Fixed-Line Article by Mike Lutes
Short of saltwater flats fishing, tenkara rod fishing from a drift boat is one of the most un-tenkara things you can do with a tenkara rod. Really, it should be called fixed line fly fishing at that point, but let’s face it: tenkara is a way catchier name. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of drift boat tenkara gear fishing experiences and I would encourage you to try it if you get the chance.
There are some distinct advantages to using tenkara gear in a drift boat, but there are also some limitations to be aware of. I will discuss the pluses and minuses, lessons learned and make some gear and set up recommendations.
While tenkara rods were never designed for fishing from a boat, they are well-suited for the purpose. The length of the rod itself can be an advantage. Your back cast will unfurl well over the head of your guide or boat mates compared to standard fly fishing gear. You will experience less of the hassle of fly line tangling on every nook and cranny of the boat, wrapping around your feet, the oars, the seat and so forth. If necessary, you can cast easily from a seated position, which is fairly difficult with a standard fly rod. For long days of casting, a tenkara rod is lighter and less fatiguing. So, for the most part, a tenkara rod cuts some of the hassle factor associated with fishing from a boat.
From a technical fishing stand point, there are a couple of important points to consider. I think one of the things that makes tenkara so effective in general is the amount of time your fly spends in the water versus false casting, managing line, mending and so forth. In faster sections, I can hit more targets with my fly by far with a tenkara rod than a standard fly rod. You can really get into a groove of hitting a pocket, giving a couple twitches, picking it up and hitting the next.
I’ve seen some very experienced fly casters do this well, but if most fly fisherman are honest with themselves, they are not covering as much water on a faster drift because they are playing line in and out, false casting and mending. Just like with wade fishing, a tenkara rod allows you to keep your line off the water and avoid tricky currents. More time with your fly in the water plus less hassle equals more fish. More fish equals more fun!
I think the number one problem to be aware of is snags. If you are drifting and snag, you have a very brief window to get un-snagged before you have to drop your rod. If you are with a guide or friends who are unfamiliar with tenkara style fishing, this is something you should discuss. When you can’t quickly unsnag, your best bet is to drop the rod. The great thing about tenkara rods is that I have yet to find one that doesn’t float! You’ll have time to position the boat and free your snag without straining the rod.
The second disadvantage is rod breakage. I have broken a couple of rods from boats. Bigger rivers have bigger fish and stronger currents, so you will be asking a lot of your rod. However, when I have broken rods, the circumstances have been similar: decent size fish in strong current with the rod parallel to the river. Tenkara rods do not like to be strained in this position. You may have a tendency to drop your rod parallel to the river to get that extra reach, but if you do so your hookset or first run from the fish will occur with the rod well outside of its power curve.
I have always been impressed with just how well tenkara rods can handle strong fish in strong currents if you let the fish ride the rod the way it was designed. I always bring at least a back up tenkara rod and often bring my 8 weight fly rod as well. They are seldom needed, but I did have an outing where I snapped my rod within the first hour of the float. No sense in ruining a day that way.
What is generally not a disadvantage is casting distance. I have fished with guys using standard fly gear in the boat and I can reach most all the targets your average fly angler can with my set up. I have never felt the need to pick up my 8 weight purely for the distance factor.
In regard to gear choices and set up, all of my experience comes from chasing warm water species. I have not fished for trout from a drift boat using a tenkara rod, so I won’t pretend to know anything about that.
Starting with the rod, my go to rod for several years has been the Badger Tenkara (now TAO) WISCO 2. It has proven itself a capable companion again and again, handling angry smallmouth in strong current and casting flies never meant for tenkara. I have used other brands, but I don’t have enough experience with any of them to recommend specifics. In general, I think you are better off with a longer rod, ideally 13 or 14 feet, for the extra reach. I would definitely suggest using a “big fish” style tenkara rod or a fixed line rod designed for larger species. I have used standard 12 foot tenkara rods from drift boats, but you are asking the rod to do things it was never intended for.
I use lightweight PVC floating line 100% of the time. I much prefer it to level line for this application. You will likely be launching larger flies. You will lay line on the water more frequently than you will when fishing a trout stream, so there is little advantage to using level line. I generally use 0 weight fly line or 1 weight fly line. I really don’t like anything beyond 2 weight, and in general prefer lighter lines.
Since reach is beneficial when fishing from a boat, and keeping line off the water is less important in many settings, I usually fish a length of line 2-3 feet beyond the length of the rod. You can certainly cast a longer line than that, but landing strong fish becomes more of a challenge with a longer line. I have lost some nice fish in the final moments of handlining them in.
Leader / Tippet
Your leader set up depends on what you want to ask of the rod. I mostly use inexpensive 6 lb or 8 lb test fishing line. While I would like to use a heavier leader at times, doing so may jeopardize your rod. If I am chasing toothy fish, I will tie in 12-18 inches of heavier line at the end to act as a bite guard. I typically use 20-30 lb test. A bigger tenkara rod will also cast a bite tip wire set up just fine, so that is an option, too.
I generally start with about 6 feet of leader. If I am changing flies frequently (something I try to avoid in general) I will re-tie a leader once I get down below 5 feet. Bass are not leader shy in general, it is more about the reach of the system.
For knots, I use a perfection loop for fly line to leader, which makes change out easy. This knot is way bulkier than other options but it is fast to tie and switch, as well as strong and the fish I chase don’t seem to mind it. For leader to fly, I always use the non-slip monoloop. I can tie it quickly with even cold hands and I have found it to be very strong.
It would be hard to make any specific fly recommendations. I mostly chase smallmouth from a drift boat, so my fly choices are catered to what the local smallies like. If I am fishing subsurface I use what I call the AWWS (any white weighted streamer). I tie them in a variety of ways depending on mood. If fishing the surface, I use the crease fly, which, again in local experience, yields a lot more fish than standard poppers. If you are chasing warm water species, in general I would recommend having some weighted streamers and surface options.
Give it a Try!
I have also used tenkara rods fishing from kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, float tubes and rafts. Much of what I have stated here would apply to those indications as well.
There are some serious advantages to using fixed line techniques from a drift boat and it is seriously fun. I hope you have the opportunity to try it!
Mike Lutes is the former co-owner of Badger Tenkara, a practicing emergency physician and father of 5. He chases smallmouth with tenkara gear as often as he can.
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