Throw Your Rod in the Water? Maybe

Fly-Fishing: No extra line? Toss your rod right in
Thursday, September 15, 2011
By Morgan Lyle

Hisao Ishigaki, in white cap, discusses technique with tenkara fly-fishing enthusiasts along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park last month. -(Morgan Lyle)

You’re using a 12-foot rod with no reel, just a 15-foot line tied to the rod’s tip, and you catch a big fish that insists on swimming rapidly away in the opposite direction. If you had a reel full of spare line, you could let the fish run, but you don’t. What do you do?

It’s happened to me, fishing with tenkara rods. Most times, I’ve stood my ground, and the huge spring of the long, soft-action rod was enough to turn the fish. But there have been occasions — a day on the West Branch of the Delaware comes to mind — when the fish simply broke off. With no reservoir of spare line, there was nothing I could do about it.

Or so I thought. But last month, at the first American conclave on tenkara fishing in West Yellowstone, Mont., I learned there’s another option.

The keynote speaker at the Tenkara USA Summit was Hisao Ishigaki, the Japanese tenkara fishing guru. Ishigaki gave a demonstration in tenkara fishing on the nearby Madison River for an attentive crowd.

Also speaking at the conclave was Craig Mathews, one of the deans of the Yellowstone region’s world-class trout fishing and owner of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone.

Mathews has been a tenkara fan for some time, even before fixed-line rods were widely introduced to the U.S. market in April 2009, and said he’s used it more than his conventional fly rods this year. He also seems to know the location of every big trout in Montana and Wyoming.

What does Mathews do when he can’t turn a big fish with a fixed-line fly rod? “You can just throw the rod in the water,” he told a Holiday Inn meeting room full of tenkara enth­usiasts.

That got a laugh, but Mathews wasn’t kidding. “It’s not going to go far,” he said. “When the fish settles down you can walk over and pick up the rod and land the fish.”

Yes, this is a very unorthodox technique and should probably only be employed as a last

resort. I can imagine a tenkara rod getting banged up or even broken when dragged around a rocky run by an angry brown trout.

For that matter, if I had tried it on the wide-open Delaware, I may never have seen my rod again.

Mathews is no reckless angler given to stunts. He’s a trim, clean-cut, affable, well-spoken former police chief. I doubt he throws his tenkara rod in the water very often.

But it’s also worth noting that the tactic has been in use for some 500 years.

“With the tight line, play can only be given to a fish by craft of hand and rod,” wrote Will­iam Radcliffe in his 1921 book, “Fishing from the Earliest Times.”

“Anglers know to their sorrow, that although much may be thus accomplished, occasions too frequently arise when the most expert handling can avail naught.

“In [Izaak] Walton’s time, the custom, as indeed it was the only present help, in the event of a big fish being hooked was to throw the Rod into the water and await its retrieval, if the deities of fishing so willed, until such time as the fish by pulling it all over the water had played himself out.”

Fixed-line fly-fishing is a compromise: you can’t cast as far as you can with a rod and reel, but you can achieve much better presentation. You can, in fact, catch more fish — but you may find yourself debating whether to let a big one break off or throw your rod in the creek and hope for the best.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at


4 responses to “Throw Your Rod in the Water? Maybe

  1. That’s an interesting idea from Craig to land big fish! I may try it sometime.

    Sorry I didn’t get to meet you at the Summit, Morgan. I know Brian had a great time talking tenkara with you.

    • Ashley, you & I did manage a quick hello, but you guys were busy. I enjoyed talking with Brian too & getting in touch with him is near the top of my to-do list.

  2. Pingback: Landing Big Fish in Big Water with your Tenkara Rod | Tenkara Guides LLC

  3. I know this response is very long in coming, but I can attest to the method of letting a fish take your rod. I did it accidentally. I had a 10ft crappie pole set in a holder on the side of a river, had a bell on it and was at my tacklebox getting my next bait, when I heard the bell go off. I turned around to see my rod being pulled into the water, and needless to say I was not in time to retrieve it. I watched it get pulled about 100 yards one direction, then the other, then I guess the fish got tired, and I found my rod about 50-100 yards downstream, with most of the length hanging over a small waterfall.

    I just barely caught it by the foam with my spincast reel and a very lucky spoon, bringing it in, it felt like there might have been a fish still on, and there was! It was a carp about the length of my forearm, that I NEVER would have been able to bring in with the light line I was using on my rod, and certainly not at full strength! He didn’t fight all that much,you betcha I took a few pics while I let him rehabilitate for about 2 minutes in the water before he swam off. That was my best catch since my first fish I caught 24 years ago. Granted, it was an accidental slip of a $15 crappie rig and not a $250 tenkara rod, but the method is still the same: Fixed, light line.

    Since that event, I now take a small length of rope and tie the rod to a tree while its in it’s stand, it gives me time when I hear the bell to go grab the pole!

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