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Fly fishing from heaven

August 28, 2014

Pat Jaeger makes a fly selection for his Tenkara rod, a Japanese style of fly fishing with no reel, on the Lower Owens River. Photo by Allen Higginbotham

For the past few months, I have been hearing and seeing reviews for Tenkara fly fishing rods and had been hoping to give one a try. I enjoy the challenge of a new skill but I like to get all the help I can when learning it. So this past week I linked up with fly fishing guide and Tenkara instructor Pat Jaeger at Eastern Sierra Guide Service to have him show me the ropes.
Pat and I went out and threw some flies with some of his Tenkara setups on the Lower Owens River and I learned a few things about Tenkara fishing.
For those of you who have never heard of Tenkara fly fishing, it is a Japanese style – essentially a fly rod with no reel.
In Japanese, “Tenkara” translates to “from the sky” or “from heaven.” I suspect the inventors must have thought that this simple fishing system was a gift from the heavens for catching trout.
With a Tenkara rod, the line is tied directly to the end of the rod and you fish with a fixed amount of line. There are a few other major differences between Tenkara fly fishing and conventional western fly fishing setups. Tenkara fishing does not use normal fly fishing line; instead you use a length of “level line” and attach your tippet directly to the level line – no leader required. The level line is weighted to assist in casting and is colored so that you can accurately judge the depth you are fishing. Another difference is that the Tenkara rods, which are between 11 and 15 feet long, have more action or flex than your normal western fly fishing rod and reel.
The rods Pat and I were fishing with were telescoping rods made of carbon, which is different from the original bamboo rods traditionally fished with in Japan. The carbon Tenkara rod is also nice because it collapses on itself, which makes it perfect for hiking or backpacking.
What I liked best about the Tenkara fly fishing setup was the simplicity. For someone who is interested in fly fishing for the first time, a Tenkara rod would be a great option. The simplicity of a rod and fixed length of line is great for beginners and, because you are still fly fishing, the skills and techniques that you learn translate well to traditional western fly fishing.
While I have been fishing since I was 6 years old, it was great to go out with Pat who, as a guide and instructor, has much more experience with Tenkara fishing than I. After a quick lesson on the casting techniques with the Tenkara rod, Pat and I were both in the river catching fish. With flow levels running at 200 cubic feet per second, the fishing conditions are great on the Lower Owens River right now. In an hour, Pat and I had caught and released more than a dozen trout and I realized that I might need to pick up a Tenkara rod of my own.
Fishing with the Tenkara rod has a great rhythm to it and the fixed length of the rod and line really allows you to move around the river, which I like. The Tenkara style has to be understood as a tool for a certain style of fishing, though. It works great in close areas, pockets and smaller river or creek fishing, where you are not casting long distances. Luckily the Owens Valley has a lot of fishing in these sorts of areas.
The Tenkara rod would not perform as well for fishing larger rivers or on Crowley Lake. For these open areas where long casts are important, I’ll stick to my traditional fly fishing rod and reel.

(Allen Higginbotham graduated from Florida State University and promptly moved to Yosemite Valley when he was 23. He later migrated from Yosemite Valley to the Eastern Sierra and has been living here for the past five years. He spends all his free time exploring the beautiful Owens Valley and Eastern Sierra Nevada perfecting his skills as a naturalist, mountaineer and conservationist. Keep an eye out for him next time you are hiking a high pass or fishing a remote alpine lake.)

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