While the ongoing debate on the definition of tenkara runs hot and cold, (it’s fixed line fly fishing in mountain streams for trout & char BTW 😉 ), there’s no doubting that using your tenkara rod to catch other species can be an absolute blast. This comprehensive article from the Spring 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler does a deep dive into the techniques and strategies the author uses to pursue smallmouth bass.
A Marvelous Fish for the Tenkara Rod!
by Bob Long, Jr.
1. Smallmouth bass are NOT Trout – not even close. They’re not supposed to be.
2. Smallmouth bass in American Rivers, Creeks and Streams are most definitely NOT 8 – 10-inch trout living in high-gradient, fast-flowing, mountain streams in Japan, either.
Smallmouth bass are, what they are. Not what they are not.
If you can accept the integrity of those statements, marvelous! Some great smallmouth fishing awaits. If not, it may be useless for you to read further.
“I know what you’re trying to do.” – Neo
“I trying to free your mind. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one who has to walk through it.” – Morpheus.
If those first two lines intrigue, and you intend to get serious about tenkara for smallmouth bass, the first thing I request of you – before rods, lines, tippets, flies – is to curtail or stop using “smallmouth bass and trout” in the same sentence or thought (e.g., “like trout, smallmouth bass are…” or “look for smallmouth in those trout like riffles…,” etc.). If you are willing to do this you will be on your way to a greater understanding of smallmouth bass as the fish they are – where they live, what they do, how they feed, and how to appeal to them. You will be on your way to enjoying greatly increased success for them using your tenkara rods.
Background: I conduct on-the-water, fly-fishing workshops in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan for smallmouth bass in Midwestern rivers, creeks and streams (I am that specific as to fish and location as to keep the minds of workshop participants, and readers focused on the particulars of the task at hand. It helps). The workshops last four-to-five hours (usually 3:00 pm until dark in the summer). Although I feature tenkara rods in the workshops, the lessons therein are applicable for western fly rods and spinning rods too.
“My workshops, though technical and detailed in many ways, seek a playful and unpressured approach to tenkara fishing for smallmouth bass as an action to be lived in, experienced and discovered in real time (while in the water catching fish), not as a craft or job to be mastered or completed over time away from the water. Learning will come, especially if you are catching fish as you go. What I want for you initially is to have fun catching as many smallmouth as possible with your tenkara (or western fly) rods.” – Bob Long
As such, one of the first things I teach is that the rod, line, flies and lures (equipment) are nice, but have little to do with the “Who, What, Where, When, Why & How” of the life of the smallmouth in the waters we are fishing. The WWWWW&H? That’s the good stuff! Know your fish, you can catch your fish – with relative ease. Equipment can be fun, but ultimately, its meaningless to the fish. But the WWWWW&H of each species of fish is of great importance for your immediate and long-term success.
Combine this WWWWW&H knowledge with my fishing system, which I call, “Information + Experience + Interpretation = Knowledge = Fish” and take it to heart, and your tenkara fishing for smallmouth can be marvelously rewarding and fulfilling. You will catch a lot more fish (assuming that is your goal in fly fishing – it isn’t always for some).
The Caveat. Learning to fish from reading (including this) and watching videos has some value, but it is limited. I liken it to trying to learn to throw a football or a curveball from reading articles or watching videos. Can’t do it. Mainly because you can’t stand outside of yourself and see yourself to evaluate yourself. Reading piques the interest, I believe, but long lasting and deep fishing knowledge comes on the water, working with a mentor, teacher, facilitator, experienced friend or Sensei. This is where the lessons and the learning really dig in. That is how humans have been teaching each other for thousands of years.
“Find people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” – Amy Poehler.
And, it will only be your ego that will prevent you from doing this. Don’t let it.
Also, this article is not a preachy/teachy “I know best,” story, but meant to offer possibilities to be considered or explored when standing in a smallmouth river, tenkara rod in hand. I also hope you will resist the urge to consider the following material as either simple or complex, truth or non-truth. Just read it and let it settle in. Or not. It is a start, but only so much will come to you reading words. You gotta get out there.
So, let’s assume you have decided that a tenkara rod and smallmouth bass are for you. If you decide to try this system and give it a consistent use on the water, there are some things you will also need to unlearn. First, that smallmouth bass are NOT trout – period. Can’t state this enough. However, when most of us think of fly fishing in moving water, we are thinking trout (sub-consciously, unconsciously, or by choice). For many fly fishers “fly fishing IS trout fishing.” However, many of the particulars of trout – reading the water, presentations, forage, equipment, flies/lures – hinders your ability to successfully fly fish for warm-water smallmouth over the long term. Many will disagree – vehemently. Understood. But I stand by that statement. (Some of you may now need a moment to breathe into the proverbial paper bag.)
In my workshops I ask if you can stop filtering your smallmouth fly fishing through the lens of trout fishing. Don’t look for similarities or differences. Just look at smallmouth alone. Try to leave trout out of the discussion altogether (yes, it can be done although it may be a challenge for many). I’ll say, “You don’t need a frame of reference from one fish to another to be successful with either,” (e.g., you don’t reference crappie when fishing for bluegill in the same lake or pond, do you? Or reference channel catfish when fishing for walleye in the river they both occupy. So, why reference trout for and about smallmouth when they don’t even occupy the same river or types of waters?). Do we reference trout for smallmouth just because we have a fly rod in our hands instead of a spinning rod? Actually, yes, we do, as that is how deeply ingrained trout are in fly fishing. Let’s try to break that link in the chain.
IF you are willing to leave trout out of the discussion about smallmouth (and that is a big IF – I can feel the resistance rising in many you) you will find your average daily catch rate for smallies going up appreciably. If not, it probably won’t.
Will this letting go be hard? If you feel letting go of trout-think and learning smallies with be easy, it will be easy. If you feel it will be hard, it will be hard. Easy and hard are simply our interpretations of a neutral act: learning. It is neither easy nor hard to learn. How we feel about learning is often a choice up to each of us. Finally, it helps if you let go, for crying out loud, of the joy-killing, “yeah, buts!”
“Ok, that sounds nice, but…”
“I agree with you on that, but…”
“Yeah, probably, but what about…?”
“Always with you what cannot be done.” – Yoda to Luke Skywalker
Some who come to my workshops simply will not make the change. They will use trout tactics almost the whole workshop (and yes, I do wonder why they came). It almost physically pains them to try. They take the “blue pill.” Or they mumble about some kind of magic, secret lures or home-stream advantage when they see me catching fish – often from locations I call out before casting to. It isn’t magic, lures or just home field. It is learned techniques. Available to all.
Here’s my approach for using tenkara rods for smallmouth bass in rivers, creeks, and streams.
Each day I come to the water, I bring a small box with three types of flies, and another with three types of plastic lures and some jigs. I try to come with a fresh mind – even if I was just there yesterday. I need to figure out anew the who, what, where, when, why & how of today:
- This fish (smallmouth bass – biology, habits, needs, behavior)
- In this particular river, (each river has similarities and differences, and sections of each river can vary markedly)
- On this specific day, (season, time of day, weather)
- Under today’s water conditions (water low/high, fast/slow, rising/falling, clear/stained, cool/warm)
I run this info through my fishing system, “Today’s Information + My Experience + My Interpretation of it = Informed Knowledge.” And thus, an informed course of action to take that day. Where to start, which lures or flies to use first, how to fish them, etc. Are the fish where I thought they would or should be? If not, where else might they be? Adjust. Am I getting hits on this color, shape, size, action of fly or lure? If not, what else, how else? Adjust. And on.
We all do this is one form or another, some do it more in depth than others.
When I get it right, I catch fish. When I don’t, (for a variety of reasons) I struggle and catch fewer.
“Information + Experience + Interpretation = Knowledge = Fish.” And so it is with tenkara rods and smallmouth bass.
[Side note: Tenkara rods are superb tools for smallmouth bass in rivers, creeks and streams (just having a max cast of 30-feet or less for starters. It really helps with keeping one focused on what’s directly in front of you – no small feat in today multi-tasking world. Love it). For the last three to four years I have used them exclusively when fly fishing for smallies. But they are only tools. Marvelous tools, yes, lots of fun – but just tools nonetheless. It isn’t the rod, it isn’t the line, it isn’t the fly or lure that get fish. It’s you.
As one of my 22-year-old, Harry Potter-loving, fishing friends put it: “It ain’t the wand, Mr. Long, it’s the Wizard.” ‘Nuff said.]
Tenkara Rods. I know and use these. They can handle large smallmouth (up to 21” so far) in current as well as the size flies and lures I use: Badger Tenkara Wisco 2, Daiwa Expert LT 39 and LTH 44, and the Tenkara USA Amago. (all Rods with either 7:3 or 8:2 action), in lengths of 12 – 14 feet. Other rods will no doubt work. I just don’t know them. You need something geared for warm-water, not just “larger trout.” A 20” smallie in current is a way different fish than a 20” rainbow or brown. Get a rod rated for warm-water use.
Furled Leaders. Because of the rocky nature of many smallmouth waters, and the length and weight of the flies and lures I use (up to 3” in length and to a weight of 1/12 ounce or so) I suggest using furled leaders, 12 – 14 feet in length (same as the rod) not level or mono lines. You can go a foot or two longer once you are used to it, but not to start. Remember, most smallmouth fishing is sub-surface. You won’t see many takes, you’ll mainly feel them (although many of my workshops attendees can’t feel them, and I have to say “You had a hit. You’ve got a fish.”). So, a sturdy yet soft, tapered, furled leader that more strongly transmits energy and vibration works best with smallmouth.
Tenkara is not about distance (this you already know). The further you are from your fly/lure the less you feel; the slower you feel it. The less you know about where your fly is down there and what it is doing, the slower your reaction times, the more strikes you miss, the more hang-ups you’ll find. Leaders the length of your tenkara rod, with three to four feet of tippet is fine for most situations. Learn to love the intimacy and sharpness of being so close to your fish – not see it as a potential limitation. Most times one must simply wade closer to a spot, not try to cast farther (discipline).
Delicacy and accuracy of casting are not issues here either. Neither is being able to repeat a narrow range of specific drifts or presentations. In addition, keeping line off the water means very little for smallmouth fishing (as do the concepts of drag, drag free drifts, delicate casts upon the water). Being able to cast your flies, work them purposefully in current, feel strikes, set hooks, fight and land fish are what count. Smallmouth tenkara is not about trout (again, resist the urge to make it so with comparisons). So, furled leaders with tenkara-styled are the way I go.
Casting. Yes, furled leaders and larger, heavier flies/lures will affect your casting motion. Know this, accept this. And, So What? Adjust. The beauty of the 10-to-2, or the graceful casts one gets with tenkara rods and kebari flies, will not be doable nor desirable here. Let that thought go. You need a larger and slower transfer of energy to get your smallmouth flies and lures out and to take pressure off the tip sections of tenkara rods. I have wide, open, looping casts that may look weird to many fly fishers, but they are graceful and pretty in their own way, and effective too. Furled leaders are essential to do this. (I always point out much of this info before and again at the start of a workshop. I have extra leaders with me. I offer them to participants. Some say yes, some say no. Some request them after they’ve seen how I work them while fishing. Seeing is believing. Sometimes.)
Plus, I suggest you get your leaders in bright colors you can see. Chartreuse, bright red, fluorescent orange, bright green. I’ve not found smallmouth to be put off by such things. Period. But seeing where your line is in the air and on the water, can be quite helpful to you. I use Oudachi and Tachi lines from Moonlit.
Note: I have not yet tried the Badger-Lite floating tenkara line, but I will this spring.
Tippet. I use name-brand, good quality, non-stiff, four to six pound test monofilament line (mainly four). I prefer Trilene XL in light green, and Cabela’s No-Vis Fluorocarbon (clear,) but others will do. As long as it’s fresh, quality line, don’t sweat this. I don’t lose lots of flies or lures to break offs or fish. Still, I am careful to grab the tippet or the leader and pull it to break off, not putting pressure on the rod.
Right about now – as I share all of this – I usually ask workshop participants, “How are you doing? What are you thinking? What’s working for you? What isn’t?” So, I’m asking you as you read. Why? Well, because while “Resistance may be futile” to quote the Borg, it is very much part of being human. Work hard to recognize when resistance appears. Work harder to overcome it and make the necessary changes for fishing success. Breathe. Relax. You can do this, because remember, you can go back to your old ways anytime.
Reminder, this is about tenkara and smallmouth bass in rivers, creeks, and streams. Not tenkara for anything else. Ultimately, while a structured approach and attention to detail is rewarded when fishing, I am not offering trout-styled “perfection in concept” or written-in-stone “this is how it must be done” rules. Let go of the notion there is, and you’ll grow. Hold onto them, and your attention is on doing things the “right way,” not seeking possibilities to more effective ways to fish. Still, these are all suggestions, considerations, not directives. I realize, you could reject everything I’m saying, and still happily go about catch fish.
“We humans love consistency. However, nature is anything but. Allow for that.” – Bob Long
This is where people really freak out. I only wade, cast and fish going downstream. I only fish while wading and casting, facing downstream (like “NY, NY,” that was so nice I had to say it twice).
Here is where words fail. Most really need to see the things I am saying, on the water, to get it. So many of my workshop participants say upon seeing me in real time, “Oh, I didn’t think you really meant THAT straight downstream” or “I didn’t really think you meant THAT close” or “Really? Move the fly all the time? NO dead drifts?” (No, 99% of the time I am giving my fly a little jigging action.) I am often still surprised at how markedly different their interpretation of what they read or even see in a video will be from what I am asking of them. They can be so far off. That is why – teachers, mentors, facilitators, coaches, Sensei.
First thing. Wading upstream, casting up stream, trying to keep control of your drift and maintain contact with your heavier, larger fly, feel takes, prevent snag ups and get a good hookset with tenkara rods is exhausting. You’ll be busier than a one-armed man trying to hang wallpaper in a wind storm. I recommend against it and teach an alternative.
Again, smallmouth aren’t trout. I don’t approach them as such. I never wade or cast up, up-and-across, or across stream when smallmouth fishing – with tenkara or any other type of rod. The road to hell (loss of feel, of flies, snagged lures, missed strikes, tired legs, knees and arms), is thus paved going upstream for me. My casting is across-and-down, down-and-across and downstream. I can go downstream effectively hitting fishy locations, carefully covering specific fishy-looking parts of the water in a 180-degree arc from my left to right, and right to left. Lots of flexibility of coverage. “Oh, I didn’t think you meant really THAT straight downstream.”
Yes, I am in the fish’s face. I’m not sure how well the smallmouth can see you from 20-30 feet away, but over the course of time, I’ve found it doesn’t tend to matter. I’ve caught hundreds within 10-15-feet or less of me. Many times, they are only a rod’s length away (I use dapping, flipping or pitching to such fish, not casting).
Wading and casting downstream – tenkara rod in right hand, wading staff comfortably in the left (which supports me and keeps me from taking baths) allows me maximum control and feel of my flies and lures, all done with hand and rod position. With one hand, I can work my fly/lure deep, mid-depth, high, on the surface. I can move it left, right, move it forward or drop it back, or leave it in place for as long as I wish. Move it fast or slow or not at all, just let the current move it in place. You can thoroughly, consciously and purposefully cover water fishing downstream. (I even do this the few times I use surface flies too.)
Fishing downstream has another benefit for the tenkara rod. When it comes time to cast, my line and fly are already tight downstream from me. Little to no slack. I simply pick up the line and fly, bring it up high in the air, swing it behind me, and then bring the rod tip forward (softly, slowly) and put the fly down again where I wish. Using my wrist, arm and upper body I can move, pivot, turn and place the fly anywhere in that 180-degree arc of water. No false casting, seldom a correction cast, light pressure on the upper sections of the rod. As soon as it hits the water, I’m in contact with the fly or lure, ready for strikes (smallies often hit as soon as a fly or lure hits the water or soon thereafter. Most guys still getting situated, finishing the cast and preparing for the drift, and are not ready for that. I’ll see their line twitch, their rod tip bounce slightly. “You just had a hit”).
All of the above can so greatly increase the depth of your ability to put the “Information + Experience + Interpretation = Knowledge = Fish” system to work wherever you go to fish smallmouth in flowing waters.
Yes, lures (small spoons, tiny Japanese crankbaits, itty-bitty, in-line spinners, up to 3” plastics) with the tenkara rod. Another hard pill for many to swallow. But, smallmouth are not trout. So, why not? Don’t switch to trout stuff – little nymphs and 1.5” streamers – just because you pick up a fly rod. Stay with things – or as close to – that you would normally use successfully for smallmouth. They respond to lures far better than they do to flies. Lures have size, shape, color, action, vibration, scent. Flies not as much. This is a big part of the workshops. Easy for some to accept. Hard-to-impossible for others. The Daiwa Expert LT39, LTH44, and the Wisco 2 mentioned earlier have handled these larger flies and lures easily. (There were issues for me with the Amago. Not sure this is recommended for that rod – just maybe larger flies.)
Smallies are aggressive in ways trout are not (not better or worse; just different). Smallies have no feeding lies, seldom holding stations. They are hunters, not grazers. They attack, not wait. They move around; a lot. Once past 6-8-inches they don’t eat little things, but the biggest things they can swallow. Their prey – mainly crayfish and minnows – is sizable, running 3 – 5” (think river crayfish (not pond crabs) to 4”- 5” hellgrammites to medium-sized golden roaches, not crappie minnows, crickets, or bee moth). Crayfish and forage fish can seldom be found or seen dead-drifting helplessly or casually with the current. Crayfish can hold in strong current and hustle any direction. They can also fight back. Minnows swim away and must be chased or ambushed. I suggest the flies and lures you use with your tenkara rods mimic these aggressive actions and tendencies when possible.
“When you feel doubt creeping in, remind yourself – tenkara has no smallmouth in its past. No defining or confining traditions. It is a book in which we are – right here, right now – writing the first chapters. I feel no constraints other than those I might discover along the way. We are free to play and discover what does and doesn’t work for each of us. We are at the forefront. Can you feel that excitement?” – Bob Long
When I use flies, I use 2-4” woolly buggers 95% of the time (black, white, olive, brown/orange). On occasion I’ll use some other concoction I create, like the Fuzzy Creeper (tied on 1/16 oz., size 4 jighead), or on more rare occasions a cork or foam-headed surface fly. Mainly I use 2- to 3-inch plastic lures on 1/16 – 1/64 ounce, thin-wire, (Mustad, Gamakatsu, Matzuo, etc.) custom-poured jigheads I get from guys on the internet (they are usually surprised to know I tie flies on these hooks and use fly rods). I use these because they have sharper points, longer shanks and wider gaps than the usual fly hooks, and that aids my hook setting and fish holding.
For the last three-to-four years I’ve been using Keitech 2” and 3” Swing Impact Swimbaits, Cubby Mini Mite and Mini-Mite 2 lures, and 3” Spring Grubs by Producto lures. Man, I catch a lot of fish with these, all while using my tenkara rods in ways as described above. And as I do, I learn more and more about smallies in rivers, creeks and streams on my tenkara rods.
Does any of this sound or feel like the tenkara you currently know? Probably not. Does it matter? Willing to try something new? I admit, I love using my tenkara rods in new, exciting, innovative and productive ways – learning what they can and cannot do well. I love the casting, the movement of lure and fly as I work the water, the feel of the take, the hookset, the fight. I feel free to create techniques for it and for a fish (the smallmouth bass) and its water that doesn’t exist in Japan.
Still, I am not seeking to create new, highly-structured traditions with my tenkara rod for smallmouth bass in rivers, creeks and streams that are the “right way” to fish. You can try it in whole, in part or not at all. Mix and match with your own base of knowledge. My fishing system of “Information + Experience + Interpretation = Knowledge = Fish” isn’t designed to replace existing ones. It isn’t against anything. It exists for itself and works marvelously for me. Wanna’ try? Let me know.