Why Tenkara Should be Legal on “Flyfishing Only” Waters

Tenkara on fly fishong only water


Ever since tenkara was introduced to the U.S., there has been quite a bit of discussion on whether or not it is legal on designated “fly fishing only” waters.  There seems to be quite a bit of confusion over interpretation of the law–even among govenrment officials since the legal definition often includes language dictating that a reel must be used.  But if you look at the spirit of the law and the basic elements of fly fishing, I think it is very clear that tenkara should be (and, in essence really is) legal on fly fishing only waters.


There are basically three reasons.  First, the use of a reel does not intrinsically define fly fishing.  What does a reel have to do with it?  If I took a normal fly rod, removed the reel and just cast the usual way with the line at my feet, would I be violating the law?  I think it would be hard to argue that I am violating the law, since my presentation and everything at the business end would remain the same.  On a trout stream, the reel is probably the least relavant piece of gear.  And in fact, people have been fly fishing without reels far longer than they have been with reels so the notion that “fly fishing proper” necessitates a reel seems inaccurate and needs to be reexamined.


Second, tenkara is fly fishing.  The main differentiator between fly fishing and other forms of fishing such as spin fishing or baitcasting, is that it is the weight and velocity of the line which propels the lure, rather than the other way around.  Tenkara meets that criterion so is by definition, tenkara is indeed “fly fishing”.  


Third, tenkara not only meets the spirit of the law, but surpasses it when compared to western fly fishing.  Some might chalk fly fishing only water up to snobbery, but the more generous presumption is that it provides a safe haven for our quarry free from the perceived unfair advantage of using bait or high tech lures such as spoons, spinners, or jointed plugs with treble hooks that might increase mortality rates.  As I understand it, the idea is to give the fish a fighting chance by challenging the angler more.  But if this is the spirit of the law, isn’t tenkara actually more of a challenge?  You can’t boom out a 90 ft. cast or effectively wield bottom dredging split shot and an egg pattern (which might as well be bait) with tenkara.  With tenkara, you’re forced to put yourself in more risky situations, rely less on gear and more on skill, and fish flies that don’t look like pellets or bait.  So, doesn’t that decrease the advantage of the tenkara angler and give back some advantage to the fish?  I think it does.  And if that’s the case, then tenkara actually adheres more to the spirit of the law than conventional fly fishing does.


For these reasons, I believe tenkara is actually more in tune with the current “fly fishing only” laws in most states.  The problem is that it isn’t really being addressed, defined, or disseminated to the right people.  If tenkara is specifically deemed illegal in your state on such waters, I urge you to take action.  Personally, I have been checked out by many wardens, rangers, etc. while fishing tenkara and have never been issued a citation so it hasn’t been an problem for me yet.  But as the popularity of tenkara grows, there will be a need to match the spirit of the law to the letter of the law.  And if you need any muscle, the above logic might have your back.

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. Great right up.

  2. Great write up.

  3. I must say I’m a little surprised that this is actually a problem. I was stopped out here in mass by a game warden, it was nearly impossible not to laugh when he said “where’s your reel?” But my basic argument, like yours, was I couldn’t boom out the 50-60 foot casts most guys do there so I had little chance of accidentally hitting fellow fishers with a backcast. Definitely nice to see this on a popular site, hopefully a few wardens read it and agree!

  4. I agree 100 percent Jason. Tenkara is definitely fly-fishing and should be allowed on any fly-fishing-only water.

  5. Good stuff Jason, well said. A nice 3 point statement that I should be able to remember if I am ever confronted about the legality of tenkara. Thanks!

  6. Enough to show the fly on the end of the tippet to the warden that appeal to you on “fly fishing only” waters. Words normally are no longer needed.

  7. Totally agree with Oleg, I do not have to do anything here the type of rod or whether or not reel. What matters is what is on the end of the line and whether or not you release your catch.

  8. Hey Jason,

    I couldn’t agree more. I can’t believe that there is an issue anywhere. I’ve talked with fish and game on the water and off in NY, VA, and NC and all of them are very intrigued and impressed with the method. I also agree with the statement of “what is proper fly fishing”. Technically tenkara predates “western” and the invention of the reel so…? Also, like you explained the principle is the same, casting the line in order to present the fly. great write up man.

  9. I find it hard to believe that this would be an issue. Where my dad lives in MO. there is a fly fishing only season, but the regs state what style of hook can be used, i.e. single barbless hook fly, catch and release only rather than equipment such as specifically fly rods as opposed to spinning. SO tenkara would be fine by that standard. Here In TX. I don’t think there are any rules that specify fly fishing only, that I know of.

  10. Very well written, Jason.
    Indeed one reason some states have decided to include the requirement for a “fly reel” in their language was simply to avoid people using a spinning reel with a fly rod.
    Plus, most states probably do not give an explicit definition of a reel, which is a line storage device, and they do not explicitly state it needs to be attached to the rod. So, in the spirit of your other post (http://www.tenkaratalk.com/2012/04/how-to-be-a-tenkara-outlaw/) having a line holder in your pocket could suffice.
    However, keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer and do not intend to take the argument all the way to the Supreme Court. They are busy with more important stuff than interpreting “fly-fishing”.

  11. I absolutely think tenkara should be allowed. I read somewhere that in Alaska, it’s only the terminal tackle that determines whether you are fly fishing or not. This guy said something like “You can tie a coho fly onto 30 pound superbraid and dap the river with a halibut rod in the ‘fly fishing only’ sections of streams. Not sure if it’s true or not.

  12. Nice write up. I haven’t been stopped by warden here in Wisconsin, but I’m more mentally prepared now if it happens. I think your write up is spot on and even more an interesting read. I don’t see how Tenkara can be seen as anything but fly fishing.

  13. Thanks for the comments everyone. Lie many of you, I can’t see why it would be an issue but I know some people have been given a hard time or even been fined. I’ve been stopped by wardens here in Colorado several times to check my license but never once questioned about my tenkara rod.

  14. Can anyone tell me which states have a “fly fishing reel” requirement in their fishing regulations?

    Are there other explicit requirements that might preclude the use of a no-reel-fixed-line rod? And if so, in what states?


  15. I believe some states define Flyfishing as “the line conveying or delivering the fly” which Tenkara is.

  16. Tenkara is not considered to be fly fishing when it comes to state and water body fish records in Texas. It has to be listed with trot lines, jug lines, and other methods.
    I have emailed the fellow over this, at Texas Parks and Wildlife, but got nowhere. He keeps telling me I have to have a reel.


  17. Jason, thank you for bringing this to everyone’s attention. I live in WA state and did wonder about this a while ago. I haven’t been checked by wardens so I will see when it happen. Personally, I’d love to see “TENKARA ONLY” zones to be introduced in the future!

  18. …take the TX dude Tenkara fishing…maybe he will change his mind…….as far as i’m concerned it is fly fishing…

  19. Daniel,

    No problem fishing. Tenkara does not qualify for fly fishing, when it comes to state or water body records in Texas. There are a lot of records that have not changed in years. I just thought it be nice to have a Tenkara record.


  20. The only way around this is for those who sell, use, promote blog about Tenkara is to change the laws/regulations by being involved in their governmental agencies. All the bitchin and moanin about it will not change a thing. You either confront the “man” (term from the hippie days) and change the laws/regs or not. It’s a simple thing. Those who have a vested interest (businesses, users) should be involved in changing the laws and regs for their State. Luckily I live in Texas. Fish mostly in Oklahoma where in both states common sense prevails. The use of Tenkara is just another method of fly fishing. Laws/regs are not a politically correct/detailed argument for monetary gain or regulation just another “method”. I am currently working with the ODWC (Oklahoma Dept of Wildlife Conservation) to get Tenkara as a method of fly fishing written into any new trout fishing regulations. This topic is on the agenda for our next meeting for the LMFR Foundation on the 23rd of this month. Ya gotta start locally for what you do, elst wise this topic will be once again presented when your reg’d out by your State. Unless you are involved with those you elect to write your laws/regs to further your vote, then you have no right to bitch about the outcome.

  21. Perhaps we’re just catching too many fish with tenkara; kind of embarrasses the guy with the $1,000 Orvis reel.

  22. A game warden stopped me for a license check (not in a fly-fish only) and was eying my rod. I told him it was a “Tenkara Fly Fishing rod from Japan”. He seemed pleased by the answer and watched me fish a while. I have always had that phrase queued up in case I ever ran into a warden. By announcing that it is a fly fishing rod in the beginning you bypass the question.

  23. Jason and other commenters, just wondering – has anyone ever actually been kicked off a river for not having a reel?

    It’s never happened to me. One time I thought a busybody on the Savage River in western Maryland was going to report me, but he didn’t, just reverted to being a snob about everything else. He did sneer at me for not wearing waders, for not ‘matching the hatch’, and for fishing the fast water instead of the single tennis-court-sized pool that already had four or five of his friends in it. He also told me that tenkara was just dapping – so far the only time I’ve ever heard that one in person. I think of that guy every time I’m in the books section in my local Orvis and I see I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River by Henry Winkler (http://www.amazon.com/Ive-Never-Met-Idiot-River/dp/1608870200). I have, I think to myself.

  24. I have no problem with Tenkara fishing Fly Fishing Only waters. It would simplify things greatly if they just put a maximum length on any rod used in those waters as 9′. Then it wouldn’t matter if there was a reel or not.

  25. Good points made Jason.

    Ray…tenkara only zones would be catastrophic and would only serve to separate tenkara even further from fly fishing in the eyes of those who don’t believe it to be fly fishing. An inclusive approach is what’s needed!

  26. Jason,
    Nice writeup. Maybe I shouldn’t say this but I’ve been fishing for over 40 years; 10 years on the Blue, Colorado and Gunnison rivers in Colorado; Mammoth mountain rivers, June lake and San Gabriel Rivers in California; lakes in Florida; rivers and lakes and ponds in Maryland and Virginia and I have never once seen a game warden. It’s nice to hear that they’re out there because without them our catch and release trout would all be harvested. I’m new to Tenkara so I appreciate the sound logic in the event I finally see a warden.

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