Little fish, big fish – tenkara style!
By Steve Hudson / November 20, 2023
We are standing ankle-deep in a small stream in northern Georgia, or maybe it was western North Carolina, and we are fishing for trout with tenkara.
Tenkara, you may remember, is that traditional Japanese fixed-line approach to flyfishing. It’s clean and sweet and elegant, and we are both becoming real fans.
Anyway, it’s a small stream, about ten feet across, and the fish are sized accordingly. There are plenty of them, too, and she is catching her share.
But despite her success, there is a look in her eyes that I recognize. I’ve seen it before. I wait patiently for her to put the thought into words.
“So,” she says at last. “These little ones are fun. But could somebody land a BIG trout on tenkara?”
That made me wonder: What would it be like to hook and battle and maybe even land one of those giant trouty leviathans on a fixed-line tenkara rod?
The idea is intriguing, and the prospect seems feasible. In fact, there are a number of trophy trout fisheries hereabouts where it might possibly happen too.
So where and when?
She takes a look at the calendar, and I make a couple of calls. And that’s how we find ourselves one cold November day at The Retreat at Hiawassee River, standing knee-deep in clear and icy cold water and thinking of big ol’ trout.
The Retreat at Hiawassee River is a popular wedding and event venue near the North Georgia town of Hiawassee. Wedding venues are usually pretty neat, and this one is no exception. But for fly fishers there is something there that’s even more exciting. A length of the Hiawassee flows through the property, and lurking in that lovely stretch of water are some trout of (how to put it) thought-provoking proportions.
Like that one there –
“Did you see that?” she says.
I turn toward where she is looking, toward a patch of water where ripples like small tidal waves are slowly spreading across the surface.
“Was that a trout?” she asks in disbelief.
Yes, it was. And a very, very big trout, too.
“Okay,” she says, opening the rear hatch on the car. “Where is the rod?”
A moment later, she’s ready.
“No waders?” I ask, seeing that she’s still got on her hiking shoes.
“I think I’ll just fish from that little gravel bar,” she says, calling to me over her shoulder, for she’s already on her way to the water.
In seconds she’s in position, edged up close to water within easy range of a run on the far side of the flow. In her hand is a Kyojin II tenkara rod from Zen Tenkara. It’s a purpose-built big fish rod which is, according to the manufacturer, designed to serve as a two-handed spey-style tenkara rod. But it turns out to be a great small-stream, big-fish rod too.
How does it handle? This rod can effectively cast big, bulky flies (or a bulky and admittedly hybrid nymph-and-indicator rig like the one we will be using). It also does a nice job where precision presentation is the order of the day. In fact, as our day moves along, we find that the rod lets us put small surface flies right on target while still having the power to handle any big fish that might take those flies.
One thing you’ll immediately notice is that this rod has a long grip. Made from cork, this grip is well-suited to two-handed spey-style casting. But the Kyojin II feels good when cast with a single hand, too. I found that I prefer to cast the rod single-handed. However, she went back and forth between a single-hand and two-hand grip, depending largely on the casting challenge at hand. The rod’s long handle makes it easy to get some additional fish-fighting leverage when you need it, too, something you’ll appreciate when there’s a 26-inch trout on the other end of the line.
One more thing worth noting is this rod’s 12-foot length. Some big-fish rods are longer (sometimes much longer) than that, but the relatively short length of this one makes it a good choice for situations (such as managed trophy streams) where the fish are big but the water may be small. That’s short enough to deal with relatively tight conditions or overhanging limbs where they occur, and the length was definitely a plus on the water we were fishing that day.
On this day, the Kyojin II is fitted with a 15-foot PVC line and about 5 feet of 3X tippet (heavy tippet for big fish).
On the far end of the leader is an orange strike indicator and a weighted Sucker Spawn fly, an egg cluster imitation.
Everything is ready to go, and she is ready to cast
I ease up and join her at water’s edge, far enough back so as not to spook fish.
“Try it over there by the bank,” I suggest helpfully, but she’s already making the cast and drops the little nymph rig about an inch from the very spot I was eyeballing.
The current is smooth, and the strike indicator begins to drift downstream
It drifts on…and then it stops
She sets the hook, and the rod bends.
She laughs out loud, working the rod sideways with attention to what Zen’s Karin Miller calls the “fishing triangle” – that is, keeping the angle from hand grip to rod tip and then from rod tip to fish in the general neighborhood of 90 degrees. This helps keep fish under control, we had learned, and now we are putting it into practice.
It works remarkably well – the rod, the technique, everything is working as it should.
A few minutes later she eases the fish toward the bank. I net it for her.
She looks at it for a long, thoughtful moment.
“Wow!” she says, admiring the biggest trout she has ever landed – a rainbow of about 15 inches.
But (and a little foreshadowing here) we ain’t seen nothing yet
I remove the barbless hook. Gently, she lifts the fish for the obligatory picture. But this one is camera shy. It slips, flips, and splashes back into the water, drenching us both with ice-cold spray.
And then she moves back into position to cast again.
This cast is even more precise than the last one. Again the indicator drifts, but nothing else happens.
But she is patient. I can tell she senses that the run still has something to offer.
She repositions slightly, allowing a better shot at a part of the run which flows under some low-hanging limbs. The rod’s length makes it easy to shoot a low-angle horizontal cast under the limbs and up to the top of the run.
This time the indicator stops
She sets the hook. Something happens under the water. The line goes tight – way tighter than before – and the rod bends like we’ve never seen it bend, like there might be something profound on the other end of the line.
And there is. Several minutes later a swirl breaks the surface. A shape begins to materialize. It grows more distinct.
“It is HUGE!” she says.
She handles the rod adroitly, holding the upper part of the grip with her rod hand and bracing the lower grip on her forearm, using the fingers of her other hand to touch the rod above the grip for greater control. She works the rod back and forth, keeping it low, controlling the fish. The rod does its work. She does hers too.
The fish flashes at the surface
“Oh my,” she says, her voice intense, low, and still the battle goes on.
After a while, the fish tires. She works it toward the shore. I net it for her, as proud of her fish as I have ever been of anything, as proud of her as I have could be of anyone. Five pounds? Eight? Sometimes inches and pounds lose their meaning, and “big” is all that matters. This is one of those times.
This fish cooperates, and this time we get a photo. Then she eases the fish back into the water, and with a single flick of its tail it disappears into the depths it calls home.
It’s the first of many big fish that day – all on tenkara
And so we have our answer.
Big fish on tenkara? You bet – and there’s a congratulatory kiss too right there by the river as the big one swims away.
She looks at me then.
“Now move,” she says, grinning. “I want to make another cast. I think there might be one more…right…there…”
She casts. The indicator begins its drift…
- Zen Kyojin II . . .
- Collapsed length, including end plug: 28.25 inches
- Extended length: 12 feet (single length)
- Handle length: 15.75 inches
- Rod weight without cap: 4.9 ounces
- Flex: 6:4
It really is an amazing experience to land a big fish on a tenkara rod, and we’ll be looking at more big-fish tenkara rods in the weeks to come.