graphic by Anthony Naples
I was struck recently by a comment I read from Chris Stewart in a Facebook group. I can’t remember the exact wording, so I’m paraphrasing. It was to the effect of, “remember in western fly fishing when we were all concerned about having a well-tapered leader? Whatever happened to that?”
It might seem like an innocuous insight, but it got me thinking. For the last ten years, I have been fishing a tenkara rod with a level line, level tippet, and have not even questioned the fact that it lacks any semblance of a taper. To put a finer point on it, I followed up with Chris and while neither of us could remember exactly what he originally said, he clarified:
Western fly fishermen are obsessed with tapered lines and tapered leaders. Before knotless tapered leaders, there were literally dozens of complex leader forumulae – so many inches of this diameter, then so many inches of the next smaller diameter. The step from one diameter to the next was never more than .002″. Whatever happened to all that? In tenkara, we happily fish a level line and tie our tippet directly to the line, going from a Japanese size 4 line (.013″) to 5X tippet (.006″), a .007″ reduction in one step. Our flies turn over beautifully. Instead of 9′ or even 12′ of leader and tippet from the end of the line to the fly, we fish with 3′ or 4′ from the end of the tenkara line to the fly. And most of us catch more fish than we ever did when we fished with a Western rod and line.
Back east where I cut my teeth on fly fishing, we did indeed obsess over leaders. There were plenty of commercially available tapered leaders, but they weren’t “good enough” in my circles. No angler was worth their salt if they didn’t tie their own. The formulas were complicated, and the more complicated, the more respectable. One of the prevailing ones was the George Harvey leader. I diligently tied many of these and because of the turnover-to-delicacy ratio, they became one of my favorites. Fast forward to my tenkara fishing career and something seemed amiss. Where were the formulas? Where were the discussions about turnover, transfer, and taper? They were non-existent in my tenkara world. No one was even talking about it. We were fishing 13′ level lines (not meticulously-tapered 9′ leaders) and catching fish left and right without a thought to tapers. So, what happened to that?
Whenever I’m confronted with an interesting paradox like this, I can’t help becoming fixated on it until I find a plausible answer. And after putting some serious thought to it, think I have come up with an explanation. My contention is this:
No tapered leader is required in tenkara because the soft, flexible tip of the rod essentially acts as the butt end of what we consider a traditional leader, giving a level line the backbone it needs to transfer mass along its length and turn over with the same efficacy as if it were a tapered leader.
Essentially, the soft tip of the tenkara rod “becomes” the butt of the line, incorporating itself fluidly into the cadence of the turnover. It’s easy to see right now if you take your tenkara rod out, connect a line and pull it to the side. See how the tip section just morphs naturally into the line almost as if it were part of it? I think that’s the answer. Any transfer of energy is more efficient when you have a material of more mass propelling a material of progressively less mass. This is exactly why tapered nylon leaders turnover so well, and exactly why a level line with the flexible tip of a tenkara rod behind it turns over. It’s really the same thing!
I’m not a physicist, but I’m satisfied with this explanation. While I love philosophy and science, I always give my empirical evidence credence over textbook answers because sometimes, reality defies academia.
What do you think about this theory?
Am I right? Am I mad? I’m sure there’s someone with formal training in physics who will correct me on this or at least shed some insight. And I invite it. Let me have it!
Hell it makes sense, I never considered any of what you said, looking back on all of it now, and dude I would put tapered leaders on! I just got lazier over the years and stoped doing that
Take your common #4 level with a tippet and kebari in your hand and try to cast it. Then tie it to a hard inflexible stick about 5 ft long and cast it again. If you are an experienced caster, you will succeed. After that, tell me please where the flexibility of the rod tip is here. 🙂
Leo, I remember one time Lee Wulff cast a line without a rod and landed an atlantic salmon. I’ve replicated it–you make a “ring” with your thumb and index finger and shoot the line forward using its own momentum. You can do that with a heavy PVC line. But not with #4 fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon needs mass behind it to propel forward. Hence, the tip of the tenkara rod.
There are many Tapered Tenkara lines fished here and also in Japan. And even with the Level line to Tippet direct setup, an intermediate Transition link in between the Level Line and Tippet is a help in aiding accurate casting. Note ONI’s Overhand Loop in the Tippet Girth Hitch to the Level Line Technique. The big loop, about 3 – 4 inches long, acts a stiffer Step/down in between the heavier level line and the much lighter tipper. And who among us can beat ONI’s super accurate casting technique?
I fish with Floating (PVC coated) Tenkara Lines for stillwater fishing a lot. And in that application I still use a Tapered leader format, but in a greatly simplified design: 30″ of #4.5 FC.; 18″ of #3.5 FC.; 12″ of #2.5 FC.; and 9″ of 8 LB. Test Fluorocarbon Spinning Line, with 3 feet of 5X FC tippet loop-to-looped on to the leader end, giving about an 8 foot total leader length, used with the Floating line equal to the rod’s length most of the time. For the Leader sections, I favor Valcan, Sanyo Low Visibility Fluorocarbon Level Tenkara Lines.
Probably, like most anglers here I believe, for stream fishing I also prefer Level, HiVis, FC Tenkara Lines in lengths to suit the widths of the streams I am fishing, with ONI’s Tippet Attachment Method and 6X FC. tippet.
Oni-Tenkara Level Line to Lillian and Tippet Knots Videos
This is the easiest opening and closing level line to lillian knot that I have tried; also, a slightly different take on the line to tippet connection is shown. Either video will show you both knot tings, but it is easier to see how the knots are tied in the first (top) one because a much more visible line is used to demonstrate:
I prefer to use the FlySpoke Knot for fly to tippet attachment over the Improved Clinch Knot that ONI uses. Here is a video showing the FlySpoke Knot – the tying of which is at the 2:30 mark. He calls ot a Double Davey knot, which it clearly is not. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBnuYu9P6yU
The FlySpoke Knot:
Thank you Jason. I mean that the flexibility of the rod is needed to a greater extent for successfully landing fish than for casting. You can use thinner tippet with a flexible rod.
Honestly, 6wt and up I don’t bother with tapered leaders, but then again I’m primarily a warm water angler slinging big bugs and streamers.
Now for trout I’m religious about tapered leaders. 9′ or longer.
Never thought about it for Tenkara, but have wondered about the tapered lines.
Thanks, Karl. Great info, and an ingenious knot vs. knot test. The Dbl Davey, I’m going to try it . . . after I test it against the no-slip loop. Yeah, we all have favorites that we believe in. In fact, one could argue that our preference for knots is surpassed only by our passion for rods. (And I think lines run about third, though we have a lot of choices now with Tenkara.) This is a little quirky, but indulge me. To connect furled Tenkara lines and PVC lines, which usually have some sort of loop, I’ve gone to nautical knot, the “sheet bend.”
Actually, like your Davey, I use the double version of this knot: the double sheet bend. No stopper knot needed in the Lillian — this thing is secure as well as very simple. And it comes undone w/o too much fuss when you want to change things up. Try it — it’s very tidy & effective. Thanks again.