Strike Detection Tips for Tenkara

Brown trout on a sakasa kebari

Today, I got an email asking a question I get so often, that I thought it was worthy of a blog post:  “I’m using sakasa kebari and having a hard time telling when a fish takes my fly. How can I tell?”  The question came from an experienced western fly angler that knows how to read water and has no problem seeing the take with western style dry flies, but wants to use more traditional sakasa kebari and is struggling a bit with the transition.  When I switched to tenkara, I had the exact same problem so I can certainly empathize.  Like anything new, you eventually learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to translate your skills to a different method.  But especially those without a fly fishing background will hit the same roadblock so I thought it would be helpful to post a few tips on how detect strikes when using the tenkara method.


1.  Keep your line tight.  You should keep the rod tip high and only your tippet and fly in the water so there’s little slack.  If you have slack, a fish can grab your fly and spit it out without you even noticing it.  I’ve witnessed this a hundred times with many new tenkara anglers who keep the rod too low with too much line in the water.  Even if they did notice a strike, by the time they pick up all that line, the fish has probably felt the rigid hook shank and abandoned the fly.  If you keep the line tight, often you will feel the strike before you see it and make a more direct connection before the fish can reject the fly.


2. Watch your fly.  In clear water, you should be able to see your fly and watch the fish take it.  If you can’t see your fly but the water is still clear enough to see fish, then you need to keep your eyes focused on where you “think” the fly is and look for a flash or some kind of movement/disturbance in the water.  Even if you don’t feel it on the line, if you see a flash or movement where you suspect your fly is, set the hook anyway.  If it wasn’t a strike, at worst all you’ve done is picked up your line for the next cast.  But it might be a fish so it’s better to assume that a flash where you think your fly is is a take than wait to actually feel it.


3. Watch the line.  If you can’t see your fly or the fish and are blind fishing, then watch the line.  Look for a hard stop or for the line to shoot forward a little.  Again, when you see this, it’s better to assume that it’s a fish, so go ahead and set the hook.  It might be a snag but you won’t know until you lift the rod and see.  In fishing, many times it pays to gamble.


4. Use a strike detector.  I sometimes use a foot or two of bright red Amnesia at the end of my line because it makes it easier to see when a fish hits (especially if it’s a subtle take).  Even the brightest fluorocarbon lines can be tricky to see on the water ‘s surface so it’s nice to have a beacon at the end of your line that is really easy to track.


5. Get professional help.  Hire a professional SCUBA diver to watch your fly underwater and signal you when a fish takes your fly via a waterproof, wireless, voice communication system.


OK, so maybe #5 isn’t practical unless you’re a either a millionaire or once save Ralph Cutter’s life and now he owes you big time, but the others should help.  After a little trial and error, you will improve your hookup ratio and will get better and better at strike detection.  You just have to learn what to look for.  I tend to pulse my fly a lot more than just fishing it in a dead drift and that seems to elicit more aggressive strikes so it’s pretty easy to see or feel the take.


What are your tips for knowing when a fish takes your tenkara fly?

Author: Jason Klass

Jason is an avid fly angler and backpacker. As a former fly fishing guide originally from Western New York, he moved to Colorado and became an early adopter of tenkara which perfectly suited the small, high altitude streams and lakes there. He has not fished a Western-style fly rod for trout since.

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  1. I heard a good tip from Lance Milks at his tenkara presentation last night where he got a shorter piece of line and wrapped it around a pen, boiled it, froze it, and then he took it off the pen. Then it is a little coil that you can tie in between your line and tippet and you can see strikes easier.

  2. Hi Loften,
    You mean like this?

    Been there, done that. No longer like it because it produces slack like I advise against above. IMHO, it’s better to have a bright, tight line that allows you to easily detect subtle changes without the need to compensate for stretch or slack for the hookup.

  3. btw, the ‘slinky’ is horrible to cast because of the wind resistance. good idea but not practical.

  4. I have to say that I agree with having a tight line as well. However when nymphing pocket water your line isn’t always moving down stream and may swirl a bit. At times like this I think a coil or “slinky” may be a better option for showing a true strike. Could be wrong though. I have one other method that I’ve used on my other rods. Ill try it out and if it works then I’ll do a blog post on how to do it.

  5. Lance, yes but you can manipulate the rod to counteract that.

  6. Yes, good point Karel.

  7. I use #5 discribed above exclusively. That way I can achieve a 100% strike to catch ratio :)

  8. …A sudden vibration in the Force


  9. great post Jason, like you said i pulse the fly now on almst every cast, so many times i will notice a take when I am pulsing the rod, I will have a pull with a sudden stop. thats when I set the hook.

    Davide joked about using the force…but there has been several times when Im running a fly through a perfect hole and have felt and seen nothing and set the hook just on confidence that there had to be a fish in there, and there actually was! it doesnt happen very often but using your gut istinct is not a bad plan. and with tenkara follow up casts are so quick that your not really out anything.

  10. Close your eyes Luke…

  11. I agree greatly with Matt,

    Twitching the fly near constantly will make every twitch a potential hook set. Then always start your next cast like its a hook set, come up strong for your back cast. I find my self with a fish on more often than most would imagine. Sometimes they are small enough that seeing or feeling the take just would not happen.

  12. There is a real difference between casting on a heavy, dense fly line and on a tenkara line, and I’m learning the hard way that a lot of tips for Western fly fishing straight up suck for tenkara. The beginning of last winter saw me trying to cast double weighted nymphs with a big floaty Orvis strike indicator on my 12′ Iwana … I think I threw a wind knot maybe one out of every two casts. By the end of the winter I was fishing a sakasa kebari on a slow, soft pulse and catching fish out of pools that my friend had just scoured with his mega-complex Western nymph dropper rig. So, Jason, I completely agree with your advice – the best strike indicator is a tight line and intense focus. A tiny length of differently colored line might help too.

    Anyway at this point it’s all academic to me since I’m off to Shenandoah tomorrow to fish dries. You don’t need a strike indicator for those!

  13. Couldn’t have said it better myself Alex. Good luck tomorrow!

  14. Let me add one thing #6, hookset by anticipation. Set the hook when your fly passes through the spot where you expect the fish most likely takes your fly. This may be the most difficult way of setting the hook but also the most exciting way.

    I think you often feel a fish on the fly when you pick up the fly for the next presentation. You should set the hook on that fish by intention. Do not let your fly drift too long. Believe your anticipation, and pick up the fly a bit stronger than the normal pickup when the fly is about to pass through the spot where you expect the fish takes the fly.

  15. Also I’ve heard someone sayng “cast, count to three, hook the fish or cast again”

  16. Yes, the count-three method (accidental hookset) may be a good way only to catch a fish. But that method does not improve your skill. The point is to anticipate the spot where the fish takes the fly and to cast the fly 3-4 feet upstream the spot.

  17. #1 and #3 made all the difference for me. Keep the line tight and if the line stops or moves right or left set the hook.

  18. I haven’t tried fishing the traditional Japanese methods yet but I do find when using my Tenkara Rod for high-stick nymphing I actually like to have the tiniest bit of slack in the line from the tip of the water’s surface. This way, if the line straightens at all I know that the strike has occured and with a vertical presentation of nymphing, I often bounce the tight-line nymphs off the bottom to get this tiny bit of bow. This also makes the nymphs a bit more lifelike, simulating emergence. The only drawback here is when there is a downstream wind as the bow gets behind the flies instead of ahead of them.

  19. Good tips Peter!

  20. Last winter during the week between Christmas and NY was my “keep a tight line moment”. Was fishing upstream from another angler (western)had my best catch day ever. Really good spot so I didn’t move much for several hours. Same guy walks passed me later coming back up the stream while I’m changing flies, notices that I am having a hard time threading the tippet and says, Man your lips are blue, you need to get out of the water…

  21. I have found that watching the line (and approximate location of the fly)pass through a place I suspect a fish is sitting and expecting that strike… that I am certainly more ready when it does strike. So perhaps it is an openness of mind and connectedness to my actions of casting and watching and being present to the situation that helps me. When you get into that numb zone of just repetitive casting without being in the moment that at any point you could get a strike or trying to figure out about where that strike should happen, you are more likely going to miss that opportunity too. Instead expect the strike at any time and be clear headed enough to know when it is happening. Finally I would say that I try to also make myself conscious of my breathing as I fish. That in itself helps me slow down and be present to each moment as I fish.

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