Balance, Power, and Precision for Unconventional Tenkara Fishing
Mike rides the power curve with a nice smallmouth on the hook.
As Summer slides ever closer and the weather here in Wisconsin continues to stabilize, our tenkara fishing focus shifts from trout to bass. We've started making the rounds on our local smallmouth streams, and slowly but surely, the bite switch is definitely moving into the "on" position! The timing couldn't have been better - we just got our first shipment of the new WISCO 2 rods in and we've been excited to get them on the water. We took them out to "Little Left Branch" to see if the Bronzebacks were ready to play, and got to put the rods through the paces on some nice fish...
If you haven't caught on yet - Badger Tenkara is just short of obsessed with fishing for Smallmouth Bass on Tenkara rods. Seriously - we are thrilled to live on some of America's most unique trout water, but we countdown to when the creeks warm up enough for the Bronzebacks to get fired up. I made it out over the weekend to fish a new section of a smaller river. Things started out so slow I almost packed it up and left - intermittent rains moved in and likely water wasn't producing. I told myself I'd fish one more likely run before heading back to the Jeep. Luckily...that is when the bite kicked in!
Tenkara fishing for Smallmouth on the Wisconsin river during the Crash feeding Frenzy
It is a great time of year on the lower Wisconsin. The weather is warm, the bugs are not yet too thick, and most importantly, the annual phenomenon known locally as "The Crash" has finally begun. What's that you say - never heard of it? It's a month or so period of time where schools of ravenously hungry, thug-like big river Bronzebacks cruise around corralling bait-fish in places they can trap them against restrictive terrain features - and then gorge on them in splashy feasts that boil the water as the entire school feeds and the baitfish attempt to flee for their lives. Bass fly through the air, smash fish on the surface, and swim in crazy circles as they pursue their prey. It sometimes leaves you awestruck just watching them, and it is almost enough to make you forget to fish - almost.
The Smallmouth Bass may be the perfect Tenkara sport fish
Quite possibly the Midwest's PERFECT Tenkara sport fish!
If there is such a thing as "Smallmouth Fever", Badger has caught a serious case of it! Don't get us wrong, we love the field-craft and rich traditions of trout fishing (both Japanese and American!). But the Smallmouth Bass is a ferocious opponent that may just be the Midwest's perfect Tenkara sport fish. Why is that? Being a warm water fish, it enjoys a range much wider than trout, so it is more readily available to a larger number of anglers. Most importantly - ounce for ounce and pound for pound, NOTHING fights like a Smallmouth on the Hook!
An opportunity opened up to explore a new section of Left Hand Branch the other day, and it did not disappoint. It was one of those evenings on the water that washes away the last few weeks of stress and reminds you of everything about fishing that you love. I caught about 30 fish in three hours, and while none that I brought to hand was more than 12 inches or so, even those "average" sized stream bass were a BLAST!
I fished the Classic rod with 12 feet of Badger-Lite line and 6 feet of 6lb test mono. Having the fished this water with the WISCO before, I knew that the rod was overkill for this kind of water - but the Classic is just right for these size bass. Size #6 Pass Lake flies with chartreuse wings (the "Nuclear" recipe") or white calf-tail proved yet again to be devastatingly effective against smallies.
Greeting me at the turn-style was this sign, posted by the Wisconsin Smallmouth Alliance. They are a great conservation group, similar in mission to Trout Unlimited. The sign's title really speaks to me. It's message supporting catch and release is a great way to ensure that we have good fishing for years to come, and the "fighter" nickname really suits the smallmouth attitude. It really stuck with me throughout the evening. Man, I hope if life ever puts a hook in my mouth and starts to pull me into a net, I fight back with the same spirit as a Smallmouth Bass!
Knee-deep in perfect Smallmouth water!
So, on to the fishing. This section of of Left Hand Branch is spectacular smallie water. Rarely more than knee-deep, it was full of classic structure - a rocky bottom and occasional patches of vegetation that made great holding lies. Casting to visible structure, edges, and current streams was productive. In slower, flat water where structure was harder to see, a steady prospecting pattern of dropping casts every 15-20 feet worked well, often pulling fish from every spot before moving upstream to repeat.
Dead drifts were effective, but many casts produced nearly instant top-water strikes! Since the water was shallow, most times you could see the fish rocket up for the take, and in the first catch of the video, you'll see the v-wake as the fish launches out of cover to make the strike. Another technique that worked really well was following up a big splashy presentation with finger taps to the cork grip during the drift. This noisy approach drew a lot of strikes, especially when used on the edges of cover.
The bass were really in the mood to feed. Not only did they bite steadily on the flies I cast, but I witnessed some minor "crash" behavior too! I stumbled onto a section of the stream where bass were driving shiners out of deeper water into the shallows where they would attempt the kill. It appeared to be one or maybe two bass hunting, instead of a larger school like we've seen on the Wisconsin river, but it was really cool to see. Check out the slow-mo footage in the video!
You'll see in the video that I had an intense battle with what would have been the "fish of the day" IF I would have landed it. We had a serious duel there for a while, but then the fly snapped off. I am certain that this happened because I had already caught a mess of fish on the fly and had not bothered to re-rig or even inspect my gear during that time. Especially with bass, I should be checking and making sure that the my gear is in order, because, bass teeth can do a number on tippet sections. That fish did give me a solid fight, so after taking a moment to vent, I rendered him a hand salute in respect. Fair warning fish - I'll be back for you soon!
Our friend Jim dropped us a line to tell us about the Woolly Bugger variant he's been slaying late summer Smallmouth with on the Kishwaukee River in Illinois. He has been having so much fun catching bass on his WISCO, he decided to call it the BADGER BUGGER. We thought that was pretty cool, and we also think it is a great pattern worth sharing - check it out!
#6 Eagle Claw streamer hook
Danville Light Olive 70 denier waxed 6/0
Olive Marabou tail
Pearl Krystal Flash
Body dubbed with Semi Seal Gold Halo
Body hackled with Wooly Bugger Saddle Hackle Olive Variant and Estaz UV Lights Glissen Gloss Fibers Chartreuse.
Beadhead size of choice. Make 13 wraps of .015 lead wire to the hook shank and push it up into the beadhead to steady the bead and add just a little more weight.
Saddle hackle and Estaz are twisted together before wrapping. After fly is done, brush out the entire body.
Big Smallmouth Tenkara Fishing on the Wisconsin River
I think the real measure of a fly fishing guide is the ability to put clients on fish despite adverse conditions. In the little informal guiding I have done, I have been blessed with days of favorable conditions, fish on the bite and having the creeks pretty well to ourselves. It is easy to look like a great guide on those days. On my recent trip with Kyle Zempel from Black Earth Angling Company, conditions were not so favorable, but Kyle still managed to get us into plenty of fish.
Kyle is a fly fishing guide based outside of Madison, Wisconsin. While he loves to fly fish (and guide) for trout, I think Wisconsin River smallmouth bass are his real passion. Kyle knows the river and its fish like few others. On the day of our outing, the river was at one of its lowest points in Kyle’s guiding career. Some of his “good spots” were now only inches deep. Not a great way for a guide to have to start his day. It is a big, sprawling river, so finding the fish can be no easy task. We were also facing gusting winds that proved challenging for casting at times, not to mention boat positioning. This was also Kyle’s first exposure to tenkara. No pressure here, folks!
A bit about the boat: Kyle owns what is probably the ideal boat for fishing the Wisconsin. It looks like an elongated skiff. It has a nice fishing platform up front. It can be drifted and rowed like a classic drift boat, but when you need to get from spot to spot, or back to the boat launch, Kyle fires up the jets. Yes, it is a jet boat! The jet motor allows you to cruise across the shallows of the Wisconsin River at speed. Drift boats are romantic, sure, and canoes have their charm, but the jet boat is really the way to go!
As we drifted down the banks of our first section of the river, we found the water level to be unexpectedly low. Repeated casts drew nothing. After giving it the college try, Kyle fired up the jets and hit the next spot. One of the great things about fishing on the Lower Wisconsin River is the opportunity to get out and wet wade. You can boat along the river, beach the boat on a sand bar and then fish to drop offs and structure as you wade in the shallows under the summer sun. It will make you feel like a kid again, for sure.
At one such stop we were fishing where a cold water trout stream fed into the Wisconsin. Feeling the cold water of the trout stream pour into the warm Wisconsin river was an enjoyable contrast. I hooked my first fish of the day there, a feisty fish we estimated to go about 17 inches. After letting the fish ride the rod for a bit, I started to hand line him in. I got him to my feet when, inexplicably, I arrogantly uttered “you’re mine now, fish”. Then he broke off. Talk about karma.
We drifted along again and then anchored at a section of river that offered a variety of fishing opportunities: rocks, logs, current fluctuations and bank structure. I handed Kyle the Badger Tenkara Classic rod while I continued to fish the WISCO. Kyle quickly landed a nice 14 inch or so bass, his first fish on tenkara. As he fished along a log, he hooked into a beast. I tried my best to coach him, giving him the abbreviated version of Rob Worthing’s “How to land big fish on tenkara” talk (should be required viewing for anyone chasing big smallies on tenkara). For better or worse, the fish wrapped itself around a log. I was able to net it, snap a photo and release it. The fish measured 20 ¼ inches. It is one of the bigger fish Kyle has caught on the river, and it was on a Tenkara rod! What impressed me even more than the fish’s length was its mass. The proportions of the fish were like nothing I have ever seen. I was in awe the rest of the day.
Kyle caught this beast, which was released safely so that it could report to work as an NFL linebacker.
Our next spot proved even better. The current here ripped along the bank of a small island, creating a deep channel. The perfect ambush spot for hungry bass to chase bait. We hooked one fish after another here. Every time the fishing would start slow down and I would think it was time to move on, another fish would hit. I did not land them all, but I landed quite a few! The biggest was 17 inches, which is the second largest smallmouth I have caught on the river. The largest was on my 8 weight fly rod, so needless to say, this was a much more interesting battle on the Classic! Most of the fish we caught in this section hovered around the 14 inch mark, some a little smaller, some bigger, but all vigorous and strong. I completely lost count of the number of fish we caught in this section, which is always a good sign!
At our next spot, we were treated to one of the iconic spectacles of fishing the Lower Wisconsin River: “the crash”. Smallmouth will chase bait into the shallows, then explode at surface as they feast. It is cool enough just to watch, not to mention fish. We drew repeated strikes from the fish and landed several more. It was pretty darn exciting.
Bring your “A” game! This is NOTHING like fishing for trout, even big trout. Pound for pound, I don’t know that there is another freshwater fish that fights like a smallmouth, and there are some big ones in the river. I highly recommend watching Rob Worthing of Tenkara Guides LLC “fighting big fish on tenkara” presentation.
Consider a “big fish” tenkara rod. We caught a lot of fish on the Classic that day, and it stood up to the abuse, but we were really asking a lot of the rod. The WISCO is a great rod for this sort of fishing!
Consider bringing a back up rod, spare tip section and/or field repair kit. These fish really push the limits of what can be done with tenkara. These fish can break rods if you are careful on how you play the fish.
I can’t wait for my next opportunity to chase big smallmouth on the Wisconsin River. You should try it, too!
Fishing the WI River Smallmouth Feeding Frenzy with Tenkara
Ben waiting for the water to boil.
Earlier this year we started hearing stories about an early Summer phenomenon that locals call "The Crash". The word was that the Smallmouth Bass in the Wisconsin River like to school up, drive bait-fish into the shallows, and then feast on them in a feeding frenzy that puts the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" to shame. When my friend Ben suggested we canoe out to a few spots where we'd be likely see the Crash and fish it, there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to see it first hand!
This also happened to be a great opportunity put our WISCO rods to the test. Ben said we'd need some range to keep from spooking the school, so we rigged up with 18 feet of floating line and another 8 feet of 6lb test mono. The plan was to fish the surface with Crease Fly Poppers, similar to the one pictured below. We were lucky - the first place we checked had a school of Smallies crashing, so we pulled up the canoe and got set.
A Crease Fly Pattern similar to what we fished.
It was like an old west shootout! You stand there, ready to cast, waiting for the first sign of a disturbance on the surface. Suddenly, you'd see a bait-fish jump, or the swirl of a near surface take, and you'd cast out past it and pop/jig the retrieve back towards you. By then, most of the surface would erupt with jumping and thrashing bass as they picked off the trapped bait-fish. The strikes came as the frenzied bass mistook the crease fly as a fleeing victim - BAM! They'd crush it and the fight was on. Once we had them on the hook, we'd move them back and away from the "crash zone" to make sure we didn't spook the school off the feed.
We caught over a half dozen nice fish ranging from 14 - 17 inches and the WISCO was far beyond capable for the task. Moderate current with plenty of room and depth for the fish to run made no difference - when we decided to bring the fish in, it was done. The third and last segment has the best footage I got of the crash itself, check out the chain reaction on the water as the bass go after those bait-fish!
Look for more Tenkara vs. Smallmouth action coming soon!
Tons of Tenkara Smallmouth on the Downstream Swing
As summer weather began to set in, Matt and I decided it was about time we started chasing some warm water fish. We had the opportunity to fish a river we heard about some time ago, but had not yet made the time to explore. I'm really glad we finally did! For the purpose of utter obfuscation, we will refer to this Wisconsin gem as the "Little Left Branch".
We had some trouble finding the river, which really isn't all bad, considering that our misdirection led to the sighting of an older gentleman piloting his powered wheelchair through a small town, shirtless, in brightly colored pajamas pants with a large cockatoo on his shoulder. You just don't see that sort of thing every day. On the way home, we learned that some Amish buggies are equipped with headlights. It's about more than just the fishing, you see!
When we finally arrived at our jumping off point, we were greeted by a groomed fishing platform installed by a fishing club. There was a deep pool with swirling back eddy that looked very promising. It was big enough for us both to fish, so we started at opposite ends and worked towards the middle. Nothing. I'm sure this portion of the river gets some pressure, but it was still a little disappointing to draw a blank from such promising water. We then had to decide whether to move upstream or down. Upstream looked narrower with a canopy of trees, so we chose the downstream route. We decided to hike downstream and then fish back upstream.
After a couple hundred yards, we found a nice looking run with a bubble line along the far bank. I cast and quickly got into a fish, perhaps a 9 or 10 inch smallmouth. I lost him as I was about to net him. Our intel had told this creek is loaded with bass, but they are generally small, around 10 inches being the common size. Fine with us. A couple minutes later, Matt hooked into a larger fish that really gave him a fight. We were reminded just how pugnacious these stream smallmouth are compared to even wild brown trout. Frankly, they make the trout look a little lazy. Matt did a great job playing that vigorous fish, thanks in part to some great tips from the presentation given by Rob Worthing of Tenkara Guide LLC at Midwest Tenkara Fest.
I then noticed a very promising looking cliff pool downstream from us. Our original plan was to head back upstream, but this section of water looked too good to leave behind. I suggested to Matt that we alter our plans. I avoided the temptation to go straight to the cliff and worked my way downstream instead. I'm glad I did. There was a drop off a few yards ahead of the cliff pool that was more or less invisible. It turned out to be one of the most productive portions of the creek. I landed my largest fish of the day from that pool, and it gave up several more for both of us.
Most of our casts were down stream. The fish would take the fly on the swing or as it was twitched on the retrieve. They were not subtle in the take! Now, I have to say that Matt is pretty good at fishing downstream, but it feels very foreign to me; a little like writing left-handed. I'm just very used to fishing upstream. Our tenkara journey, though, has always been about learning and trying new things.
I should mention a bit about our gear. We were both fishing the Badger Tenkara Classic, which Matt has dubbed "the AK-47 of Tenkara rods". It is affordable, durable and can function in a variety of environments. We were both fishing Badger floating line. Matt had 4 pound test tippet, I had 6 pound test mono-filament. Matt was using a variation on his go-to fly, the "Nuclear Pass Lake", tied by our buddy Dale Hewitt. I was using a white cone head streamer. They both worked great.
We continued to move downstream from there. Fishing was steady from there on out. We were surprised at the size of some of the fish we caught. We caught many fish larger than 12 inches, which we were told would be exceptional for this creek. They were all fat, healthy and feisty. We came upon several pools that produced multiple fish for each of us. It was joyful, relaxed fun fishing.
Around sunset, we were fishing a very promising looking long run with plenty of depth and structure. For whatever reason, it seemed that the fishing had completely shut down at that point. Matt pointed out that the clouds had changed, suggesting an atmospheric pressure change. Depending on who you believe, such things can greatly influence fish behavior. As we waded back up stream, we saw some fishing frolicking near the surface. I figured they were carp, but as we got closer, we could clearly see they were gar, all in the two foot plus range. There were several of them roiling just below the surface, occasionally sticking their needle nose snouts out of the water. We guessed they were spawning, but also thought perhaps their presence put the bass off the feed.
Not every creek we explore turns out to be winner. This one was. Get out there and chase down those blue lines on the map. You never know when you will find a real gem!
Wisconsin trout season closed September 30th, but that doesn't mean we're done fishing! There's a nice bass stream we explored a little bit last year that we wanted to spend some more time on this season. We had planned to fish it during the height of summer when it is too warm to trout fish, but we had such a mild summer that that never happened. So, we were back on this little gem as soon as the trout season closed.
For once, conditions worked out in our favor. Matt and I manage to get out to fish quite a bit, sometimes multiple outings per week during the season. However, given our family and work obligations, we don't always manage to get out during the prime times of day for fishing, nor during prime conditions. I can't tell you how many times we have lost the favorable cloud cover on the way to the creek. Yesterday, though, we timed everything right. We got on the creek at about 12:30, getting towards the warmest time of day. Morning temps were in the high 40's, but it was reaching 70 by afternoon, the warm up being favorable for bass fishing. Best of all, for once the clouds rolled in about the time we started fishing. Storms were predicted for the evening, and sometimes the threat of storm seems to trigger the fish to feed.
We started in a skinny stretch of stream that we had not fished before. We brought a few rough fish to hand, which we never complain about, but were not what we were looking for. We moved up to a bridge pool that looked to have some significant depth, perhaps six feet or so. There, Matt pulled in a small mouth off the bank followed by a feisty rock bass. There was a nice brush pile on my side of the stream that was good for three rock bass, and between the two of us, we caught nearly a dozen bass and rough fish from the bridge pool!
As we moved up the stream, we came upon some bend pools there were nothing short of glorious. Smallmouth, Rockbass, a few little Bluegill, and several kinds of rough fish were hitting left and right! The smallmouths were the largest we caught, but were not huge. The smallest was 8 or 9 inches, and the larger fish were a foot, give or take a bit. Still, the fight a 12 inch smallmouth will give you on a tenkara rod is really something to behold!
The nicer pools were all good for several fish each, and the deeper runs would also produce. Dropping the fly just in front of any structure seemed to be the ticket, as was fishing tight to the bank. It was one of those days were you look at a piece of water and think "that should hold a fish", and sure enough, you'd get a take.
I was fishing the Badger Tenkara Classic with about 12 feet of our Badger floating line, followed by about 10 inches of bright red nylon Amnesia to act as an indicator with 6 feet of 2x tippet. The fly I was using was a white streamer pattern with a cone head. This rig is rather heavy for tenkara (and pretty un-tenkara), but the rod handled it just fine. The fish would tend to take fly just as it was sinking or as I started to twitch it back to me.
Matt was fishing a field modified rod with a Badger Floating Line (see Matt's comments on this below). This set up works surprising well. He started with a large version his new favorite fly, the "pass lake", and when that was lost to a snag, he switched to a bead head woolly bugger. Both worked just fine. It was cool to see the bend the Smallmouth would put in his field hacked rod!
This creek is just one of the many options we have for fishing once the trout season closes. We have some old favorites we hope to hit in the next few weeks and some new waters we have yet to explore. We'll keep you posted on what we find!
Note from Matt on field hacked rods:
Here is an easy, cost effective hack. I keep a few rolls of self-adhesive athletic tape in my kit, because it comes in handy for quick repairs to several types of gear. This stuff sells for less than $5 at just about any pharmacy or family store.
Simply remove the bottom grip section, or even a the next one or two sections from the rod. You then wrap the self adhesive tape around the new bottom section, which serves like a butt cap to keep collapsed sections secure inside the rod. Then, wrap it up another six inches or so to shape a handle.
This configuration reduced the rod's length a few feet, and results in a softer action! While I really enjoy fishing with the Badger Classic, it has a stiffer action to it that is great for larger fish. With this softer action, smaller fish are even more fun than usual!
The nice thing is that the tape only sticks to itself, and not the rod. This means that you can return the rod to its original configuration any time without damaging its finish or functionality!