Techniques Warmwater

Notes on Unconventional Tenkara Rod Fishing

If the social media sites are any indicator, I think it is safe to say that the “Tenkara Wars” are over. Perhaps now we can all agree that while tenkara has a specific definition in Japan, here in the U.S. we are apt to call any fixed-line fly fishing “tenkara.” Let the purists do their thing and the innovators and experimenters will continue to explore this unconventional approach some have called “Tenkara Rod Fishing,” or “American Tenkara.”

I purchased my first tenkara rod with visions of using it on the tumbling freestone streams in my region. But like many of us here in the U.S., I took one look at it and thought “well, what else can I do with this thing?” Panfish were the first non-trout targets, but my horizons broadened quickly. As the conditions and fish species diversified, so did my gear and techniques.

Let us not forget that tenkara was developed as a method to catch a few species of fish in a specific environment. Is it really that surprising that so many anglers here in the U.S. have modified traditional tenkara to suit their pursuits? The Japanese love baseball and have been playing it for almost 150 years. Their game is a little different than ours, but I don’t see anyone telling them it is not baseball.

Stretching to the Meet the Challenges of Spring Creek Trout

Matt Sment SP17 - Notes on Unconventional Tenkara - Brown Trout

I was delighted with how effective my tenkara rod was on higher-gradient free stone streams here in Wisconsin. Sure, brook trout are not all that selective about fly patterns, but I think the ability to pick apart pocket water with a tenkara rod certainly helped. My success though, was not translating on the crystal-clear spring creeks; the majority of the fishing opportunities in my region.

Here I differ from convention. The widespread advice seems to be to use 2-3 feet of tippet, 5x or 4x. Our spring creek browns don’t seem to care for this set up. As a general rule, I rig a tippet section that is the longest possible length that will turn the fly over properly in cooperation with my line choice. This usually ends up being between 5-6 feet. Switching to this longer tippet length created a dramatic improvement in catch rate on Wisconsin’s glass-clear spring creeks.

Meets Toothy Critters

Matt Sment SP17 - Notes on Unconventional Tenkara - Muskie

The 2016 season was the Year of the Toothy Critter. Mike Lutes caught several Northern pike, what we believe is the largest muskie landed on a tenkara rod, and a lesser known central American fish called the Machaca. We hope to spend more time chasing fish with intimidating dentition on a tenkara rod. We learned a lot about targeting these species that we’ll put to use in the future.

Rod: You’re gonna’ need a bigger rod. Several tenkara companies now sell a “big fish” rod. If you are serious about pursuing the toothy fish, you will want one. Not that you can’t land small to medium pike on your “standard” 12 foot tenkara rod, but it is fitting that for bigger fish you need a bigger rod. That being said, while pike are certainly savage in their strikes, the fight is not the same as, say, a smallmouth bass of equal mass.

While a certain amount of “backbone” is required, an overly stiff rod that fishes like a 2×4 isn’t the answer. An ideal rod won’t max out in either direction – you want it to stay loaded and flexing while the fish moves. We took this into account when we redesigned our popular WISCO rod, and softened the action a bit. The WISCO 2 is more dynamic but still strong enough to dig in its heels against a larger fish.

Line: Floating line all the way. You can still use very light line, and with such a long lever it is still easy to turn over larger flies. For big fish on open water, we typically rig with a rod length + 2-4 feet of line, and 6-8 feet of “tippet”. Yeah, those quotation marks are there for a good reason, read on!

Tippet: Here is where the biggest difference occurs. No more 5x. You can use a pre-packaged steel bite tippet with your tenkara rod. You will have no problem casting it with a “big fish” rod and floating line. Make certain to rig a “break away” section between the bite tippet and fly line by tying in a length of monofilament with a test rating appropriate to your rod – steel bite tippet will not break if you need to disconnect from a snag or if your rod is outgunned!

What I like better than the bite tippet is using about 18-24 inches of heavy monofilament line at the “fly end” of your tippet with a breakaway section of lighter monofilament between that and your fly line.

From butt end to fly, it would look like this: lightweight fly line equal to length of rod or slightly longer, roughly 4 foot section of monofilament (6-10 pound test, depending on the recommendations of your rod manufacturer and your own risk-benefit analysis), roughly 2 foot section of heavy monofilament (20-30 pound or heavier).

The thick mono line is rather abrasion resistant and less likely to be sliced by sharp teeth. It is cheaper than bite tippet and can be changed out if it gets roughed up. It is also slightly more graceful to cast. These toothy fish are not tippet-shy, so you don’t need to worry about line thickness that much.

Matt Sment SP17 - Notes on Unconventional Tenkara - Line Rigging

Fly patterns: Streamers. Big ones. I actually caught the muskie on a three inch purple streamer, and some of the pike were caught on a size 4 bass streamer, but in general, big flies with lots of action are the way to go. You would be surprised at how easy they are to cast with a tenkara rod. I won’t go into too much detail on fly patterns, as that could obviously be a whole article or book, but think long, wavy streamers.

Techniques: Fairly straightforward here, just cast and retrieve, varying the rate of the retrieve and pauses to the fish’s liking. If you have a little weight on the streamer, you will get more of a jig action when you pause, but straight retrieve will also work. Strikes are usually not subtle. Keep the rod tip as high as possible to keep the line away from the teeth. Have a net handy.

Smallmouth Bass

Matt Sment SP17 - Notes on Unconventional Tenkara - Smallmouth Bass

If you have not chased smallmouth bass with a tenkara rod, you are missing out on what I think is probably the most fun you can have with a tenkara rod. Whether wade fishing (my favorite) or fishing from a boat, the violent strikes and fighting heroics of the smallmouth can’t be beat!

If you are wade fishing, your standard 12 foot tenkara rod is probably still fine. We have both caught smallmouth in the high teens with our Badger Tenkara (now TAO) Classic rod. If you are fishing a bigger river with stronger current from a boat, you would be better off a “big fish” rod. Lightweight floating line is our hands down favorite line choice.

Save your expensive tippet for the trout For wade fishing, we use inexpensive 6 pound test monofilament. I bought a spool of it about 5 or 6 years ago for a few bucks and still have it. Around 6 feet is a good length. Consult your rod specs for maximum tippet section test.

Size 4 or 6 flies are about right. Having some weight is nice. If fish are taking on the surface, a faster retrieve will keep your fly more in the zone, or pack some weighted and unweighted options. Dries and nymphs can work in certain conditions, and poppers are a blast, but streamers will produce with the most consistency.

Inspection warning! Bass have very abrasive teeth. Make sure to inspect your tippet-to-fly connection after every catch, otherwise the “wear and tear” might cause you to snap-off on the next fish. As a precaution – you might reconnect the fly every couple of fish to make sure the system is strong and intact, or use a short length of more durable 30lb or 40lb test mono as a bite guard at the end of your monofilament section to connect the fly.

Tenkara Rods on the Drift (Boat)

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had numerous opportunities to fish with my tenkara rods on different configurations of drift boats. Tenkara offers some distinct advantages in this setting versus traditional fly fishing, but there are a couple of noteworthy considerations to be aware of.

First, the advantages. If you’ve ever fished from a boat with a conventional fly rod, you no doubt will have had coils of fly line snag on something at the most inopportune time. With a tenkara rod, you simply hold the line at the ready. No tangling on the oarlocks or around your feet. You can launch a cast a lot faster than with a standard fly rod as you are not playing out (or taking in) line.

If you are actually moving, this aspect of tenkara fishing is really helpful for prospecting multiple likely lies in short order. Your guide needn’t worry about getting hooked with your back cast when the rod is 12 or 14 feet long. It is also far easier to cast from a seated position with a tenkara rod than a standard fly rod. So, you will get more casts on target with less fuss, which most days should get you more hook ups.

There are a couple of distinct disadvantages to discuss. First, snags are problematic. If you are out with a guide or a friend’s boat, I would suggest you discuss how to handle snags before you begin the float. If you are drifting in fast moving water and snag, your best bet may be to drop the rod if you can’t quickly free the snag. I have not found a tenkara rod yet that doesn’t float. Assuming your guide can reposition the boat, the best bet may be to drop the rod and go back and get it. I think it is safe to say that far more tenkara rods are broken by snags than fish. One also needs to decide how heavy to go with tippet. Heavier tippet may mean fewer lost fish but also increases the chances of breakage when dealing snags.

Secondly, If you are fishing from a boat and a big fish runs in strong current, you have limited options on how to play that fish. You cannot reposition yourself much as you would while wading or on shore, and there is only so much give in your system. I have lost fish from drift boats that I think I could have landed if wade fishing. Make sure you bring your “big fish A game” and think hard about how heavy you want your tippet to be.

Your tenkara rod can be a ticket to a variety of fishing adventures. Don’t be afraid to do something unconventional with it!


This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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