Fighting Big Fish on Tenkara Rods

14 comments / Posted on / by


By Louis Cahill

When 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
Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!

Follow Gink & Gasoline on Facebook:

14 thoughts on “Fighting Big Fish on Tenkara Rods

  1. if you are fishing a long leader, its almost essential to have a buddy w/ a net nearby, or to have a longer handled net on you. you can hand line the fish in WHILE still using the shock absorption of the rod if you pinch the line with your rod hand and then high stick the rod while reaching out w/ your net. hopefully you got the right length leader cause if it is too long this can be difficult if you cant reach the fish. in this case you ditch the rod and go straight hand line. be gentle. landing fish on tenkara will make you land way more fish w/ traditional gear

  2. I’m sure I will be chastised and beat down for saying this. Or maybe I should ask are you eating these fish? I understand the want to explore new territory in fishing. I have battled many a large trout in my day. I practice catch and release. catching a trout or Salmon is a treasure and I feel the fish deserve respect. If they were not there we wouldn’t be able to fish for them.
    The battle you describe is long and seems to over play a fish.I once caught a very Large brown trout on a 4wt fiber glass rod on 8x tippet. The fish couldnt break the tippet due to the fact that the rod tip danced in different directions. It took me about five minutes or more to land that fish. It was close to 30 inches. I was happier then can be catching that fish. Over time though I started thinking about that fish and the battle. Did I over play the fish ? Did it live after I released it? Something of ethics comes into play here, and Im not saying what you were doing was wrong. I just have to question weather it is a healthy practice.
    I have seen video of Mr Tenkara himself fishing for steelhead and he is in a wet suite and dives in after the fish. This was an interesting way to fish ( not that you would catch me doing it ) The way he caught the larger fish was to swim with it basically which is very dangerous. Though in the end of that battle the fish would be less stressed due to not having to fight back so much. At what point do we put the fish first ?

  3. Nice tips and information, really like your article. The thing that gets me is nobody can ever write anything any more without some self proclaimed peacock coming on there and critiquing or criticizing something about it. I gets real old!! Like he thinks that you guys don’t think about that stuff. Mike go preach somewhere else please. Thanks again guys!!!!

  4. Nice article. Here is an expanded discussion that was posted a couple of months ago (Casting Around, Midcurrent, etc):

    Also enjoyed your post on preventing fish mortality. Here is an expanded discussion on that posted in 2012:

    I agree with your response to the earlier post re: fighting time. Nothing is universal, and I know I am likely to catch flack for this, but I think the long lever arm of a fixed line fly fishing rod gives you an advantage when fighting fish that results in shorter fighting times and (theoretically) faster release times.

    Keep writing,

    Rob W.

  5. In the new book Simple Fly Fishing by Yvon Chouinard they describe a technique used by Italian cane pole fisherman that is basically tossing the rod in the water and letting the drag fight the fish. Once the fish starts to tire they swim out a bit, grab the rod, and land the fish. Apparently they have had good luck doing the same thing with Tenkara rods. I haven’t tried yet, but I find the idea interesting.

  6. Great post Louis. This answers a number of questions I had about using my Tenkara rod where big fish lurk. I sometimes like trial and error, but I was a bit reticent about taking that little rod to places where using my 5 weight is challenging.

  7. Pingback: Tippets: Big Fish on Tenkara, Report on Small Streams | MidCurrent

  8. I’ve been fishing/teaching tenkara for 11 years. I love to attempt to push the envelope and try for big fish. I live to fish tenkara for sea-run cutthroat in Oregon and Washington. The largest sea-run that I caught on tenkara (in a Puget Sound tidal tributary)was a hair over 19”, using a size 12 muddler minnow. I also landed a 21” rainbow on the Bug Horn River. Both of these fish required lots of fancy footwork and some rapid dashes up and downstream. For the first minute at least, it is necessary to be extremely patient and strategic about using gentle but firm I pressure with the help of that substantial shock absorber that you’ve got in your hand. In my case, it’s a Tenkara USA 13’ Amago Or a 14’7”, Ito rod. Even big fish tire out when working against a long rod, especially when you, as an angler can use the power of the river in your favor and make the fish work against it.

    I’m going on an 8 day float trip in far western Alaska In August and plan to bring tenkara rods, among others to fish for grayling, rainbows and Arctic char. It will be a true test of tenkara gear and my skills.

  9. I’ve heard of the “throwing your rod in the water” idea. Sorry, but no. Not throwing my $200 rod in the river. That’s just dumb.

  10. Awesome to read your article this morning. For reference I’m a long time fly fisherman and lapel bum. Recently I bought a super cheap tenkara rod. I’m not sure what the initial motivation was other than he simplicity seemed super cool, plus I could bring it with me easily while I go on my weekly hikes. Anyway it’s kind of ironic to see your post. Thanks for the motivation.Louis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...