In the very early start up years of tenkara, here in the United States, life was frustrating to say the least. Fly shops ran me out of their stores, anglers laughed at me when I spoke of tenkara, and even tenkara enthusiasts were often “unfriendly”. It was a difficult time for sure. If you mentioned tenkara, it was automatically assumed you represented “that other guy”, as most people thought tenkara was a brand name. In the niche world that many tenkara enthusiast live, some accused Zen of copying “that other guy”, thus as newbies in the industry, we weren’t necessarily welcomed. Many days felt like a no-win situation.
So to prove to the world we were not copying, that we were a different company, our own creative entity designing and manufacturing our own rods and gear, we produced the Kyojin. It was different, it was unique, and it was a beast of a rod. The Kyojin was a design that took what we loved about tenkara, and what our extensive Western angling experience and instinct told us about certain larger species, and melted it into the massive fixed-line rod that it is. Some scoffed, others were curious, and many laughed. We believed in what we created so we ignored those that weren’t supportive and continued on. Catching 9” Brookies all day long is fun, and active, and joyful, and that’s how we spend most of our time fishing. However, now and then, the soul gets a tingling for something bigger, it yearns for something to master, something to test skills on beyond the everyday. That is what the rod is designed to do.
The Kyojin is for smart fly men and women, not just enthusiastic ones. It’s meant for people who are strategic hunters, who plan their attacks, and their defense, and with a swift and mighty move, land their prey. There’s something primordially satisfying about that. Period. This type of experience gets adrenaline pumping, the heart beating and gives you a chest-expanding, shoulder-throwing, growling caveman sort-of sensation. In other words, it feels good.
But what of the fish you may ask? Some claimed it would exhaust them, stress them and tire them out beyond recovery in a way that any conservationist would petition about. Simply not true. In fact, it’s just the opposite. During a recent trip to Casper, Wyoming I met up with Mark Boname, owner of Platte River Fly Shop. He took me and my husband, Adam Omernick out on Pathfinder Reservoir to target Carp. We brought both a Kyojin tenkara rod and a TFO BVK 9ft 5 wt. setup. It was my first time fishing for Carp and Mark warned us that some bad boys were topping 18lbs! Just exactly how was this going to work? Either way, I was committed to catching fish and the bigger the better.
Since I fish tenkara style most often I started with my Western fly and reel. I took some time to warm up and get accustomed to the cast, timing and weight of the reel again.
We were casting off a platform on a boat so with the sandy shore of the reservoir in the distance, seagulls flying overhead, and mammoth flies biting my calves, it had that Florida Keys/Bahamas’ Bonefish sort-of feel. The nice “whirrrrrr” sound the reel made as I laid out my line gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart. It’s just such a nice sound. We were sight fishing and Carp are kinda lazy fish. To be motivated, they need the fly to come right into their target zone, which is about 6” in front of their face. I missed a few getting my timing down but with Mark’s stealthy eyes and boat management, in no time I was setting up on them. Adam and I took turns climbing the platform and landing fish. Talk about fun!
It was so different from what I’ve been doing the past several years: Spot them, cast to them, set the hook, and then let them run (there’s that nice sound). Reel’em in, reel’em in, reel’em in. Let them run (ahhhh, that sound). Let them run. Reel’em in, reel’em in, etc., etc., etc. And after about 20 minutes, depending on the size of the Carp, they were done and landed. We did this over and over again all morning long. My arms were getting quite a work out. We broke for lunch, shared some conversation and then began discussing tenkara strategies: Carp vs. Kyojin tenkara. Who would win?
Now fed and watered, I paused for a moment and realized we probably should have done this the other way around; tenkara first and rod and reel second, since our arms were now a little worn from the morning battles. No turning back. I started problem solving in my mind. If I got into a fish and couldn’t handle him, Adam and Mark were there for backup. They could be my arms! Problem solved.
And so we started the boat and headed on to another one of Mark’s favorite Carp pockets. There they were, all huddled up and feeding in the shallows off the shore. Finding them was easy, spotting them even easier. With the feeding that was occurring, catching them shouldn’t be hard at all. Landing one, on a fixed-line rod would be the challenge. The long reach of a 12’ rod comes in handy in situations like this. We had clear view of the fish so they would have clear view of us too. But we were throwing 13’ of 8wt floating line, with about 7’ of 1x leader attached. That, combined with the length of the rod put us at 32’. This gave us plenty of distance to cast to fatties and not be detected. Karin was going stealth mode.
“BOOM!” I had a hit. The Carp took off and I instinctively pulled the rod tip back abruptly with a mighty adrenaline surge, “CRACK!” The rod tip snapped right above the second section. The fish threw the hook and was gone. Man, what did I do? I knew better than that! That was my fault, not the fish’s, not the rod, all mine. Mark had brought his Kyojin along too, so we were covered. Switch the rig and go again. The Vanilla Buggers we were throwing were spot-on and working fine. I cast once, I cast twice, right in the honey hole, and “BAM!” I buried the rod butt into my hip. I needed to act fast and not let him straighten the rod out in front of me. Keep a curve, keep a curve! Use the whole rod not just the tip. Let it flex and do its thang. Doing this I was able to turn his head and quickly began steering him. Drive him to the left, then drive him to the right. It was working and the rod was performing! I did this several times without much drama.
On the tenkara rod there’s no leeway. Once you set the hook, you’re at your full distance, your longest line length, and that’s all you’ve got. There’s nowhere for the fish to run, except left or right, as long as you don’t let that rod fall out in front of you. At that point you will lose, probably the fish and the rod. Keeping the curve, I didn’t need to run down the shore, throw my rod in the water, or even exhaust the fish. In fact, the fight was over much quicker on the tenkara rod than when using the reel. How could this be? Was this actually easier on the fish and less stressful? I was hesitant to answer even in my mind, but a little voice in my head said, “Yes”.
With a western rod and reel, each time the fish runs and you let the reel whine, that fish is working hard. He’s busting his butt to swim for his life. He sprints 30+/- ft. just to be dragged back to the starting block, momentarily recover, and do it all over again. This stresses and exhausts a fish. I like to compare it to walking a dog on those extendable leashes. Dogs tend to pull once they figure out when they do, they get more leash and more distance. They don’t know where the leash ends, so they just keep pulling, hoping to go further. I prefer walking my dogs on a fixed-line. They learn quickly that pulling does no good and they are going nowhere, so they behave better and I gain control. Apparently, this applies when fishing too. I’m not saying fish are going through this thought process, I’m just sharing my experience. They ran left and right a few times but got nowhere and gained nothing. They settled quickly and were landed less exhausted. It was more intense, but much quicker. Tenkara was less stressful on the fish and extremely efficient at quickly gaining control over the situation.
To be that directly connected to the fish and the struggle was thrilling. Man or woman, verses fish, all the way! There was no reel to absorb or diffuse the battle. It was pure. It was exciting. It was satisfying in a way that the reel was not (minus the “whirrrrrr” sound). I love my western setup and I will never lose the reel completely. Casting it is simply satisfying in a way I can’t seem to explain. There’s something very romantic about it. But, after landing several fish with it and getting a dosage of that “whirrrr” sound in my brain, I found myself going back to the tenkara method. It just felt good to be that connected to the fish, and I felt better landing it quicker. The running and reeling were time wasted when I could have been setting another hook. There’s no right or wrong, there’s only a preference. I will always enjoy both methods of fishing. But can you land big fish on a big tenkara rod? Yes. Is it ridiculously exhausting for you and the fish? No. It was surprisingly faster than using my reel and made me rely more on my skills than my reel. Will I hunt big species using the Kyojin again? Absolutely.