Rob Worthing: Big Fish Tenkara.

Tenkara angler Rob Worthing
On September 17, 2012, Jeremy Lucas provided Tenkara Times readers with an article entitled “Leader-only Techniques”. I thoroughly enjoyed this article.

At Tenkara Guides LLC , we have remained staunch proponents of both traditional tenkara techniques and hybrid techniques that incorporate elements of European leader-only and leader-to-hand techniques. I, like Lucas, do not view conventional western-style and fixed line techniques as such polar opposites. Both share certain fish-catching elements. By concentrating on these basic elements, we can become better anglers. It was a pleasure to see Lucas so eloquently state this point.

big fish tenkara by Rob Worthing

However, unlike Lucas, I trended toward a different conclusion as to the “ideal compromise” between tenkara and conventional western-style techniques. I continue to use a fixed-line tenkara rod as the basis for my system. I do not seem to have a need for incorporating running line in my fishing.

Lucas summarizes the relative strengths and weakness of fixed line versus running line by writing, “The huge shortcoming of the inability to yield line has been obvious with tenkara, because trout and grayling of up to 47cm have been encountered, while the crude presentation of fly line has certainly alarmed specimen on both rivers”. I agree. At least, I partially agree. For those readers less familiar with metrics, 47cm is about 18 inches (18.5039 inches, to be exact). A fish that size is not even close to the limits of a tenkara rod. Not even remotely.

Here in Utah, I would estimate our average trout landed at around 38cm (15 inches). We also landed multiple grayling in the 35-38cm range this year. We routinely land trout in the 47cm (18 inch) range. Our clients, who are frequently inexperienced with fixed line techniques, also land trout in this range without difficulty. We regularly land trout above the 51cm (20 inch) mark. The largest we hook into is probably around 60cm (23 inches). The largest fish I have heard landed on a tenkara rod to date is 73cm (29 inches), a carp caught by my partner, Erik Ostrander.

Traditional tenkara rods were not created with fish of this size in mind. Our friends in Japan tell us that 38cm (15 inches) is near trophy size in most Japanese trout waters. Yet tenkara rods are quite capable of handling bigger trout. And they do so with elegance. In small streams and large rivers, in still alpine lakes and the raging whitewater of spring snowmelt, on short Czech rigs and long level lines, whether wild fish or stocked, they do so with elegance.

In fact, I think tenkara rods offer the angler certain advantages in fighting larger fish. For example, the enormous flex of a tenkara rod protects delicate tippet remarkably well. And I am convinced that an angler employing a tenkara rod does a better job of protecting the fish from both mechanical and metabolic harm.

big fish tenkara recovery after landing

There is, of course, a limit to what a tenkara rod can do. If I lived in British Columbia and hunted 76cm (30 inch) steelhead, I wouldn’t be reaching for a tenkara rod. There are other fixed line fishing rods and techniques in Japan that are created specifically for larger species. Most of these rods are heavy, and were not created to cast a fly. Luckily, tenkara rods quite nicely cover the range of trout I do encounter. Including the big fish.

To me, “big fish tenkara” means trout and char around 18 inches up to the mid-twenties. Perhaps around 45 to 65cm. Bigger might be possible, but I don’t have sufficient experience with that. I speculate most anglers in North America and Europe fall into a similar range. For most of us, a 50 or 60cm trout is a pretty big trout. I feel very comfortable landing fish in this range with a tenkara rod. I find it elegant, satisfying, and a whole heck of a lot of fun. I do not feel I loose any more big fish with my fixed line tenkara rod than I would with a running line. In fact, I think I successfully catch and release more fish this way.

average Utah brown

If you find yourself in a similar range, I encourage you to keep that telescopic Japanese beauty in hand. Give “big fish tenkara” a chance. And when you do, here are a few things to try out:

1.      Know the water. Map out in your mind where you can wade easily, where the soft water lies, and where the deep water and fast currents live. You’ll want to use the former, and probably avoid the latter.

2.      Plan the battle. Have an idea of where you want your fish to go, where you don’t want your fish to go, and where you want to land your fish.

3.      Breathe. It’s important. Not only to sustain life, but to keep you loose. If you stiffen up, you will tighten your grip, overload the rod and tippet, and break the fish off.  So when you hook into a big one, take a deep breath and calm down. Then keep breathing.

4.      Use the rod. Tenkara rods have a sweet spot, a perfect bend that will do the work for you. If you excessively close or open that bend, you’ll loose the fish, maybe your fly, and perhaps your rod. For example, when a fish runs away from you, prevent that perfect bend from opening by tucking the handle low and away from you.

5.      Be a man. Or a woman. Either way, don’t be a tree. Don’t root yourself in one spot and refuse to move. We see anglers do this too often. I’m not asking you to run the Boston marathon here. Just use your legs a bit and go with the fish. After all, you know the water now, right?

6.      Steer the fish. Yes, it can be done. Not always. But most of the time.  A fish will want to move away from the perceived direction of harm, or the direction of pull from your line. The long length of your tenkara rod allows you to effectively change the direction of pull. If you don’t like the direction your fish is going, drop your rod tip to one side. Keep changing the angle of your rod tip until your fish decides to turn in a better direction. You planned the battle. Now, execute your plan.

7.      Be like water. I’m borrowing that phrase from my partner, John. You want to be fluid, like water, and conform to your surroundings. When your opponent is strong, give ground. When your opponent is weak, advance. This is important throughout the fight. It is most important when hand lining.  You never want to let the line go slack. But you can certainly give a little line. If your fish runs, you can even transition him back onto the rod. You’re still breathing, right?

8.      Smile. You’re fishing. Whether your catching fish measuring 6cm or 60, fishing is fun. Don’t get discouraged if you loose a fish. The fun is in the act, not the end point. 

big fish tenkara Utah rainbow

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