Long rod short line is an incredibly effective way to fish, and allows you to keep even most of your tippet off the water for exceptional drag-free drifts. With drag free drifts, you will catch more fish, except for one problem. To quote The Curtis Creek Manifesto "Frightened fish can't be caught!" With a longer rod, you can still fish a short line, but you can do it from further away, frightening fewer fish.
Back in 2007, before I had learned of tenkara and while I was still trying to recreate a British loop rod with a telescopic fiberglass crappie pole, I decided that I preferred using a relatively short line. I'd read that the appropriate line length for loop rods was about 1.5 times the rod length (which is about the line length the long line tenkara adherents use). I started out with a line of that length, but decided to shorten it after I hooked my first big fish and couldn’t land it.
I don’t know exactly how big it was because I never did get it into my net, but I did get it close enough to see that it is the only brown trout I’ve ever hooked that had a pronounced kype on its jaw. Unwilling to beach it on sharp rocks, I chose to hand line it before it was quite ready. My tippet popped about two seconds later. My next time out, and for the rest of that year and all the next, and until Dr. Ishigaki gave his presentation in the Catskills the year after that, I fished with a line about 3’ shorter than the rod, to which I added 4’ of tippet. I got great drifts and caught a lot of fish. I was definitely a convert to the long rod short line approach.
When Dr. Ishigaki gave his presentation in the Catskills in May of 2009, he set me up with a line a foot longer than the rod, and a tippet of one meter or a bit longer. With the longer line, I had a harder time keeping it all off the water, but I was fishing further away, and caught fish in places I’d never caught fish before. Fishing further away does spook fewer fish, and I stayed with that approach. In time I had forgotten how surprisingly effective the long rod short line method can be.
When I first fished with my Ito I just assumed it was a rod for larger streams and longer lines. I caught a fish with a 20’ line and 4’ of tippet, and although it wasn’t nearly as large as the kype-jawed brown from several years ago, I still had trouble getting it into the net. It would just go to the bottom and sulk, but it did it close enough to me that I couldn’t put any pressure on the line. I had to start hand lining it before it was ready. Had it been a larger fish I don’t think I could have landed it.
Seeing a comment in a blog post about fishing a tight stream with a 9’ line and 3’ of tippet with a 13’ Ayu, the memories of fishing the long rod short line style came back to me, along with the idea of fishing a longer rod than I normally use, paired with a shorter line.
So, the second time out with my Ito, I fished it exclusively at its full 14’ 7” length, but used the line I normally would use with my 11’ Iwana. My line plus tippet was almost exactly the length of the rod. Well … I had the best day I’ve ever had (at least in terms of numbers of trout) and the only thing that kept me from solidly surpassing the 50 fish mark was that part of the time I was fishing barbless hooks. As an aside, anyone who does not lose more fish with barbless hooks is a better fisherman than I am – or at least catches larger fish. With the long rod short line, I would often skitter the small fish back along the water’s surface on the hookset, and an extremely large percentage of them wriggled off the hook. Most of the larger fish stayed under water on the hookset, and most of those made it into the net, but most of the 6 and 7 inchers didn’t.
As I was first rigging up, I saw two rises, one of which was right about where I was right about to enter the stream. So, I started with a CDC & Elk and slingshotted the cast from a good 8’ back on the bank. First cast, first fish. I didn’t keep that percentage up for the rest of the day, of course, but it really is amazing how effective it is to fish with just tippet in the water – and from far enough away that you don’t spook fish.
One of the best lessons I have ever learned from a guide can be stated in one sentence: "Don't wade through any water you haven't fished yet." Thinking of that first fish, hooked while I was standing 8' back on the bank, I think you could add: "and that include your first step into the stream!"
For dry flies in particular, keeping even most of the tippet off the water will produce much better drifts, and much better drifts will produce many more fish. (I really should say many, many more fish.) I later switched to a Killer Bug and then a Killer Kebari, and the results were pretty much the same. Excellent drifts and truly excellent fishing. I gotta tell you, long rod short line.
The stream I fished is one on which I usually do well, but never that well. I also usually fish it with a 12’ rod. I had never even considered taking a longer rod there because I always thought would be too long. Foolish me.
There were times when I lifted the rod to bring in a fish and had overhead tree limbs in the way. That also happened years ago, when tenkara rods were not available in the US and I used a 10' crappie pole on the same stream. It is something you get used to quickly, though, and just wading a few steps one way or the other yielded sufficient room to fully raise the rod. I did get my line snagged a few times, and I did lose a few flies to trees, but no more than usual and much less that the first time I tried pesca a mosca Valsesiana, with its longer line and longer tippet carrying more flies. I think the factor that most contributes to snagging flies on your back cast is the length of the line, not the length of the rod. Shorter line, fewer snags.
Although long line tenkara has adherents both in Japan and in the US, I would highly recommend trying some long rod short line tenkara as well. Use the longest rod you can get away with (although it should be at least a little shorter than the width of the stream) and a line that allows you to keep ALL your line and even most of your tippet off the water. A lighter line is better to minimize line sag. I found a size 3 level line to work better than a size 4.
At last month's Appalachian Tenkara Jam I had a conversation with a customer who routinely catches larger fish than I do. I don't know if the difference is where he fishes or how he fishes, but suffice it to say he catches much larger fish than I do. He told me then, and again recently in an email exchange, that if he doesn't have his rod tip high when he hooks a large fish, the fish will immediately pull the bend out of the rod, pull the rod tip down and break the tippet.
I think it's all dependent on fish size. If you are hooking the 9 and 10" fish I was catching on that small stream, it's not a problem. The closest I've come to having a problem was fishing with a 14.5 foot rod and a 9 foot line, including tippet. I had a hard time keeping a bend in the rod with a 12" trout on the line. Had it been a 22" trout I wouldn't have been able to.
The rod could have handled a fish of that size, but I would have had to have a line long enough to keep the rod tip up when the fish made its first run.
Lantern fishing in Japan does use a very short line, but they don't catch 22" fish. If you do - or if you want to - you won't need a long line, but you will need a line long enough to keep a bend in the rod.
I finally experienced what my friend had told me. He'd said with a short line the rod tip will be too low, so if a large fish takes (particularly near the end of a drift) you will not be able to get the rod tip up high enough fast enough to get a bend in the rod. He was right. I hooked what must have been a very nice fish, which immediately ran and I couldn't get the rod tip up - there was no slack in the line to permit it.
I was fishing a 6.3m keiryu rod with a line about 4' shorter than the rod - which is my normal rig for a 6.3m keiryu rod. One thing that may have exacerbated the situation was that I was fishing a very deep hole, and had moved my markers (yarn strike indicators tied around the line) higher and higher, and higher before I started to feel the split shot ticking the bottom. It didn't even cross my mind to lengthen my line rather than raising my markers, but by the time they were set properly for the depth, my rod tip was definitely lower than it should have been.
Of course, had I lengthened my line I would have had to hand line a much larger fish than I ever had before. There is another reason (beyond getting great drifts) for the long rod, short line approach when fishing two handed keiryu rods. It is hard to manage a 20' rod one handed when using the other hand to hand line a fish - particularly a fish that could be large enough that you'd want to use 4X tippet!
So far, it's only happened once, but his point is correct. If your rod tip is low and you hook a big fish, you won't be able to get a bend in the rod before it is too late. If I hadn't been fishing a very deep hole I would have been OK. It is something to keep in mind, though.
Other Long Rod, Short Line essays: