Finding the Perfect Tenkara Water

Find some great information on Steve Schweitzer's fly-fishing Guides to Rocky Mountain National Park and the Fly-fishing Guide to Indian Peaks.

October 16, 2020

Finding the Perfect Tenkara Water
By Steven B. Schweitzer

Editor note: Article published on the 1st volume of the Tenkara Magazine. This is a terrific resource for anyone wanting to go fly-fishing in the backcountry, and I have found many good trails for backpacking with these tips.

In some sort of unwritten understanding amongst the angling crowd, a tenkara-toting fisher is often considered a “do-it-yourselfer” – an artist and an angler. Being a soloist demands each “Tenkartist” manufacture his own adventure, new and afresh every time. Using the tactics presented below, you’ll be able to find more tenkara water to reward 22-inch rod-toting adventurist.

PERFECT TENKARA WATER DEFINED
“Perfect” tenkara water can be quite subjective, depending upon the Tenkartist you talk with. One may offer an ocean tributary or bass lake as being perfect water. Another might suggest a farm pond for scrappy panfish as being the perfect tenkara water. In my part of the world (Colorado) I seek cold water and cold water species; trout specifically. Ideally, my perfect water has plenty of classic stream pools, riffles, runs and pocket water giving me a smorgasbord of water to choose from, lending perfectly into the sweet spot of the tenkara style of fishing. The rest of this article focuses on finding such water.

As any seasoned angler has experienced, fish don’t always hold in the classic places we’ve been taught – thus, I prefer a choice of water types so that I can hunt and target fish where they actually are hiding, not necessarily where we’ve been taught. My perfect tenkara water has a gradient, a healthy flow, it has boulders and deadfall to help create little hiding places for wary fish, it has water that is cumbersome for traditional fly rods to effectively fish the water. More directly put, it is often a rambling high altitude stream, oftentimes barely a few feet wide. It may flow through a small meadow, or carve curves in open tundra, or drop steeply down a rocky mountainside. All these descriptors could be of just one stream, the same stream. I look for variety and certainly water that is difficult to fish conventionally.

When looking for tenkara water, consider these five Dead Give-Away characteristics:

Finding Waters with Fish:

1. The water source of the tenkara stream is a lake or larger stream
2. The water empties inot a larger river, stream or lake

Finding Where Fish Live:

3. The water has a noticeable gradient
4. The water has boulders and deadfall to help create pocket water
5. The water has a meandering path (is not straight)


Dead-Giveaway clues #1 and #2 are essential for suggesting there may be fish in the water you wish to explore. There’s no sense in identifying high-mountain water that does not support fish populations. There are oodles of small seasonal drainages that can fool an angler into thinking it is fishy, but in fact, has never supported fish. Fish in high mountain streams, as a rule-of-thumb, come from some other water source, such as lakes or rivers above and below the stream. In winter, the streams have a high propensity to freeze and choke out good fish habitat. Fish in high-altitude lakes and lower altitude rivers have a better chance of year-round survival, thus they become the source for high-altitude stream fish.
Dead-Giveaway clues #3, #4, and #5 concentrate on the characteristics of the water to support fish. A stream with noticeable gradient will flow water that is often cooler than a flat stream that tends to widen out and have warmer water – with the premise being that cooler water is better. A stream that goes through boulder fields, forests, moraines, etc has a wide variety of stream obstacles and paths that make for interesting pockets, riffles and runs. Straight runs are often just that…straight and relatively uninteresting.
Let’s look at how to find this water.

TOOLS TO FIND TENKARA WATER
The first tool that most web-savvy anglers use is Google Earth (google.earth.com). With just the scroll of a mouse, the Tenkartist can visually scan landscapes at any zoom level to see geographic features that would help ascertain potential tenkara water.
With Google Earth, you do not need to know how to read a topographic map. Hovering over an area with the mouse yields the altitude and the terrain.

GOOGLE EARTH QUICK TIP
Pick a location you want to explore, say a 10 kilometer by 10 kilometer area. Start at the highest elevation possible in that location and look for lakes, ponds or even glacial till. Select one of these points and follow the natural water flows and crevices that would drain water away from the high altitudes to points lower. Scroll in with your mouse to examine the geography around the drainage, looking for many of the 5 Dead Giveaway characteristics listed above. Does the drainage start at a lake? Does it flow into a larger stream? Does it look like it would have water year-round? Is it accessible or does it require some serious off-trail hiking?

Finding good tenkara fishing waters with Google maps
Image 1 – This Google Earth™ image in Rocky Mountain National Park shows two lakes (Spruce, Fern) feeding several drainages into a larger river, the Big Thompson River. The area is wooded and has ample gradient. Rotating the image in Google Earth™ reveals the nature of the gradient and terrain. The area contains perfect tenkara water.

Another fantastic resource, particularly for public waters, is state and federal recreation area maps. Many states have a comprehensive website that provides PDFs of state recreation areas. The National Park service (nps.gov), provides high-resolution PDFs of all national park, preserves, and monuments. While they aren’t meant for detailed off-trail hiking and trekking planning, they do a reasonably good job of showing lakes, rivers and trails to access fishy water.

Social Media is now a viable source of finding fishy tenkara water.

Don’t be afraid to visit a TU or FFF meeting, or even join up. With hundreds of chapters nationwide, there is probably one near you. By attending a meeting, you are now face-to-face with other anglers, some of which are Tenkartists that would be more than happy to discuss some locals waters to try. In my local area, most all the TU and FFF chapters have a speaker line-up that has a very informative tenkara presentation each year.

TOOLS AT A COST
With the plethora of free tools available to research and plan your tenkara adventure, it is almost not necessary to invest a penny into resources that cost money. However, you get what you pay for and some investment in tools to help find tenkara water and fish it effectively pays huge dividends. I can attest personally: One day last spring, I joined Daniel Galhardo of Tenkara USA, to fish a local Boulder, Colorado area stream. I had been fishing with tenkara gear for 2 years prior and felt confident in my ability to catch fish on that sun-drenched spring day. I got white-washed. Daniel caught a few amidst some very demanding pre-run-off conditions. As I intently watched a seasoned expert, I picked up no less than three or four new tactics and techniques that I had not even thought of before. Now, in essence, Daniel was my guide for that day, and I learned a few new tricks from my guide that I might not have otherwise figured out myself. You’ve heard it before: guides are worth the money, no matter how seasoned you might be.

Having topographic maps in-hand is nearly a must. Spending $15-$25 on a local stream guide or national park map is well worth the investment. A recent trend from TU and FFF groups is the creation of local stream guides or booklets which are packed solid with tips and locations from the local experts. The guides are reasonable in cost and a significant portion of the sale proceeds go back to the club to help further local re-habitation and sustainability efforts.

Some software and online solutions also exist, such as AllTrails.com (with Pro membership), National Geographic National Parks Digital Maps ($49) and DeLorme’s Topo USA (delorme.com, $100). Each of those allow you to drill down on digital topographic maps similar to Google Earth, to research and evaluate new tenkara water. An added value of software is the ability to create trail profiles to show exactly how steep and long the hike will be. That is a huge help in preparing for the proper approach to off-trail fishing locales.

Editor note: we highly recommend the Gaia GPS maps, which has gained a lot of traction after the article was published. This is an affiliate link that gives you discounts up to 52%, but I am pointing it out as I am also a very heavy user of Gaia GPS.

finding waters for backpack fishing with topo maps and tenkara
Image 2 – This Delorme Topo USA® image and trail profile of the same general area as the Google Earth image above, shows the gradient and the terrain drop of Fern Creek, which flows from Fern Lake. 2D topographic maps are extremely useful in locating water that could most likely contain fish.

How to Visualize Potential Tenkara Water
After you find viable fishing water, you should be able to visualize what to expect when you are there. Learning how to build a mental profile of the water you wish to fish helps you figure out what gear to pack. Of course, nothing replaces experience and as you research new water and go visit those waters, you will quickly learn how topos and online tools correlate to the areas you choose to fish.
Ask yourself these questions before you set out, you should be able to answer most if not all of these questions: Is the area wooded? Is the area strewn with boulders? What is the gradient? How big is the stream? How long is the stream? What is the water source(s)? What type of fish should be in the water? Where does the water drain? Is there a trail nearby or will I have to travel off-trail? How long should I expect to be gone?
Refining Your Skills
Using topographic maps at an expert level takes practice and time. There are things you can do to speed up your learning time and reduce the learning curve. Take notes and photos, lots of them. Photos, along with notes help you retain more about your trip than just either alone. Be sure to take topographic print outs or maps with you during your adventures, and bring a permanent ink pen to make notes right on the map. Finally, consider building an interactive journal that has old maps, photos and notes within; even consider affixing the actual fly that worked the best within the pages of your journal. Be easy on yourself and avoid writing prose in your outdoor fishing journal, but instead, write bullet-pointed notes and observations – it’s quicker and more efficient.
Finding the perfect tenkara water just doesn’t happen, it takes effort. Invest your time in researching areas online. Study what the topographic maps tell you. Plan your hike and hike your plan. Take photos and notes along the way and before long, you will be an expert Tenkartist finding the perfect tenkara water.

Cutthroat caught on tenkara backpacking trip

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