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.|
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.|
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.|
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.