Monday, April 11, 2011

Tenkara: Testing the Henry's Fork

When a big fish comes calling on the tenkara angler, the long rod's line sings as it's pulled tight and ripped violently from the water. The supple stretch of carbon fiber doubles over, and the hollow sections of the Japanese creation groan in protest.

But it doesn't surrender.

The angler, on the other hand, has to improvise. Unable to play a large trout by tightening the drag or giving line to a fish that's found the current, he must move, regardless of where he stands.

On the lower Henry's Fork, the river's bottom is covered with greased bowling balls. Wading, even up to the knees is treacherous. The deeper he ventures into the seductive current of the storied river, the slicker those rocks become. Armed with a 12-foot tenkara rod, 10 feet of level line and another 18 inches or so tippet, it's easy to be pulled into that siren song that is the Henry's Fork.

Tenkara, a craft designed by anglers in the Japanese Alps centuries ago, is made for chasing trout in small water. The long, limber rod is perfect for pinpoint fly placement among the quarreling currents. With the ability to limit or eliminate drag altogether, it becomes easy to see why the commercial anglers of Honshu were able to pull a hundred fish a day from the mountain streams of their native land and make a living selling their catch to nearby villages.

Today, the craft has become a pastime for many, an obsession for others. Here in the United States, tenkara is just planting its roots and beginning to grow. In a few years, I'm confident it will begin to blossom and backcountry anglers will migrate to it, both for its simplicity and its effectiveness. That these rods can break down into a length of graphite about two feet long only adds to the attraction.

But the Henry's Fork is not small water. At least not in the traditional sense.

And its fish are not naive wild trout that charge anything that looks like food. They're savvy. Educated. Deliberate.

In short, it's not traditional tenkara water. But, for a burgeoning tenkara angler, the river represents an opportunity to test the limits, to see just how much a tenkara rod can take. To raise the stakes. To pioneer.

It was in that spirit that I found myself in over my knees recently, a 12-foot tenkara rod in my hands, dropping a Girdle Bug under an indicator over a run I've fished every spring for a dozen years or so. The familiarity of the river was offset by the still-foreign rod in my hands, and the idea that, if I were to hook a significant fish–a very real possibility on this river–I might have to go swimming to bring it to hand.

Thank God for neoprene.

I'd been fishing for a couple of hours, and I'd managed to bring to hand a couple of footlong rainbows and one nice rainbow-cutthroat hyrid that might have measured 13 inches on an optimistic yard stick. Until I had waded just beyond my usual comfort zone in the deceptively clever current of the Henry's Fork in search of big fish, I had been casting through a long and productive winter caddis hatch on the river–the dry fly was the ticket, and the tenkara rod was performing beautifully.

But gluttony got the best of me. I knew, to turn a big brown on this river, I had to go deep with a big, black bug. The river's big trout don't come to hand easily, even with conventional fly gear. Getting a beefy brown to take a fly cast by a tenkara rod only 15 feet or so from the outstretched arm of the angler certainly increases the difficulty. Landing such a fish is an another story altogether.

So, when the indicator dipped suddenly, and the 10-foot stretch of line straightened and moaned as it pulled tight and shed the river, I was more uneasy than I was excited. Knowing that my footing was sketchy at best, and watching the lithe rod fold over under the pressure of the big trout, I knew that things were just starting to get interesting.

Much like the dog that finally catches its tail, I found myself in that classic, "Now what?" situation.

Thankfully, what little angler's instinct I possess kicked in. I extended my arm, giving the rod a couple more feet to work with. Line tight, and the rod growling in protest, I picked my way closer to the bank, stumbling briefly as my wading boots skidded over slime-coated rocks. I regained my footing, the line still tight. Unable to reach the current, the fish porpoised for the first time, and I saw that I had, indeed, managed to hook a substantial brown from the deep run. It wasn't huge, but as it violently tried to spit the size 10 Girdle Bug, it was big enough.

I stumbled, and went down on one knee, a blast of April river water spilled over the back of my chest waders and caused a moment of panic. I regained my composure, and a few minutes later, I had the fish in an eddy.

Finally. Substance on the tenkara.

I snapped a couple of hurried photos of the big trout–maybe 16 inches and winter healthy–and quickly turned it loose. I stood up in the chilly, early spring air and eyed the long walk back to the truck, a journey that included a steep scramble over a snowbank and a good walk through the river's shallows to avoid private land. I could feel the river water soaking my shirt and working its way south.

I looked back at the run, knowing another big brown lay in wait. I walked back into the current.

One more cast.


  1. Great story. There are limits to what you can catch with a tenkara rod. You know there are - but you haven't reached them yet (and neither have I). Maybe this year.

  2. Very cool man. Sounds like a blast. Guess I'm going to have to give that a try one of these days.


  3. Great post and photos! I got hooked on Tenkara over a year ago and with my yamame I have hooked into some nice 13-15" browns. I have even managed to pull in some 18" largemouth bass. I once hooked up a 20+" largemouth and lost him. But the fight on my tenkara rod almost caused my heart to explode from my chest. There is nothing like fishing in this manner. I have come to fish Tenkara style about 90% of the time now. Becareful, it starts to become a bit of an obsession.

  4. great story. this whole testing the limits of the tenkara rod seems like the extreme, mountain dew version of fly fishing. screw big streamers and sinking lines, big trout on tenkara rods seems like the fly fishing adrenaline junky's dream. keep pushing the limits chris, I mean dude.

  5. Great story! I have been giving the big guys a shot in Cheesman Canyon with my Amago and lost a 23" bow only while netting (net was too small). The fly came out, the 6x tippet did NOT break. I have to admit though that the bow thankfully did not go crazy like another one that went straight into fast water and downstream. More exploring this year...

  6. Awesome job, I used to live in last chance idaho and had the henry's fork at my beck and call. It can get scary in the box canyon. I was 16 and bearly a 100lbs lol

  7. I really enjoyed reading your post...Sounds like a big trout on a Tenkara rod would be hard to beat...great story!

  8. I used to think that leaving my reel at home (I've done this on no more than two occasions that I can recall) was the end of fishing for the day. No longer shall I lament this oversight.