By Bob Long, “Tenkara Journey”
For me big fish are trout and smallmouth bass in moving waters: rivers, creeks and streams. Big trout means fish to 24”; smallmouth to 20”. I’m thinking about trying carp, but they still kind of scare me when I think of Tenkara. We shall see on them.
At some point, depending on age or health, chasing fish any distance in flowing waters over rocks and irregular bottoms just isn’t in the cards. Even with a wading staff – which I always have with me – my youthful galloping moves up and down the stream are gone. So, consciously and purposefully fighting the fish in place, is what one must do.
I seldom hold the rod tip straight up in the air for any length of time as one cannot lift a fish out of water. Diving down is the fish’s strongest move, while holding a Tenkara rod high up in the air, its weakest position. With the rod tip high up you are only engaging the tip sections, not the stronger mid- or butt- sections. Larger fish can far more “easily” be fought – and it’s head (and thus the fish) guided – by bringing the rod tip down low to the water, and putting pressure on the fish by moving the rod to the left and right.
I usually fight with my rod parallel to the water, moving it up to about 60 degrees or so and back down again. I move my rod a lot; not just hold it up high in the air as I see so many fly fishes do. I switch the rod from my right to my left, up, down, pull the fish to me, let it fall back, as the fish moves.
I am not “showing the fish who is boss.” It’s more like I am counterpunching; following its lead while seeking to anticipate its moves with an aim to countering them or yielding to them momentarily. Yes, I think it takes years of experience to get this, and in our age of immediate gratification words and videos can only point the way, not show the way.
It is a different way to fight big fish with Tenkara, and you will lose fish as you learn (and maybe break a rod or two) but it is doable. Note: Even with this assertive fighting technique, sometimes the fish still wins, more often than not, I do. That’s life. Over the long haul though, your ability to fight big fish confidently – and with purpose and a sense of control of the situation – will grow strongly.
Sidenote: Each fish behaves differently – from the take, to its initial moves, to its way of fighting. Browns, Rainbow, Smallmouth, Carp, Catfish are so different, that within seconds you will learn which is which and have an idea what to do (e.g., with big cats I just break them off; they are rod breakers).
Another note: As with most human physical activity, describing physical action is difficult. It is more easily seen in person, than to pick up from writing so others that one can see/feel/replicate it. But it’s what we’ve got here. My most sincere recommendation for learning comes from Dave Whitlock, “How does one gain knowledge and experience? Get a good instructor.”
I spent 20 years fishing for steelhead (up to 15 pounds) in current using 12-foot noodle rods rated for 2 – 4 pound-test tippet. It taught me a WHOLE LOT about understanding and fighting big, strong, fast fish, in current, on light line. It truly prepared me for using Tenkara. The most challenging aspect of Tenkara for me was, and remains, how to do all of this without having a drag or line to give. My goodness, what excitement Tenkara has added to my fishing life. 🤣
Another thing to add: I think it important and valuable in fighting larger fish with Tenkara is to always use both hands in the fight. One hand low on the handle (I only use cork handles), the other hand perhaps 6 – 12 inches up the rod, above the end of the handle. The hand on the rod is my “touch/feel” hand. The hand on the handle is my balance hand or fulcrum point, (“the point on which a lever rests or is supported and on which it pivots.”). The hand on the rod allows me to “feel” the fish (giving, resisting) AND HOW the rod is responding; how much pressure to put on the fish, when to give, how much to give.
When I fight the fish on the right side, I have the handle in my left hand, the right hand on the rod. I reverse this when I switch the rod to the left (note: I’m a righty). I hate having only one hand on the rod, with the rod tip up, when fighting a larger fish. I have no control over what is going on.
Also, I am really busy and active when fighting fish with Tenkara to keep it off balance, as I have NO power moves as with heavier spinning gear. I have available a bunch of smaller, pressure moves to keep the fish moving, expending energy, wearing itself out. I think of this more as a fast chess match than a power sumo match. Many people I take fishing are surprised when they see me fighting fish.
“I didn’t think you moved the rod around that much,” I often hear.
Surprisingly, it still doesn’t take a long time for the fish to wear down; they do not come to hand exhausted, belly up or flat on their side. My experience has been they are released without noticeable or fatal stress. Once you can get a fish to bring its head up and hold it there, I find it is usually signaling its ready to be landed. I can then move to the shallows (me being under control and not rushed or stressed), or to slower water and bring the fish in, again by pulling the rod more or less parallel to the water – once again, not rod tip up too high (I never use a net, but my hand).
Again, although I teach these “fighting larger fish” techniques in my on-the-water Tenkara workshops, many still struggle to get it even as they are seeing it. I can only imagine how this is received as being read. Still, I think it worth sharing and trying. C’est la Vie! 🧐🤪
I mainly use 7:3 and 8:2 rods (with furled leaders and 4 – 6 lb test tippet) and speak from that experience. I do not know how this would work with 6:4 or 5:5 rods. Thanks much for reading.
For the last 20 years Bob Long ran a program called Chicago’s Fish’ Kids in Chicago. He had a staff of 12 fishing instructors that provided rods, reels, bait, and instruction and we took people fishing. Ages 8-12, teens, adults, seniors and people with disabilities of all kids. There was no charge for taking people out. They averaged 300 people a day for 35 – 40 days and averaged 10,000 participants per summer (for 20 years).
Now retired, Bob still offers on the water workshops.