bit in common with Honryu tenkara but with even longer rods (around 6-m) and multiple flies used to tackle big river terrain and chest-deep wading. Tenkara (as distinct from tenkara-rodding) has a connection to the landscape and the culture of mountains and you definitely feel that coming through in modern Honryu tenkara. That feeling is what makes it a different experience from the (equally fun) fishing of western rigs and tactics on a tenkara rod. They are each different - but not less.

It might be handy to point people to the "Apennines" section of this article for more on Italian traditional/fixed-line fly fishing: https://www.discovertenkara.com/blog/fishing-in-italy.html

Fishing in Italy is Paradise
Whatever your style of fishing, Italy has it all

Adam: Thank you for your contribution Paul, I appreciate it.

In closing, if you are looking for more in your tenkara, you might want to try fishing in rivers with specialized longer tenkara rods and lines for catching, playing and landing the larger fish there. Many people have helped me with the Japanese techniques in learning honryu tenkara. I want to share what I've learned by passing it on here.

I hope you find this article useful, good luck and take care.


Further Resources

Hiroshi Watanabe: http://www.tenkara-fisher.com/2017/02/tenkara-in-main-streams.html
Kazunori Kobayashi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONnV8_v1yAU

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