Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tenkara: Sweetness on the Bitterroot

Confidence is one thing to a fly fisher. Curiosity is something else altogether.

A blustery late March day found me eyeing a tailout on the Bitterroot River, just above the Highway 93 bridge south of Darby, Montana. It was eye-catching water–a long, deep run just below a swift rapid, where a gravel bar on the near side of the river pushed the water up against the far bank.

As the river calmed a bit below the fast water, I could see the occasional flash through the green water of a bottom-feeding fish as it plucked skwala nymphs washed downstream through the rapid. The big stonefly nymphs are virtually a sure thing on the Bitterroot in early spring. Later, they'll hatch into the fabled skwala adult stonefly that brings the river's trout to the top for a pre-runoff feast. But on this day, even with air temperatures in the 50s, I hadn't seen any of the adult bugs on the water.

Normally, I'd string up a 9-foot 5-weight to chase the Bitterroot's big browns and rainbows, but this day was a little different. I'd been dying to get out on the water after what's turned into the longest winter in memory, and I've been aching to put my tenkara rod to the test on water that might really push the long, supple Japanese creation to its limits. The river beckoned.

A Bitterroot whitefish–the tenkara's first victim.
Designed centuries ago by fishermen who chased the trout and char swimming in the mountain streams of the Japanese Alps, the tenkara method of fly fishing is perhaps the simplest approach to targeting trout ever created. The long rod–usually somewhere between 11 and 13 feet–comes equipped with a braided line that stretches about 10 feet long. To that, the angler can attach a stretch of tippet and a traditional dry fly or a nymph. There is no reel. What you see is what you get. There are special tenkara flies, as well, but in a situation like this, when the right fly is an obvious choice, the decision is easy. Go with what you know.

There was a time when I would have struggled with the idea of going to the water with my tenkara rod–at one point, it was a forced decision. Now, the idea of stretching my tenkara horizons a bit, and just seeing if I can make the long rod to work on "big water" is something of a personal challenge. I tied on an olive double-beaded skwala nymph beneath a foam-bodied skwala adult (you know, just in case), and walked to the water, ready to test my tenkara chops.

Eventually, I think, the time will come when I don't consider myself fishing with a handicap when I chase trout with a tenkara rod. In fact, I suspect I will soon warm to the idea that fishing tenkara is actually something of an advantage. On this day, in a matter of half a dozen casts, I pulled my first Bitterroot River victim from the water. Granted, it was a foot-long native mountain whitefish, but the tenkara rod gave the modest salmonid a bit more backbone than would a "traditional" fly rod. A few casts later, I was into a nice trout that turned out to be a rainbow-cutthroat hybrid. And few casts after that, a 15-inch brown slurped in the skwala nymph that drifted perfectly under the dry, which served as the perfect indicator.

A Bitterroot hybrid ... Victim No. 2.
And, as the fish got progressively bigger, the battle got progressively more entertaining. Would the fish eventually become just too big for long, flexible rod to handle, I wondered. The big brown folded the tenkara rod into a perfect "u," and, as I approached a deep pool directly below an enticing riffle, I became a bit worried that might be getting myself into something I wouldn't be able to get out of, tenkara rod intact.

As I drifted the heavy nymph down the riffle and into the bowels of the deep, green pool, I waited, almost with a pang of regret, for the indicator to dip. In just seconds, it did. I was into a big fish. Really big.

The 10-foot stretch of level line sang as I set the hook, and the long tenkara rod doubled over and pumped up and down as the big fish realized it had been duped. I could feel every fiber in the rod stretching and groaning under the pressure of the fight. I held on to the rod and realized quickly that, if I was going to have a chance to land the trout–which I had yet to lay eyes on–I would have to use my feet. I only had so much line to give. I backed to the bank, trying not to put too much pressure on the rod, but at the same time, allowing the flexible tool to do what it is designed to do.

Bitterroot brown trout.
As the fish began to retreat downstream, I had no choice but to follow it. In just a few strides, the big fish was out of the deep water and moving into a stretch of faster water and approaching a stretch of rapids. At this point, I'd only seen the flash of a slab-sided trout through the green-tinged water–just enough to know it was big. I had no idea how big.

And I still don't. As the behemoth lunged into the fast water, it spit the fly and was gone.

Emotionally spent from the stress of the battle, and feeling fortunate that I escaped the fight with my tenkara rod whole, I sat down on a streamside rock.

Had I just found the limit of this ancient craft? Or had I simply lost another big trout?

I may never know, but I do know those few moments attached to a significant trout, by a line and a rod only, were moments I won't soon forget.

Is my curiosity sated? Hell no.


  1. an interesting question. my friend and I have been thinking about tenkara-ing a tailings pond that holds big brown trout (supposedly up to 10 pounds - I can confirm that there are 4.5 pounders) in a float tube. It is interesting to hear about how the tenkara rod handles some big bitterroot trout.

    I hate to say it, but I think that the tenkara rod shares some fault in losing that fish.

  2. I'm not into least not yet, but it's starting to get intriguing. Good post.

  3. Look at that kisser on that Whitefish. Pucker up!

    Great story, as always. With each post from each different blogger my interest in Tenkara gets bigger and bigger.


  4. Very nice story, like how you describe your struggle fighting the big fish. With Tenkara, you are more likely to loose the really big ones, especially if they take of down river into fast water. But to tell the truth, the fight until you do loose them is more exhilarating than any fights I had with "standard" fly fishing gear. And to me that makes those moments more memorable even if you loose them.

  5. You just lost another big fish. Stick with it and start fishing with a PFD and a drysuit. Seriously, it's really fun.

    We missed each other by a week. I was just up packrafting and fishing tenkara on the W Fork Bitterroot and lower Rock Creek the week before. We picked up some nice trout, i.e.,

  6. Ryan's right. You just lost another big fish. Next time, if you're going to lose it, make it throw the hook or pop your tippet before it gets into the fast water. You'll be able to stop a few of them, but if they get into serious current they'll win every time.

  7. Welcome to Tenkara! I hope you enjoy what will probably become an obsession to you. I have fished all sorts of ways since I was a kid but starting about a year and a half ago I began fishing Tenkara style about 90% of the time. It has allowed me to focus on the fish and enjoy the experience more and worry about my gear less. Congrats on a pretty good start with it.