10 Beginner Tenkara Fly Fishing Tips

Tenkara fly fishing is a minimalist type of fly fishing used for mountain stream trout fishing. With an emphasis on simple lightweight gear, this form of fishing is perfect for backpackers who want a deeper wilderness experience in the backcountry. Here are 10 beginner Tenkara tips that I learned as a new Tenkara fisherman which will set you on the right track and get you catching fish with a little practice.

1. Take a Guided Lesson

Take a Tenkara lesson from a guide. They’ll teach you how to set up your rod, how to cast, explain to you where trout like to hide, and what to do when you catch one. Tenkara isn’t nearly as difficult to pick up as more traditional fly fishing with a rod, but you’ll expedite your learning process by getting a few hours of coaching on a river. After that, you can pretty much pick things up on your own with a little perseverance.

Get out and practice fly fishing as much as possible.
Get out and practice fly fishing as much as possible.

2. Get Out and Fish as Much as Possible

The key to becoming a good fisherman is to try a lot of different things and fail fast. The sooner you get all of your failed experiments behind you, the sooner you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t. How to read water, how to stalk trout, which flies to fish, etc. There are a lot of different skills to pick up and integrate and you’ll get better faster if you get out frequently. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t catch fish right away. You will.

The triple surgeons knot is good for tying the tippet to your line, and also provides a tag that you can see easily when fishing.
The triple surgeons knot is good for tying the tippet to your line, and provides a strike indicator tag that you can see easily when fishing.

3. Find Knots You Can Remember

You need three knots for Tenkara fishing: the knot you tie your line to the rod with, the knot you tie the tippet to the line with, and the knot you tie your fly to the tippet. Figuring out what knots you need can be very confusing since there is so much conflicting information about the best knots to use on the Internet. My advice: find ones you can remember and tie consistently. I use three very easy-to-tie knots:

  1. An arbor knot to tie my line to the rod’s lillian
  2. A triple surgeons knot to tie my tippet to the line.
  3. Modified cinch knot to tie my fly to the tippet.
A high visibility flourocarbon line is easier to see and much more sensitive for detecting bites.
A high visibility flourocarbon line is easier to see and much more sensitive for detecting bites.

4. Use a High Visibility Level Line

There are two kinds of fishing line: traditional woven line and flourocarbon level line. I got started with traditional woven Tenkara line but quickly switched to high visibility flourocarbon line because it’s easier to see against the water and because you can feel a lot more fish strikes than you can with a traditional line. Strike detection is one of the keys to landing fish and the more sensitive your line, the more fish you’ll catch.

Tenkara on the Mad River
Tenkara on the Mad River

5. Use a Short Line

If you have an 11 foot rod, try fishing with a 9 foot line and a 3-4 foot tippet. It will be a lot easier to cast and you’ll have much more control over the placement of your fly. I got this tip from Chris Stewart at TenkaraBum and it made a huge difference in my ability to catch fish (see Long Rod Short Line). There’s a lot to learn from Chris’ experiences and he sells some excellent Tenkara products and supplies as well.

Trout like cold, highly oxygenated water that has riffles so they can't be seen by overhead predators. This rocky pour over held a nice trout.
Trout like cold, highly oxygenated water that has riffles so they can’t be seen by overhead predators. This rocky pour-over held a nice trout.

6. Learn Where Trout Hide

If you fish in mountain streams, you’ll never see trout rising (on a pond or lake.) Instead, you need to learn where trout are likely to lurk in the stream bed and fish those spots. Trout prefer cold, oxygenated water that has some sort of surface disturbance (bubbles, riffles) so predators can’t see them from overhead. The water also needs to be deep enough for them to hide, but not so deep that they hug the bottom and never come up to hit your fly. While it’s not Tenkara specific, I highly recommend reading Dave Hughes’ classic “Reading Trout Water”, which explains and illustrates where trout can be found in different river and stream types. It’s a fantastic, richly illustrated book.

Polarized sunglasses makes it possible to see your fly and fish when they're underwater.
Polarized sunglasses make it possible to see your fly and fish when they’re underwater.

7. Wear Polarized Sunglasses

Polarized sunglasses help you see your fly and fish that are swimming underwater. It’s like using X-ray vision to see underwater.

Keep your feet dry so you don't spook the trout. Tenkara is best done on small mountain streams and you can usually reach the spots you need to reach from the stream bank.
Keep your feet dry so you don’t spook the trout. Tenkara is best done on small mountain streams and you can usually reach the spots you need to reach from the stream bank.

8. Keep your Feet Dry

Stealth is the name of the game with Tenkara fly fishing. Stay out of the water, wear sky or earth-toned clothing and don’t let the fish see you when you’re stalking them. While it’s tempting to wade in a stream, keep your feet dry. If you wade, you’ll scare the fish off.

Wild River, Dry River, Smarts Brook, and Ellis River
Wild River, Dry River, Smarts Brook, and Ellis River

9. Fish Lots of Different Rivers and Streams

Get out and fish a wide variety of rivers and streams at all kinds of different water levels so you learn the types of river or stream conditions that make for good Tenkara fishing and when you’d be better off going somewhere else. You can get a list of trout-holding rivers and streams in your area by buying yourself the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer for your state. In addition to rivers, Delorme Gazetteers have excellent, highly detailed maps of the backcountry roads you’ll need to drive down to get to these rivers. For example, I keep the Gazetteers for New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont in my car for easy reference.

Takayama Kebari tied with thread, Peacock Herl, and Partridge
Takayama Kebari tied with thread, Peacock Herl, and Partridge

10. Tie Your Own Flies

In addition to saving lots of money, tying your own flies will teach you a lot about trout feeding habits and the kinds of insects that they like to eat. It’s a fascinating subject if you like learning about bugs and fish. I recommend that you buy yourself a good traditional fly tying kit (with a good manual) that lets you tie Tenkara flies as well as more traditional fly fishing patterns, since you’ll learn about a lot of materials and fly tying techniques. While you can just fish traditional Tenkara flies, it’s fun to create your own patterns and fish them too. I taught myself how to tie flies using the LL Bean Double L Fly Tying Kit, which I highly recommend, but there are probably lots of other good kits available too.

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