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Six-year-old Adelaide gets an early start in fly fishing under the enthusiastic eye of her granddad Joe.

Peanut butter and jelly…cheese and crackers…bacon and eggs…these things just go together. So do kids and fly fishing! But let me clarify

By Steve Hudson

Steve Hudson is the author of over 30 books. He also teaches fly casting [tenkara and conventional] and fly tying and has been known to build fly rods. Hudson probably knows more about southern Appalachia’s fishing and hiking than anyone.

What I’m thinking about this morning when I say “fly fishing” in the context of kids is actually “tenkara,” a centuries-old Japanese approach to fly fishing. Like Western-style fly fishing, it uses a long rod, a line, and a fly. But in tenkara, the length of the line is fixed, and the line is tied directly to the tip of the rod. There’s no reel full of line, in other words, and that means that problems with line management mostly go away. That’s
great news for kids, who often struggle with managing line and reel on a Western-style rig but who tend to find tenkara intuitive – and fun.

From a kid’s point of view

Tenkara places the emphasis on putting the fly where you want it to go and removes many of the distractions which might otherwise get in the way.

And that’s what makes tenkara-style fishing so appealing to kids – the sheer simplicity of it all. Tenkara allows kids to focus on delivering the fly without getting distracted by a bunch of rebellious line. Casting becomes almost intuitive, opening the door to a lot of fun for all concerned.

“It’s like throwing a ball, except I’m throwing a little fly,” one young person told me recently. “It’s just like I’m throwing the fly right to the fish.”

The big question, of course, is when to start a child learning the art of tenkara. What’s a good age to begin?

“Depending on the child, five or six years old may not be too young,” observes Pennsylvania-based tenkara enthusiast Joe Mulvey. Joe has enjoyed tenkara for many years, and as his grandchildren grew old enough to get their feet wet (pardon the pun) he was more than willing to teach them.

Right away, Joe says, the question of choosing a suitable rod comes up. What sort of rod is best for kids? His advice is to look at something that’s not too long because a long rod is harder for young arms to manage.

“I would stick with tenkara rods that are 9 ft. or shorter until the kids get taller,” Joe says.

Thirteen-year-old Gracie checks out her new tenkara rod, the “Mighty Little” from B’n’M Pole Company.

Another thing Joe suggests is to use high-visibility line when fishing with kids

“I recommend braided line in a bright color as opposed to a level line, which can be harder to see,” he says. “That makes it easier for the kids to see and to cast.”

When introducing kids to tenkara, remember that the goal is to catch fish – pure and simple.

“Begin with small and easy-to-catch fish like bluegill,” he says. Kids want to feel the tug on the other end of the line. If they do, there’s a great chance they’ll be hooked on the sport for years to come.

Twelve-year-old Bates with his first fly rod fish, a sunfish that he caught on the “Hachi” tenkara rod from Zen Tenkara.

What kind of water is best for kids?

“Look for a shallow, easy-to-wade stream with lots of sunfish in it,” Joe says. “If the stream is shallow enough, you can even let them stand in the water while they fish.

They’ll learn something about wading and get to play with casting too.”

When teaching kids to fish, whether with tenkara or traditional fly fishing gear, it’s important to remember that you’re fishing with kids. Children do not automatically appreciate the pre-trip rituals that we adults treasure and enjoy; instead, they want to get to the water and catch some fish.

“That’s why I suggest that you use a line holder. Have it pre-rigged and ready to go so you can start fishing as soon as you get to the water,” Joe says. Being on top of things like that keeps kids from getting bored, and that’s important.

Joe also suggests having a fly vest or fishing cap for the child to wear. Again, it connects them to the day.

Six-year-old Theo, accompanied by his granddad Joe, is royally outfitted with a fishing hat, a vest, and a tenkara rod.

What about flies?

For starters, try a surface fly like a brightly colored foam spider. Getsome in a variety of colors, and let the kids choose the one they like.

Once the fishing begins, don’t worry too much about things like keeping the line off the water. Instead, encourage your proteges to just “throw the fly over there.” It works!

You’ll be surprised at how quickly they learn the basic tenkara cast, and all the rest will follow.

When the child lands a fish, make a big deal of it! Take pictures and celebrate! You might even want to clip off the fly and present it later on to the mom or dad as a souvenir of the day’s adventure. It’s something the parents (and the child) will treasure for years to come.

Eleven-year-old Finn goes fly fishing, tenkara style, on a stream in the southern Appalachians.

Here’s one last thing to keep in mind when introducing kids to tenkara

For children, fishing is about a lot more than fishing. You’ll be combining fishing with wading and rock throwing and frog chasing too. Kids probably won’t be up for a whole day of throwing flies, so encourage those frog and rock breaks. I’m betting that you just might find that you enjoy chasing frogs and throwing rocks too.

And remember that you’re helping to ensure the future of the rivers and streams that we all love so much. You can’t do much better than that.

NOTE: Steve Hudson’s latest book, Tenkara 101, has just been published and is a great way to learn about tenkara fishing. It will be available from local outfitters or direct from the author at


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