A little while back Rob Worthing of the Tenkara Guides asked me to do some figures for a presentation that he was doing at the first Appalachian Tenkara Jam in North Carolina. I agreed to do them on the condition that he do a guest post based on his presentation for me here at Casting Around. So that’s what follows below – text by Rob and figures by me.
Fixed Line Fly Fishing for Big Fish
Text Rob Worthing
Tenkara Guides LLC
illustrations by Anthony Naples
“Big” is a relative term. In fly fishing, big is dependent on variables such as fish species, body of water, and gear used. Fish species and body of water help determine how often a fish reaches a certain size. Pluck a 16 inch brook trout out of a small Smoky mountain stream, and you have yourself a pretty big fish. Gear used determines how much skill it takes to win the fight. To land a 22 inch German brown on a size 20 mayfly and 6x tippet, you’ll need some big fish skills.
At Tenkara Guides LLC, I would estimate our average trout at around 15 inches (38cm). We routinely land trout in the 18 inch (46cm) range. Our clients, who are frequently inexperienced with fixed line techniques, also land trout in this range without difficulty. The largest trout we have caught on a tenkara rod to date is around 27 inches (68cm). With a little experience, 20+ inch trout are landed reliably and in elegant fashion.
That’s quite a bit bigger than what most manufacturers have in mind when they design tenkara rods. Our friends in Harima Tenkara Club confirm that 15 inches (38cm) is trophy size in most Japanese tenkara waters. Yet tenkara rods are quite capable of handling big trout. In fact, fixed line fly fishing can take us far beyond what most think is possible.
This article is about fixed line fly fishing for big fish. We won’t tell you what fly to tie on, or exactly what rod you should buy. To do that we would have to presume your definition of “big” is the same as ours, and that wouldn’t be very useful. Instead, what follows are a few key concepts that will help you build big fish skills, regardless of how you choose to define “big”.
The Spectrum of Fixed Line Fly Fishing
The world of tenkara isn’t quite as simple as you may think. Turns out there are subdivisions of tenkara in Japan. For our purposes, we’ll refer to these subdivisions as headwater tenkara, mountain stream tenkara, and mainstream tenkara. Rods intended for tight, small headwaters located deep in the mountains are relatively light and usually shorter. Rods intended for mountain stream tenkara are a bit sturdier. Rods intended for mainstream rivers, where casting tends to be more open, are frequently longer, and may be beefier still.
Don’t think of these subdivisions as distinct or well-defined. Rather, think of them as part of a continuous spectrum of tenkara. More importantly, think of tenkara as just one part of a much bigger continuous spectrum of fixed line fishing. Near the smaller end of the spectrum is tanago. Tanago rods are intended for “microfishing”, where the popular sport might be to see who can catch a fish that fits in the diameter of a coin placed on the shore. On the other side are keiryu rods. Created primarily to huck bait with split shot, a keiryu rod might be 20ft or longer in length, and have quite a bit more backbone than tenkara rods.
The spectrum is nearly endless, with fixed line fishing methods for just about every size fish out there. There is no need to memorize all parts of the spectrum. Rather, simply understand the spectrum is continuous. Rods of one part blend and overlap with rods of the neighboring part.
This is the first useful concept in fixed line fly fishing for big fish. Pick a mainstream tenkara rod to catch a 10 inch trout, and you might not find the fight very challenging. But pair the right headwater tenkara rod with that same 10 inch trout, and things might get exciting. The definition of “big” is completely up to you.
Regardless of where you decide to land on the spectrum of fixed line fishing, there is a useful concept or two to keep in mind when choosing a rod. When you chase big fish with a fixed line rod, you rely almost wholly on the dynamic bend of the rod to attenuate the force of the fish. You don’t have a reel to help you out. Luckily, the type of fixed line rods we use for fly fishing are built with more dynamic bend compared to most fly rods with reels.
It is also important to maximize control of the fish. You can maximize control of the fish with a long lever arm. To turn your rod into a long lever arm, you need it to be stiff and, well, long. You’ll find out why a long lever arm is important later. For now, trust me on this one.
When you want to build big fish skills, pick a rod that is a bit stiffer from the already dynamic fixed line rod spectrum. A general rule of thumb is to reach for a rod with an action index of 6:4 or greater. And shorten the line before you shorten the rod. Choose the longest rod you feel you can effectively fish with under a given set of conditions.
Rigging is where rod, line, and fly come together. There is no “correct” formula, only personal preference and choice. A useful concept when making the choice is to start with the fish and work your way backwards.
First, determine what fish (size, species, etc) you anticipate chasing. This lays the foundation from which you determine the rest of your rig. For example, if you intend on chasing 20 inch brown trout, a mainstream tenkara rod or keiryu rod might be a good starting point on the spectrum of fixed line fishing. As you gain big fish skills, you may find you are able to reliably and elegantly land 20 inch trout with a mountain stream tenkara rod.
Second, determine what general type of fly you figure on fishing with. Tenkara rods are primarily designed to cast unweighted or very lightly weighted flies. If you intend on using light flies, a tenkara rod would be a good choice. Keiryu rods, on the other hand, were made to handle split shot. If you intend on fishing with heavy nymphs, then perhaps a keiryu rod would be a better final choice.
Third, figure out what tippet you want to use. Your tippet needs to be strong enough to give you a reasonable chance of landing your fish without breaking. Using that same 20 inch trout as an example, I might want to choose a 5x fluorocarbon tippet (about 7lbs strength).
To protect your rod, it is also critical to ensure your tippet is the weakest point in your rig. Once you determine what size tippet you need to have a reasonable shot at landing your fish, you can choose a rod that will handle that size tippet without breaking. All but perhaps the lightest tenkara rods should handle 5x tippet without significant risk of breakage.
Fourth, figure out what line you want to use. Like all other components of your rig, line preference is a very personal choice. When considering the options, remember that certain lines can add extra fish fighting shock absorption to your rig. Furled lines, for example, can have quite a bit of stretch to them.
Finally, consider the water you’ll fish. The body of water, surrounding environment, and conditions help determine final rod, line, and tippet choice. Remember, a longer rod will be useful when fighting big fish. Try to preserve rod length in tight conditions.
On Playing & Landing Big Fish
There are three useful concepts for playing and landing big fish – preflight, ride the rod, and steer the fish. Learn to apply these three concepts on the water, and you will maximize the potential of your fixed line fly fishing rig.
First, preflight. Preflight involves checking your system and your surroundings. If you are reading about fixed line fly fishing for big fish, then you probably know about reading water (if not, then stop reading this, and read about that, because it’s far more important). When you read water, you determine where fish are holding, and how you will present you fly. Don’t stop there. Continue by playing out the fight in your head. Figure out where you want your fish to go, and where you don’t want it to go. Identify potential obstacles and snags, fast water that will make your big fish feel even bigger, and soft water where you will have the advantage. Formulate a plan for your fight.
Second, ride the rod. This may be the most important concept for building big fish skills. Each rod has a power curve. The power curve is the bend at which a fixed line rod is strongest under load. Playing and landing big fish involves learning to ride that power curve – feeling when the rod is in its power curve, and knowing how to keep it there. Ride the power curve, and you should never break a fixed line rod on a fish.
Of course, if you fail to keep a rod in the power curve, bad things happen. There are essentially two ways to get out of the power curve. You can close the curve, or you can open it. Closing the curve causes a rod to break in the distal sections. Closing the curve most frequently occurs when you are about to land your fish. If you straighten your arm straight above your head, or grab the line up high, you might close the curve. Correction is easy. Keep your elbow at your side. When you reach for the line, reach out and down, not up.
Opening the curve is more common, and the effect can be catastrophic. The best example is a fish that runs. There is a solution. When a fish runs and your power curve begins to open, tuck the butt of the rod under the tip. Stepping forward and dropping a knee exaggerates the effect, putting you back in the power curve.
Third, steer the fish. This is one of those mystical powers of fixed line fly fishing. There are few things more satisfying than using the long lever arm that a fixed line rod gives you to steer a big fish. A hooked fish tends to want to run away from the source of danger. That danger lies in the direction of the tugging line. It might catch you off guard and successfully run straight upstream as you struggle to keep that power curve. Or, tethered by the line, it might run to one side or another, seeking safe haven in all those snags and obstacles you identified in your preflight. Either way is bad for you. You want to steer your fish in a direction that gives you the advantage.
To steer a fish, simply change the direction from which the fish feels the tug. If the fish runs right toward a rooted undercut bank, drop the rod low and to the right. The fish will feel the tug coming from the same direction it is running, and change direction. Note we are dropping the rod in the same direction that the fish is running. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but makes sense once you understand the direction of tug concept. If this fails and the fish continues in a direction you don’t want it to go, try dropping the rod in the opposite direction. Keep changing that direction of pull, and you will find yourself netting your big fish in the soft water you scoped out during preflight.
There is one last strategy we ought to discuss on playing and landing big fish. Throwing the rod. Heard of this one? It literally involves throwing your rod after the fish. When you throw your rod, the fish no longer feels the tug of the line. Fish tend to hunker down in a safe haven when they no longer feel the tug of the line. Luckily, most fixed line rods float. You simply take a deep breath, walk up to your rod, pick it up and start the rodeo over again in the hopes that it turns out better the second time.
As an absolute last resort, throwing the rod can be useful when you find yourself in an open curve, can’t recover with a tuck, and can’t steer the fish. If you are physically able and it is safe to do so, moving your feet after the fish is greatly preferred. You would have to move your feet to get your rod after the throw anyway. And by keeping the rod in your hands, you avoid getting stuck in a snag or obstacle, which is just the type of safe haven your fish is likely to hunker down in after the throw. Finally, consider the limitations of the throw on bigger or deeper water, where retrieval of your rod might not be possible.
If a lousy hunter mistakes you for an elk and shoots you in the knee, or you just can’t risk spilling that beer you’re holding in the hand that’s freed now that you’re fixed line fly fishing, then maybe this maneuver is for you. Otherwise, if you want to consider the throw, do so only after absolutely everything else has failed.
Here is a quick review of the concepts on fixed line fly fishing for big fish we covered in this article:
Fixed line rods are built with dynamic fish fighting properties, and are capable of handling much more than most of us think.
There is a nearly endless spectrum of fixed line fishing. You can make a big fish feel small, or a small fish feel big depending on where you land in the spectrum.
Choose a stiffer, longer fixed line rod when chasing big fish.
When choosing your rig, start with the fish and work your way back. Remember, the tippet should always be the weakest link.
Preflight, ride the rod, and steer the fish!