Landlocked Salmon on Tenkara Rods
By Bart Lombardo
Landlocked salmon have always been one of my favorite fish to pursue with a fly rod, so it seemed natural to discover if they can be reliably taken on tenkara rods. Landlocked salmon are a freshwater version of the sea run Atlantic Salmon, living in large freshwater lakes instead of the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, landlocked salmon were originally found in four lake systems in Maine, as well as the Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain drainage. The Lake Ontario population went extinct over a hundred years ago, but the original range of the landlocked salmon has since been extended to over 175 lakes and 44 rivers in Maine alone. Native populations can also be found in Canada, Scandinavia, and eastern Russia. They have also been introduced to far away places such as New Zealand and Argentina.
It is unclear why these fish choose to live in fresh water. While certain populations seemed to have been trapped by changes in geography over the millennia, others appear to taken to living in freshwater voluntarily as is the case in the four lake systems in Maine. At one time all of these watersheds had access to the ocean before being restricted by dams. Landlocked Salmon will live one to four years in rivers before migrating into freshwater lakes. They return to rivers and streams to spawn in the fall, and they will often follow smelt, their primary forage, into rivers and streams in the spring. It is during these times that I chase landlocked Salmon with a fly rod.
In Maine, where I usually target landlocked salmon, they average 16-18 inches and weigh between 1.5 and 2 pounds. Fish over 20 inches are not uncommon. Combine the size of the fish with their propensity for going airborne when hooked they can be a real challenge to land using tenkara rods.
If you decide to fish tenkara for landlocked salmon you need to consider your equipment carefully. Rod choices will have to lean in the direction of those that can handle larger fish. Many of the streams that harbor these fish can be quite large so a longer rod is advantageous. I have two rods in my current arsenal that are up to the task.
The Ito and the Amago, both by Tenkara USA, had no problem handling these hard fighting fish. The Amago is a rod that is designed for larger fish. At thirteen feet six inches in length, it is ideally suited for larger streams and small rivers. The Amago has a little more backbone than most tenkara rods, making it an ideal choice for landlocked salmon. The Ito, though not necessarily designed for big fish, proved to be up to the task as well. The Ito is a zoom rod meaning it can be fished at two different lengths, in this case, thirteen feet and fourteen feet, seven inches, making it perfect for larger water.
Of course, these two tenkara rods are not your only options. There are other makers here in the US and Japan that are offering rods that are capable of landing fish more than sixteen inches.
One rod that has been on my wish list for a while is the Tenkara Tanuki 425. Everything I have read about this set up indicates it should work well for these larger fish; it has the length and backbone to get the job done. Another that comes to mind is the Owyhee model by Tenkara Rod Company. I have not had an opportunity to fish it, but it is being marketed as a “big fish” rod. I’m sure there are other tenkara rods out there, that I am unaware of, that would also be up to the task.
The type of line to use depends on conditions, personal preference and the fishing method you are using. Either level lines or furled lines will work well. My personal preferences lean towards level lines because I can easily create the line length I need. In most conditions, I start with a line one and a half times the length of the rod. Under some conditions such as presenting a dry fly, a line length twice the length of the rod can be advantageous.
When fishing nymphs with a tenkara rod, I will shorten the length of my system considerably. I may use a line and leader combination no longer than the rod itself. One of the advantages of tenkara rods is the extra reach allows for nymphing beyond that of a standard fly rod. In some cases “just because you can, does not mean you should.” On more than one occasion I have hung my flies on the bottom and have not been able to wade far enough out to collapse the rod and grab hold of the line top break off the flies. You should never attempt to break off flies by applying pressure with the rod. Doing this may result in a broken rod. By fishing a shorter line, you can avoid this problem.
Since casting distance can be somewhat limited by the fixed length of the rod and line, a stealthy approach is warranted. By wading carefully and reducing your silhouette as much as possible, you can easily get within casting distance. Fortunately, landlocked salmon are not as spooky as their trout cousins, but that does not mean you can march right up on them. What this does mean is long distance casts are not needed if you can make a stealthy approach.
Fighting a landlocked salmon will put your skills to the test. This fish loves taking to the air, sometimes tail walking across the surface of the water. I find that dropping your rod tip in these situations usually spells disaster. While the technique may work with western tackle, you never want to point a tenkara rod at a fish. The flex of the rod is your friend when fighting a fish. The soft tip of a tenkara rod will usually absorb the impact of a leaping fish. Lowering your rod tip may result in the fish running and leaving you pointing your rod directly at the fish. The best you can hope for with a powerful fish like a landlocked salmon is a broken tippet. The worst-case scenarios can result in rod sections being pulled apart or a lillian being yanked off the tip of your rod.
With even pressure kept on landlocked salmon, they tire pretty quickly and can be brought to hand and netted. I do my best to discourage the fish from getting into heavy current and running downstream. If this happens your only option is to chase it. You may be tempted to use heavier tippet when fishing for landlocked salmon, but I don’t recommend it. When a big fish gets into fast water, and I can’t follow it, I would rather lose the fish to a broken tippet than put undue strain on my rod.
One of my favorite ways to fish for landlocked salmon is throwing streamers at them. Landlocks readily take streamer patterns, as their primary forage include smelt and other baitfish. Fishing a streamer on a tenkara rod is not an ideal situation. Fortunately, landlocked salmon show a preference for feather wing streamers and sparsely tied bucktails. Unlike many streamer patterns, feather wing and bucktail style flies are quite light and are easily presented on a larger tenkara rod. The only difficulty I encountered is setting the hook properly. Lighter tippets and very flexible rod tips can make this challenging. Fortunately landlocks slam streamers so hard they usually hang themselves. I have also started tying some of the most effective landlocked streamer patterns as wet flies and have enjoyed success with them. These smaller patterns are very easy to cast. In addition to streamers and wet flies, swinging soft hackles can be an effective method for taking landlocked salmon. Fished as a single fly or in tandem, soft hackles can be fished upstream or down and across very effectively with a tenkara rod.
Once landlocked salmon return to moving water they take on the feeding habits of their youth and they will readily feed on insect life as well. Traditional nymph, wet and dry flies all work well. When fishing for landlocked salmon in the spring, the fish are in the rivers following the rainbow smelt migration. However, they will also key in on the Hendrickson and Caddis hatches that occur during this time of year. Reversed hackle tenkara flies tied to imitate these two insects can be deadly. Last spring I tied a “Hendrickson Kebari” which worked quite well. Even though it only has one season under its belt I think it will be a keeper. I fished the kebari pattern as a dropper behind a traditional Hendrickson dry fly, and the kebari outperformed the dry fly two to one.
Are landlocked salmon another species to pursue with Tenkara? Absolutely! Just be sure to choose a tenkara rod suited for them. If you have a river or stream nearby that holds landlocked salmon give them a try.