Tenkara Fly Fishing – Simplicity, From Cane Pole to “Ten-Carrots”

At one time in my life, there was nothing I enjoyed more than fishing with my Grandfather and if he were still around, I am sure that would still be true. We fished small Southern ponds and lakes and most times, used nothing but cane poles, bobbers and brought a can of worms, a cage of crickets or a bucket of minnows depending upon if we were fishing for bluegill, crappie or catfish.

cane pole fishing

Cane Pole Fishing

I used to think he brought along the cane poles because he didn’t think I could cast a spinning rod, but later I learned that he truly enjoyed the simplicity and relaxation of fishing with a cane pole and wanted to share it with me. Nothing simpler. Bait the hook, adjust the bobber depth and flip it out in the water, and wait for it. You know the joke… A jerk at one end of the pole waiting for another jerk on the other end of the pole.

Nothing is more relaxing than sitting along the edge of a pond on a warm, sunny day. The only way it could get any better was for a fish to start bouncing that bobber and snap you out of that lazy daydream. It must have happened, but I don’t ever remember a time we didn’t catch enough fish for a fish fry. My Grandfather taught me to catch fish and to eat fish. He did not teach me to love ’em and leave ’em.

Tenkara is Not Dapping

Fresh Fish

Sometimes my Grandfather cooked the fish right next to the water in his old black iron skillet, that he had packed in along with a metal bucket, charcoal, peanut oil and corn meal. We would catch fish until almost lunchtime. He would tell me to “keep on fishing” and he would go start the charcoal and start cleaning fish. It wouldn’t be long before I could hear and smell fish frying.There is absolutely nothing better than eating fresh fried fish rolled in nothing but cornmeal, salt and pepper and straight out of the frying pan.

I don’t mean 5 minutes from the frying pan, I mean straight from the pan. By the time someone has to cook enough fish to serve a table full of hungry people and carried it to the table to be placed in front of them, the fish has already cooled off too much and lost half of its flavor. Like eating pizza, if it’s not almost too hot to eat, it’s not fit to eat.

The Sweetest Meat is Next to the Bone

I feel sorry for people that have never learned to enjoy eating small fish. Everyone knows the meat is sweeter next to the bone, well I think that goes double for fish. Don’t get me wrong, nobody likes to eat boneless fillets of flounder or halibut or a big slab of salmon or swordfish steak more than me, but absolutely nothing tastes better than those little 6 inch bluegills or crappie that most people throw back for being too small.

Stealth Fishing

Many years have passed and the old man has been gone for a while. I am about the same age now as he was when he first taught me to fish. I still enjoy fishing, though I now live in an area where the local waters hold various species of trout instead of bluegill. I haven’t actually used a cane pole for many years, but sometimes I still use the same fishing technique. Instead of flipping a worm out into a Southern pond, I flip worms or flies into small streams and instead of a cane pole, I use a collapsible rod that is only 6 feet long.

I use an ultralight spinning rod and sometimes I just tie about 12 – 16 feet of  line to my rod and thread it through the eyelets. I have tried tying the line to the end of rod, but these small rods have more strength if you use all of the eyelets. It is also easier to shorten up on the rod while still fishing, if you have to go through real thick cover if the line is threaded through the eyelets.

tenkar stream fishingI fish this method using worms or flies and have had quite good luck over the years on the small streams where there is not much room to cast and being stealthy is absolutely necessary. It seems that the best fishing methods are either walking slowly upstream and flipping into small holes just above the next riffle or crawling on my belly up to a hole and flipping a worm or fly into the water. I call it stealth fishing. I guess some fly fishing folks would call it a form of dapping.

I remember one occasion back when we were still allowed to keep 8 fish. I crawled up to a little hole between the red-osier dogwoods where the stream was only about 4 feet wide and the hole was about 4 feet deep. I caught 8 little rainbows, all between 7-10 inches in about 30 minutes from the same hole. Yes, I hook ’em and cook ’em and You know I had my frying pan with me.

The best equipment for stealth fishing is nothing but a short, collapsible rod, some line and a hook or a small fly. The ultralight or fly fishing reel is optional. My version of stealth fishing is not necessarily a physically relaxing activity, because I end up doing a lot of crawling and climbing through thick cover to find secret little fishing holes, but it is definitely mentally relaxing and I can “waste” a whole day on a short little section of a stream.

Tenkara Fishing

Last week, we were watching our local outdoor TV show and saw some guys that looked like they were stealth fishing. I told my wife “Look, they’re stealth fishing”… The narrator described the action and equipment and mentioned some name I couldn’t quite understand…

What did they call it? Ten carrots? What? I had to hit the “Go Back” button on the DVR to hear it again. The word was Tenkara.

I watched the rest of the show and enjoyed it, but it made me wish that I had gone fishing that day instead of doing whatever I did, like sitting on my butt and watching someone else catch fish on TV. After the show, I had to go find out more about this Tenkara.

Tenkara is a Japanese word for a traditional, simple method of fly fishing that uses only a rod, line and a fly and as described in Wikipedia, focuses on actually catching fish as opposed to a “major preoccupation with the equipment”. Was that a slam of fly fishermen?

Who knew there was such a fancy word for a “new” fishing technique and philosophy? But it’s really not new, I was just unaware of it. The Japanese were probably fly-fishing as early as the 8th or 9th century B.C., but the first reference to the word Tenkara was in a book from the 1870s.

The Tenkara method as with other fishing methods originated from necessity as a means of catching fish to eat or sell. It was not until more modern times that our easy lives allowed the average guy to pursue hunting and fishing as a leisure activity.

The Tenkara practitioners use collapsible rods that expand from about 20 inches to up to 11-14 feet, which makes them perfect for backpacking trips.

Check out this Tenkara Rod

Tenkara rods are available from very flexible to fairly stiff and evidently, common fly fishing line is too heavy (even 0 wt) to be used with a Tenkara rod and it is recommended that Tenkara line or level line be used along with a bit of very fine tippet (5X or thinner) for the most delicate fly presentation.


  1. I haven’t tried catching a Tenkara fishes since I heard it’s a bit hard to do so but it’s the first time I learned it was originated in Japan, another new learning for me.

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