Fixed-Line Article by Karin Miller
A few weeks ago, I ventured to Wyoming to do a float trip out of Ugly Bug Fly Shop with 9 other anglers. The group was of varying skill levels, but most were experienced fly anglers. Several also had experience with tenkara and owned rods. When the float trip was arranged, all decided that a regular rod and reel setup would be prudent. It would allow casting at varying distances and be better at managing big runs from strong, fat Miracle Mile fish on the North Platte where we would be fishing. I was on the fence. I usually plan for a tenkara rod but bring a backup rod and reel just in case my fixed-line method doesn’t work.
We met at the Crazy Rainbow Lodge to purchase our fishing licenses, pair up for boat assignments and meet our guides. While all this was going on, I pulled out my tenkara rods in the parking lot. During relaxed opportunities like this, it’s fun to cast the rods a bit, just to tease the guides and pique their curiosity. It almost always works. Guides are passionate anglers. They rarely pass up a chance to cast anything, particularly something different like a 13’6” tenkara rod set up with a 28 foot Zen Fusion Line.
None of the guides were tenkara anglers but several had friends who owned or used tenkara rods. They all wanted to cast, so I tied on several different types of lines to the various rods that I brought along, just to give them the full experience. The guides were all surprised at how light and accurate the rods were, and how clean and smooth a loop they could create when throwing long, non-traditional lines.
I showed them how to do a traditional tenkara cast with a short, ultralight line as well, and how the cast needed to change and move from the shoulder to the wrist. There were lots of “Hmmm” and “Wow” and “I’ll be damned” comments. Even though the fishing hadn’t begun, I already felt pretty satisfied with the day.
The original plan was to fish the Miracle Mile of the North Platte, but with the mild temperatures, sunny day, and minimal wind we were having, our guides thought it would be crowded and overflowing with wading and floating anglers. Our alternative was to instead hit Gray Reef, which they anticipated would be less crowded. The ten of us unanimously voted for this option. Off to Gray Reef we went.
When we arrived, I took a quick peek at the water. It was high, with a strong current and the color of a coffee milkshake. Challenging but not impossible. I did a short “interview” with our guides to get a little more information about the average cast distance I’d need for the day, and the size of fish we’d be seeing. This type of Q&A helps me determine what type of line to use and the best length for each trip.
I decided on the Zen Taka 13’/15’ zoom rod paired with an 18 foot Zen prototype Fusion floating line that I’ve fished with great success on a number of other occasions and adventures. That, paired with 8 feet of a 2x leader/tippet setup, I thought would do the trick.
Just prior to pushing off, the guide admitted to being a little hesitant. He said he had only ever had one other tenkara rod experience about seven years ago and at the time, was brand new to guiding. He remembered catching fish but that was about all. As far as today was concerned, he said he was open minded, ready to learn and have lots of fun. We were in total sync.
As we talked, it boiled down to the “run issue.” What would happen once I hooked a fish? What did he, as the rower, need to do when the fish ran and I didn’t have a reel? The bottom line is, guides hate to lose fish as much as, or even more than, clients do. I assured him that problem solving was part of the fixed-line fun. I was okay with losing a fish or two but if it was a total failure, I had my backup Winston Boron III Plus 7 weight rod and Hatch Finatic 7 weight reel. While I didn’t say it out loud, but I felt pretty confident we wouldn’t need it.
We pushed off in a party of five boats with two other boats, not in our party, joining our leapfrog flotilla. I was the only angler without a reel. My boat was the last to launch and I watched as the others began casting and working the water. Finally, I began casting too when I heard a guide from one of the other boats, not in our party, notice I was missing a reel. “Is that a tenkara rod? On this water? Good luck. I wanna see you try and land a fish on that thing.” He said this jokingly and in a playful, prodding way that I knew made my own guide feel a little self-conscious.
I’m used to comments like these so I wasn’t bothered. I smiled a big grin and responded, “You bet it is. We’re gonna have some REAL fun on this boat.” Sometimes comments from guides or other anglers can be pretty snarky and jabbing. But I’ve come to just take them as challenges. The mojo was flowing, this was going to be a good day.
Only moments later, I had my first hit and set the hook no problem. I knew I had an audience after the recent comments so I smiled even bigger and thought, “Game on!”
Six other boats had already fished this stretch so to even hook-up was impressive and to boot, I had a stoic fighter at the end of my line. The Taka bent and flexed, and I turned and flipped the rod to turn and steer the fish when it attempted to run. After a few of these quick maneuvers, I grabbed the line and brought the fish in toward the edge of the boat. Surprised and slightly flustered, the guide scooped the fish into the net. Hand in the air, eyes wide open he yelled, “HIGH FIVE!”
While we were basking in success and admiring our catch, the guide in the other party’s boat was hollering, “Hell yeah! That was awesome! I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t just see it! Damn that was cool!” I don’t know who was more excited – me, my guide, or the guide in the other boat.
As our float progressed, I continued to hook and land fish. My guide became more relaxed and confident with rowing for a fixed-line angler. He homed in on my line and setup length and put me in position each run. He acknowledged our float and rowing wasn’t any different than what the other boats were doing, and we played leap-frog with them as we worked through sections of the river. Remember, the second angler on my boat had a reel. I was completely out fishing him.
At midday all our boats stopped for lunch. We went ashore, dug into our sandwiches, and compared fish numbers and stories from the morning drift. So far, I was among the top for landings, and had the biggest catch of the day. Not bad for the “cane pole” fishing I was accused of doing.
At the start of the day, I had been placed at the bow of the boat and been given the first angler advantage. Since I was reel-less, the guide figured things would be evened out and our productivity would end up being about the same. He and the other angler were trying to take care of me. After lunch, and with the success I’d been having, my position was switched and I was placed in the back, now casting my tenkara rod from the stern of the boat. Would my hookups dwindle? We would soon find out.
The afternoon did slow down, but it slowed down for both me and my fishing partner. We still had takes but the time between hits was greater. We continued casting bead eggs and pig sticker with added split shots to get down quickly in the fast moving water. Not your traditional tenkara set up, but highly effective for these conditions and type of water. I wouldn’t use this rig on a small, high mountain stream but it worked here.
Most anglers wouldn’t think of using a fixed-line tenkara rod for doing a float trip, but the average cast required on most floats make a reel-less setup a perfect tool. Rarely do you need a 60 foot cast while floating, and usually a simple roll gets you to your target with ease. It’s quite perfect for beginners as well.
As our day progressed, we passed that other boat a few more times– the one that wasn’t in our party, little did I know, my audience. By this time, I had forgotten all about them, and was simply having fun and focusing on fishing. It seemed however, that the guide and his clients had continued watching us all day.
“You are freak’en cleaning it up today!” the guide hollered over to me as we passed by. I responded, “It’s been a good day and a lot of fun.” I got a head nod this time. It wasn’t meant to be mocking or snarky or whatever, it was more like “damn straight you did.” You know the kind of nod I’m talking about. It was a nod of respect and new appreciation. My chest expanded just a wee bit as we fell to the back of the float line again. I knew it was going to be a good day.
When we came to our final landing and were gathering up our gear, several other guides and anglers from the other boats came up to briefly chat. They said they had enjoyed watching me fish, had a new respect and understanding for the fixed-line, tenkara method and had never imagined being able to do “something like that without a reel.”
In the end, regardless of a few thrown and missed hook sets, I tied with one other angler for the number of fish landed that day. I still had the biggest fish of the day and regardless of being at the bow or the stern of the float boat, no reel was certainly no disadvantage.
And as it turns out, my guide and I realized we had actually fished together all those seven years ago. It’s a small world. Back then, there weren’t many women running around with tenkara rods, heck, even fly fishing. He still had the engraved wooden fly box I had given him sitting on his coffee table.
He decided after this trip, he definitely needed to learn more about the method and realized he might be missing out on some fun by not owning a tenkara rod. I’d call that, a perfect day.
Karin Miller is the owner of Zen Tenkara. Since its start in 2012, Zen has looked to push the traditional, established boundaries in an effort to “define American Tenkara.”
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