Tenkara Techniques

What Is Tenkara?  It is a question I get from friends and fellow anglers all the time while I'm out on the river.  To the older southerns, they see me with my extra long rod flipping line at a plunge pool and it takes them back to their their days of their youth when they had their bream buster cane pole at the local pond.  For most northerners they simple scratch their head and watch as I haul in trout after trout.
    To make it short and sweet; Tenkara is an ancient form of Japanese fly fishing where the anglers only tools are a Tenkara rod, a length of line and a 'feathered hook'.  In true Japanese style, Tenkara has developed into a past time search for the pure, simplicity of the pursuit and presentation.  In Japanese Tenkara means 'From the Sky' and with the long Tenkara pole and simple line, that is exactly what the fish sees as the angler presents the fly.  For presenting a fly on a small stream, there is no more natural style of fly fishing than the use of Tenkara.  Below I have compiled four techniques used while Tenkara fishing.  These certainly are not the only techniques one might use but they are four of the most common ones I use.
#1 - The Normal Drift
I am always a big advocate of  the KISS Theory.  Keep It Simple Stupid.  This first technique embodies this theory better than any other.  Basically the Normal Drift is done the same as one would drift a fly with the standard fly fishing system but doing it with a Tenkara rod will dramatically increase the realistic drift a bug would make while floating down stream.  The reason why a Tenkara setup is better than a standard fly fishing setup for fishing this technique is simple.  You dramatically reduce the drag of excess fly line being pulled by variant currents on the surface of the stream and so the fly is able to drift in a more normal pattern.
1- First cast your fly up stream, letting it fall on the surface of the water as gently as possible.  Keep as much of the line off the water in order to avoid veering currents from catching the excess line and dragging the fly through the water.
2- Next, as you let the fly drift down stream in its natural coarse you want to follow the fly with the rod, all the while slowly raising the the tip of the rod in order to take up the slack in the fly line.  This action will allow you to avoid excess line from being dragged by the currents and thus effecting the drift of the fly.
3- Finally as the fly begins to pass you, you will have to slowly lower the rod tip in order to allow the fly to continue its natural drift.
4- Wait for that killer hookup.
This technique can be used for dries as well as wet flies and nymphs.  Depending on what depth you desire, you will have to lower the rod tip accordingly.  The key to using this technique successfully is controlling the amount of line on the water in order not to control how the fly drifts with the current.  I have even used this technique successfully for a small streamer pattern like a #14 Black Nose Dace or small Woolly Bugger.  For a small streamer I have added a bit of a twitch to the rod tip during the drift to imitate a struggling bait fish or bug.

#2 - The Pull & Pause

Continuing with the techniques used in fishing with a Tenkara rod, the subtle change from the Normal Drift of a fly is to add a little life and hopefully provoke a strike.  I call this the Pull and Pause Technique and is most effective with a wet or emerger fly pattern.  
The theory is that if you see that the fish are lazily ignoring your fly with a normal dead drift technique, then with the addition of something lively in the water you might evoke a hunter prey response and get them to chase your fly.  I briefly touched on something like this in my Normal Drift post a few days ago when talking about fishing a small streamer pattern and adding a bit of a twitch to imitate a struggling bait fish.  The thought here is much the same only now you are trying to simulate the rise of an emerging bug to the surface or a mayfly struggling to get free of the surface tension.
1 - To utilize this technique, first cast up stream letting the fly fall gently on the surface and wait or pause for a few seconds to allow any fish to investigate the new addition to the environment. If you are fishing a wet fly of nymph allow enough time for the fly to sink to the desired depth.
2 - After a few seconds gently pull the fly down stream for 6in up to a few feet.  the length of the pull can very with the conditions.  The speed of the current or fly choice will effect how long you make your pull.  If a long pull does not work for you try shortening it up till you find something that works.
3 - After you have executed your pull, let the fly rest.  The pause in action will do two things for you.  It will allow any wary fish to come up and investigate the little fly that is so active in their stream and it will the fly to drift (or sink if nymph fishing) in the natural way a struggling bug would normally act in the water.  
4 - After a brief pause simply repeat steps 2 and 3 again and again until the fly has drifted down stream.  At a minimum you should get between 5 to 10 pulls out of a cast but this my very depending on the speed of the current.
I have used this technique with a moderate amount of success on gently flowing streams where fish have been holding deep.  I find that it is most effective with the wet flies, emergers, or very small streamer pattens.  As you can guess, the use of this technique with a dry pattern will not evoke as much of a response from the fish because it does not simulate the natural behavior of a true dry fly.  I have however had good results from fishing with emergers and wet flies since the gentle pull the angler gives the fly has the desired response of rising the fly to the surface in much the same way a fly will naturally rise.
With fishing a wet, or particularly an emerger pattern, you might find that the majority of stikes are going to occur at the tail end of the drift (i.e. once the fly has past you on the stream).  The reason for this is the natural way a fly will rise to the surface.  Fish might find this rising motion against the current more natural and thus more appealing.

#3 - The Pull Up Stream

Number three in my series of Tenkara Techniques is the Pull Up Stream.  This is probably going to be the most used of the techniques because is can be accomplished in conjunction with a majority of the techniques I will cover.  I normally do not cast my fly with the intention of using this Pull Up Stream technique but I find myself using it more and more at the tail end of a Pull and Pause or Normal (Dead) Drift cast.  I have also found that once again, this technique is best utilized with a deep drifted wet fly or nymph.  Using this with a dry fly pattern will normally only succeed in drowning your fly and soaking the hackles making your next presentation fall a little flat. So how do you incorporate this into your drift?
1 - While nearing the end of you drift, before the fly has reached the end of the line, begin to gently pull you rod up stream while slightly raising the tip of your Tenkara rod bringing you fly to the surface.
2 - If you wait to long to use this technique you fly will have already begun its rise to the surface due to the tension on the fly line and the Pull Up Stream will be shortened.  To fully utilize this technique it is important to begin this retrieve early enough to control the rise effectively.
3 - Once the fly has reached the surface you can pause a moment and allow the fly to drift slightly down stream once again and give the fish one last shot at it or simply retrieve it for another cast.
 I have received a fair amount of strikes while utilizing this technique at the tail end of a drift and every time it surprises me.  Usually I do not see the fish taking the fly or see where they come from but when they hit it is unmistakable.  The tension on the line is already there and if a fish is going to take a fly on the Pull Up Stream, they are going to hit it fast and hard.  I suppose this is due to their perception that the fly is on the way up and will soon disappear so it is a 'now or never' type of take.  Besides the leap one sees of a fish breaking the surface for a freshly presented dry fly, this kind of take is one of my favorite.
Being a fan of small streamers like the Black Nose Dace, I have also found that this technique works extremely well with heavier weighted patterns.  The extra weight allows for an extended time beneath the surface and longer pull time as well as a natural swimming up stream type of behavior one might see from a small bait fish.
The only other comment I have on this type of technique is that success largely depends on the current speed.  Obviously in faster moving water your fly is going to rise quickly and thus shortening the effective time this technique can be used.  I find that using this method in gentle streams or at the tail end of a gentle bend is the most effective

#4 - The Waterfall Plunge
The fourth and final edition of the Tenkara techniques posts is the Waterfall Plunge.  Is this the last and final technique for fishing Tenkara?  Of course not.  There are many more techniques you can use while fishing with the Tenkara rod and line but I have chosen the four I tend to use the most often.  For me the Waterfall Plunge Technique is one of the most exciting as well as challenging ways of fishing a Tenkara setup.  This technique is tough not only because you loose sight of the fly in the plunge or the possibility to loose the fly on underwater snags but also because of the natural beauty and rocky structure you have to go through to use this technique.
Fishing this technique is actually not that difficult but the judgement used while fishing the Waterfall Plunge needs to be honed before you cast the perfectly tied fly into an obvious underwater snag.  So how do you fish a waterfall successfully?
1 - Take a good look at the structure surrounding the waterfall.  If there are log jams, loose branches, or obvious snags blocking the waterfall then you might want to choose another technique to fish that hole.
2 - If no obvious snags look to be blocking your drop into the hole then cast your wet fly or nymph above the waterfall and let it flow with the current.
3 - Track the course of you fly in as natural a way as you can over the fall.
4 - As the fly plunges into the hole, lower you rod tip to track the progress of the fly and allow a more free movement as it tumbles through the white water and into the deeper water of the hole beyond the waterfall.
5 - As the fly exits the white water into the smoother waters beyond, begin to lift the rod tip and smoothly draw the fly to the surface.  This simulates the natural buoyancy and activity of a fly or nymph as they tumble through the broil of a waterfall and emerge in the pool below.
It probably will also go without saying but I will mention it anyway. The use of a dry fly with this technique is somewhat pointless. I have used the standard Japanese style wet flies and American nymphs with varying success. Some work well in the immediate plunge and others work well in the tailing pool but I really like theSawyar's Killer Bug. I not only find this bug highly visible in active water but quite in-tune with the natural entomology of a small mountain stream.
 As a warning I feel I must tell you that I have lost more flies with this technique than with any other yet I continue to come back to it time and time again.  The reason I love this technique is simply because it is fun and it is effective.  All fly fishermen know that trout love the highly oxygenated water of a waterfall pool and generally hold deep in these pools sucking up fly after fly.  To the point - This technique produces fish!

 For a complete description on the evolution of Tenkara, info on rods, lines, and flies you should head over to Tenkara USA or Tenkara Bum.  Both of these sites are filled with great information as well as run by stand-up guys that will be more than willing to outfit you with the tools you need to start Tenkara.  Tell them I sent you and have fun with Tenkara.  Once you have used this style of fly fishing on a small stream, you'll hang up that 2w rod and reel and won't ever look back (unless your feeling nostalgic).