Randy Ratliff's Tenkara fly rod telescopes into its own handle, a very handy feature when it comes time to tie on a new fly.
KINGSPORT — Whether 20th century Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki or even retired NBA coach Phil Jackson would agree, popular culture has for decades perpetuated the idea that there is some connection between fly fishing and the ambiguous, quintessentially Asian concept of Zen.
If you’re one of those guys who believes there’s no such thing as having too much Zen in your fly fishing, East Tennessee guide Randy Ratliff has something you’ll want to check out: tenkara.
The word literally means “from heaven” or “from the skies.” But what it denotes in this instance is an ultra-simple fly fishing system based on traditional Japanese methods.
The heart of the system is a telescoping rod that is ultra, ultra-light and utterly minimalistic. It’s basically an 11- to 14-foot tapered pole with a long leader connected to the very tip. There is no weighted fly line in between. There is no reel.
“I have clients who try it and don’t like it and clients who try it and love it to death,” said Ratliff, whose East Tennessee on the Fly Guide Service offers the option of tenkara fishing on Northeast Tennessee trout streams.
“The biggest appeal is the simplicity. It’s a lighter hand system. The Tenkara USA folks are all about getting back to center yourself on the river.”
Ratliff is by no means eager to discard the worldly burden of his familiar and cherished Western fly tackle. He sees tenkara as a “new weapon in the arsenal” for teaching anglers to catch trout on the fly.
Conventional fly anglers, conditioned to coated and weighted fly lines, may have difficulty wrapping their minds around tenkara’s leader-only approach. The basic roll cast, for instance, is a no-go here. But beginners are seldom daunted by tenkara. And while it requires a shorter (and slower) stroke, even veterans stand to learn something from it.
“It takes a minute or two to figure out the subtle little things you have to do with a tenkara rod,” Ratliff said.
“Once you understand the little wrist flicks it takes to make these rods work, it usually improves your Western-style casting.”
The rods, which can cost from $100 to $250, are airy because they are relatively delicate. The angler should use only gentle pressure while pulling out the individual sections to telescope the rod to its full length. Otherwise, it can be difficult to collapse it back into its 20-inch packing length.
The very tip of the rod is “about the size of a pencil lead” Ratliff notes, with a short length of braided line called a “lilian” glued over the tip not unlike a conventional braided leader loop can be attached to the end of a fly line.
“The leader system is attached to the lilian with a half-hitch. We use a little piece of 20-pound backing to give us an interface between (the lilian) and a perfection loop on our leader,” said Ratliff, who was using a 13½-foot rod.
“I like to use about 7 feet of 20-pound test Amnesia line to give me the turnover I’m looking for. Then I’m running straight 5x tippet for another 6 or 7 feet.”
The general rule is not to go heavier than 5x tippet because you want the tippet to break before the rod tip. But on newer tenkara systems set up for tailwater fishing, Ratliff has gone as heavy as 3x leaders, using them to catch thick brown trout in the 20-inch size range.
Traditional tenkara landing nets can get rather “artsy-craftsy” in appearance. It’s not just a hipster gimmick, though. These unique nets — which feature a hoop offset from the handle by as much as 85 degrees — are actually more practical for landing trout when there is no way to reel in excess line, Ratliff said.
While there are traditional tenkara fly patterns — many of which feature a reverse hackle — Ratliff prefers to rely on the conventional fly patterns any fly fisher would use locally: Elk Hair Caddis, Comparaduns, Zebra Midges, etc.
He also eschews the round spools for storing line that usually come with tenkara rods. He prefers to adapt a little crappie rod line-keeper system he gets from Bass Pro shops to keep the line tidy when the rod is collapsed into itself.
“We like to put them in a sleeve in our backpacks. If you’ve got that big round spool over the rod, it won’t fit into the sleeve,” Ratliff said.
While he is able to adapt the system to tailwater fishing, the portability factor is what makes tenkara really shine for fishing small water in the back country.
“I’ve got a client out of Charlotte, N.C., who takes these recovery groups, like Project Healing Waters, on five-day camping trips,” Ratliff said. “The tenkara rods are great for these trips because the guys can keep them in their backpacks and use them to catch a few fish for supper.”