Let’s dispel the myth once and for all. Tenkara rods aren’t just for targeting naive, diminutive trout in small backcountry streams. These Japanese long rods are effective fly fishing tools and, in a pinch, they can handle surprisingly large fish.
When I first embraced the idea of fly fishing with a Tenkara rod, I put the tool through its paces in the places I thought it was most appropriate. I cast to gorgeous native brook trout in Virginia’s Rapidan River, and I chased spunky, but small, Yellowstone cutthroats in the eastern Idaho backcountry.
But, over the course of a year or so, as I traveled across the country and fished in numerous locations and in varied conditions, I’d almost always come across a situation, regardless of the river I happened to be fishing; where a Tenkara would not only work, but likely work better than a traditional fly rod.
So I put it to the test. I fished Tenkara for larger fish on Montana’s Bitterroot River with great success. Encouraged, I fished Tenkara on the Henry’s Fork, again with great results.
Yesterday, as I fly fished, conventionally, for migrating Lake Athabasca whitefish in the Otherside River here at Blackmur’s, I came upon a situation that completely baffled me. I could see rising fish, and my guide told me more than once that the risers were whitefish. But no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get a fish to take a dry fly. I switched to a nymph rig, but with a light, short four-weight rod, I was limited in reach and, truthfully, backbone.
I strung up my Tenkara rod and dropped a big, weighted purple ‘bugger into a deep run adjacent to the bank, thinking I could dead drift the fly through the run as a reasonable imitation of a big stonefly and then let the fly swing as the current took it and perhaps hook up that way.
Moments later, as I high-sticked the ‘bugger through the run, I could feel every bump as the the heavy fly bounced along the bottom. The line went tight, and I struck. All hell broke loose.
Louie Isadore, our guide from Blackmur’s, hustled down to the bank.
“Whitefish pull hard,” he said in thickly accented English, laced with his native Chippewa with a touch of Canada thrown in. Then, as I battled this fish, and the Tenkara rod doubled over appreciatively, I saw Louie’s eyes go big.
“Oh,” he said, as the line cut through the water with a musical twang. “That’s a lake trout.”
Louie hustled back up the bank and came back armed with a net. Moments later, a big migrating laker, one of Athabasca’s many oddities (these are early-run fish that swim into the rivers like salmon or steelhead) was resting in the net, and my supple Tenkara rod, made for dinky trout in tiny water, was intact and ready to do it again. For some perspective, when anglers chase these fish in the river mouth, they’re casting 8- and 9-weight fly rods or conventional gear with 20-pound test.
So much for the myth, huh?
Chris Hunt is the national communications director for Trout Unlimited. He blogs regularly at eatmorebrookrout.com, where the full recounting of this adventure can be read.