Big Smallmouth Tenkara Fishing on the Wisconsin River
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!
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.
If you are anywhere near the area, or even if you are not, I highly recommend an outing on the Wisconsin with Black Earth angling. If you are fishing tenkara, I would suggest the following:
- 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.
Photos by Kyle Zempel