I was lucky enough to go out on a trip with Karin Miller of Zen Tenkara to hit the Blue River in Colorado. I was doubly lucky in that an incredibly gifted photographer, Rob Knight, got to come along to document the outing. I have had Karin on our podcast, and seen her at various fly fishing events in the greater Colorado area, but had never gone out and experienced tenkara fishing with her…until now.
I wanted to insert my personal experience briefly. I specifically chose the blue because it holds big fish – I wanted to see how it would feel to get a big fish on a tenkara rod. I didn’t know what to expect really, but I had a ton of fun and was really surprised by a few things. First and foremost, I was completely shocked at how easy it was to make long, accurate casts. Karin was playing with 30ft of 5wt floating line, plus some leader and tippet. I am not by any means a great caster. I started fly fishing about two years ago, and have mostly fished in Colorado. So – that means lots of shorter roll casts, and not a lot of room for back casting. Karin handed me the rod with 30+feet of line and I was bombing the thing and hitting my marks right on the money! Like I said, I am not a stellar caster, especially back caster, so I was shocked at how easy it was to land the fly exactly where I wanted it. Pretty cool!
I, like many others, usually think of tenkara for small fishing and what Karin is best at is meshing “western” fishing with tenkara. That was my second “ah-ha” moment. You can do floating line, 3 nymph setups, and just about any other combination you can think of. Once you learn how to connect the line to the tip of the rod, everything else is pretty much the same. Even better, everything is experimental. Karin is proving you can land big fish on tenkara and re-writing what “tenkara” means. Oh and of course, because I know you are wondering: I did hook into a fatty rainbow at one point and yelled for Karin but I ended up losing the fish. I had no idea how to fight a fish without a reel. It certainly intrigued me enough to want to get out and try it again. The setup was easy, and I felt like a million bucks when I was bombing 30+ feet of line like a boss! Below are a few thoughts from Karin on her company and Tenkara – this badass chick has landed sharks, bone fish, and huge salmon on a tenkara rod! Definitely check out the photos and Q/A below.
1.Who is Zen Tenkara?
Zen Tenkara is a Colorado company that’s been designing, manufacturing and selling tenkara style fly rods, lines and gear since 2012. We’re known for being cutting edge, pushing boundaries and Americanizing the tenkara method. We’re also known for land BIG freak’en fish on tenkara fixed-fly rods.
2. What do you wish people knew about tenkara?
The first thing I wish people understood, is that tenkara is NOT a brand, it’s a method. People misunderstand that all the time.
The second thing, is that tenkara is NOT a dumbed down version of fly fishing (or high sticking….or dapping) or any of the other things people like to equate it to. Tenkara is it’s own method. It’s less complicated than regular fly fishing but by no mean “easier”. In fact, on a recent trip to Alaska where I was invited by Rapids Camp Lodge to fish and train their guides in tenkara, one of them summed it up nicely. He said, “The cast is easier but the landing takes much more finesse and a hell of a lot more fish management skills.” Simple doesn’t necessarily translate to easy.
The third thing I’d love people to know about tenkara is that it’s pretty bad-ass. Yeah, it’s known as a method used for catching small fish – ideally suited for trout in the 6-16″ range. But what people don’t know is that it’s awesome, super effective and huge fun to go after big species on a tenkara rod (as long as you have the right rod). Zen Tenkara rods are not only perfect for playing in small creeks and back country hike fishing, but we’re landing HUGE fat browns in Patagonia, shark and tarpon in the Florida Keys, bonefish in Mexico, and most recently, grayling, char, sockeye, silvers and MASSIVE chum salmon in Alaska….. on a 3.4oz tenkara rod….with no reel. Now that takes a special rod and, a special skill set. If you’re wondering about adrenaline, well, enough said I think! You want to test your skills and really see if you know how to manage monster fish? Land them on a fixed-line, without a reel..in strong, Solid, healthy condition. Now we’re talking. No wusses here. You have to be smart, skilled and able to react.
3. At Zen you break a lot of the “rules” of traditional tenkara. What makes you different?
All of the above. Zen is different because we make traditional tenkara rods but we’ve taken the method and have been doing things, landing fish on fixed-lines, without a reel, that no one ever thought possible on a tenkara rod…or ever even considered trying. What’s more, we’re successful! We’re actually doing it, and doing it over and over again, really well. When tenkara was introduced in America, it came with a lot of “have-tos”. Even though it was being sold as this less complicated method of fly fishing, there were a lot of little rules around it: Where you could fish with it, what lines you had to use, what fly you had to use, how you cast it… It became complicated because regular fly fisherman were used to doing certain things. The earliest tenkara anglers and company asked fly guys to throw out everything they were doing and adapt something completely different.
Zen said to hell with rules. Our philosophy was that tenkara was a great tool, not the only tool, or a better tool, just a different tool. It was certainly good at one thing, landing small fish, but we wanted to explore it’s possibilities and applications. Could we nymph with it? Yes. Could we throw a dry dropper combo? Yes. Could we do a double dropper? Yes. What if we put a 30ft line on the rod? Could it throw loops? Yes…… We just keep exploring and trying different things. And we’re ok if something doesn’t work. It’s not a failure, we’re just learning what does and doesn’t work with tenkara. The method and Zen Tenkara rods can do can do way more than we ever expected. That’s what makes Zen different, we break rules not to be rebellious, we break rules to break boundaries, solve problem and learn new things about ourselves, our rods and about the tenkara method.
4. You are constantly innovating and evolving at Zen – what is next?
Our American rod project has been a big focus for us at Zen for some time now. We really want to make a fully American made tenkara rod…it’s just a lot more difficult than any of us imagined. We also spent the last year exploring saltwater possibilities and applications, as well as testing big fish proto-type rods on this last Alaskan trip. I feel like I’ve become an ambassador for tenkara with guides, showing them the full range of possibilities the method offers and getting them to accept it, buy in and really believe in it, by seeing and doing it themselves. The Alaskan guides up at Deneki Outdoors, Rapids Camp Lodge said the week of fishing tenkara, “was literally the most fun they had ever had guiding.” If the guides are having that much fun with the method, can you imagine the blast it is for the clients?
Bottom line, I’m always open to the possibilities.