Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Techniques Trout & Char

Tenkara Rods in Steelhead Alley

Article by Derek Catchot

I was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida. My Papa taught me how to fish at a very young age on the Gulf and bay and it has stuck with me my entire life. I moved to Pennsylvania in 2009 and now at age 38 live in Erie, in the northwest corner of the state. I started fishing locally in the mountain wilds, but eventually moved to Lake Erie in 2018 after being introduced (and instantly addicted) to steelhead fishing in 2015. Erie is known as the heart of “Steelhead Alley”, one of the most frequently toured and visited areas for steelhead fishing in the world.

My Introduction to Tenkara Rods

Last Spring, on one of my final steelhead fishing outings, I took a friend from Ohio out to teach him techniques for finding and catching our Erie steelhead in various water conditions. I also invited a very good friend of mine, Nick Wetzel, to join us.

After fishing a few locations using spinning and traditional fly gear, Nick and I left our friend to focus on a fishing hole near the parking lot. He was not very interested in exploring the waters upstream. Nick & I found a few fish, but after a pause in the action, Nick popped out a rod tube to reveal a tenkara rod. I had somewhat heard of tenkara fishing in the past, but never really knew exactly how it worked. Now Nick was showing me up close and personal.

Tenkara Steelhead - Tenkara Rods Steelhead Alley - Tenkara Angler - Bent Rod

I watched him set the rod up and make a few drifts, then he offered for me to try it out. I hooked into one fish, but it was very temperamental and tossed the hook after a moment of fighting. Then I missed another bite a little later. I was not able to land a fish but the short battle I did get felt really fun! Now that I had a taste, I just had to land one in the future. Unfortunately, we were at the end of the season as most of the fish had dropped back to the lake. 

Trial & (Mostly) Error

In preparation for the next season, I quickly hopped onto Amazon to browse tenkara rods for myself. I discovered they average quite a bit higher in price than the usual spinning setups I purchase. Not knowing if it was something I wanted to do all the time I purchased a 7:3 Angler Dream as it was on the much lower end of pricings. When it arrived, I found it to be quite nice and came ready to fish with a couple accessories to go with it.

In the several weeks that followed I hooked into a dozen or more steelhead. And let me tell you, they drug me around like a person walking a pit bull on a leash that happened to also be chasing a cat. The steelhead took me for 50 yard plus dashes up and downstream like a maniac! It was a nightmare of a failure, and I nearly broke my ankles or neck a few times! I did get a few near the net but I just couldn’t keep them under control enough to get them in.

In an act of frustration, I replaced the 5x tippet that came with the rod with the 6-pound fluorocarbon line I use on spinning and traditional fly rods. I started pulling backwards as hard as I could on the last fish we tried to net; I just wanted to complete this challenge after coming close so many times. Just as the net was about to go under the fish, I heard a sharp SNIP! My rod had snapped in half and the fish was on the run. I tried to grab the other half of the rod and see if I could hand line it in, but the fish broke the line and swam away victorious. 

Chasing Steel

I became so disappointed in such failure and defeat. I came so far and worked so hard for this! Not wanting to give up, I took to Facebook and joined every tenkara group I could find asking all the members if they had caught bigger fish, and what recommendations they might have to help me settle score with these very insane fighting fish. While I received many suggestions, several folks told me I needed to talk to Ruben Garza of Wasatch Tenkara Rods and try out his T-Hunter. Some tagged his name in their comments, and eventually he responded to one. I wrote him a message and we chatted a bit. 

Ruben explained he was designing rods for big game fish. He continued to explain the process of his rod design and why his rods are much stronger, even while having the same 7:3 flex profile as the Angler Dream. Coincidentally, Ruben stated he was frequently getting asked if his rods could catch a steelhead. But since there aren’t any local to him, he had yet to have someone use one of his rods to catch one. Despite that, he felt more than confident in the T-Hunter as he knew what it was capable of so far. 

Ruben ended up offering a full setup and threw in several other items to test out so I could figure out what would work best. He really wanted me to be successful. He even suggested that I should increase the line strength until I was able to land a steelhead. If the rod broke, he’d replace any section of it for free until I landed my first fish. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. 

T-Hunter in hand, I started off with a 3x tippet as suggested and landed the first steelhead I hooked! I never even had to increase line weight. The rod holds up so strong against the pressure of the fish, I don’t have to run and dash like a maniac! That first fish gave me three very explosive runs and jumps and I had nobody around, nor my net that I forgot at the car. But no worry, the power behind the rod put this fish into total confusion and submission in under five minutes. It ended up rolling over to its side and I slid it through the water over to the bank. 

Tenkara Steelhead - Tenkara Rods Steelhead Alley - Tenkara Angler - Hero Shot

The overwhelming joy of victory was like a high I never felt before in fishing! I wanted this so bad for so long. The adrenaline I felt during this battle was intense and overwhelming! I was scared… Was the line going to break again? Is the fish going to kick the hook? Is the rod going to snap? I was trembling and shaking… My fingers were tingling… heart pounding… knees were weak. It was a dream come true! I was hooked for life!

Ruben and I now have a great friendship and I’ve been testing his entire rod lineup on steelhead. Even his short Sharp Shooter tears them up! I will be testing his 8:2 Rod-Zilla for several monster fish this year. The challenges I have planned for this 16’/17.5′ rod capable of handling a 50lb weight load are Pennsylvania musky, New York king salmon, and a “surprise” grand finale fish in unheard of water conditions!

Dialing in Gear

I’ve learned a lot about gear since I started chasing steelhead with tenkara rods. I am currently using the Wasatch Tenkara 7:3 lineup. This includes the Daikyu T-Hunter, Hankyu Middle Fork and  Maruki Sharp Shooter. Since they are all different lengths, my choice is typically dependent on stream size and obstructions. 

Tenkara Steelhead - Tenkara Rods Steelhead Alley - Tenkara Angler - Wasatch Tenkara

I prefer a furled line with these rods. Many local waters are shallow and rocky with shale. The furled line floats over these structures much better than level line. I found that level line sinks quite fast and becomes hung up easily. I try to high stick the rod when I can, but using furled line is just more efficient. 

Steelhead here get very line shy due to the heavy tourism and angler pressure, especially when conditions get super low and clear. Most folks will drop their 6-pound line to 4-pound (and sometimes less) to avoid spooking the fish. But I found Rio Fluoroflex is a 3x tippet with 8.5-pound test and I use it on all of my rods. While stronger, this tippet’s diameter is .001 thinner than the regular fluorocarbon line I used for my spinning and traditional fly setups. With this Rio tippet I can still run a “heavy” line without scaring fish, when others downsizing their lines to fish other methods continue to struggle. 

I think this success has a lot to do with how delicately you can present with tenkara rods. When conditions get tough, I run a “stealth” setup with a clear 1/2″ Thingamabobber and a tandem setup of two flies. A roll cast gets this rig to the fish. It lays down extra quiet like a feather with nearly no water movement and has produced killer success!

Tenkara Steelhead - Tenkara Rods Steelhead Alley - Tenkara Angler - Chrome

If I am not presenting in “stealth mode” I use a white or pink bobber for visibility when the water is low and I need something bright to stick out. The water activity also determines line lengths and the size of split shot. If the water is faster or more disturbed, I’ll upgrade to a 1″ Thingamabobber. I can use this setup in pretty much all water I fish from fast to slow. Runoffs, waterfalls, chutes… both shallow and deep.

Many different styles of flies have proven to be successful, including #10-12 single egg patterns, sucker spawn patterns known as Crystal Meth flies, and weighted and unweighted San Juan worms. I really love black stonefly patterns, various nymphs, black or green #6 Woolly Buggers, and a #8 White Death style streamer also known as a White Zonker. I’ll run the flies about 6-8″ below a micro split shot in a tandem combination. Any weighted fly serves as the top fly, with the other trailing below it.

Fighting, Landing, & Learning

When I first started out. I was so intimidated to approach these fish alone with tenkara rods. I typically went fishing with a partner so we could take turns netting each other’s fish. It not only ended the fight sooner, reducing stress on the fish, but it also prevented us from having to walk backwards and drag fish up onto the bank. Here is a link to a video we made when we first started out.

However, I have quickly learned these rods are way more than capable of handling these fish. Effective use of the power curve is your biggest weapon. Being ready to counter any lightning fast movement the fish may make, you’ll soon discover a tenkara rod can whoop a steelhead in an average of 3-5 minutes! It’s been a progressive learning experience!

Your Turn?

For anyone interested in catching some of steelhead on their own, Ruben & I have been talking a lot about our plans. He is launching a global adventure fishing travel agency to send folks to various locations around the world to target dream fish on tenkara rods, while I have decided to apply for a licensed guide permit by the state of Pennsylvania. Once all this comes together, perhaps there will be a steelhead travel package offered in the future!

Even if there isn’t, having fished these waters for going on 7 years, I can easily get an interested angler away from the heavy tourist crowds to much more peaceful waters with less competition. If you actually enjoy combat fishing, then I can take you to those hot spots as well, no problem! I will be more than happy to assist with any style of fishing, including spinning and traditional fly. However, my main interest is teaching with tenkara rods. 

If you have any more questions or would like to inquire more on visiting the area, I’d encourage you to join the Fish Forage and Hunt PA Facebook group and reach out. We have a very positive community and strict rules to protect our members, creating a professional and family-friendly setting. Thank you for this opportunity to share my steelhead story! 

Tenkara Steelhead - Tenkara Rods Steelhead Alley - Tenkara Angler - Rods

Derek Catchot is an outdoors enthusiast based in Erie, Pennsylvania that is very invested in self-sufficiency and harvesting from the surrounding region. He is the administrator of the Facebook group Fish Forage and Hunt PA which focuses on teaching its members to become a better local anglers, foragers, and hunters.

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