Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tenkara and the Water Wolf

You know your fly fishing trip is going pretty well when you look to your fishing partner and utter these words:

"I think we can catch a northern pike on a Tenkara rod."

That's akin to saying a guy could hit one over the center field fence at Coors Field with a dried sprig of spaghetti. It just doesn't compute.

But after six straight days of some of the most intense fly fishing either of us could remember–and a scant day after I landed a fairly beefy migrating lake trout with the long, supple Tenkara rod–anything seemed possible.

A must for any northern pike expedition, right?
But a pike? In storied Lake Athabasca? On a noodle designed for trout in high-mountain streams?

Had someone with any sense been there with us, they would have compassionately touched our foreheads and pronounced us completely ill. And who would we have been to argue with them. Our guide–a pro at finding where the pike live in the giant lake, which is just shy of the size of Lake Michigan–had no clue what were conspiring, and couldn't have vouched for sanity. Louie Isadore is a native Dené Indian, not a mind reader (although sometimes we wondered). He simply nodded his head when we made the pronouncement, and then nodded again when we gave him the following advice:

"Just be ready at the motor, and at the net."

Despite our clear lack of sanity, we did have a plan. Kind of.

One of us would "tease up" a northern with a crankbait on a spinning rod (don't look at me ... I do not own a spinning rod). We needed a pike that was just the right size–we put the approximate limit on the fish at about 30 inches. Anything beyond that, and we were risking the tackle, simple as it may be. Once we found "a player," we'd pull the old bait-and-switch, not unlike the maneuver used by billfish anglers who troll a teaser behind the boat until a fish shows interest. Then they reel in the teaser, and a fly fisher will cast a fly that looks suspiciously like the teaser into the boat's wake. With any luck, the fish hits the fly.

This was our plan, albeit on a smaller scale. And with a rod with a very limited "cast."

Chillin' before the big effort to catch a pike on a
Tenkara rod.

For those unfamiliar with the craft, Tenkara is an ancient Japanese fly fishing style developed in the mountains of Honshu, where commercial anglers would use long, supple rods–sometimes longer than 13 feet– and a set length of line (no reel) to pluck wild trout and char from swift-moving streams. They'd then sell the fish to surrounding villages. The commercial application of Tenkara, which translates into English as "from Heaven," likely started several hundred years ago, and only ended in middle of the last century, when those high-country streams were dammed and diverted for uses deemed more important than fish.

Damn shame, really.

Thankfully, though, the craft wasn't lost. In fact, it's enjoying something of a rebirth, particularly here in North America (although Louie had never seen a Tenkara rod before we fished for Arctic grayling with it a few days earlier, and he likely questioned our sanity when we stretched the 12-foot telescoping rod to its full length on his boat). It's hardly a novelty any longer, with a couple of companies now busy importing Tenkara rods to the continent from overseas, and thousands of devotees now fishing Tenkara and little else. Truth be told, it's very effective in appropriate situations–my lake trout catch the day before is excellent example of using a Tenkara when a traditional fly rod (albeit the inappropriate fly rod for the situation) failed. Honestly, though, I underestimated the Tenkara rod when I managed to catch that laker.

And, as my fishing partner for the week, Kirk Deeter, cast a gawdy crankbait into the dark water of Lake Athabasca in hopes of findng a pike willing to follow it to the boat where I could replace it with a streamer attached to the 12-foot Japanese rod, I was probably overestimating the rod's capabilities.

Kirk got a quick response to the bait and reeled it quickly to the boat, but we didn't see the pike that hit the lure or where it went after it hit. I took a calculated risk, and flipped the red-and-yellow streamer off the bow of the boat into the lake and wiggled the tip of the soft rod, making the light streamer swim just under the surface.

Success... pike on a Tenkara rod.
On the second "cast," a small northern slammed the fly, and I was hooked up. Pike on a Tenkara rod.

The fish, maybe a five-pounder, was actually fairly easy to maneuver with the long rod, and Louie responded with the net like a champ. Within just a few seconds, we'd managed to catch what we assume is the first-ever northern pike caught on a Tenkara rod (and Louie became the first guide in history to put a Tenkara angler on both a pike and a lake trout).

Not to be outdone, Deeter attempted to repeat the feat later in the day. The result wasn't quite as good–the pike that hit his fly was quite a bit bigger, and the rod, built for mountain streams and mountain trout, stretched too tight, and the tag end that attaches to the level-line leader pulled from the tip. The entire leader, and the 30-pound bite tippet disappeared into the lake attached to a burly pike that probably stretched the tape 35 inches or so. And, as we tried to retract the rod, we noticed that the pike had pulled the tip section so tight that it wouldn't pull back. As I tried to get it folded back into its case, I managed to break the slender tip.

Unfortunately, earlier in the trip, Deeter took a gnarly spill on the banks of the Grease River while fishing for Arctic grayling. In the tumble, the tip of the other Tenkara rod we'd brought with us splintered. Despite the mishaps, I'm even more convinced that Tenkara fly fishing has practical applications across the fishing spectrum (but I think the pike idea is probably a novelty).

As we put the broken rod back into its case, both Deeter and I were content with the idea of spending the rest of our last day on the water chasing big pike with conventional fly gear. Louie, I think, was also content.

"So," he said, seemingly relieved after watching us put the Tenkara rod to use over the course of the week, "No more Chinese fly rod?"


  1. blazing trails. quite a story. i am impressed by your ability to adapt and find multiple new techniques with tenkara. i think my love of chucking streamers towards banks on busty western rivers would limit my use of a tenkara rod, but your stories from the bitterroot to lake athabasca have certainly piqued my interest.

  2. You guys are having way too much fun. Thanks for bringing us along on your trail-blazing trip. Pushing the Tenkara to the limits!

  3. Ivan ... From a boat, I bet you could hit a big brown with a Tenkara. After seeing what the rods are capable of up in Canada, I think a guy could catch just about any freshwater game fish with a Tenkara ... within reason, of course.

    And Mike ... it was epic. Let me know if you're interested. If we get a big enough group together, we'll plan a trip!

  4. Congrats on the pike! Now thats a lake trout and a pike, whats next? I don't think anyone has caught a shark on a Tenkara rod yet (Ha, Ha, Ha). I think that you might be the first to accomplish that. Thanks for the posts from up north.

  5. "Just be ready at the motor, and at the net." That line says it all...ha!

    ....I'm glad you guys had so much fun raising the bar on what Tenkara fishing can be.


  6. ridiculous...but awesome, next fish: snake river sturgeon?

  7. Holy crap... I bet we could do it with a little guy! But on a fly? No idea...

  8. I'm pretty sure you have the first laker on a tenkara rod but not the first pike. I believe that honor goes to Daryl Martens (who also has the first bonefish).

  9. I would love to hear Daryl's story... the bonefish story would be amazing to hear!

  10. This is, hands down, the best Tenkara post I've ever read.

  11. Yeah, you know the fishing is good when your brain starts dreaming up such insanity. Thanks for a great read.

  12. Thanks a lot, Steve. Glad you enjoyed the mad ramblings of an obviously delirious fly fisher!