Tenkara Steelhead

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A Little Color Photo by Louis Cahill

A Little Color Photo by Louis Cahill

By Tim Harris

Can tenkara make one a better steelheader?

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest over 20 years ago I was thrilled to finally be living in the land of steelhead. The fish was almost mythic growing up in the Midwest and I’d spent a bit of time chasing them in the Pere Marquette to no avail. But now I was in the land where steelheading developed and even the flies got their names – patterns like the Skykomish Sunrise, the Sol Duc, the Umpqua Special, and the Macks Canyon.

It took me a long time to catch that first steelhead on the fly and then I “cheated” by getting it on a nymph on the Deschutes one fall. In fact, I got four steelhead in that one afternoon from the same run nymphing, which was crazy after almost decade with no fish. I guess I finally got payoff for the thousands of casts I’d made. After I got those first fish via nymphing out of my system I went to only swinging flies on spey and switch rods and I’ve never gone back. I used to get out a lot when our local river still had a summer run, and would get 2-3 summer fish per season there along with one on the Deschutes in the fall and maybe one on the Methow or Wenatchee when these opened up. Winter fish, however, eluded me for a long time.  I finally got my first in 2013 on the Skagit, a beautiful wild hen of about 12 lbs.  After that nothing, despite hitting our local rivers at least a handful of days each winter.  Needless to say, my steelhead count was low, usually a handful of fish in a season with quite a few days spent on the water.

Then I took up tenkara and found that I could swing flies on the long tenkara rod for trout just like I swing flies for steelhead with a spey rod.   With tenkara one has ultimate control over the swing with the sensitive rod and a relatively short amount of line. I often swing with a 20’ line which is a long line for tenkara but it allows me to easily mend, hold much of the line off the water if needed, or lead the fly in soft water to completely control the swing of the fly. I probably catch the majority of my trout on tenkara swinging flies and it has become my favorite technique.  Plus it is perfect practice for steelhead and an 18” rainbow on my Rhodo seems about equivalent to a 26” steelhead on my 6-weight switch rod.

Has all this swinging on tenkara paid off?

I think so.  Last winter I went out on my home river, the Snoqualmie, only three times in between bouts of high water.  There I use a 14′ 9-weight spey rod but for the first time I really felt like I had my swing under control.  In those three outings I landed one 14 lb. hen, had another soft grab that I messed up, and had another freight train hit that I have no idea how I didn’t get the hook set properly. I let my loop out, felt the head shake, then nothing. This was by far the best winter steelhead season I’ve ever had and all in about four to five hours on the river. I just returned from a Gink & Gasoline trip to the Deschutes where I got to swing for summer fish for the first time in several years. The results: in three days of fishing I managed to hook 5 steelhead, landed 3 and missed several other fish which grabbed the fly.  This was more fish in three days than I used to get in a few months of summer steelhead fishing.

So, was it tenkara?

I really think it has something to do with it. Swinging flies with tenkara has taught me all the nuances of controlling a swing and has let me feel a lot of grabs and land a lot of fish swinging flies on a long rod, all great practice for steel heading.

Tim Harris
Gink & Gasoline
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5 thoughts on “Tenkara Steelhead

  1. I think, like any thing else, the more you do it the better you get.

    I swung caddis pupa on a micro switch most of the summer, both in the driftless and out west in July.

    This fall on superior tribs I was much more confindient in my ability to position and control the drift. I had far more takes and hookups than last year.

  2. Nice to hear. Also thanks for talking about Salmon and fixed line fishing. You should try a 20′ Keiryu or Carp rod next time and land those salmon on a fixed line, too!

  3. Would love to see a video of this. I’ve been experimenting with an 18ft line using a Ito at it’s 14’7” length. When I’m that long I feel like dead drifting is impossible as I can’t control the line very easily…but I haven’t spent much time swinging flies that way. Would also be interested to know if you’re going furled or level and if there’s reasons why you favor one over the other for swinging flies. Thanks for the post!

  4. Pingback: Tippets: Pat Cohen’s Super Flies, Tenkara Steelhead | MidCurrent

  5. Welcome to the Tenkara fold Tim. I have fished Single, Switch, and Spey for years, and they are good setups. Six years ago I added Tenkara and really learned Tenkara, not single hand fishing with a Tenkara rod. My fishhook and landing sky rocketed, including a 17″ Silver on a size 14 Kebari. All of my fries are my ties of Japanese Kebari styles. When I first got my Amago, I fished the Deschutes like I did with my single hand techniques, but with line setups out to 35′. Wrong idea. Yes, you can swing a fly, but your dragging all that line on or in the water and telegraphing everything but the fly. With surface Tenkara the fly is the only thing on the water, and it is not just floating like a dead bug. Tenkara techniques are adding much movement like a live bug. Way more strikes.

    If you want to jump to big fish like Salmon, get the right rod. Check out Karen Miller at Zen Tenkara. The majority of her rods she offered are for Salmon and she fishes salt water for Permit with them. Yep, there videos.

    Since you are in the PNW, try to make it to the Oregon Tenkara Bugout this Summer in July. Great event! Lots of new friends with lots of experience on beautiful rivers in Central Oregon. Good opportunity to cast a lot of different rods too. Hope to see you out there.

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