Saltwater Techniques

Tenkara Rod Fishing Off The Dock

Article by ron P. swegman

Some of the now antique fishing books on Grandpa’s shelves have chapter titles like “Dock Fish” and some give reference to cane poles used for a catch of saltwater fish of eating size. “Saltwater Panfish” is another title one may stumble upon next to the World Series Baseball Almanac for 1960-something.

The snapper, or juvenile bluefish, a textbook example, are yearlings that reign the dominion of the east coast pier and have done so for many deserved years. Numerous, pugnacious, strong, a set of ten snapper Pomatomus saltatrix makes a legal limit island lunch to remember. And there is second famous dock fish of note: black sea bass (Centropristris striata), which finds home lower in the water column, hits slower retrieves bumping bottom, and tastes just as tasty.

Long the quarry of the young and the ultralight angler such fish can be had by means of a technique much newer to the scene: tenkara. The Japanese method of fly fishing without a reel has won over many mountain trout anglers since 2009. The telescoping rod’s much greater length and limber tip also make it a magic wand around the coved perimeter of a warmwater sunfish pond. The salt, too, can be tackled off the dock with a tenkara rod.

Gear Selection

Ron Swegman SP17 - Tenkara off the Dock

Pick a slower rod with a 7/3 flex ratio that can better handle breezes and heavier fly patterns. Decorated hooks will require a line. Seek out a quality tenkara level line, not traditional tapered, as silk does not wear salt as well as the fluorocarbon or monofilament. Attach one cut to the length of the rod, usually twelve feet, knot on a small #7 barrel swivel, the opposite end tied to a straight leader of tippet; a 4X averaging around 6 lb. breaking strength. You will want the leader to be breakable in case a miscast hooks into a piling of wood; an admittedly occasional hazard.

Next, find that dock and fish. The style has been described over and again as “simple fly fishing” for its tackle’s comparative simplicity.

Black Sea Bass

Ron Swegman SP17 - Tenkara off the Dock - Black Sea Bass

I have been trying, toying in earnest, to infuse my tenkara rod fishing with diversity through variety in waters flowing and still, freshwater and . . . salt. The black sea bass (those I have caught, lost, or otherwise released) on the tenkara rod have coerced me to believe this is a saltwater sporting equivalent to the green sunfish found in freshwater streams. Both fishes are a strong lover of the rocks and other cover, natural or wreck.

The black sea bass is by classification a grouper, a smaller one, hardier to colder temperatures, a member of the family more well-known by its southern relations, which range in color, pattern, and in size up to a 70’s fly Volkswagen beetle.

The black sea bass exhibits broad shoulders, a flank thickness like the green sunfish, dressed in pearled black scales that hold an iridescence that glows bright blue around and along the lateral line. Vermiculation of a similar color resembles that of the green sunfish. The size encountered off my Manhattan dock(s) range from six to twelve inches. Only the very few largest are potentially one in the hermaphroditic phase, an interesting fact of this fish, which sets in at around specimens of ten inches or longer, in weight reaching eight to ten pounds.

Fish take a fly firmly and quiver shake in resistance. Bright weighted streamers, say a chartreuse variety of size 4 Clouser minnow, can be cast, sunk, and twitched. Target structure where past snags have taught you their location. Cast and animate the pattern beside or along the cover. The swing with slow pulses of the wrist will take fish during one or two parts of a tide, often on incoming, but not always. One certainty, speed up the presentation of the fly to be intercepted by another hard hitter.

Snapper Bluefish

Ron Swegman SP17 - Tenkara off the Dock -Snapper Bluefish

The snapper is the perfect quarry for a bright streamer pattern twitched near the top at high speed. Close to the surface cruise pods of juvenile bluefish like shiny tin toy soldiers. Monomaniacal, but quick to disperse, most encountered are chasing fry and rainbait schools near the surface. The schools of bluefish cutting baitfish like class come in and go out on quick waves that rarely last longer than two caught fish. Several hours of fishing will provide one half dozen waves of two minute bites disappearing like a puff of smoke on most occasions.

There also are changing skies to contemplate and inquisitive tourists, in between, plus a smorgasbord of aviation and ship sightseeing. The snappers, ten often being the limit, when taken on tenkara rods make a quick afternoon of fun fishing.

Fly patterns remain consistent with those best for the black sea bass. Simple half-and-half Clouser patterns tied for skinny water, perhaps with a bit more sparkle to the hackle. Cinderworm patterns are normally ignored, although any dart-able streamer of white can do. Sizes 6 through 10 are small enough for the tight-lipped bite of both fishes.

Close fishing to the docks works best for all species when peak tides and solunar tables meet. Check predictions on your preferred website and study saltwater access nearest you. Tenkara rods may work on bergalls, croakers, and flounders as well as many other fishes of the salt; fish that can fit into a pan if you coax them, by rod, line, and fly.


ron P. swegman is the author and illustrator of Small Fry: The Lure of the Little, available from The Whitefish Press.

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

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