Tenkara Float Tripping

This past week I headed to Montana after the Memorial Day crowds had packed up and headed home. Our destination was Forth Smith, Montana to be exact. A group of 6 of us were heading up to fly fish with Big Horn Anglers. We rented a three bedroom cabin that slept 6+. We were 3 couples so it worked out perfectly. It was a mixed group of anglers with varying levels of skill and expereince. We had two days of fishing the Big Horn river by float with intermitten opportunities to get out and wade, something I usually preferred over sitting in boat.
I have used tenkara on other floats and it typically works extrememly well. The casts are simple and the drift unbeatable. The guides can be a little unsure and reluctant to say the least. The one exception is Mikey Graham who guides with the Crazy Rainbow out of Casper, WY. Mikey and I have fished and floated together for years. He is extrememly comfortable and even better, confident, with using tenkara on a float. We have landed many incredible fish over the years and I have learned to trust him as much as I trust my Zen rods and myself. When we fish together we hit the river as a team.
I had never fished with Big Horn Anglers and when I mentioned tenkara, they had little knowledge or enthusiasum about the method. If anything they had skepticism. While one guide, Kerry, owned a tenkara rod, he strictly used it for really small stuffs. He was baffled by the idea of using a tenkara rod on a float trip. The young guide I was paired with was just that, young. He had never heard of tenkara or seen a tenkara rod. He was new to guiding but had a great attitude and was curious and open minded. Two characteristic which make any kind of fishing that much more fun. Considering his age, I was surprised he wasn’t familiar with the method since tenkara does seem to me more accepted and popular with younger, more “modern” anglers.

We spent extra time in the parking lot setting up our conventional fly rods and giving Gabriel a crash course in everything tenkara from rod set up and fish management to landing the fish. He seemed a little confused but I knew he would be a good guide when he asked me my preference in managing the boat during the fight. Was there a particular position I wanted the boat  to be in? That meant he was really listening and committed to getting me on fish, off the reel.

By the time we got to the boat launch five to seven boats had already taken off and run through the first seams several times. Gabe was a chill guy and was in no hurry. He definitely was watching and taking cues from the other boats and the more expereinced guides, but he also reflected out loud his thoughts and strategies so I got to hear, understand and appreciate his thinking. You could tell he was a fishy guy.

We got into a few fish fairly quick but in general, I thought it was a slow morning. I was reassured since no other boats were “on” either. This slow morning pattern is what I had been expereincing a few days earlier fishing in Wyoming. I got a few sluggish morning takes but nothing spectacular until about 2pm. And just like that, after a handful of  hook-ups in the morning, a switch was finally turned ON and fishing was lights out. This was how it was playing out on the Big Horn too.

I am certain the fish were hitting hard over Memorial Day weekend. We started fishing on the Tuesday after the holiday. On top of that, Gabe explained that while the water had warmed, water was now being released from the reservoir resulting in a sudden influx of very cold water meaning big tempurature swings. I can atest that the water was cold, very cold. Even in waders my feet felt the fridgedness of the water. I understood why finally, at about 2pm the river and fish woke up, because they were finally warmed up.

I was using the Zen Taka, my favorite float tenkara rod, paired with a 15ft Zen Fusion Line Light. Gabriel tied on about an 8ft leader/tippet setup of 3x with two nymph flies and an indicator. When I connected with my first fish, Gabe asked just a wee bit paniced, “What do I do? How do I row?” But before I could answer his question, I grabbed the line and pulled the fish up close to the boat so he could net it. A nice brown. He was definitely more pumped than I was. Which is what jazzed me up completely.

After releasing the fish we took a few moments to talk and check in. He was surprised at how fast I landed the fish but now understood the “angles and triangles” that I talked about in the parking lot. “I get it now” was all I needed to hear. We continued to fish tenkara for the rest of the day. My husband fished with his reel. For about 2 hours the river was hot and the fish were hungry and jumping. At the end of the day we were neck to neck on fish count. Interestingly though, Gabe recognized that landing fish on the tenkara rod was much faster.

Since we were fishing with Gabe again the next day, we opted to leave everything in his truck. Secretely I thought this might help us get out a little faster, but nope. The following day we were again the last to leave and launch. I admit initially, I was a little miffed. But as Mikey Graham has drilled into my head over the years, trust your guide. He was right. Gabe, young Gabe had a plan.

Feeling somewhat disappointed and lacking confidence in the fishing due to yesterday, almost every other boat made the call to float the upper portion of the river fairly quickly and move into the unpressured waters down south. There would be more moss, but the fish would not have seen many flies and were sure to be less shy. Gabe chose the opposite.

With almost zero boats on the upper section we leap frogged over no one. Instead we took our time working seams from the inside and then the outside. We moved up slowly and gradually. Even better, we were able to get out and wade on shelves that would have otherwise broken floating ettique. But now, no one was here. The upper section was completely ours and we worked it hard and thoroughly. Like kids in a candy store, both browns and rainbows now slammed our rigs both on the top and the bottom flies. They jumped and danced aerial acts like circus performers. It was ridiculously insane. Basically an every-cast scenario.

My faith in Gabriel, the guide he was and would become, grew by leaps and bounds that day. He got the river. He got guiding. He got tenkara. He even got a few fish on the tenkara rod. I had my fill. I was completely satisfied. At a point I handed the rod over to him and said, “Fish”. I grabbed the spare 5wt we had set up the day before and handed him the Taka. Immediately he got hits. He missed an initial hook set, then had one jump and throw the hook but finally he was connected. He laughed and hollared. I coached and tried to film. It was a fantastic adventure. He landed the fish with his heart pounding and a smile on his face that said it all.

The Big Horn is an amazing river. It is filled with beautiful, healthy fish that are solid and fight. Big Horn Anglers took good care of us and even though they lacked much knowledge of tenkara, they were welcoming and willing. Gabe Bland is a young guide with an open, lighthearted curiousity about him. He works hard in a relaxed and thoughtful, stratigic way. He will become a great guide. He is a great guide. And now, he is dubbed a great Zen Tenkara Float Guide along with Mikey Graham. Thanks for an awesome time guys. For being open minded and for being willing to step out of the box. Our numbers say it all. We slayed it good and reels wouldn’t have made it any better. Just for the record, out of six anglers the tenkara rod tied with one other angler for the fish count. I’m telling you, it’s awesome on a float.

Dedicated to:

Mikey Graham of Ugly Bug/Crazy Rainbow, Casper, Wyoming

Gabriel Blade of Big Horn Anglers, Fort Smith, Montana

“Great Tenkara Float Guides”


  1. A few years ago, I fished the Big Horn with some work colleagues … and like you,
    we stayed at Big Horn Anglers and took a guided float trip out of their shop.
    And I really liked our trip!
    So I read your article with great interest, especially being a newbie to Tenkara.
    (Yesterday, I caught my 1st fish – a nice brown on the Big Thompson – with the Zen Tenkara Grab-n-Go setup I got at St Pete’s awhile back).
    And I nearly cried with tears of joy about the story of your time on the river with Gabe. That is the kind of fishing experience I would like to have with Zen Tenkara! Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

    • Congratulations on your fish! Just wonderful. Big Horn Anglers is a great shop in a great location with access to an incredible river- welcoming and open to having a good time on tenkara OR a reel.
      Hope your Grab-n-Go and Zako rod bring you lots of joy (and fish)
      Thanks for taking the time to read the article and for commenting. Very appreciative: )

  2. What a lovely destination!

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