Big River Tenkara.

I have fished more with tenkara than western-style this year, and much of it has been a hugely satisfying revelation. It has been an extreme range of rivers; after the winter grayling on the Eden, in Cumbria, I spent most of the spring and summer fishing the chalk streams of the Artois region of northern France. A brief foray to the Tatra mountains in Slovakia, and the magnificent San in south-east Poland, finally brought me back to the rivers of northern England and the autumn fishing for grayling, though the wild brown trout are currently super-active among the heavy hatches of pale wateries we always have at this time of year. The rivers have varied from tiny carriers and feeder streams, often not even two metres across, to the expanse of the San tail-water at over a hundred metres.

Target fish have been almost entirely wild brown trout and grayling. I have had no real giants on tenkara this year, but have managed almost fifty grayling from 38cm to 47cm and trout up to 50cm. I think that my average size of fish caught has been lower than the last couple of years, but not because of the use of tenkara and any change in targeting; more that the Eden, and I think the San, are at those stages in their population cycles, for both species, when there are large numbers of younger fish. This was echoed in Slovakia. 

While the fishing in France has been remarkable, and has utterly consumed me, it is the time spent with tenkara on larger rivers that I want to report on here. I have long been of the opinion that we are often tempted to use this wonderful approach on waters where it is inappropriate, even irresponsible. I am still firmly of this opinion, although I have learned that the ‘boundary conditions’ for any river making tenkara a suitable method can be expanded considerably to the thinking angler. We all – should – be aware of the problems: the fine tippets we use are just not up to the job of dealing with large, fast-moving trout in open water. We simply cannot move fast enough to follow such fish and breaks are inevitable, and I think this is a great sin in our sport, even with the use of barbless hooks. Also, dealing with fish by hand-lining tippet, which is always necessary when fishing over rod length, is inelegant, at best, and fraught with hazard, often leading to a break, at worst. 

Most western-influenced fly fishers will allude to another problem - that of tenkara’s reduced range compared with what is possible with fly line and rod guides. This, however, has been one of the best revelations, because in practise I feel that almost invariably there is no disadvantage in this sense at all. Western-style allows us to stand off from target fish, but no matter what the claims of some, this usually has dire implications on presentation, of both nymph and dry fly. For wild fish, this matters. A lot. For ideal presentation, we need to get down to tenkara ranges, completely negating the issue. It also teaches us to be much more considered in our approach and, where appropriate, wading technique. The clear waters of French chalk streams has taught me this more than anywhere else, but I have taken the lessons learned with me onto the big river. 

Daunting though broad rivers can be to all anglers, the great trick is to be able to break them down into collections of smaller flows. This develops with experience until the time comes when one does this instinctively. One sees the separate flows, the carriers, the boulders and islands, the micro-habitats, the feed lanes, and manages to shut out the enormity of what truly surrounds us and focus on a very small part of it, until all the possibilities have apparently been exhausted, at which time we re-focus on fresh potential. It is a joy to fish like this, learning all the nuances and special circumstances of the ‘reduced’ river environments we discover, and it makes us better fly-fishers as a result. Without a doubt this approach allows vastly greater reward than any attempt to take on the entire river at our disposal, and tenkara is brilliant for this, because with a fixed line we are actually forced to compartmentalise in this way, and also because tenkara allows comparatively gentle, disturbance-free presentation, so crucial at short range. Let me give you an example.

San river, at the tail of the enormous glide at Baclawa: it is late morning and the pale wateries are trickling off. Trout and grayling are rising all over the glide. Three of my companions excitedly wade out onto the glide, while others head-off to the pockets and pools in the rougher water towards the confluence of the Hochewka river, a kilometre downstream. I am last into the water, and the only one fishing tenkara, a 3.9m Motive, 6:4, with a rod length fluorocarbon leader, two metre tippet of 0.12mm copolymer, and the inevitable size 19 plume tip. While my companions set off I watched the river immediately by the entry point where we had all stood and set up our kit. It lies immediately on the left hand bank at the base of the vast glide, formed by a broad, gravel rapid which angles off the main river, towards the bank, to form a glide of perhaps 50 metres in length and a maximum of ten metres in width. I have fished here many times. It is always a surprise, just how many fish, of both species, it holds; although this is the first time I have fished it with the fixed line.

I wade around in a wide arc so that I can approach from downstream and I see several rises on my way into position. I ease into the fast water at the tail so that I can cast the plume tip up onto the sill – the accelerating water of the tail – and keep all the tippet off the water so as to avoid drag; only really possible with a long tenkara rod and low mass leader. I pick off fish immediately – two fat 30cm grayling – that appeared from the fastest water no more and a few inches deep. Then a trout of similar size wolfs away the plume tip. Just a little beyond, upstream, in slightly slower water, I can now pick out the very subtle rises of grayling and the occasional splashy signature of trout, all among a steady trickle of pale watery emergers. Just a single step up and I find I can access several of these fish, all with the zero disturbance of the tenkara. Two small trout come to hand and then, from the tiniest, kissing rise, a lovely 40cm grayling. While I am playing this fish, keeping it upstream, away from the rapid, I notice at least two other rises between where I am standing and where I had hooked the big fish. I keep as still as possible and finally ease the grayling to hand, a little annoyed that I have to hand-over-hand with the tippet while the big grayling turns on its flank, until I can reach down and twist the hook free. I am relieved and excited to see the fish continue rising, apparently oblivious to my presence and the commotion of what has just happened. These fish are only a rod length from where I am standing!

I rise one, and prick it, and catch another, and notice that other risers within range have disappeared, while fish continue to show farther up the glide. Had I been fishing western-style, without a doubt I would now be increasing casting range while also wading farther upstream; but right now, I hesitate. I have a feeling that there is so much more potential in the water near at hand. I think it has been less than two minutes before I notice a tiny rise at four metres. I pause, anticipating the grayling’s rhythm, before setting the plume tip a metre upstream of the rise. A similarly, almost imperceptible rise, with the plume tip simply disappearing, and I’m into another big grayling, and this even as yet another fish shows again at very close range!

For the next two hours it continues like this and by the time my companions return for our mid-afternoon meeting, I have waded up less than half of the glide and have caught forty grayling and a dozen trout. I try to explain that I am utterly convinced that nothing like this result would have been possible with a western rig. There would have been too much disturbance, even if I had resisted the temptation to move too fast up the glide as rises temporarily dwindled close by. I know this is the case, and so do my companions, because I have fished western through here so many times before, in similar rise conditions. Two of my friends have also caught in similar numbers to me, though their balance has had an emphasis on trout and they admit to covering much more water than I have done with the tenkara. 

After our break, I cross the river to where there is a thin island concealing a 100 metre side-stream. It is a favourite place of mine (among a wealth of favourite places on this river of dreams), consisting of a series of five pools, with racy little run-ins. I always manage to find several trout in these pools as I work up it, but again, I have formerly fished it only with western. The tenkara rig repeats the revelation by taking from each of the five pools, consecutively as I move upstream: five, three, four, three and five trout, in less than an hour, with three of the trout between 35 and 40cm (the others averaging 25cm).

I did not really go into too much detail with my friends that evening. It is not really to do with the numbers. It is accessibility and realising greater potential, made possible with the stealth approach and presentation possible only with tenkara, and seeing the big river as a compartmentalised series of connected streams. Of course, it doesn’t help with the hand-lining tippet issue, and neither with the problem of a big trout running in open water; but I never broke on a single fish that day on the San in spite of a few testy moments with biggish fish coming to hand downstream.