Tenkara USA Spring Fishing Guide: Techniques and Tips for Success

On April 26, 2023
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A fish held in the hand above the surface of the water.

I’ve talked about the gear we like for spring, but let’s dive into tenkara fishing techniques for the season. We can break this down into the when, the where, and the how. Keep in mind that the preferred tactics and techniques in the northern Rockies may or may not be appropriate in your home waters. Before I began tenkara fishing, I was a pretty hardcore dry fly guy, and some of those traditions and biases are still in my fishing. Tenkara USA has always tried to prioritize technique over gear, so hopefully, these suggestions will give you some ideas to think about, even if your own findings are contrary to mine.

When to Go Spring Fishing with Tenkara Techniques

Typically in the spring, the best tenkara fishing will not be first thing in the morning. I’ve become an early bird as I’ve gotten older and am usually on my second cup of coffee by 6:00 am, but rarely get to the river much before noon. Spring water temperatures, at least here in Montana, are usually still pretty chilly in the mornings. Both the fish and the insects that get them moving are more active in the early to late afternoons. I’ve actually had good tenkara fishing until sundown. As we get closer to summer, I may go out a little earlier, at least until we get into full-blown spring runoff, but spring fishing is usually an afternoon activity for me. If you’re fishing tailwater and spring creeks that have more constant water temperatures, this may not be as much of an issue.

Where to Fish with Tenkara Techniques in Spring

While most tenkara anglers love to fish mountain streams, most of mine stay icy a lot later than some of the larger rivers. Tailwater and spring creeks offer “spring” conditions earlier than frozen freestones. Historically, a lot of the small streams I like to fish are also not legally open to fishing as early as the larger waters. They’re often closed to protect spawning fish running up from the larger rivers. Most of my spring fishing is on larger water like the Madison and the Gallatin. That’s one reason why I usually use larger rods in the spring, like our Ito or new Satoki rod. Small spring creeks and tailwater can offer excellent tenkara fishing in the early season, so if you have access to those, they may make a great option. Larger waters can be intimidating for some tenkara anglers used to smaller mountain streams, but I’d encourage all of you to be open to fishing larger waters if that’s what’s open and fishing well. It can be done very effectively with tenkara. Remember, larger rivers can be broken up into small rivers if you look closely, as each new seam may be a small river all into itself.

How to Use Tenkara Techniques for Spring Fishing Success

When I head out to the river in the spring, I’m usually hoping for rising or at least actively feeding fish as a reward for making it through another Montana winter. When I get to the water, I usually spend a fair amount of time looking for this kind of activity before I start casting with my tenkara rod. Fish usually come back to the same spots to rise over the year, and I’ll pay special attention to those spots where I’ve found rising fish in the past. If I find rising fish, I usually try to drop in just below them and make a simple upstream cast above where they’re rising, letting the fly drift down to them. This is about as simple as tenkara fishing gets: see fish, cast to fish, hopefully hook fish. Just because fish are rising doesn’t mean I’m not fishing traditional tenkara flies. Our small Takayama kebari can work great during a midge hatch on the Madison, as can other wet flies like a Syl’s Midge or even a small partridge and orange (even when the midges are all black, never did understand that one). If you’re just below rising fish, it’s usually very easy to detect strikes to wet flies “in the wash”. The tenkara line and tippet point to the fly. I find it much easier to detect fish eating small flies with tenkara than western fly fishing for this reason.

I must admit that I do like to fish western dries at this time of year. Kind of goes back to that “reward for making it through another Montana winter” thing again. The fish haven’t seen much pressure yet, so usually general imitations like a parachute Adams or Griffith’s Gnat work great. Later in the spring when Blue Winged Olives make their appearance, I love fishing an olive Sparkle Dun, but the Adams still works great. I fish these almost exactly like the small wet flies. Sometimes I can see dries this small, but often I’m still using the line as a strike/drift indicator. One very nice thing about tenkara fishing is that a waterlogged dry fly that’s not as visible but still fine to the fish can still be fished effectively using the “tenkara advantage” of the visible casting line.

A man fishing, casting the Tenkara line into the river in spring.

Of course, we can’t always see fish working. If I’ve convinced myself the fish won’t be up, I prefer to fish traditional kebari flies, usually some variant on the sakasa style. I really like the Ishigaki and Oki flies we sell this time of year. I’ve had good luck with both dead-drifted flies and active presentations like pulsing (my favorite). It seems that water temperature plays a role here. When it’s cold, the fish don’t seem as likely to chase a moving fly. The sun can also play a role on the waters I fish, especially if brown trout are the predominant species in the water. Less sun is usually better unless that overcast is coupled with a cold front. If the fish aren’t very active, sinking the fly deeply may be necessary. I prefer to do that if I can with techniques like plunging and using the currents of the river to suck my fly down.

Many anglers do find it helpful to use a weighted fly or added weight this time of year. Indicator nymphing can be done very effectively with a tenkara rod. My friend Larry Tullis gave me and some other members of the Tenkara USA crew some tips on the finer points of what he’s termed as “bounce nymphing”. This tactic is effective any time of year, but can really help turn things around when lethargic fish are hugging the bottom. I like heavier rods any time I’m fishing a lot of weight, and our new Satoki is easily my favorite for it. Some of these tactics can get pretty far from traditional tenkara, but can also make for a productive day of fishing that otherwise might not be.

I truly love spring in the Rockies and the tenkara fishing that comes with it. The above suggestions may or may not help you in your home waters. When in doubt, keep it simple and just go fishing. Spring is a wonderful time to be out on the water, (perhaps my favorite) so make the best of it with these tenkara techniques and tips from Tenkara USA!

Conclusion

As you venture out for spring fishing with your tenkara rod, remember that the when, the where, and the how are essential to making the most of your experience. Tailor your tenkara fishing techniques to the specific conditions of your local waters, and always be open to exploring new waters and trying new strategies. With these tips from Tenkara USA, you’ll be well-equipped to enjoy a successful and rewarding spring fishing season.

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