To feel closer to nature, simplify the tools you use to interact with it. That’s the basic philosophy behind intuition-led fishing techniques like hand lining (what you’re doing when you use a Daggerfish) and tenkara, a style of ancient Japanese fly fishing.
Both methods involve a pared-back tool that can be tucked into a space as small as your back pocket, and both encourage calm, contemplative immersion in the outdoors.
Essentially, tenkara uses a rod with no reel, and hand lining uses a reel with no rod. Both remove the distractions and learning curves of traditional gear and let your sharpened senses guide you to your next catch, even if it takes all afternoon (or multiple afternoons). Think “savoring” over “sport.”
So, if you’re going to purchase or use just one of these tools, which should it be? Is one better-suited to beginners? What about backpackers? Bushcrafters?
As a newcomer to this way of interacting with nature myself, I decided to do some digging to see how these two compare.
What is Tenkara Fishing?
Tenkara is the name for both the method and its equipment. Tenkara rods are traditionally made from bamboo—though carbon fiber is also used for modern versions—and have extenders that lengthen the pole to 12 feet or more in some cases.
As a practice, tenkara is hundreds of years old and remains one of the most popular freshwater angling methods in the mountains of Japan. As you might imagine, tenkara is zen-like in its elegant simplicity, creating a place where human, fish, and environment come together.
Why is Tenkara Fishing Gaining Popularity?
Tenkara made its debut here in the west a mere decade ago, thanks to companies like Tenkara USA.
Like hand reels, tenkara is often paired with other outdoor pursuits like backpacking, bikepacking and survivalism. Compact and self-contained—with just a line and a tippet which fit into the base of the rod—a tenkara rod can easily tuck into your pack without adding weight or bulk.
Because they are relatively inexpensive and simple to use, the barriers to entry for tenkara are low. Sure, there’s an art form to tenkara that can be honed and refined over time, but you can get the hang of the basics after just a few casts.
Comparing Tenkara and Daggerfish Handreels
With traditional rod-and-reel fishing, there’s no end to the amount of gear you can buy to supplement your endeavors.
Both tenkara fly-fishing and Daggerfish handlining offer a minimalist approach that encourages contemplation, working with nature and resisting the urge to stock up on gear to stack the deck in your favor. Which is great for both your wallet and your confidence levels.
Speaking of confidence: because of their simplicity, tenkara and hand lining offer approachable introductions to freshwater fishing in streams and rivers. This summer I caught a sunfish on my third cast with a Daggerfish—my first catch since I was out grandfather’s boat 25 years ago.
Now let’s talk key differences. Tenkara is a style of fly fishing, whereas the Daggerfish can be used for fly, bait and spinfishing. Aesthetically, the tenkara rod is slim and elegant, whereas a hand reel like the Daggerfish has a more rugged simplicity.
Do You Have to Choose?
Not unless you want to (or don’t have enough space in your pack)! Both hand reels and fly-fishing rods answer an essential question of our modern world: how can we connect with nature in a way that honors it, savors it, and recognizes our deeply symbiotic relationship to it? If contemplating those questions and beginning to embody the answers is your main goal, you can’t go wrong with either option.
On a more practical level, a hand reel makes a nice complement to a tenkara rod. Tenkara rods are great for fly-fishing spots that have been scouted in advance. Meanwhile, keep a hand reel in your glovebox or pack for unexpected opportunities and out-of-the-way spots on the shoreline.
Put another way: if you’re exclusively into fly fishing and looking to pursue a simpler method to test your skills, start with the tenkara and see where it takes you. If you’re looking for more versatility, a hand reel is an excellent tool because it can be used for bait fishing, spin fishing and fly-fishing. This makes it a hit with backpackers and bushcrafters who prize multi-use tools, as well as beginners—you can start with a basic cast and expand your skillset as you go.
Bottom line? Choose what you think you’ll use, and what seems most exciting to try.
The most important thing is getting out there.