Fighting Big Fish on Tenkara Rods

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_DSC1515When I got my first tenkara, I couldn’t wait to break it.

The prevailing idea seemed, and still seams to be, that tenkara rods are for catching small fish. I took that as a challenge. I met Daniel Galhardo of Tenkara USA for a beer and told him I was going to Alaska to chase big rainbows and I wanted to take a tenkara rod.

“What kind of rod are you thinking?” He asked me.

“The smallest one you make.”

That’s how my Rhodo and I ended up going to Alaska. My buddy Aleks took a tenkara rod, too. A Sato, and we discovered that, not only can you catch big fish on tenkara rods, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. By the second day everyone in camp was asking to try the rods, guides included.

I’m no tenkara master, but I’ve fought my share of big fish. Nothing I’m about to tell you is wisdom passed down through the generations. It’s mostly stuff I figured out myself in the heat of the moment. Some of it’s just good fish fighting with any rod but some of it is very, very different. I’ll tell you this. With what I’ve learned in last year I no longer think about breaking that little rod.

I should say from the very start that hooking your first 20-inch Alaska rainbow on a tenkara rod is an “Oh-shit moment” on par with hooking your first tarpon. That first big fish is worth the price of the rod. Just to experience the feeling of instinctively reaching for your reel and finding it AWOL. If you are not the kind of person who adapts well to change, this is a good time to learn!

Tactics for fighting big fish on tenkara rods

You have nothing to fear but fear itself

No matter what rod is in your hand, the most powerful tool you have is confidence. Trust these rods. They are well designed and will handle more stress than you might imagine. This is your fight and you dictate the terms. That said,

Fight smarter, not harder

When the option of the fish taking drag is off the table, you have to use your head. If you put too much pressure on the fish at the wrong time, he could go ballistic and catch you with your waders down. Go easy at first while the fish is still fresh. Don’t do anything to panic him. Your job, for now, is just to stay connected and wait for him to tire a little. Then you can ramp up the pressure.

Use the heaviest tippet you can get away with

If the fish where you are fishing will eat a fly on 5X tippet, there’s no reason to use 6X. Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be. In Alaska Aleks and I used 2X the whole trip. The only fish that we broke off was a chum salmon Aleks hooked. Yea, I love my tenkara rod but that’s just not going to happen.

Show them your butt

The butt of your rod, that is. Tenkara rods are made to bend deep. Keeping as much bend as possible in the rod allows you to give the fish some line when he needs it. Most trout, even big ones, don’t usually make long runs. Pointing the butt of the rod at the fish will help you handle most of the fish’s rapid movements.

Move! Now!

The time will come, and it may come quickly, when you have no choice but to chase your fish. Your feet are your backing. You need to be confident in your wading skills and stay light on your feet. This may mean running downstream in a panic or just easing down to maintain a good 90 degree connection to the fish. It may mean charging into the middle of the river. Use good sense. It’s only a fish. It’s not worth drowning over. “A River Runs Through It” was just a movie.

Use side pressure

This is good technique with any rod. Keeping your rod low and keeping the angle opposite the direction the fish is facing maintains a solid hook up and is the best way to control and tire the fish. Keep the line along his back and make him work for it.

Work as a team

If you have a buddy along, help each other land fish. Many times having a net man is the difference between a hero shot and a sob story. Communicate and work as a team.
You can read more about that HERE.

If you love something let it go

This is where it gets weird. Daniel told me that if you have absolutely no other option but to break a fish off, you can just drop your rod in the water and the fish will stop running and return to its holding zone. The weight of the water will keep the hook in and you can wade back out and pick up your rod for round two, or three. I’ll admit that I was afraid to do this in a big Alaska river but when I hooked up on a big fish here at home, I gave it a try. My buddy Dan, who was already wondering what the hell I was thinking, thought I had completely lost it. But it worked and I landed the fish.

That’s what I’ve learned so far about landing big fish on tenkara rod. Don’t think that tenkara is all about small fish. It’s like my buddy Bruce says, “it’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian.” I won’t be out harassing steelhead with my tenkara rod but for trout, I’m not afraid of a good fight. That’s what makes it fun!


Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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15 thoughts on “Fighting Big Fish on Tenkara Rods

  1. Last week I intro’d PHW Vets, on MT Big Hole river, to Tenkara. Mentioned to guide next day that i caught grayling on Tenkara – he said “great to start a fire with”. i said “grayling are much to nice for fire starters”.
    OK, so some people are skeptical about Tenkara. In fairness it does take longer to land the 20″ fish. I’ve done it – but it isn’t fair to the fish imho.
    Rather than point the butt of the rod at the fish, I’ve found dropping the butt lower and perpendicular to the water works well. I like the concept of keeping the line inline with the fishes back. I’ll give it a try next time. Thanks for sharing…

    • New mark today. a 22″ salmon on Tenkara was actually easier than the 20″ brown. I still like the brookies best. Killer bug with reversed soft hackle was the key. OK it makes no sense but i try to keep it Tenkara-ish…

  2. Pingback: Fighting Big Fish on Tenkara Rods | Latest Fishing Blogs Posts

  3. I bought a Tenkara Iwana several years ago and immediately took it down to a pond to test it out and mess around. The first fish I caught on it was a baby pig-sized large mouth bass. You’re absolutely right about the “oh sh*t” moment. You’re like: “What am I supposed to do here!?” Not sure how I ever landed that brute.

    Let’s just say it was an exciting five minutes.

  4. I love you guys and all your writings, but I couldn’t even read this article because you lost me a “stupid rod in mouth photo”.

    • You lost me at “stupid mind is closed comment.” 😉

      There is no feeling like a trout on a tenkara rod. There’s no feeling like the ‘eats’ either for that matter.

      I fish both ‘western’ and tenkara fly rods and my favorite thing about tenkara is the amount of energy that is transferred from the fish to my hand any time the fly is in the fish’s mouth. It just feels cool.

      Even tight-line nymphing with a western setup feels ‘duller’ for lack of a better word.

      I like both types of rods.

  5. For all the Tenkara haters out there, say what you will …overpriced bream buster , etc. But using those rods occasionally can sure bring on the “pucker factor” when you hook a good one and it’s off to the races with a very short and thin line!

  6. Great read. Can’t believe you did that all on the Rhodo! I’ve landed three 20 inch trout on Tenkara so far this year (one cut and two rainbows) and haven’t broken off on a big fish yet though with my western setup I’ve lost a couple big fish because my backing was tangled in the reel.

  7. Sounds like a blast! But I don’t understand the “drop your rod in the river” and then “wade back out and pick up your rod for round two, or three” technique.

  8. I’m curious as to how much length of battle is increased with a tool like this or is it shorter? In a place like Alaska with cold water dissolved oxygen and fishes metabolic needs are both is a safe place. In other locals with warmer water is this another case of size 30 flies and 10X tipet. The angler feels like a superhero but leaves a trail of fish that died from exhaustion? Just asking…

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  12. My only problem is that a good fish in heavy water CAN take a long time.
    Fish can get very tired., almost belly up before being released. ?

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