Fixed-Line Article by Bob Long, Jr.
When I first chose to try tenkara rod fishing, I had little intention of fishing for trout. The closet trout water is 100 miles away from me in Michigan, or 180 miles away in Wisconsin. Heck, I would be driving over miles of marvelous smallmouth bass water to get to “ok” trout water. No interest.
So smallmouth on tenkara rods it was. Except how to get there? I kinda’ knew (kinda’ thought, kinda’ wondered, kinda’ guessed) that fishing with a tenkara rod was going to be quite different that my western fly style of fishing. But I wasn’t sure how much or how little. There was barely any info on tenkara period; even less on using a tenkara rod to catch smallmouth bass. Where to start, how to start? I ran into lots of dead ends and misinformation, as well as a great deal of inaccurate information and people, frankly, just making stuff up as if it were true. (Thank goodness I’d been fly fishing – for trout, smallmouth, steelhead, salmon, bluegills, bass – for 50+ years and had some background, and a decent b.s. detector.)
Ah, c’est la Vie.
So, this article is about: Stuff I wanted to know when starting out. Stuff I needed to know when starting out.
If I were teaching a class these would be my starting points and suggestions (not commands or directions).
Don’t look for rods created specifically for smallmouth in flowing waters. I’ve not found any. However, I suggest rods 12- to 14-feet in length. Zoom rods can and do work, but I like one length rods first, (and I end up using zoom rods at their maximum length all the time, anyway). They should be rated as 7:3 and 8:2 in action as well. You can get away with 6:4 in the short term, (for smaller smallmouth – 12- to 16-inches in length in slower waters) but over the long haul, the size of smallmouth I encounter (up to 20-inches), in 1200 to 4000 cubic feet/second (CFS) current, really calls for rods rated 7:3 and 8:2.
6:4, 7:3, and 8:2 are flex ratings for tenkara rods. Essentially, they mean where the rod bends or flexes. If a rod has ten sections, the flex on a 6:4 rod is 4 sections down from the tip (commonly, this also means it is a softer action rod – small fish, flies, lines and lighter tippets). A 7:3 rod flexes three sections down from the tip; 8:2 two sections down from the tip. Typically, longer rods (as previously mentioned) in the 7:3 to 8:2 range can better handle larger fish, bigger waters, stronger currents, larger flies/lures, and stronger lines and tippets.
Again, these are all starting points and suggestions. In my opinion tenkara in the United States is still quite new, and there is little uniformity in rod design, manufacturing, rating and quality from local makers. For the most part, not always of course, but enough of the time it seems ratings are part guess, part science, part marketing, part field feedback, part manufacturing costs. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
Flies & Lures
I recommend flies and small lures up to 3.5-inches in length and 1/12-ounces in weight (dry or wet). These are smallmouth bass, not trout; bigger is better. Under certain conditions, I will go with 2-inch flies and lures, but I usually get smaller fish. Even with larger flies and fly lures up to 3.5-inches and 1/12-ounces in weight I still get smaller fish (smallies are aggressive), but I get the bigger fish too. You will need the heavier rods to cast these, work them in the water (current and depth), and land larger fish.
Forget the level lines (trout stuff). Try furled lines from 10- to 16-feet in length. You can also try using 0-weight- to 2-weight, level fly lines cut to length for tenkara rods. Smallmouth are not line shy, so these work too. Either way, you’ll need something to get those larger flies and lures out, to feel the flies and lures in the water, as well as the takes and to fight the fish. These furled lines and fly lines can take the pressure, and they clean well. They come in easy to see colors too: chartreuse, fluorescent green, fluorescent red, bright orange.
Costs run from $15 – $20 for the furled lines, up to $30 for the fly lines. Get three or four different ones (Stop complaining! All of this is still WAY cheaper than what you’d spend on traditional fly gear). Fish them all in one season to see which works for YOU in the waters you regularly fish – not on trips to exotic locales you seldom visit. Get leaders from differing stores, not all from the same one. Shop. Compare.
You can use designated fly fishing tippet material, regular mono fishing line, or fluorocarbon lines. They are all fine. Just avoid going larger than six-pound-test or so (.009 inch) at first. I prefer four-pound-test (.007). Better the tippet break than the first two- to four-sections of your rod. It will take some time for you to learn how to handle your particular rod on larger fish, in current, using larger flies/lures and lines, and tippets are the most easily adjusted part of this equation. Also, it will take time to learn how and when to break off snags, bushes and trees instead of jerking on the rod to free your flies. Less tippet strength is more here. Err at first on the side of caution. You can change as your experience and skills progress.
The reality is that tenkara rods mean shorter casts – say for example, 30-feet maximum with a 14-foot rod, 14-foot leader and 2- to 3-feet of tippet. (You DON’T need long tippets with smallmouth. They are not line shy. You DO need to be in control of the depth and feel of your fly/lure and shorter tippets give you that). My advice is: “Don’t cast farther, learn to read water and wade closer.” You want long casts, go back to regular fly rods, reels, and 70- to 90-feet of fly line.
Now, how to cast all of this, drift/fish it, set hooks and fight fish is the stuff of other articles, not for here.
Plus, it is my firm belief that we learn little through articles, books, magazines, videos. We learn best – and have for thousands of years – by working with others (coaches, mentors, teachers, guides, facilitators, instructors). But finding those isn’t always easy, and words – such as here – are, at least, a start.
Another thought or suggestion. When talking to people and seeking advice or thoughts about their experiences, beware when getting answers that are not direct, clear cut responses to your questions.
“I don’t know, but I can look into that for you, or pass you along to someone else who may be able to help,” is a marvelous, conscientious answer we hear all too infrequently.
“Bob, what tippet do you use for smallmouth with your tenkara rods?”
Bob: “4-pound-test (listed .007) fluorocarbon from P-Line or Cabela’s.”
Bob: “It’s strong enough. I can pull many flies free when they snag up. I don’t break off on larger fish. But when stressed enough, the tippet breaks before the rod does. They have little stretch and I can feel my fly and lure moving. I’m not saying these lines, or this pound-test is the best, but those two work for me.”
Most answers in this new area of tenkara rod fishing, I believe, feelings, interpretations and opinions. Nothing wrong there – we all have them. Some just sound like they have a bit more gravitas and depth behind them than others – even if the person being asked is selling things. Follow your gut and instincts when listening.
Finally, seek to know your seller. Talk to them. As much as possible. Listen carefully. Ask questions – don’t act like you know stuff when you don’t. They know if you don’t. But, if you don’t trust what they are telling you, don’t go with them.
Once again, suggestions, considerations, starting points all. No directions or commands here.
I am now in year six or seven pursuing smallmouth bass with my tenkara rods. Have questions? (and you should have – for me and for others.) Email me or the magazine (and they can forward emails to me, I think). I’ll be glad to help.
Bob Long, Jr. is in charge of Chicago’s Fish’N Kids Program which takes kids ages 8-12, teens, adults, seniors and people with disabilities of all types fishing. He also teaches many tenkara and fly tying.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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