More Small Stream Tenkara: Some musing and a few practical ideas for small stream tenkara

When I say small stream here – I’m talking small. Not small compared to a river but small compared to a small stream. This tiny stream is tucked into a rhododendron choked valley. Are the fish that it contains native strain brook trout unpolluted by our hatcheries? Probably not – but I don’t know. Defying non-existence they exist. Whether or not I fish for them they hatch, swim, spawn, die.  By fishing for them I give them meaning and they give me meaning. As sweat trickles down my brow from under the brim of my hat and burns my eyes, as I (for the hundredth time) untangle the line from a branch, as I miss that subtle and lightening quick strike, as I worry about rattlers, as the stream enslaved by gravity tumbles toward union and oblivion with the river, I slowly merge into the shadowy green-ness – into a quiet “un-ness”, I complete an arabesque into sweet nothing. It can take a while, but eventually (hopefully) the million small frustrations of fly fishing a small, brushy stream will allow the shift from “going fishing” to just “being”.  Forgetting the self.  That is my goal. To put a strip of duct tape over that relentless internal dialog and to silence it.  To move from thinking in words to thinking in actions.

The small brushy stream holds challenges for the fly fisher and the tenkara angler. Because of the longer rod – maybe more challenges for the tenkara angler.  Those overhanging trees and rhododendron make casting and hook-setting very difficult.  There is very rarely any place to backcast.  And if you attempt to set the hook with a little too much gusto – it doesn’t take much – you will find your line, your fly and maybe your rod-tip tangled overhead.

So how do you overcome these problems? Think small.  Short rods and short lines. I have two short rod options. A 7′-8″ Daiwa Soyokaze that I bought from, and a Tenkara USA Iwana with the short handle (making it come in at a little over 9′ long). The Daiwa has a softer tip than the Iwana.  This is good and bad. The softer tip loads with a very light line. When you have room to backcast – casting a #2 fluorocarbon line is no problem at all. The light line makes for very delicate presentations – which on these small streams is paramount. But the trade-off is in the hookset. The soft tip can make hook-setting a little more difficult.  I think the Iwana has the edge when it comes to setting the hook. Obviously the rod length can be an issue too, with its own tradeoffs. The shorter Soyokaze makes casting a bit easier – but you lose the reach of the longer rod.  For the smallest brushiest streams, I’ll go with the short rod. If the stream is a bit more open then maybe the longer rod. The short line goes without saying. I want the line, plus tippet to be a little shorter than the rod. Not only is a short line much more manageable in the brush, but it makes the bow-and-arrow cast possible.

I think this is the smallest trout that I ever caught on a fly.

What about casting? Well on this particular stream I’d say 90% of the casting was bow-and-arrow casting. In case you are unfamiliar, the bow-and-arrow cast is done by grasping the fly at the hook bend, pulling back to bend the rod, aim the the rod at the target, and release.  This cast is crucial on small brushy streams because it allows you to cast into tight spaces without a backcast. And after some practice you can get pretty accurate with this cast. The overall length of line+tippet is crucial. You’ll find that you’ll want that total length to be just a bit shorter than the rod length. If it’s too long you won’t be able to pull the fly back far enough to load the rod for casting. Too short and it’s difficult to reach the fly without choking up on the rod or setting it down behind you.

Biggest of the day. I’ve caught some bigger fish in this tiny stream, but this was the day’s trophy.

What about hook setting? When you’re under low hanging branches you’ll find hook setting a problem. A flick of the wrist, and if you miss the fish, you’ll often find your fly and your line hopelessly tangled in the snarling branches above you. Sometimes the fish hook themselves, but often they spit the fly out. For example on this day, I’d bow-and-arrow cast the fly to a tiny pool or riffle, begin a dead-drift, and the line would dodge or stop, I’d try to set the hook gently – invariably it would be too late and end up in the trees. I’d try to let them hook themselves by applying just a gentle pressure to the rod when I had a strike – but these were pretty small fish, and they would not hook themselves that way.  So I went to plan C.  What worked for me was this; I’d cast and when the fly hit the water I’d begin making small pulses – almost jigging the fly, kind of like a bunch of small preemptive strikes.   It worked.  And it worked well.  I finally began hooking fish and not hooking overhanging branches. Getting the fly moving a little seemed to be just the ticket to getting positive hook-sets.

 It may go without saying but stealth is crucial.  These fish are not picky. They will try to eat just about any fly that will fit in their mouths. But they are spooky. You need to be sneaky. Walk slowly, avoid wading if at all possible, cast no shadows on the water, don’t shake the overhead branches, don’t let your line slap on the water and watch the tail of the pool. This can take a lot of patience and focus.  But you will not catch fish if you spook them. There is no long distance casting on a stream like this – you are going to have to get close. If you’re fishing a small mountain stream like this, that you know has fish, and you’re not getting strikes then you’re not being stealthy enough.  The toughest approaches on this stream were the larger pools. Often a fish would be sitting in the skinny water just at the tail end of the pool. In spite of my best efforts these fish were very difficult to fish to without spooking.  Getting close enough was a big problem,and then casting too was an issue.  If anything more than the fly hit the water – they were gone. Even the light #2 level line was plenty to spook them. The heads of the pools offered a nice bit of broken water making the approach much easier.

The fish are small – there is no glory of big fish here.  There is no hatch-matching. There is no technical midge fishing. It is a different set of challenges, but this is perhaps some of the toughest fishing I do. On these tiny, brushy streams, I feel like I work harder for fish than just about anywhere.

23 Comments on More Small Stream Tenkara: Some musing and a few practical ideas for small stream tenkara

  1. Your first paragraph truly describes a meditation, what Thich Nhat Hanh might call a “Fishing Deditation,’ a companion to his walking Meditation and Dishwashing Meditation. You describe the phenomenon well, becoming part of your environment and losing self.

    An analogous, and yet reversed, experience is something I used to experience when I hunted squirrels. When I would enter the woods it was silent, but after I had been sitting motionless on the ground under a tree for half an hour or so, the forest was full of sounds, the woods critters having accepted me as part of the scenery.

    This is a fine piece. Thanks for posting it.

  2. How to edit? Fishing Dedication should of course have been Fishing Meditation. Could have been worse. Maybe Fishing Medication.

  3. Anthony, you describe fishing the very small, very brushy eastern streams well. You will be able to use a slightly longer line (if you wish) by holding the line/tippet connection rather than the fly when doing your bow and arrow casts. As I release, I always raise my hand to keep it well out of the way of the fly but I haven’t been hooked yet.

  4. Great post. I find these streams to be very fun and restorative, especially after a busy or hard day at work. I don’t play chess, but fishing a stream like this is my chess game!


  5. Anthony: I would recommend his book “Peace Is Every Step.” It is a very fundamental book about meditation, simple but not simplistic. That is where he writes about walking meditation and dishwashing meditation. It is good companion to the books by Eckhart Tolle, little overlap. I am a big fan of Thich. You might also enjoy his “The Miracle of Mindfulness,” which is more along the lines of Tolle, but more compressed. Tolle, incidentally, is, in my opinion, among those writers whose books (in his voice) are probably better on an audiobook than a print edition.

    Chris: I too am fearful of the bow and arrow cast, as if the arrow might have a hook hidden in the fletching. Yet, I may try your tip as to where to grasp.

  6. Paul – If you are concerned you could always use barbless hooks and carry a hip flask with a potion containing a reasonable percentage of alcohol (for medicinal use or course).

  7. Chris — You not only have a good point, you made me laugh out loud. Reminds me of Hemingway and Gordon’s that accompanied him on his travels — If he needed an antiseptic, the Gordon’s was there; if he didn’t need it as an antiseptic, when he got back home he could drink the Gordon’s as a toast to not having been injured.

  8. Very cool post Anthony…informative and reminds me of my favorite type of fishing. Catching big fish is rewarding but there is something about the small mountain streams and brookies and the challenges that go into catching them that is hard to beat.

    • Thanks Chris. It’s relative I reckon – “big fish” that is. I always think of “big” as relative to the stream. There are places where I know I can catch big fish (none near me) pretty readily. It can be a blast and yes sometimes that is what I want, no doubt, but doesn’t it seem like those places where you catch a bunch of big fish cause a loss of perspective sometimes? What I mean is it can make you lose your appreciation of the fish as a fish. It’s like candy. I guess it’s all about balance.

      Or maybe it’s because what I’ve got closest to me are these streams? I don’t know. Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit, maybe if I had a bunch of big trout water near me I’d think differently. I guess it’s also about being happy with what you have.

  9. I fish “skinny water” like this almost exclusively (since the four streams within a half-hour of home are all of this type). Couple of things I have found:
    1) Its a great place to take the my young daughters. There is plenty for them to see and do and I don’t have to worry (as much) about what happens if they fall in!
    2) Light wire hooks – a 2x stout kebari is too much for most of the places I fish. There just isn’t enough flow to keep it off the bottom.
    Thanks for the great post extolling the virtues of small waters.

    • Marshall – you must be fishing some small waters if 2x stout hook is too heavy. I’m in the same boat – the closest wild trout streams to me are these small streams. None as close as 1/2 hr though.

      • Anthony – I am in the western portion of Virginia – though there are some sizable trout waters around, most of the local streams are really thin from about June through the late fall. Lots of pools where the flow is so low, a dead drift through 10 feet of water would take 4-5 minutes. At those speeds, most hooks will find the bottom eventually.

  10. What size fly is in the teenie tiny trouts mouth? What kind of fly was it? tj

    • TJ – It’s a size 12 loop-eye fly with a red silk loop eye, black thread body and silver wire rib. It’s got hen pheasant tied-in sakasa style. I think I’ve seen Jason Klass ( and Karel Lansky ( very similar flies. I’ve always had good luck with black thread, silver-ribbed midges, and that’s the way that I came to it. You’ll notice that it’s tied on an eyed-hook, this is only because I didn’t have any proper eye-less hooks at the time.

      It’s size 12 because…well no good reason, but I’ve been tying all my sakasa kebari on size 12 just to keep it simple.

  11. So how long was the loop you created for the eye and what knot are you using from tippet to loop?


    • TJ – I don’t know exactly how long that one was, but I happen to be tying some now and the loop, once tied in is about 4 to 5 mm long. I use an Orvis knot for all tippet connections. I tested the Orvis knot against most other tippet knots – and it tested stronger than all those that I tested. The other great thing about the orvis knot is that you can tighten it away from the fly – trim the tag end and then pull it tight to the eye – this is especially nice with sakasa kebari, and loop eye flies because then you’re not bringing the nippers close to the loop and the forward hackle isn’t in your way when you clip the tag end.

  12. Our streams are that small but open for the most part. For steep mountain valley streams, two approaches I choose. A 3m 7:3 short lined with a braided taper. Or a 5’6″ 3-weight with a light super large arbor reel. There is no disgrace in FF. shooting line in the eye of a nEedle takes far more skill than a tenkara bow twang. It is a personal choice. Nice read.

  13. Dear Friend
    Beautiful place,beautiful fish.I loved it much.Here in Turkey,the city I work and live is one of the smallest cities in Turkey but it has great small stream network all leading to a bigger river called Coruh River.I m interested in Tenkara recently and I have great difficulty in casting on small streams.I would like to get more help from you.Please get in touch with me and share your experiences.Thank you.

what say you?