Knowing what to do after you get the fish on the hook is a whole separate set of tenkara skills
"Tenkara-No-Oni" Masami Sakibara is extremely mindful of his surroundings and how they relate to his fishing.
While casting and fly manipulation are key aspects of tenkara fishing, they really only take us to the point of getting a fish on the hook. There is significant work to do afterwards! In this post, we'll look at what takes place after we draw that strike, and how we can maximize our chances of landing the fish he we put on the hook. Watching "Tenkara-No-Oni" Masami Sakibara provides excellent lessons in situational awareness, so lets look at video of him landing an average trout on the Provo river during Oni School 2017. Being highly aware of the environment and the task at hand, Oni shifts between being very stable and very mobile as the situation demands...
Can "solar eclipse magic" help counter the challenges of small Driftless streams when tenkara fishing in late August?
Driftless small streams in late summer mean high grass, and that means you better be ready to dial your game in tight.
Nope. Badger don't believe in any "solar eclipse magic" nonsense! That being said, I hit the water on Monday hoping that some extra darkness would give me an edge for tenkara fishing, but the truth is I don't think it made a lick of difference. Maybe it looked a little more like a gloomy February day then a gloomy August day, but the fish didn't seem to care. They were tucked safely into rocky cut-banks protected by tall grass overhangs that blocked most of the clear casting lanes. It was a good opportunity to hone my skills, so despite extremely overgrown condition of the stream, I got to work.
The target zones were small. 1-3 feet wide, and 2-4 ft long. Depths maxed out around 3-4 feet, but that was only on a few holes, mostly I was working water about 18 inches deep. Every space had cut-banks and overhangs for the fish to dive for once hooked, so all of the fights were short and focused on landing as quickly and cleanly as possible. It was sweaty, hot, and tiresome pushing through tall grass looking for spots to cast to - but I brought close to 20 brown and brook trout to hand in about 3 hours! Sizes ranged from 6-14 inches. How did I make my tenkara fishing produce in such restricted terrain?
1) I fish a rig I am well practiced with. I can sense the casting range, balance, and weight shifts very easily because I am highly familiar with it. Practical Consideration: Get to know your rod and rigs, introduce disruptive system changes slowly and as a last option. Learn the feel of the casting range of the rig. This is critical and extremely useful!
2) I've developed confidence in dealing with snags. In many cases now, I can gently pull and lift most grass snags back and recover them. Practical Consideration: The key to this may be found in the cast and the way your fly presents. If you are watching it present and it falls on grass - don't yank or pull back hard, causing a "hard snag" that requires an up close and personal recovery. Instead, freeze - then bring it back softly and see how many less snags spoil those nice bends you are targeting.
Brook trout caught at the time of Eclipse totality.
3) Using the system familiarization from point #1 to dial in my tenkara fishing, I do a of casting to target zones that I simply cannot see. But If I know the zone looks clear, then I can stay out of fish sight lines to deliver the cast and work the drift. Practical Consideration: Using your ability to sense balance and weight on the system, and watching your line to maintain proper tension, you can still get excellent drifts in the in the top water column. A secondary consideration to this is knowing just where to stop your cast to make sure you do not lay too much line down and spoil the drift, or too little and leave the fly dangling in the air.
4) I work shorter drifts and accommodate for obstacles. Practical Consideration: Focus on delivering solid technique, and make those presentations count for the short amount of time you have. Be prepared to alter your drift and technique to address obstacles as your line navigates the course. I have executed drifts were I guided the fly slowly through a 4 ft section, moving the rod tip gently to ensure that the line stayed clear of grass overhangs along the way, and picked up fish 3/4 of the way through the drift. You have to steer without disturbing the fly's drift or action, and maintain proper line tension while doing it.
This hefty 14-inch Brown was the best of the day.
Like most things in life, there is no magic shortcut to productive tenkara fishing in challenging conditions. It requires a focus on the fundamental skills, attention to detail, and a willingness to push your limits. The cool thing is, if you work hard on that - it may start to feel like you ARE working magic!
Remember to think on your feet when tenkara fishing
I was losing the fight. In the moment, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. In retrospect, it is all terribly clear. The fight in mention was a sparring match during a recent Tae Kwon Do tournament. My first round opponent was a good guy that I have beaten a number of times. I certainly was not taking him for granted, but I was perhaps a little too certain I would make it to the next round. This time, though, he came at much more aggressively than I anticipated and I immediately went into defensive mode. To paraphrase Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.
Attention to detail helps sharpen the fundamental skills of successful Tenkara fishing
When we say "small water tenkara" we mean it!
I had a few extra hours to spare on the first day of spring, so I swung by one of my favorite "small water" gems to sharpen up my game. This tiny, spring fed stream barely registers on most angler's radars. Averaging about 18 inches deep and 2-3 feet wide, the water is crystal clear and rarely moving fast enough to break up the surface. It is best to fish early in the season before overhanging brush clogs the casting lanes, but I visit it on and off throughout the year when I want to polish my casting and stalking skills. Because make no doubt - fishing small water will push your abilities to the limit!
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!
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!
These are exciting times for Tenkara anglers in America. All across the country, festivals, workshops, summits, and gatherings are showcasing a growing variety of equipment and fishing styles. One of the most exciting opportunities to develop so far has been the Oni Tenkara School USA, held June 13-15 in Utah, and hosted (with excellent hospitality) by Tenkara Guides LLC. This was an opportunity to learn from Masami Sakakibara, “Tenkara-no-Oni” - one of the most respected and experienced Tenkara anglers in the world!
The weekend was an exceptional learning experience on many levels. Rather than try to cram everything into one post, we're going to break it down into a few posts so we can focus on different topics in a bit more detail. This post will convey observations about Tenkara-no-Oni himself, the equipment he favors, and his angling style.
Soft spoken and quick to smile, Masami Sakakibara is humble and well mannered. His English is very limited, but not once did I see him become frustrated with the gestures and hand signals that passed as communications when the translator was not around. He did a remarkable job of transmitting information despite this disadvantage. Corrections to body stance or an adjustment to a cast's timing were all made with a subtle nudge and gentle re-positioning of arm or wrist.
"Tenkara-no-Oni" demonstrates casting from a kneeling postion directly towards the class.
Getting feedback while doing my best to cast a 6 meter level line on an Oni type II rod.
It should come as no surprise that Tenkara-no-Oni fishes, wait for it - Oni rods. These rods were developed to his specifications and reflect his personal preferences. Their soft actions are exceptionally well balanced and fine tuned for casting light weight level lines. While my personal preferences run towards stiffer, tip flex actions, there is no denying that the Oni rods are high quality precision instruments. My favorite among them was the Type 3, a 3.4 meter rod with an EVA foam handle. Without a doubt, It is one of the best balanced rods I've ever cast.
On the water, he fished more practical lengths of line (4-5 meters) with a tippet section of about 3 feet, but on several occasions Oni demonstrated long line casting with line lengths exceeding 10 meters. It was explained that while this would be largely impractical on the water, it serves as excellent training for casting and manipulating "normal" length level lines. The idea being that if you can control a 10 meter line, you'll be able to exert even more control over a 3-5 meter line. There is certainly a logic to that!
As far as all of those amazing, graceful casts that you see Oni make on YouTube videos - 100% real. He makes crisp but never overpowered casts that rely more on timing than force. One major thing to note is that he does not give his cast time to straighten out behind him. Often times, the line was still travelling backwards, the line tip overhead, when the rod tip was snapping forward again. The cast's backstroke was the familiar abrupt stop at 12 o'clock, but it was a much faster backstroke than I expected.
Oni works a pool while the class observes.
One big take away from watching Oni fish was that his entire body is involved in supporting the cast. He places the foot on his casting side forward and firmly plants it before making the throw. He often drops into a slight crouch to lower his center of gravity and settle into a stable position. Conversely, when he gets a good sized fish on the hook, he does not remain rooted in place. He springs quickly into action and moves as needed to play the fish. This seamless shift between stability and mobility gives him whichever advantage he needs at a given moment to best target or land a fish.
Oni keeps a light and flexible grip on the rod. During the cast, the butt travels 2-3 inches out from his wrist before returning. I saw him make several corrections on casts where the angler was creating too much separation, so this is likely a core aspect of his casting style. A frequent move I observed was Oni re-positioning his hand on the upper, middle, or lower grip by doing a small, quick toss of the rod into the air and then grabbing it where he wanted it next. I suspect that this was largely to make minor adjustments in range, used in conjunction with body position when setting up for a cast.
Tactically, he made very thorough and varied explorations of key water. He would target specific zones and terrain features, in sequences set to minimize disturbance to areas he had not yet hit. When fishing a pool, he would fish the near edge, then the bottom, then the far edge, then get out and move around the far side of the pool, and fish the entire pool again from an upstream position with different drifts and tactics.
On some casts, the line would be kept off the water entirely, and others, half the line was in the water as he played the fly downstream. Some drifts were very short, 2-3 seconds long, and others were very long, as he drifted an entire broad section of current from top to bottom. There did not seem to be any hard and fast and rules, and his tactics were extremely dynamic.
Of course, it goes without saying that his casts were precise and consistently impressive. You could tell that he was not just casting into that shadowy area by the bank, he was casting to that clump of grass sticking out by that particular rock in the shadowy area by the bank - because that is exactly where the cast would land.
I had the pleasure of watching him catch a good sized cutthroat that gave him some nice runs and those of us watching a good look at him playing the fish. The fish put a serious bend into the rod and Oni brought up his off hand to support the rod. If you have not seen this technique, it is a good one to learn. He applies his off hand with an open palm to the section up above the grip. It is important to note that he does not grasp the section - that would stop the section from being able to flex. He simply puts his open hand there to act as a resistance for the fish to pull the rod against, and at the same time, drops the rod sideways so that it is mostly parallel to the water. This lets the rod flex and distribute the force of the fight across the entire rod.
After a smart fight, Oni catches a nice cutthroat.
It was an honor and pleasure to meet Tenkara-no-Oni and an invaluable learning experience to watch him fish. There was a lot to learn and I am still processing much of it myself. Hopefully, I've passed on something from the experience in this post that you'll find useful or thought provoking for your own Tenkara fishing. In the next post, I'll cover aspects of the trip concerning the great group of people gathered there at Oni School, and the phenomenal waters we fished. Stay tuned!
Thank you Masami Sakakibara for sharing your time and knowledge with us!