Big River Fly Fishing: Why Tenkara Beats Western Methods

big-river-tenkara-brown (4)

The big brown’s first aerial leap from the depths of the Madison River made me smile. The second one made me laugh. The third one, at the end of a run in strong current, reminded me that using tenkara gear and methods for big trout in big rivers is as applicable as the practice of small-stream tenkara.

Tenkara has been unfairly characterized as either a “method of choice for small stream fly fishing” or “applicable primarily to small stream fly fishing”. While I agree with the former, I wholeheartedly take issue with the latter.

If you’ve fished with me long enough, you’ll experience one or more of the following scenarios.

  1. Suffering through thick bush, talus, mountain storms, poison oak, or twenty mile walks in a quest to find the biggest trout in the highest and remotest lakes and streams of the Beartooths, Bob Marshall Complex, Yellowstone, Uintas, or Wind Rivers.
  2. Getting up at 5 am to fish the Hebgen Lake trico hatch and not putting the rods away until fish stop rising to the last caddis to hatch at Three Dollar Bridge on the Madison, which is usually after 11 PM.
  3. Hunting large trout on big rivers with tenkara.

This post is about #3, and fish like this:

Daniel Galhardo, Tenkara USA Founder, with a large brown trout caught via Tenkara during a baetis hatch on the Madison River in Beartrap Canyon, Montana.

The Small Stream Myth of Tenkara

The tenkara Wikipedia entry (retrieved 28.Apr.2011) tells us that tenkara is used primarily for small stream fishing.

Certainly tenkara methods offer advantages over western (short-rod-and-reel-fly-fishing) methods on small streams, simply by its virtue of not having to deal with backcasting in brushy conditions and notwithstanding the fact that the $400 line holder you are carrying, with the accompanying weight of gear, is probably overkill.

But the real beauty of tenkara on small streams is being able to control the fly in turbulent water by keeping the line out of the current – one of the most difficult aspects of fishing small streams with western gear.

As a result, I know of many western anglers that now use tenkara rods for small streams, but remain addicted (out of fear perhaps) to western methods on larger rivers. Unfortunately, the myth that tenkara is “best” applied to small stream fishing, or worse, “only” applicable to small stream fishing, isn’t helping tenkara gain acceptance.

Enough is enough.

I think there are two reasons for this.

  1. The first is that once a myth is seeded, it’s easily propagated, because it’s easier to tell lies about something you’ve never tried than tell the truth about something you know don’t quite know how to do.
  2. The second is that as the primarily supplier of tenkara gear in the US Market, Tenkara USA has thus far limited their rod offerings to shorter, collapsible, softer ultralight rods that are gaining a wide appeal amongst ultralight backpackers and travelers.

I can’t help you with #1 other than to say: put up or shut up. Get off the forums and go learn, and then practice tenkara.

And Tenkara USA can certainly help you with #2: enter stage left, the Amago, and say hello to big(ger) river tenkara fishing.

About the Amago

At 13’6″ with a 6:4 taper on the faster side of 6:4, the Amago has the length to manage a longer line on bigger water. It easily throws a 50 foot #5 level line, and you can manage the signature fly-first tenkara cast with #5’s up to 30 feet without difficulty, and only a little practice. You may need a netting partner when using lines longer than 20 feet. Precision casting (without wind) with the Amago is probably best with a #4 or #5 level line that is in the 20-24 foot range – in other words, you can get away with a slightly longer line than “1.5 times the length of the rod” with the Amago, due to its length and action. With wind, I recommend a shorter line in the 16-18 foot range.

Fishing with the Tenkara USA Amago in big water on Montana's Madison River near Bozeman. Ashley Rasmussen Photo.

In addition, the Amago has both the length and backbone to fight bigger fish. Of all the rods in their line, the Amago is probably best positioned to fish big water, and land trout bigger than 20 inches.

Beyond the Amago

The Amago is the best we have right now from Tenkara USA, but it’s not a square answer to the question of how to land big trout in big water.

For every large (up to 24″) trout that I’ve landed on a tenkara rod, there have been two that escaped because the rod didn’t have the backbone required to steer them out of strong currents and prevent them from running. I recall two fish in particular: a South Fork Flathead River bull trout that was in the 28″+ range and fiery Missouri River rainbow (24″+). The bull trout dogged its way into a log jam and the rainbow screamed downstream in fast water. To be fair (to me!) both trout were hooked on the very soft (5:5) Ayu, which simply doesn’t have the steering power of the Amago.

I’m catching bigger fish on the Amago, but still losing the biggest ones. I’m confident that my fighting technique is improving, however, and more trophies are coming to the net.

My ideal big trout big water tenkara rod might have a 7:3 taper (8:2 would be too fast in windy conditions) and be in the range of 14 to 15 feet in length, with a long grip for cantilever double-handing when fighting large fish.

Why Tenkara Beats Western Methods Most of the Time on Big Rivers

“Tenkara has limitations”.

Oh, if I had a fly for every time I’ve heard this one from a shop clerk, “pro” angler, blogger, or other self-professed expert…

So let’s talk about the real limitations of tenkara methods:

  1. You can’t fish weighted nymphs with a tenkara rod. Sure you can. You might have to wear a bag over your head, because tenkara purists will scoff at you, but I find some degree of satisfaction putting a weighted Czech nymph at the end of the line and managing its position and drift with the precision that only tenkara can provide. See below for more info. Caveat: you can’t chuck weighted nymphs with them. In addition, big weighted nymphs can nick the rod tip and break it. Finally, big flies require robust tippets to cast, and you don’t want to be using tippets stronger than 4x or you’ll risk tip failure. So, fish weighted nymphs all you want, but keep them small and don’t fool around with strike indicators and split shot, or all of tenkara’s fly control advantages will be lost. Tenkara, with a weighted nymph, is high-stick Czech nymphing at its finest, and most effective.
  2. You can’t reach fish that are 50 feet away with a tenkara rod. Then walk or wade towards them, you lazy bum.
  3. Tenkara fishing eliminates the cool factor I get by showing off my $400 disc-drag hi-capacity large arbor reel. Spend the $400 bucks on a nice camera: you’ll be so much cooler landing a five pound brown and asking the guy with the reel to take a photo of you with your “little trout” and “fly stick”.
  4. You can’t look like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It when you’re casting a tenkara rod. Brad Pitt will have nothing on you. Tenkara is sexy – but it’s for Presbyterians, too.

I live, fish, and guide in Southwest Montana on big rivers like the Yellowstone, Madison, and Missouri – and am here to tell you that I’m a big-river-big-fish tenkara addict.

Here’s why.

1. Tenkara allows you to deliver a fly-first and fly-only presentation.

The western angler, after a series of false casts to increase line length, will lay out a final cast across the current with delicacy and finesse – with the fly, leader, and line seemingly and softly falling onto the water at the same time that the final loop of leader and tippet unfurls in the distance.

This cast just spooked half the trout between you and the fly.

I cannot recall how many times I’ve seen a fly fishermen ignore, and then spook, every trout within easy reach of a tenkara cast, while casting long lines and then try to mend them in complicated currents.

A more skilled western angler will cast to close fish first, then to fish a little farther away, and finally, to the fish that require long casts. But what if fish are rising everywhere?

Tenkara allows you to pick and choose what fish you are casting to, regardless of where they are (except of course, for those ones that are very far away).

You see, tenkara allows you to deliver both a “fly first presentation” (where the fly hits the water first, before any other part of the line) and a “fly only presentation” (where the fly, and perhaps a few inches of tippet, are the only things to ever touch the water’s surface during a drift).

These two factors make for a deadly combination on spring creeks, but are even more important in big rivers. First, it allows you to more effectively respond to rising fish in front of you regardless of their position, rather than being forced to cast to the fish closest to you before casting to fish a little further away. Second, the fly first presentation allows you to precisely control the fly (see #2 below) with your rod tip, a much more effective and accurate strategy than mending line.

The reason that tenkara can more effectively deliver a fly first presentation is that the rod length allows the backcast to be delivered not only behind you, but high (where the fly is delivered up into the sky at an angle back over your shoulder) rather than behind and back (where the fly is delivered pretty much parallel to the ground behind you). The result of this backcast positioning is that it stages the forward cast for delivery of the fly forward and down (where the fly is delivered to the water at a much lower elevation than the rest of the tippet/line), rather than for delivery of the fly parallel to the ground in front of you, as in western methods.

Ryan Jordan shows a tenkara backcast where the fly is casted "back and upward", staging for a fly-first delivery. Brian Flemming Photo.

It is because of these same casting physics that a fly-only presentation is effective with tenkara. Even with long lines (I sometimes use a level line up to 30 feet in length with the Amago), a long tenkara rod can effectively keep most of the line and leader off the water with little or no drag ever imparted to the fly. With 30 feet of double taper 4 weight line and a nine foot rod, this feat is nearly impossible with western style.

2. Tenkara allows you to control the fly.

Big rivers harbor complex, swirling currents. The more line you have to manage, the more strikes that you’ll miss at these current edges. Tenkara allows you to more effectively fish eddy lines, current seams, and over fast current lanes more effectively than western methods.

The sensitivity of tenkara, combined with the rod length and short line, means that every cast is predictable.

The result is that I can regularly deliver a fly at the end of four feet of tippet attached to a 20 foot tenkara level line to a target three inches in diameter, repeatedly.

The ability to cast with precision to a pinpoint location – combined with the fly-first and fly-only presentation style of tenkara – means that you can employ one of the most effective fishing strategies to entice a trout to take your fly: the repeated delivery of a fly to a small area over and over again, at quick intervals (this makes the fish aware of surface activity), followed by one final presentation that allows the fly to travel through the entire feeding lane of the trout. Often, the result is a successful, and aggressive take. Using this method with western gear is difficult (because it’s less accurate unless you are a practiced casting champion) and risky (because the more you send highly visible conventional fly line over a stream, the more you risk spooking trout with the shadows, splashes, spray, and drag of the line).

In addition, because you can deliver a fly-only presentation where the fly is controlled directly with the rod tip, you have immense control over where that fly travels, and can precisely position it into just about any feeding lane. My favorite feeding lanes to fish with tenkara gear are far eddy lines, pockets beyond faster moving water, and the far seams of plunge pools on the opposite sides of rocks – three locations where fish love to feed, and three locations that give all western flycasters absolute fits of line drag.

3. Tenkara requires that you stalk the fish at closer distances.

If you think that you only have to stalk fish in streams and spring creeks, then it’s a sign that you’ve watched a River Runs Through It too many times, and that you’re a western line distance addict. Stalking fish is not the same as “seeing a rise on the other side of the river and casting to it.” Stalking fish may be the single most important skill required to catch big trout, and it’s not the same as “prospecting for big trout in obvious looking runs”.

You don’t have the ability to cast to a fish rising 70 feet away from you, across the river, if you fish tenkara. Thank goodness, because I’ve yet to see a western angler effectively manage that much line in a big river unless he’s stripping a streamer.

4. Tenkara allows you to control the position of an underwater fly around and over obstacles.

We’ve already discussed above how and why tenkara’s fly-only presentation allows you to control a dry fly. This presentation style offers significant benefits for wet fly / nymph fishing as well.

Big rivers have big obstacles. Underwater log jams, boulders, and other structure provide current breaks that allow a smorgasbord of trout food to accumulate. Managing the drift of an underwater fly around obstacles, and over them, is nearly impossible with western methods. With tenkara, it’s as easy as lifting, reaching, and pulling. Tenkara allows you to deliver an underwater fly with absolute precision, simply by moving your rod tip up (raises the fly up in the water column) and down (sinks the fly down), back (upstream, raises and slows) and forth (downstream, sinks and dead drifts), or fore (away from you, sinks or dead drifts the fly away) and aft (towards you, raises the fly towards you). Combinations of these movements can effect additional control over the fly. These movements in combination with river currents give you tremendous control in positioning wet flies – all without the aids of indicators and split shot.

5. When you hook a fish with a tenkara rod, you have more control over the fish – where it goes, what it does.

Playing a big fish with tenkara is very exciting – you control a running fish with rod angle and control, not reel technology – there is more skill and “feel” involved in landing, and you are more connected to the fish. You can feel when it’s getting tired, and you can feel when it’s about to surge.

This big brown fell to a sakasi kebari style fly during a spring baetis hatch. Tenkara allowed the trout to be landed quickly - less than a few minutes - which improves recovery and survival when practicing catch-and-release.

The length and slower action of tenkara rods are more forgiving than western rods when it comes to your response time to a running trout. There is a common misconception that in order to land a big fish using tenkara methods, you have to be prepared to swim and chase it. Mostly, it’s hogwash, and landing large trout simply means that you have to follow the fish a few yards, but mostly, use the rod, its position and angle, and the river currents, to your advantage to tire the trout.

6. Tenkara is aesthetically beautiful to hold, to cast, to land fish.

I can write about what this feels like, or you can try it for yourself. Go fish tenkara. You don’t need me to fuel the emotional addiction to tenkara fishing.


Ryan Jordan is a tenkara addict. Ryan is a licensed fishing guide in the State of Montana and offers tenkara instruction and guided trips on the Madison, Missouri, Yellowstone, and other big rivers that harbor big trout. Ryan teaches tenkara casting, fly control, big fish landing techniques, and more – learn more at the tenkara fly fishing page.