Techniques Tenkara

Landing Fish on Tenkara

Article by A.J. Moore

We spend a lot of time in forums and articles discussing how to entice trout and other fish to pursue our flies but correspondingly little time about the rest of the equation. Hell, if every time that an angler successfully hooked a trout ended with a successful landing, we’d have half as much to talk about and the perception of the number of “enormous” trout would plummet. That goes back to a principle I like to call the Inverse Landing Size Maxim: A fish’s perceived size increases by 30% if it has been hooked but not successfully landed. But I digress, we’re not here to talk about lies and misperceptions. We’re here to talk about landing fish and specifically landing fish when fishing tenkara.

Landing Fish On Tenkara - AJ Moore - Tenkara Angler - Nick Feller
Nick Feller (@norcaltenkara on Instagram) bringing it in. Photo by Maddie “Lightning Rod” Jaynes (@hike_more)

Setting Up Your Gear

The first thing you need to address when thinking about how you’re landing your quarry is your setup. Generally, beginners tend to keep their tenkara lines no more than one arm’s length longer than the pole itself. While this does nothing for casting reach, it tends to put the fish right in front of the angler with only a modicum of redirection and reduces the anxiety of handling the fish by the line for more than a moment or two. It works well and is easy to get accustomed to, but it won’t be long before the angler may discover they want more reach with their casts. In that case a longer set up might be to have one’s level or furled line the length of the rod, and a leader or tippet (or combination thereof) about equal to half the rod’s length. In that case, you’re going to be hand-lining the fish to the final landing.

Tapered leaders aren’t generally much considered in tenkara however, for longer lines I have found good use of either a fluorocarbon tapered tippet or the combination of a leader section of slightly stouter monofilament line and a tippet section of 4x or 6x fluorocarbon. This allows the transfer of casting energy to naturally progress through the line from the heavier section to the tippet, which will provide a slight benefit to ease of casting. It also allows for a lighter terminal line with more shock absorption and abrasion resistance where it matters: close to the fish.

Much has been debated about the benefits of one knot versus the other, and I will leave that for you to determine for yourself. I will however note that a good and well-practiced knot is absolutely essential. I would suggest that anyone who is seriously pursuing tenkara spend some time practicing their knots to use as little of your tippet as possible. Why? Because you should be re-tying them. Yes, I do mean cutting off and retying the same fly. Snags and tags and little obstructions and abrasion will reduce the integrity of that most critical terminal connection. Check your knots regularly between sections and holes. If you’ve taken a pause to maneuver around an obstruction, check your knot. If you’re moving from a riffle to a deep run, check your knot. The difference can often be the deciding factor between a heavy net or a heavy heart.

You’re ready to start hooking some fish, but there’s still more to consider if you want to land those fish.

Landing Fish On Tenkara - AJ Moore - Tenkara Angler - Chance Huston
Photo courtesy of Chance Hutson (@mtnbum03), photo by Adrian Hutson (@iamadrianhutson)

Strategies for the Fight

Every hole, riffle, and run has a zone of play. So, before you sweep that first bug over the water, take a look at the ground. Think about where you can safely walk, where fish are likely to run, what snags are in the water, how steep the banks are, and where you are going to move that ten-plus feet of rod around once your fish is on the hook. Having a landing strategy will give you confidence and presence of mind to calmly and judiciously respond to the take.

Now that you’ve got your pole lined and your fly tied, and you’ve done your due diligence in tempting that trutto to your offering, you need to set the hook. I’ve often heard beginner tenkara anglers lament their difficulty in getting those first few hooksets. The feeling is different. I’m not sure how to adequately describe it, but it’s different. You need to be swift in your response to the strike, but not hard. What’s the difference? Well, to be somewhat unscientific about it, it’s the difference between piercing a half pound of moving piscean flesh with an eighth of an inch of finely sharpened wire, and yanking a half pound of fish out of the water. If there were one word that I would ascribe as the necessary trait for a good tenkara hookset it would be confident.

As to the body mechanics of setting the hook, I like to think of it as a smooth combination of motions: raising the rod hand to the level of one’s eyes making a straight line between the rod, hand and elbow, and rocking back slightly in the chest and shoulders. You do not need your arm to swing like a TV bass fisherman and you’re most certainly not “rippin’ lips”. A smooth, confident, upstroke is all it takes.

Landing Fish On Tenkara - AJ Moore - Tenkara Angler - Nate Camp
A good example of needing to pre-assess the complexity of the terrain. Photo courtesy of Nathan Camp (@camp_kebari)

Not all takes are alike, either, and hooksets should be modified for the take if and when you can. A swirling take, a surface sip, or a lazy open-mouthed gulp is more difficult. While the response needs to be swift, it is useful to take a beat, just a fraction of a second, to ensure that the fly is indeed deep in the mouth of the fish. Just the time it takes to think the word “gulp!” is enough to let the fly move back to a position where a set is more likely. If the fish are aggressive on the take, an immediate, swift, and short, upward thrust of the rod tip is generally sufficient.

There’s an old rule of thumb that hooksets are more often effective if the rod tip is moved slightly downstream with the sweep of the set. For my purposes this would mean that if the water is flowing to my left, I’ll set the tip toward the eleven o’clock position, and if it is to my right, I’ll set to the one o’clock position. The difference is subtle, but it does seem to matter.

Once you’ve set the hook you need to get down to the real business at hand: playing and netting the fish. Unless the fish is so small as to be simply overpowered by your combination of forces and you can simply drag it to you, you will need to play the fish. Generally, this means that you’re going to be trying to counter and redirect a fish as it tries to move upstream, move downstream, dive, or move into cover. Your goal should be to land the fish quickly, prevent it from getting tangled in cover, and making a clean release. But it is not necessarily a battle as much as it is a negotiation.

When possible, play the fish horizontally and steer the fish right and left to the most favorable landing position. It’s difficult to simply drag a fighting fish toward you by pulling back on an upright rod, so lower your angle to the two o’clock and ten o’clock positions at a tangent to the fish. Maintain tension, but let the fish go in the direction it’s headed with vigor. When the fish relaxes in the slightest, use the opportunity to turn the fish and steer it to a better spot. If you change the direction of the load, you change direction of the fish. If it surges, bow to the fish. Bend forward at the waist and shoulders allow the fish to make headway against the pull without relaxing the tension by pointing your rod. Avoid the rocks and overhangs and logs and snags, and direct the fish to calmer water. Deeper is better, slower is better. Calm water equals a calm landing.

Whenever possible, move! Don’t let your feet stay planted. Once the hook is set, you and the fish and the rod and line are now a complete system. If you can, go to the fish. If you can’t, try to get to a calmer spot downstream.

Landing Fish On Tenkara - AJ Moore - Tenkara Angler - Jeff Hauptschein
Jeff Hauptschein (@j_haupts and @hooksethigh) going to the fish.

Bringing to Hand

Once you’ve succeeded in the negotiation, the fish will come to you. When it does, check your overhead and horizontal clearance. Bring your rod hand to shoulder height and bring it in close to your chest, keeping your elbow tucked against your body. On a short line, this may be all you need before cocking your wrist to move your rod tip back enough to get you in position for netting. On a longer line, turn your wrist to pull the rod tip behind you until the angle between the line and the water puts your line within reach of your off hand.

For hand lining, pull the line gently in your off hand and transfer it to your rod hand. If the fish surges, bow forward and then ease back while letting the line feed out through your off hand until you can smoothly re-load the tension to the rod. When you can get the fish close with its head out of the surface of the water, it has very little leverage. That is your opportunity to land.

Get the net. I’m sure you can confidently land fish with your bare hands. You don’t need to prove it to me or anyone else. Just get a net. Make it a soft mesh, rubberized, knotless, silicone, or other reduced-harm net. If you’ve got the fish under control with its head out of the water, you should be able to simply slide the net into the water close to your forward leg, and sweep it under the fish as it glides toward you. As you do it, think “sweep deep”. The deeper the bow of the net is and the smother the arc, the less likely you are to spook the fish. If the fish ‘freaks’ at the sight of the net, do not ‘chase’ it with the net. Let it swim off, gently reload the tension on the rod or line, then carefully move the net back into position for another attempt.

There are times when conditions or circumstances dictate that a fish be beached. That is, dragged out of the water to solid ground. I don’t like or advocate this as a solution, but as an option of last resort when faced with no other choice. It is hard on the fish, increases the chance of injury, and removes the mucoprotein slime that protects the fish from illness and disease. For all practical purposes all previous advice still matters. However, a beached fish will flop vigorously, and that flopping is far more likely top pop a hook loose or even break your line than any aquatic struggle. If you must beach a fish, make sure it is brief, do not lift the fish by the line, wet your hands before handling the fish, and get that fish back in the water, even as you unhook it if possible.

Since you’re already using barbless hooks, release should be relatively easy. Cradle the fish in the water, through the net if possible, and back the hook out. And, since you have a net, you can now keep the fish safely in the water and have time to get your camera ready without additional stress on the fish if you feel compelled to take a picture. Move on and catch more fish.

Landing Fish On Tenkara - AJ Moore - Tenkara Angler - Big Kebari
Keeping it wet. Photo courtesy of Justin (@The_Big_Kebari)

Good luck, tight lines, and big smiles.

A.J. Moore is a tenkara angler, fly tier, woodworker, homebrewer, game designer, and writer who has fished the streams, rivers, and reservoirs of the Driftless Region for more than 40 years. Follow A.J. on Instagram @kebarikaiju.

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