As Matt and I suited up next to his car, I realized the old adage held true for anglers as well: no matter what rod you’re using, we all put our waders on one leg at a time.
Matt is co-owner of Badger Tenkara, the largest oasis in the tenkara desert of Southern Wisconsin, where traditional fly fishing techniques still reign supreme. Tenkara is a traditional Japanese form of fly fishing, using a long, light rod and fixed line to deliver the fly. It does not use a reel. After spending a few years working in the shop I’ve heard just about every opinion possible about tenkara, but anglers tend to fall into one of two categories: a) tenkara is superior to traditional (or, as tenkara adherents call it, Western) fly rods, so why fish with anything else?, or b) tenkara is simply a fad or inhabits a niche market, and it will never seriously compete with Western tradition.
I’ve long been closely associated with (b), in the sense that I’ve felt tenkara has it’s applications but lacks the versatility of a Western rod setup, and I’ve always questioned the ability of the tenkara rod to handle bigger game and bigger flies. That being said, I’ve never actually fished with a tenkara rod.
Matt, coincidentally, has never fished with a Western rod, and I’m sure some bias has crept into his belief system as well with regards to the tenkara versus Western debate. This trip wouldn’t really solve any of those issues as we mostly kept to our own devices, but maybe it served as a bit of a detente between the two philosophies. I was surprised at the reach the fixed-line system had, and the intuitiveness at which the fly could be placed. Matt said he was impressed with the ease at which I could dislodge a snagged fly with the rod and reel. We alternated pools and picked up the game where the other left off when hung up on structure. We caught fish. All-in-all it was a good day, considering water temperatures were hovering in the mid-30s.
More significantly, the outing helped to reinforce an idea that crept into my mind a while back. That maybe tenkara and Western styles can coexist, and even compliment, one another on the stream.
A few days later I pulled over alongside a bridge crossing Black Earth Creek and sat on the tailgate of the car to suit up. Rigged up the fly rod, tied on a streamer. Threw on the lanyard, put my streamer box in the waders, and slung a backpack over my shoulder, a tenkara rod protruding from it.
So here’s my thinking: having two rods with you on the stream is significantly more efficient than having one. How many of us have more fly rods than we have changes of clothing, because we’re obsessed with having the perfect tool for the innumerable fishing situations we might find ourselves in? If we restrict the conversation to simply trout fishing, it would be ideal to have three rods with you to cover your bases: one a light dry fly rod; one a long nymphing rod; and one a heavier streamer rod. Most of us settle for that 9-foot 5-weight, but even then time is lost when switching between techniques. If we snag a fly, we often have to choose between blowing up a pool to retrieve it or blowing up the leader-tippet to break if off and re-tie. If we break a rod tip a half-mile from the car, our afternoon is effectively done.
The tenkara rod offers a solution to the one-rod problem. It’s easy to store: the rod collapses down to about the size of a four-piece piece rod but without the bulk. You can keep it rigged up when collapsed. If you break your Western rod, you can be fishing again within a minute. If you snag up your Western rod, you can be fishing again within a minute. If you want to change tactics, you can be fishing again in less time than it would take to re-rig. The lighter tenkara rod can be matched with a heavier Western rod to fish dries, nymphs, and streamers.
It’s a good idea in theory, but I wasn’t sure how it would work in practice. Luckily I already had a tenkara rod, even if I never used it– one of the Badger’s Bad Axe models, which I won in a raffle a year earlier. I rigged it with a Killer Bug, rigged my 6-weight glass rod with a Milwaukee Leech, and hit Black Earth Creek to fish. It’s wasn’t long before the 6-weight hit a snag that I couldn’t work loose, and out came the tenkara rod.
Here I found one of the limitations of the tenkara rod: a stiff wind kicked up and played havoc with my cast. When I was able to lay the fly on the water, the wind still played with me. One of the primary differences in line control between tenkara and Western is the position of the rod during the drift: in most instances you keep the tip of a Western rod down near the waterline, whereas the tenkara rod tip is kept up (similar to high stick nymphing) to keep the majority of line off the water. This suspends the fly line above the water, and the wind easily pushed it at it’s will, dragging the nymph with it.
Alright, so this wasn’t going to work today. I set the tenkara rod away and went to unsnag the 6-weight. Even though this afternoon might not be ripe to experiment with the one-and-a-half rod system, there still might be fish about.
So this trip was another test, one against Black Earth Creek itself. The creek has had a hard couple of years. Plagued with notable fish kills in the past, infamous for being the first Wisconsin stream tainted with New Zealand Mud Snails, and suffering from a severe decline the fish population over the 2014 and 2015 winters, the stream has seen better days. It was not terribly kind to me the first time I fished it when I arrived in the area back in 2013; and last year, after getting blanked several outings in a row during the early season, I stopped fishing it.
I didn’t even plan on dropping in on the creek this day. It was a last-second change of plans after my fishing buddy called off a trip to Mount Vernon Creek. Without expecting much I crunched through the stands of dogwood and dead grass and lobbed a weight streamer through the wind, swinging it through pools and across cutbanks. My mind wandered, my fingers grew cold, and fell into a steady rhythm of the swing that pulled my away from the moment–
–then the fly stopped on what felt like a snag. I lifted the rod and it fought back. Fish! I brought it up just enough to make out the colors of a brown trout before it nosed down again and threw the hook. Not big, but not bad. There’s still something left in this water.
A few lost streamers later and I hit into another bump on the bottom, and this time the fight is greater. This trout is a nicer size. There is something left here, indeed.
The next day I wasn’t planning on fishing, but it’s hard to let a nice day away from work go to waste by not fishing. I parked in downtown Cross Plains and loaded up again, and started working my way upstream. The wind was gone and the tenkara rod came out a few times. I alternated between throwing the streamer through pools and, once I’m convinced nobody’s interested, grabbing the tenkara rod and nymphing, easing along the streambank on my hands and knees and flicking the fly into promising waters.
I will say that the casting stroke of the tenkara rod is easy to pick up, although for long-time Western anglers is makes for bad habits: you need to keep the rod tip high at the end of the cast, rather than dropping it low. You need to cast it slow, like a glass rod, rather than the modern fast-action graphites. For someone trying to master the complexity of the standard fly cast, however, it’s definitely going to be easier. It’s a great entry point for the complete novice or the younger angler.
The fixed line system also will confuse long-time Western anglers and likely lead to what I’m calling “Phantom Reel Syndrome”: you’ll find yourself instinctively reaching for line at the cork grip at those times when you need it. Whenever the fly hung up on some hidden obstacle my left hand was reaching for line that wasn’t there.
The line snagged and Phantom Reel Syndrome stuck again, but this time when I lifted the tip to free it the rod came alive. Sure enough, a little brown had fallen for the Killer Bug. The fish was about the same size as the first rainbow I caught on fly rod back in Montana nearly a decade ago. History repeats itself.
The tenkara rod then snagged up a few casts later, so I grabbed the 6-weight and moved on. I cast a while, then the line jerked upstream and I fought back. The rod doubled over. Nice fish! I raised it once and saw it thrash, and it was a little beast. 15, 16 inches. The rod twitched hard. I reached around to grab my net, but it stopped at my armpit. The net retractor was wrapped around my wader suspenders. I pulled harder, stretching out the retractor to nearly breaking. The fish pulled harder as I raised it again. It thrashed near the water’s surface in a bed of watercress.
At this point I was hoping the damn retractor would simply break so I could reach out and net the fish. Instead there was a slight snip and the rod went slack.
I swore. “NOOOOooooOoooOooo…” It was the kind of cry—an equal mix of loss and hopeleness—had Vader uttered it at the end of Revenge of the Sith, may very well have salvaged the prequels.
The trout, perhaps dumbstruck by it’s sudden release, spent a moment suspended in the current. It was a beautiful mix of ruddy brown and yellow, a well-fed hybrid of torpedo and football. Then it was gone.
I sat there in the snow for a few moments longer, contemplating what just took place. I should be mad, I think, but I’m oddly at peace with it. After all, what else was there to do? I fooled the fish. Felt it’s life in the end of the rod. Saw it flash in the sunlight. Did I really need a picture? Maybe it would have been nice to get the fly back. At least it was de-barbed.
Still, I’m okay with it. I’m happy, actually. There’s still something left in this water. Something well worth it.
I picked up the rod, tied on a new streamer, and went back to work.
Bottom line: I think tenkara could be a great benefit to anyone already fishing with a traditional fly rod. It packs down well, it can be deployed quickly, it’s a back-up rod in a pinch, and it supplements whatever your primary fishing strategy is. They’re also fairly inexpensive compared to purchasing a second rod outfit and don’t rely upon the operation of a reel to work.
It is fair to ask, then, why not simply use two tenkara rods? I still like the versatility a reel offers. You can cast farther, for one. You have more options for line control. It does appear easier to free up a snagged fly. I think it works better for streamer fishing and casting against the wind.
I don’t plan on giving up my regular fly rod any time soon. But I can see myself keeping a tenkara rod with me while out trout fishing. What’s another fly rod in the quiver, any way?