May–June 2022


The Minimalist Angler

Guide Scott Sorensen on the simple pleasures of tenkara fly fishing.

Tom Hazelton

It’s no surprise to see Fly Box & Company, a fly-fishing shop, in downtown Grand Marais. After all, Lake Superior is right there. A big lake with big fish. But Scott Sorensen, owner and local fly-fishing guide, usually turns his back on the lake and takes his clients into the woods. Because that’s where the North Shore’s brook trout are. Small streams with small fish. 

Sorensen is a lifelong fly angler and a practitioner of a traditional Japanese style of fly fishing known as tenkara. Tenkara fishing involves a long, telescoping rod with no reel, and a short line attached to the tip of the rod. It’s sort of a cross between a cane pole and a fly rod. Except the tenkara angler doesn’t use a bobber or live bait, or a weighted fly line on a metal reel. Instead, they use the long, lightweight rod to make short, accurate casts with a tiny, unweighted fly.

This spring, we asked Sorensen to share some details on how he uses tenkara fishing to hook trout—and new anglers—in Minnesota.

Q | What was it that made you decide to try tenkara fishing on the North Shore?
It was the trout streams up here. They’ve got these gems—the Minnesota brook trout—but the streams are small, brushy, overgrown with alders. It was frustrating to try to fly cast in some of the areas that I wanted to fish or to take [clients]. Tenkara really solved that problem. And the telescoping nature of a tenkara rod made getting to and from the streams more pleasant—it’s 20 inches long instead of 8, 9 feet long. It simplified and opened up the opportunities on the North Shore streams. 

Q | What makes a tenkara rod so effective on a small stream?
Well, one Japanese translation of “tenkara” is “from the sky,” or “from the heavens.” Imagine a dry fly landing lightly on the surface of the water. With tenkara, your line is actually held off the water, not laying on it. With a traditional fly rod you can lay one cast down and it’ll blow everything out of the pool, because the fly line hits the water and it’ll spook those fish. With a tenkara rod, only the fly and about 12 inches of tippet hits the surface. It’s more like high-sticking, or dapping. In small creeks, tight areas, you can do an overhead cast and just land the fly at the top of the run and let it dead drift down. 

Q | So is tenkara just for trout on small streams?
No—you can catch fish anywhere. I’ve been using tenkara rods for 15 years or more, and I’ve fished all over the country with them. They’re great for panfish and crappies, backpacking, travel, things like that. And for kayak fishing, because you can telescope the rod down, shove it in front of your feet, and paddle. 

Q | How big of a fish can you realistically land on a rod with no reel?
Tenkara fly rods put the skill of landing a fish in the angler’s hands. Meaning you don’t have a drag, or a big spool of line, so if you hook a big fish, you have to be able to move, wade upstream or downstream, and play that fish using the flex of that rod to tire it out. Once, a 2-pound largemouth bass took me into the weeds off the end of my dock. Rod was straight, line was straight, I knew I was gonna break off, so I just stepped off the dock into the water to play the fish out. Big fish can be caught on tenkara, but most trout are under 20 inches. It really shines in that area of small stream trout.

Q | Tenkara fishing is described as “minimalistic.” Is that part of the attraction? Getting away from all the gear?
In terms of total weight it’s literally ounces. I keep a tenkara rod on the dashboard of my truck. I can jump out and be fishing in less than a minute, fish for a half-hour, and jump back in. The rigging is simplified. A line, a rod, and a handful of flies, and that’s really it.

Q | Just a handful of flies?
Tenkara is more about presentation than pattern. So instead of matching the hatch, it’s how you present the fly, or drift the fly. If it’s buggy and looks edible, a trout is gonna take it. You don’t need to have a hundred different flies and be an entomologist to catch a fish. You just need to lay a good cast and get a good drift. A lot of people, I think, get overwhelmed when they walk into [a fly shop] and they’ve got 1,500 bins of flies. 

Q | Is that why you teach fly fishing using tenkara?
Yeah. For a complete beginner who doesn’t have anything, tenkara is a good way to get introduced to drifting flies on moving water. I do a two-hour intro to fly fishing class, and I use tenkara rods almost exclusively. It’s a lot of first-time anglers, families that are on vacation up the North Shore. It really clicks for me when I’m working with a kid, teaching them how to cast.We do some instruction and then, all of a sudden, they’re fishing. They’re doing it all on their own—they’re fly fishing. My hope is that it might be the beginning of a lifelong pursuit.