Article by Chris Stewart
Now I am well aware that the tenkara anglers in Japan do not think that fishing for smallmouth bass is really tenkara. The keiryu anglers wouldn’t consider it keiryu either. Nor would the mebaru or the ayu or the kajika or the tanago anglers claim it. They don’t know what they’re missing! Shakespeare got it right, though, when he wrote “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What it is called doesn’t matter, as long as you get a fishy smile on your face and some fishy slime on your hand. (I had never before realized it, but “smile” and “slime” are anagrams. Now they’re forever linked.)
For many years now, starting well before I learned about tenkara, my friend Rex and I have been going to a lodge on an island in a lake in Maine for smallmouth bass fishing the first week of June. My friend is a spin fisherman, and I used to be. Once I started fishing with tenkara rods and keiryu rods, though, I never looked back.
Even with a 6.3m keiryu rod, I can’t cast as far as Rex with his spinning rod, but I can certainly cast far enough to catch fish. The smallmouth bass are in the shallows at that time of year and we fish from a boat, so we can slowly cruise just far enough offshore to target the bass. Occasionally it is sight fishing to specific fish, but we are generally just far enough away and the water is just deep enough that we don’t see the fish before we cast.
I often do see the fish just before the take, though. There’s something about seeing a good sized smallie emerge from the depths, slowly swim up to your fly, open its mouth, take the fly and then turn to go back down that is more satisfying than seeing the rapid splash of a trout taking a dry or the subtle line twitch that signifies a trout taking a wet. All three are exciting, but the smallie take almost seems to be in slow motion – the whole sequence lasts so much longer. There’s often time to say “Take it!” at least three times before it actually does!
Then the fight is on – and what a fight! Inch for inch, a smallmouth bass will outfight a trout. They bulldog like a brown and jump like a rainbow. If you have never caught one, you need to plan a smallie trip! You might not have to travel far. According to the US Geological Survey (the government scientific agency that deals with natural resources – including fish), smallmouth bass are found in every state but Alaska and Florida.
I have to admit that I am not an expert smallmouth bass fisherman. Although I have caught them in rivers, virtually all my smallmouth bass fishing has been in lakes (and to narrow it down even further, to a few lakes in Maine in the first week of June). So with that as a caveat, all I can tell you is what works for me.
I have to level with you and say the list of flies that WON’T catch smallmouth bass is probably the shorter list. At the time of year when we fish, they’re hungry and they’ll eat almost anything. I’ve caught fish with everything from a very sparse North Country style Partridge and Orange trout fly in a size 12 to a deer hair mouse to a six inch long “Tabory Snake” striper fly in a size 2. Even a fairly small foam grasshopper works surprisingly well. Cast….wait….twitch….wait….twitch….BAM!
My most productive fly, though, has been what I call a Keeper Kebari. It is tied on a size 6 nymph hook (1XL) like a Daiichi 1560. The body is yarn. The Black Killer Bugger yarn has worked the best for me, but I haven’t found a color that didn’t work. The hackle, tied sakasa-style, is either a large feather from a hen pheasant breast or from a Hungarian partridge flank (the largest feather on the partridge skin). I add a copper wire rib because the bass teeth (very small but very sharp) will catch the yarn and unravel the body without it.
Bass are not tippet shy, but you should definitely heed the manufacturer’s recommendation for maximum tippet. You never know when the next fish is going to be a lot larger than you expect, or when your cast will snag a log just as the wind starts to blow your boat. You can’t let out more line so the tippet has to be the weak link. I generally use 5X and do fine, but I check the tippet after every fish and replace it frequently (bass teeth would make very effective sandpaper and they will abrade a tippet quickly).
I prefer level line, even when fishing floating flies on a lake. I’ve used everything from size 2.5 to size 4 level line, depending on the fly and the rod. A wind resistant fly will require a heavier line, as will a stiffer rod, so you’ll have to experiment. I’ve also used the Nissin PALS SP Pro twisted fluorocarbon lines and they work quite well for casting wind resistant flies.
The easy answer to this one is “What rod do you have? Use that one.” However, as with any type of fishing, you really should match your equipment to the fish. What I have found (not surprisingly) is that longer is better. After all, I’m fishing from a boat on a lake. Overhead tree branches are not generally a problem. Also not surprisingly, given that many of the fish I catch there are 14-17”, a beefier rod handles them better than a soft, full flex rod. Although I have caught bass with a Daiwa Zero rod, designed for 8” trout and 1.5# test line, with each two-pound smallie I was afraid the rod would break and it didn’t take many fish at all to realize that continuing to use it was foolish.
My favorite tenkara rod for bass is the Daiwa Enshou LT44SF, but it has been discontinued. Diawa replaced the LT44SF this year with the Expert Tenkara LTH44, which should be an even better bass rod. My favorite keiryu rod for bass is the Suntech Keiryu Sawanobori 63 (although the 53 is a close second – it doesn’t have the same reach, but it is so light it is a joy to fish).
Plan a smallmouth bass trip for the coming season. You’ll enjoy it. (And if word gets out, the Japanese tenkara anglers will be coming here to fish!)
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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