Tenkara Angling for Big-Water Smallmouth

Since discovering tenkara fly-fishing a few years ago, I don’t travel much without a tenkara rod. Tenkara rods are telescopic, collapsing down to about eighteen inches and only require a fly line, leader, and a handful of your favorite flies. Minimal gear and super simple. Absolutely liberating after years of carrying a minimum of four fly boxes, two reels to accommodate floating and sinking fly line, fly line sink tips, split-shot and strike indicators for nymphs, a variety of leaders and tippet strengths, dry-fly float coat, and the list continues.  

This third-generation fly-fisherman seeking squishy, speckled trout and salmon almost exclusively, had convinced himself that fly-fishing required every possible method and fly pattern in the pack at any given time. We all know trout can be picky. But with the burden of gear selection removed from the equation, I find fly-fishing far more enjoyable, comparable to my single-digit years casting from the red clay, muddy margins of a forgotten farm pond.

Given the simplicity of tenkara gear, its easy to toss the necessary items in the truck or pack for any occasion as you never know when you might find yourself in a situation where a fishing rod would be handy. One such occasion was a recent June trip to the Snake River to still-hunt Eurasian collared doves. 

A tenkara fly rod on the Snake River is about like hunting grizzly bear with a straw and spit-wad. The gear doesn’t quite match the task. Nevertheless, I tossed the tenkara rod into the back seat with my CZ Bobwhite double-gun and hit the field. I figured once I had missed a few birds, I could sneak around some backwaters with the tenkara rod to try and pluck a few bluegill from their spawning beds. And to my surprise, my quest for panfish led to something unexpectedly better.

Gear and Fly Selection

My rod of choice for small species like panfish is the Tenkara USA Rhodo, whose namesake is the rhododendron, a native Appalachian Mountain shrub which cloaks the headwaters of many eastern wild brook trout streams. Designed to fish these tight-covered mountain streams, the Rhodo is fishable at three different lengths, 8’-6”, 9’-9” and 10’-6”. Touting a soft action, it’s a slam dunk for panfish with small flies. 

Being practical, I attached an old length of floating fly line the tip of the rod and added a few feet of 8-pound fluorocarbon as a leader. I wouldn’t recommend this for typical trout fishing, but stealth is rarely necessary for warmwater species with a Napoleon complex.

Tenkara Smallmouth Cast

Considering I was seeking spawning fish, I selected a hideously-tied size-ten prince nymph I could drop in their beds to rile up the guardian males. Just about any small nymph pattern will work in this scenario. A dry fly works perfectly in most situations as well. 

And there you have it. A rod, fly and line are the only requirements.

Methods and Habitat

My selected backwater is an old boat basin closed to public launching but is still accessible as hike-in public land. The water is relatively shallow as years of spring runoff have deposited sediment and encouraged Eurasian milfoil to flourish along the shoreline. 

A small cobble rim separates the milfoil beds from the shoreline shrubs with just enough sediment to allow suitable spawning bed development in water shallow enough to protect the bluegill from predatory fishes. Sight-fishing was simple, but the visible fish also solicit harassment from guys like me.

Just beyond the shoreline, the water drops off to about four feet. It was turbid enough to limit visibility to only a couple feet of depth. The turbidity infiltrated the milfoil beds, providing good cover for bass. 

While the tenkara rod limited my casting to about twenty-feet (rod plus line length), this was ample to cover all available near-shore depths and habitat. 

Making it Happen

As expected, the bluegill were stacked into the shallow margins of milfoil beds and guarding nests with hostility. Casting ahead, I began slowly twitching the prince nymph through the shallows and into the beds policed by the feisty gendarmes.

To my complete surprise and amusement, the bluegill that I was certain would eagerly run down and engulf the fly, fled hastily as if the nymph were noxious. A first for me in thirty-five-years of angling panfish on the fly. I assumed these fish had been recently pressured. 

Tenkara Smallmouth Catch

While switching to a smaller fly would likely have done the trick, I decided to change tactics, casting beyond the weed bed and letting the fly sink. On the second cast, the line jerked as if someone reached out and flicked it with a finger. 

Popping the rod tip and sinking the hook into what I thought was a bigger bluegill turned out to be a smallmouth bass about eight-inches long. Wishing I had my Tenkara USA Rhodo in hand, I was shocked at its power against the heavy tenkara rod that I had built for salmon and carp. Marveling over its bronze striping and deep red eyes, I eased it back into to the semi-turbid waters, excited at the opportunity. 

Thinking it a fluke, a few casts later found the fly embedded in the upper jaw of another smallmouth, only this one a bit bigger. A solid twelve-incher that worked the tenkara rod more vigorously than anticipated. Growing up on the Shenandoah River in Virginia, I had landed literally countless smallmouth of this caliber in my youth. The moment reinvigorated the excitement and admiration for the fight of a smallmouth that never fades. 

A momentary flashback to a sultry summer evening with a few of my best friends wading deep into remote ag-land reaches of the South Fork Shenandoah sparked a chuckle. While the Shenandoah was a blue-ribbon smallmouth river, I still rarely caught smallmouth much bigger than I was seeing this day on a pocket water to the Snake River, 2,700 miles west.

Returning to reality and the immediate problem of daydreaming of fishing past rather than continuing with fishing present, I laid out another cast to the edge of the weed bed. Working the shoreline, about every fourth cast found another willing smallmouth. I had finally forgotten that I had come to catch bluegill.

The Snake River is a bit of a stretch to recommend as a smallmouth fly-fishing destination. But if you find yourself in the position to give it a shot, go for the backwaters. Every boat basin and drainage mouth along the river provides a mini reservoir environment much simpler to fish and teeming with bass and panfish, not to mention common carp, if you are seeking true adventure.

The wisdom of using big baits for big fish holds true for bass, but don’t over-do it. Nymphs, streamers and dry-flies, sizes eight to twelve are my preference. Ironically my personal best bass have all come on some of the smallest baits, again, while fishing for panfish. 

Warm-water fishing for a cold-water evangelist is a back-of-the-mind prospect, yet each time I give it a whirl, I am pleasantly reminded of the merits of such an endeavor. It’s a great opportunity in a pinch requiring little time and the most basic gear to realize the value of keeping it simple and simply catching scrappy smallmouth in the marginal waters of a big river. 

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About Brad Trumbo

Brad Trumbo lives in southeast Washington State serving the public as a fish and wildlife biologist. Hunting, fly fishing, and writing are his passions. In his spare time, Brad volunteers with Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever, builds custom fly rods, and pens tales of his outdoor pursuits.