Techniques Tenkara Trout & Char

The Short Game: Tenkara in Small Waters

Article by Tom Davis

I enjoy fishing small and technically challenging streams. Actually, I think you might call them creeks, brooks, rivulets, or the like, rather than streams. Streams connote that theres a good amount of water flowing, but the waterways Im talking about are much smaller. Some people’s creeks are other people’s rivers, but here in the west a river is large, a stream is smaller, a creek is smaller yet, and a brook or rivulet is tiny. It’s these tiny running waters that I seek out and love to play around in.

I fish little waters for three main reasons: 1) there are no other people on them, 2) I am curious if they contain fish, and if they do, what kind and how large, 3) they are very technically challenging (or, more like, frustrating!), and I love a good challenge!

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These are the waters that are less than five to six feet wide at their widest and shallowest spots. They typically run about three to four feet wide. They are often so overgrown with tree branches that you have to select your casting spots carefully, often walking past long sections of water, as there is no place open enough to cast. Casting is frequently accomplished with a sling-shot cast (also called a bow and arrow cast) rather than a more traditional overhead cast. Because these creeks have such a tight canopy they frequently require really short rods; 270 cm is often too long! That’s what I’m talking about — small, tight, fun, and yet frustrating creeks.

There are three main casts used when fishing these small waters. These include the sling-shot cast, flip cast and overhead cast. Each has its own place and each has pros and cons. Lets review these casts one by one.

The sling-shot cast. If you’ve seen any of my videos (YouTube: Teton Tenkara) when I’ve fished these little waters you’ll see me use this cast frequently. It is a mainstay for waters in which two situations occur. First, when you have low hanging branches right over head or to the side and you can’t cast your rod in the traditional manner. If you are standing, and you have low hanging branches, you can just drop to your knees and cast normally. What I am talking about are low hanging branches when you’re on your knees! The sling-shot cast will allow you to deliver the fly without whacking your rod into the branches. 

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The second situation is when despite having plenty of room to cast normally the target area is too concealed (like deep under overhanging branches) to effectively get a fly into — even with a really tightly controlled casting loop. We all know that fish prefer lies where they have opportunity for easy food, get plenty of oxygen and they feel protected. These are called prime lies. Many of these lies are tucked back under branches where it is impossible to deliver to fly using a traditional overhead cast. This is because the angle of descent is too steep. To combat this problem you could switch to a side arm cast and try to get the fly in under the branches, but there are frequent issues here too. On these small waters there is often too much vegetation to side arm cast, even when you are tight against one bank and the rod swings out over the water to the other. In these situations, consider using the sling-shot cast.

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The sling-shot cast allows you to deliver the fly parallel to the water surface. This in turn allows you to get that fly way up under the branches and right into that hidden prime lie. I guarantee you this: if you can execute this cast perfectly, allowing the fly to land softly, without it splashing down hard, you will have a fish in seconds! Trout feel so comfortable in these types of prime lies that they will take any fly placed there. Trust me, it’s a beautiful thing! 

When setting the hook, you have to be spot on. Any misjudging and the line will sail over your head and get hopelessly tangled in the branches. It’s amazing how fast you can knit a sweater with just one errant hook set!!

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Does the sling-shot cast have any downsides? Sure. For one, it’s not as fast working water with this cast as with a traditional overhead cast. Another is that despite being able to cast a fly pretty much anywhere, you may not be able to set the hook and fight the trout because of all those branches that kept you from casting in the first place! I’ve had many instances where I’ve said to myself, “I wonder if there’s a trout in there”, only to shoot the fly in, watch the line go tight, and not be able to set the hook. Still, I find that pretty fun. You know that no one else would ever try to reach that trout — they’d just walk by — but you said hello to mister trout with a quick prick to his lip — even if it is for just an instant.

The second cast is the flip cast. This cast is also used when you have no room behind you to cast traditionally. It is executed very similarly to a roll cast, except that your line and fly are hanging in the air, not lying on the water. Raise your rod to the vertical, allow the line to hang straight down towards the water, then with a quick flick of the wrist arc the line and fly towards their intended target.

The flip cast works very well, but you need to watch for overhead branches, as the fly will arc up and away on its way towards the fish. If the canopy is too tight you just might end up catching the trees instead of the intended fish! 

The last cast is the overhead cast. This cast is executed exactly the same way that youd use it on larger waters. The main difference is that unlike when using a 360-390 cm rod, the little 240 cm rods for these creeks dont load very well. Because of this they dont have that nice tenkara castingfeel to them. They feel more stiff than most rods, but that stiffness comes in handy sometimes. 

On these waters I generally prefer a short and relatively stiff rod. Nowadays its not uncommon to find tenkararods in the 270 cm length, but 270 cm is often too long for these waters! I prefer a 240 cm rod (but I’ve been forced to fish with 180 cm rods on occasion). Two hundred and forty centimeters is short enough to be able to handle really tight quarters, but long enough to still be able to actually cast. Yes, that 30 cm (one foot) really does make a difference here. It may not on open waters, but in these tight situations it makes all the difference in the world.

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As far as rod stiffness, for really tight waters I prefer a rod that is somewhat stiff, say around a rod flex index (RFI) of 5.5-6.5. This means that the rod is not full flex, but it stiff enough to react instantly to the trout, like when setting the hook. However, its not so stiff that it can’t be cast effectively. A rod with a flexible tip section, but that stiffens up in the third section seems to work best for me (BTW, the tip section is the first section). The stiffness also means that you don’t have to move the rod much to keep the fish from darting into snags and breaking off. Remember, you are in tight quarters to begin with. You don’t have the luxury of open water in which to fight the fish!

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As for lines, I tend to use a 6.5-7.5 foot fluorocarbon level line. I like #3 weight best. I use 5.5X tippet that is 18-20 inches long. This combination keeps the line short, thus allowing very precise control. Because the rod is short and the line is short the overall fishing length is short! This type of fishing is full contact, yet demands stealth. You are literally within feet of your quarry. You must keep low, go slow and blend into your surroundings. This is hunting; be like a chameleon. Remember, since you can’t use a longer rod or line, you will be right next to the fish. They don’t like that! Any sudden movement and they are gone!! Fortunately, if the water has a brisk current you can often get pretty close and set up your shot.

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Flies for these small creeks? Pretty much any pattern will work. But plan on losing a lot of them! For this very reason, I tend to use the venerable Utah Killer Bug much of the time. Nowadays, on a big stream” tenkara trip I won’t lose any flies — OK, maybe one. But on these tight creek adventures I’ll lose half a dozen or more. If I overshoot my target hooking a branch, yet didn’t scare the trout I was targeting, I’ll just break off the line, tie on a new fly and shoot again. After I’ve caught the trout I’ll move up into the lie and retrieve my snagged fly. If you don’t like losing flies then this is not your type of fishing.

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So that’s what I call the short game. This type of fishing separates the men from the boys (metaphorically speaking). Be prepared for the most frustrating fishing experience you’ll ever have, but also be ready for some amazing fun and satisfaction. Stalking the creek, setting up your next shot, flawlessly executing that shot, and taking a wild, native trout from a small lie is very exhilarating. Its my favorite way to fish. 

If you meet a guy in camo, crawling around in a mountain rivulet, that just might be me — or maybe it’s some other insane and eccentric angler!


Tom Davis is an avid tenkara angler located in Idaho. He prefers to fish small creeks with moderate to high gradient flows for native cutthroat trout. He shares his experiences and perspectives on this most efficient for of fly fishing through his blog Teton Tenkara.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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2 comments

  1. Read this article for the 3rd time (maybe more)…
    This does feel like my home water and trout! Great article!

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