Tenkara Fishing Basics: Fly-Fishing Without a Reel

Tenkara is an ancient Japanese form of fly-fishing currently enjoying a major revival among American anglers. Tenkara style fishing uses a fixed line with the fly and line attached directly to the end of a rod without a reel. Way back in the day, rods were made out of materials available to common fishing folk: Bamboo poles with silk or horsehair lines and a rudimentary bird feather fly attached to the end. Without a casting reel, the art of Tenkara lay in reading the water, choosing (and making) the right fly and then executing precise casts within the reach of the line. While this all may seem laughably simple in today’s gizmo-rich fishing world, generations of fishermen made a living this way.

Today, anglers of all ages and skill are taking up Tenkara as a simple, elegant way to enjoy the best fly-fishing has to offer without as much of the complication. Tenkara rods set up quickly and are extremely lightweight. For the beginner, many believe learning a basic cast is far easier than with a reel and rod, and there’s a lot less equipment involved. Here’s what you need to get started.

Tenkara Rods


Modern high-quality Tenkara rods are made out of carbon fiber and collapse in convenient, telescoping sections. Beginners often enjoy more of a “soft action” rod as they get used to the casting action, but experienced fly-fishermen generally choose strong action rods because they have a familiar feel. We think the DRAGONtail Tenkara Shawdowfire kit is perfect for the neophyte and/or budget conscious angler because they come with everything you need to get started; rod, line, tippet and flies all together.

You also might want a stronger rod for landing larger fish once you start hooking major lips, which isn’t a going to be a problem. For some reason there is this impression in the fishing world that because Tenkara rods don’t have a reel, they can’t handle larger fish. This is simply not true! High-quality rods are made of high modulus carbon fiber and are up for anything most stream and river fishing can dish out. True, a Tenkara rod is not the preferred selection for something like sturgeon, but we know Tenkara fishermen that have caught 26 inch Rainbow Trout with a DRAGONtail HELLbender (a big fish Tenkara rod) no problem at all.

An great additional feature of some Tenkara rods is its adjustable length. This will give you more flexibility for small stream fishing where you want the line closer to your body and it’s easier to cast in heavy foliage. It’s not a must-have feature, but it’s very handy in some situations.


Tenkara Tippet and Lines

There are two types of Tenkara lines: Furled and level. A level line is just a length of fluorocarbon like a regular old fishing line, and there are several ways to tie your line to the rod and tippet. Level lines have no taper to aid in casting but some anglers prefer the lightness of level lines.

The most popular lines, however, are furled lines which have small metal rings or a loop at one end for attaching your tippet and a larger loop at the other end to connect to your rod. Furled lines have a taper making it easier to cast than level lines. Furled lines can also be designed for specific purposes with different tapers and materials. Setting up a furled line is easy. But since it involves some simple knots, they best way to get the hang of it is by watching the experts do it. Here are some great videos:

Setting Up Your Tenkara Rod



How Long Should a Tenkara Line Be?

The length of the Line is commonly close to the length of the rod plus 3-4ft of tippet, but not always. There’s no hard and fast rule. Lots of anglers go a little longer. A little more length will give you more reach and doesn’t significantly change the casting motion.

A longer tippet length than the recommended 3-4ft (say 5-7ft) is doable but it can make casting much harder and is not recommended for beginners starting out. The shorter tippet allows for precision casting and controlled drifts. One might consider longer tippet when fishing still water or rivers. These guidelines are just guidelines, and you should feel free to experiment with something that works for you.


Technically, there really isn’t such a thing as a Tenkara fly. Although the forward hackle Tenkara Iconic Kebari has been adopted by many American anglers (and it works in most situations), you can use most any fly at the fly shop with a Tenkara setup. Feel free to visit a fly shop and see what’s in season for the area you want to fish in. It will work.

Highly Recommended: A Net

Without a reel, you literally have to work the fish in by hoisting the rod above your head until you can grab the line. This is not a big deal, but it's certainly a lot easier if you have a fish net ready. This is much better for the fish as well for catch-and-release. A lot of anglers hold the net between their knees so their hands can remain free. Try it and you'll get the hang of it.

So go get your fish on! Tenkara is fun, easy and a lot less expensive than most fly-fishing set-ups. Happy casting and let us know how it goes!