Sporting Scene

Whisper Fishing

Hailing from Japan, tenkara finds a home in the South

Photo: Michael JN Bowles

Guide Tom Sadler picks apart a Virginia stream.

The brook trout don’t know the difference. In the river, they miraculously appear out of nowhere, then slashingly take a fly as it floats overhead. Bam!

Still, the technique we’re using to catch these fish is different. Called tenkara, it’s a Japanese thing. The name means “from heaven,” or “from the skies,” and though it dates back centuries in Japan, only in the last couple of years has tenkara made its way to these shores. Using a springy 11- to 13-foot telescoping rod with no reel, tenkara is a model of elegant fly-fishing simplicity. The rod weighs about three ounces and collapses down into itself, leaving only a 20-inch-long column, perfect for a backpack or a suitcase. The rest of the setup is similarly austere: a length of line attached to the tip of the rod, some tippet, and a fly. That’s tenkara. That’s it.

Photo: Michael JN Bowles

The Unreel World

Click here to see more photos from this story.

Tenkara doesn’t work so well for tarpon or reds or bonefish. You’d have a problem making long casts, and, once hooked, a big fish would drag you out of the boat. But for small- and medium-size trouting and bassing on Southern streams, it’s ideal.

At the moment, I’m shin-deep in a 30-foot-across Virginia stream called Ramsey’s Draft and using a tenkara rod to conduct a virtual brook-trout census of the creek. The technique is not dapping, which is effectively dangling a fly on the water from a hidden spot. Instead, it’s a very simplified version of fly casting. When you’re freed from the reel and the management of extra line, all that happens is an easy roll cast. The line moves downstream past me, and I lift it and toss it back upstream, my wrist working in a forceful pitch. This is followed by yet another amazing float by the fly. Because you’re not having to mend and manage line to keep the fly from dragging on the water’s surface, you have incredible control over how a fly drifts. The fly can be kept in the tongue’s clear water below a waterfall for twice as long as a conventional cast. That’s where the fish are.

My teacher and guide today is Tom Sadler. A semiretired Washington, DC, conservation lobbyist, Sadler has been fly fishing since he was a kid in New Hampshire. “I haven’t used a conventional fly rod in two years,” he says. “I love tenkara.” You can tell. And he’s good at it. He casts. He casts again. Another brook trout. A nice eight-incher this time.

Photo: Michael JN Bowles

A nice Southern brook trout.

Tenkara rods were originally made of bamboo, which has now been upgraded to these telescoping carbon-fiber sections. And though tenkara traditionally uses a couple of different fly designs—a few floating dry flies and a few subsurface “wet” ones—Sadler doesn’t limit himself to only those. He uses the traditional American fly fisherman’s arsenal. We started the day with a Parachute Adams, then moved on to a Pale Morning Dun. Now, in the afternoon, we have shifted to Sulfur Duns, which are coming off the water in droves. In fact, a variety of bugs are currently twisting off the creek’s surface. Caddis and huge white mayflies are in evidence. We may switch flies again soon.

Meanwhile, the fish appear to be eating everything. While he’s a fan of a well-floated fly, Sadler takes note of the stream activity and says: “I’d let it sink a bit. They’re eating emergers.” The fly sinks beneath the waterline with the next cast. Bam! Another fish. It fights and flashes. To bring the fish to hand, you just raise the rod tip higher. It’s simplicity on a trout stream. It’s tenkara.