Your Guide to Winter Tenkara Fishing
Written by Jen Kugler Hansen
While some anglers seem to have gone into hibernation and are sitting at their fly-tying vices this time of year, tenkara anglers have some major advantages to get in the winter fly-fishing game. Ice can bring havoc to fly rods, lines, and reels, but tenkara rods are perfectly suited to handle icy conditions that traditional fly-fishing rigs cannot. Because a tenkara rod uses a fixed line only attached at the tip there are no guides or reels for ice to collect on, which puts us in the driver’s seat.
Winter tenkara fishing can be a lot of fun if you prepare yourself, so let’s discuss what to expect and we’ll give you some tips that will make your next trip more successful.
Before doing anything take a moment to ground yourself. Lower your expectations and raise your optimism. Don’t go out hoping to catch a dozen fish, but do be prepared to celebrate if you go home after only catching one or two. While summer offers us long warm days favorable for success, winter’s icy grip requires more patience and forethought. It’s not about the numbers but about being outdoors and enjoying the hunt. The perfect time to appreciate your surroundings in a new season and hone your skills.
Check the Weather
The biggest obstacle we face in the winter is the cold. For you, your gear, and also for the fish. This is why selecting the right day to go out can make or break your trip. Check the weather (after your calendar of events of course) and look for breaks. A period of calm or rise in temperature after a stormy cold stretch will not only bring relief to you but to the fish as well. Warm afternoons are generally more successful than colder mornings, as the fish will be much more apt to move and feed. Just as I’m sure you are as well after you’ve had your morning cup of coffee.
Check the Flows
Then, check the water flows. It’s fairly easy to Google this information or find it on your local fly shop website. You’ll see measurements in “cfs” cubic feet per second, and what you’re looking for are spikes that will indicate drastic changes in water levels. Changes in the levels up or down can spook the fish and ‘put them down’, as they’ll be more focused on finding a new holding place and conserving their energy. If you see the cfs has been holding steady or there are small changes, you’re good to go.
Get the Gloves Out
Next, get those gloves out. Not your boxing gloves, your winter gloves. Yes, you heard me right. I think this is ultimately where tenkara anglers have the upper hand, or more frankly warm hands! Anyone who’s ever tried fishing with a rod/reel in the winter knows the pain of trying to manage a cold wet line with gloves on. You need both hands (no time for pockets) and it’s nearly impossible to get a good grip on anything or achieve the dexterity you need to detect strikes with stiff fingers and iced-up guides. Cold hands and the danger of frostbite will most certainly lead to less time on the water. But you’re in luck! The simplicity of tenkara only requires ONE hand to simultaneously hold the rod and cast, and with no reel and no line to strip, having gloves on isn’t a limitation. This leaves you free to wear your warm insulated gloves, and you can easily switch which free hand gets to be in the pocket with a hand warmer.
Dress Warm and Pack Snacks
Now, this should go without saying (sorry it’s the mom in me), but wear warm clothes and layer up. It’s much easier to strip off a layer if you’ve gotten hot, than it is to get warm again once you’ve gotten too cold. And be sure to pack snacks and warm fluids – coffee, hot chocolate or even soup are all great choices. You can stay out longer if you don’t get cold and hungry, and in the winter there’s not much time to waste.
Wear Good Boots
Also, even if you’re not planning to get in the water consider wearing your waders anyway. Whether they’re insulated neoprene or not, they’ll still provide another layer of waterproof protection from the potentially wet elements. For boots, stick with rubber soles and turn on the 4×4 by adding studs for stability and traction control. If you’ve got felt soles I’m sorry to say here’s your PSA that snow will stick to the felt and make it a mess to walk, giving you another reason to stay away from felt soles (besides spreading invasive species).
Plan Your Attack
Your water might look very different in the winter so you’ll need to find and consider your options and different angles of approach. Observe where a spring enters the river, or where there might be a confluence of water moving and keeping the ice at bay. It helps to be familiar with the terrain before winter because snow and ice can create some dangerous obstacles and conditions, so proceed with caution especially if you’re stepping onto ice.
Two Main Techniques
Finally, let’s get to the actual fishing. The way to go is slow and methodical. It should be no surprise for you to hear that trout tend to be spookier when they’re cold. We know that food is scarce so their metabolism naturally slows down, which leads us to some important insights. One, in order to compensate for the lack of food, they’re going to start feeding differently. And two, they’ll change their holding patterns to conserve energy. So in the winter, there are two main techniques you’ll want to keep in mind. Go low and nymph the warmer deep pockets, or stay high and tease the sun-kissed riffles.
For fishing low, you’ll want to select a heavier fly (think bead head nymphs) and search through slow deep pockets of water. Make sure you’re getting to the bottom and maintaining contact by adjusting your tippet length. I was taught if you aren’t feeling bumps or getting little snags, you’re not there yet. Some people find it helpful to use an indicator on the line and keep that just above the water. This will help you in two ways – as a reference for adjusting your line up/down to find the ‘sweet spot’, and it can be much easier to detect strikes by watching an indicator versus the line.
To tease the riffles, think small and dark when it comes to fly selection. Keep the line off the water and let that fly dance just under the surface. Also, keep your eye out for hatches. It is possible, even in the dead of winter to see midges or even blue-winged olives when the conditions are right.
Because the fish aren’t going to be very aggressive, strike detection is generally harder in the winter. Keep the line tight, and watch and feel for any hesitation that could be a strike. You won’t believe how subtle the takes can be, and your hook set doesn’t have to be strong either. Just a gentle flick of the wrist will give you a good idea of whether you’re taut or not. If not, try continuing the drift uninterrupted before casting again.
Finally, if there’s anything I’ve learned about fishing it’s that there are a million ways to catch fish. What works for some may not for others and that’s okay. Your rod is a tool, and it’s up to you to figure out how to adapt your equipment to your situation. Don’t be afraid to get out there and have fun with it!
Bonus Tips –
As an added bonus, we thought it would be fun to get some different perspectives so we asked some tenkara angler friends from other regions for their top “Quick Tips” when it comes to winter tenkara fishing in their neck of the woods. I think you’ll find that no matter where you live or how you fish, there are a lot of similarities and adaptations that can easily cross over. Feel free to add your best tips for winter fishing in the comments below!
Lino Jubilado – Carp Master – LA River, California – @lino_jubilado
“There is definitely a different approach to winter carpin’ on the LA River with my Amago as opposed to the summertime. Fish generally get more and more lethargic as the water cools and will make very little effort at chasing bait or looking for food. Instead, they tend to huddle in slow deeper currents with other carp to keep warm and will wait for food like insects, grubs, and worms to come to them. Their strike zone narrows significantly, which is why fishing areas painfully slow and methodically is important. Tenkara allows an angler to pick apart pools and drifts more effectively by allowing multiple casts and drifts without having to worry about line management. Bites are more subtle than they are in the summer so nymphing and drifting egg patterns under a small 1/2” indicator is key. My rule of thumb is to swing on everything that may be a bite. So if my indicator pauses in the drift, twitches, or suddenly drops, I’ll swing with the intention of setting the hook. If it’s a false strike, using a tenkara rod allows you to quickly get a follow-up cast and work the drift again and again until you can get that fly into the strike zone. Slow and go, taking your time work pools and runs is the name of the game, and remember that swings are free so if your indicator indicates a possible strike, set the hook.”
Sol Griffith – Founder of Diamond Z Outdoors – North Platte River, Wyoming – @diamondzoutdoors
“When winter fishing river trout, my go-to fly is a size 22 two-bit hooker (simulates a midge larva). Fish the slow deeper water and understand it’s going to be a lot slower fishing than the summer, but you’ll usually get the whole stretch of river to yourself. I have become a huge advocate for utilizing euro-nymphing techniques in the winter with my tenkara rod, a Sato. This works not only for trout but also many other species as I’ve been hammering bass in small Georgia streams using these same techniques over the last week.”
Thomas Van Dyke – Lakewood, Colorado – @camefromthegoodlife
“I probably fish Cheesman Canyon the most, especially in the winter months. Normally my Amago stays set up with one of TUSA tapered nylon lines. I have shortened it and added two different colored sighter lines to it and end it with a tippet ring. It makes it easy to switch back and forth from dry flies to tight line nymphing or euro nymph (whatever floats your boat). In the winter months, I’m mostly nymphing. If people are unfamiliar with Cheesman Canyon, it’s roughly 4 miles of gold medal water, all artificial lures, and only catch and release. The fish are smart, they see lots of bugs and get very heavily pressured. I don’t change a lot of my technique up from winter to summer that is unusual to any style of fly-fishing, mostly downsizing bugs and tippet. I would say the biggest thing I do differently is try to focus more on sight fishing. I feel like because fish are not spending the energy to move around as much and are less eager to chase bugs I don’t spend as much time fishing lots of runs. I have more of a tendency to just focus on fish I can see in the water and preferably see them eating. p.s. I’m happy to help answer any questions people have about how I use my TUSA rig.”
Anthony – SW Virginia – @noreelflyfishing
“I live in south western Virginia; the highest country in the state. I primarily fish the small mountain streams and my go-to lately has been White Top Laurel Creek which is tucked back in the mountains and flows along the small community of Taylor’s Valley. White Top Laurel is renowned state wide for is beauty and is a blue ribbon trout stream. On any given day you can find native browns and stocked rainbows. If I wanna catch wild natives I’ll go a little higher to the Mount Rogers area which sits at about 3500’. That particular stream is a little known hidden gem. It’s much smaller, sees very little pressure and is more difficult to fish. I wouldn’t say that I change my technique from summer to fall or target different fish, but I’ll just layer a little more. ? I’ll generally try a few different color variations of the same fly, a hand-tied Takayama sakasa kebari. Once I find a color scheme the trout like I’ll stick to that for a while. The main tips that I have are: 1) Don’t fall in. 2) Watch your back cast. 3) Fish your own tenkara method! Tight lines.”