Adapting Tenkara for Smallmouth Bass
by Matt Sment & Mike Lutes
By now, the majority of fixed line anglers are familiar with tenkara’s origin story. It is a well-known fact that it was developed on high gradient drainages to catch cold water species. These conditions translated easily to some areas of the US, but many regions simply don’t host mountain streams. Luckily, it turns out that tenkara is exceptionally well suited for other terrains and species too!
In warm water sport fishing, smallmouth bass just may be the ultimate match for tenkara. It’s a fish that is native to North America. While it requires warmer water, it thrives in structure and current conditions similar to those favored by trout. It is an opportunistic and aggressive feeder. Smallmouth are known to hunt on the move, but often launch explosive strikes from ambush positions near structure. Once hooked, they are ferocious fighters! Once for ounce, there is simply no better fight out there. On a tenkara rod, every 12-inch fish is a thrill ride. Anything 15 inches and up feels like a clash between titans!
We’ve spent a lot of time fishing for smallmouth with tenkara systems over the past few years, both on smaller “trout stream” sized creeks and larger rivers. In this article, we’ll discuss our observations on gear and tactics that are producing results for us on smallmouth creeks here in Wisconsin’s Driftless region. You’ll see that we’ve adapted what is already a simple system into something species and terrain specific – which ends up even simpler!
We think that the average 11-13 foot, 6:4 or 7:3 action rod offered by most American companies is just about perfect for 10-15 inch smallies on a typical creek. Softer tipped Japanese rods with highly refined actions are great for level lines and light fly patterns, but they are poorly suited for throwing the larger payloads we’ve come to prefer. Additionally, a rod with some “backbone” to it comes in handy when you need to dig in your heels against a big run. It’s true that flexibility protects the rod, but without some stiffness to rely on, it’s going to be really difficult to turn that crazy bronzeback when it goes ballistic downstream.
While we have spent time fishing smallmouth streams with “big fish” rods, we found them to be an overmatch for the size of the fish we were catching. One might consider making the leap into “bigger fish” rods if they are regularly targeting 16+ inch Bass or fishing in heavier current and larger/deeper water, but for creeks and streams, we recommend you stick with “regular” rods to maximize the excitement!
Line and Tippet
There are two major factors that drive our preferences for line and tippet. First, smallmouth Bass are not very leader shy. We aren’t saying that they are “easy”… but they are nowhere near as spooky as trout. Second, we are typically casting larger and heavier fly patterns on our tenkara rods than we do when we fish for trout. These two factors combined mean that we are less concerned about line signature, and need some extra line mass to help cast larger flies.
We both prefer light-weight floating lines for smallmouth Bass fishing. In our opinion, the requirement for throwing larger flies makes level line a poor choice. Furled line would be better suited for the task, but its need for floatant to keep it from sinking is something we are not fond of. The light-weight floating line offers the mass we need to throw bigger patterns and lacks the complications that come with furled lines.
Our usual rigging is about 12-16 of line, depending on the size of the water we are fishing. Fishing a line length that is longer than the rod does increase the difficulty in keeping line off the water. However, that is not a big issue in bass fishing.
As far as tippet goes… we save it for the trout! This where it pays to know the water and species you are fishing. smallmouth simply are not spooky enough to warrant its use, and in small and medium streams, the 10-15 inch bass you are targeting with the average tenkara rod aren’t putting the rod in threat, so the “safety” concept is largely unnecessary. Instead, we use 4-6lb test monofilament line. Our favorite choice is “the cheapest that is currently on sale”. Normally, we rig up with 6-8 feet of mono, tied directly to the end of the floating line.
On average, we are fishing 30-36 foot systems and making casts in the 25-35 foot range. We tend to use systems on the shorter side when fishing solo because that makes landing the fish a bit easier. When you’ve got a buddy nearby that can assist with the landing, don’t be afraid to stretch out to longer lengths if you want to experiment!
Fly Choice and Tactics
Nymphs will work sometimes. So will dries. And poppers. But for consistent action, we recommend you pick a streamer of some sort. Why’s that? Because we’ve both found that we can make streamers produce under the widest variety of circumstances. We believe that this is because general purpose streamer patterns feature a decent amount of movement and a bold profile.
Mike caught nearly all of his smallmouth this year on a size 6 or 8 white cone headed streamer with a strip of rabbit fur.This remarkably effective fly can be twitched and retrieved at varying speeds or simply dead drifted. You can allow it to sink before the retrieve to get it deep or strip it fast across the surface to elicit top-water strikes. The rabbit fur has a killer fluttering action that the bass just love!
Mike tends to use the weighted fly to work the horizontal axis, targeting deeper holes with thorough drifts. He’ll move through each level of the water column with a combination of dead drifts, twitching retrieves, and erratic “altitude change” retrieves where the fly will climb and dive rapidly. He prefers to fish upstream or up and across and work the drift back towards him.
Matt spent most of the year fishing for bass with an unweighted Pass Lake fly in size 6. Many of the strikes took place within seconds of the fly landing, so there wasn’t much time for technique!
The standard pattern calls for white wings, but we also tested some with chartreuse wings. Both proved equally irresistible. Being unweighted, you have to use current and time to sink it, but the vast majority of the strikes it drew this year were nearly instant-upon-arrival topwater hits or occurred in the top 12 inches of the water column as the fly was being stripped, swung, or otherwise actioned through current.
Matt likes to work wider vertical areas (down and across swing on a long riffle), or short deliberate drifts near structure (up and to the left of that rock, with a 2-3 foot drift past as it sinks). He’ll often do 2-3 passes over a target area and then move on. The first pass will be a dead drift, the second some kind of twitchy motion, and the third will be an aggressive strip. If a certain technique besides the dead drift seems to be producing more often than others, he’ll start off with that instead.
One big difference between trout and smallmouth, is that bass are not put off by a splashy presentation. On the contrary, they can be quite attracted to noisy landings! Tenkara rods make it easy to add some “spice” to your presentation, simply by tapping your index finger against the cork grip as you land the fly and adding a small thrashing action by means of quick tip shake. After all, how many times have you had a small bluegill on the hook and watched bass come rocketing up out of the depths to come investigate? You can even incorporate the “tapping” component into your retrieves and drifts. I’ve had days where the fish wouldn’t move an inch, but add some tapping and they’d hit the exact same fly and presentation they’d ignored a moment before!
We both agree that you are best off getting in the water to fish. Assuming that there is no safety risk in wading, get your feet wet and use the lower profile to your advantage. Your presence in the water will not hinder your chances of catching fish at this range, and you’ll most likely have the ability to cast to both sides of the stream from a central position. You can move from bank to bank as needed.
Smallmouth Tips & Tricks
Smallmouth bass run and fight hard! Here are a few tips that have worked to help us bring them to hand:
- Be aware of your position in the stream, nearby current, depth, etc. Do what you can to steer them away from entanglements and bunkers early in the fight.
- Move your feet. If can move safely, a few steps forward or to the side can make a huge difference in that moment when you and the fish are balanced on a fine edge and struggling for control of the rod. Stay mobile!
- Another trick to change the dynamic when the fish is running straight away from you is to take a quick, small step forward and then turn your whole body to the side. Turning your whole body can put the bend back into the rod and get you back into control of the fish quickly. This can be done in place if you are in a position where you cannot safely move.
We were discussing this article over beers (Mike, a Belgian Abbey ale, Matt a Sprecher’s root beer) and having a difficult time articulating just what it is we enjoy about bass fishing so much. During the discussion, Mike mentioned brought up that when he fishes after a night shift, he usually chooses to fish for smallmouth bass as he generally finds it so relaxing. Matt related that he had been out fishing for smallmouth this summer with a friend that they were having so much fun they were laughing like kids. And that is when it crystallized for us…
As much as we enjoy trout fishing, there is always a certain pressure that goes along with it. Yes, it can be very relaxing, but if you are not careful, you can also be tense while trout fishing. While we really enjoy the constant analysis and engagement that is part of a day on a trout stream, that level of mental activity can be fatiguing. Trout fishing is appealing in part for its endless complexity. Stream fishing for bass is enjoyable because of its relative simplicity. Lastly, I don’t think we can underestimate the “fishing like you did when you were 10 years old factor”. I suspect many of us fish because it reminds us of carefree childhood days spent on the water. We have found stream fishing for smallmouth gets us closer to that ideal.
A fierce native species that is uncomplicated to catch and fights like a demon, paired with a simple system of tools that is uncomplicated to fish and is easily adapted to local conditions. It’s a perfect match!
Matt Sment and Mike Lutes are the founders of Badger Tenkara, an extremely popular tenkara & fixed-line fishing brand based in Wisconsin.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015-16 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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