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Shark and Tarpon Tenkara

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Today is a snowy, cold day in Colorado. I pulled out my Patagonia Stormfront Wet/Dry Duffel last night and started prepping for my upcoming trip to Las Pampas Lodge, Patagonia in a few weeks. I’m feeling extremely grateful these days as only two months ago I was able to fish with Scott Yetter, owner of Sight Fish Charters in the Florida Keys. That trip was business but dripped with pleasure. I met up with Scott to target bigger saltwater species like bonefish, barracuda and tarpon intending to test the Zen Kyojin rod and, well, actually, explode it. Yup, you read right, EXPLODE the rod. Ya see, that rod has been on the market for several years now and Zen has never had a real warranty claim on it – a client or two have requested a replacement tip but, that’s not a big deal in the tenkara world. Tips break and usually it’s due to a “user error” rather than a “rod malfunction.”

When I flew to Florida, I was on a mission to bust the Kyojin way down deep in its belly. I had visions of carbon fiber shattering in a slow-motion, explosive, bits-flying-through-the air, made-for-TV, sort-of-way. Well, it never happened, and I say that with mixed emotions. Here’s why: I confirmed that the Kyojin rod is in fact, a BEAST of a rod and can handle really big fish. But, I still don’t know its limits. Again, I only broke a tip.

Scott and I met on the dock at Dolphin Marina on Little Torch Key two months ago. The air temperature was in the high 60’s to low 70’s and it was partially cloudy. Water temperatures were cooler than ideal but the trip was planned and I was thrilled by the prospect of being out on salt water again, regardless of fishing conditions. Initially targeting tarpon, a few casts into typical hot beds proved unusually unproductive. A few other stops in different locals and we weren’t finding what we were both hoping for. Scott motored us to several other locations, eyeing the horizon for sightings that I could cast to. Okay, it was going to be that kind of a day, the kind that you have to really hunt to find your fish and start considering Plan B. Well that’s exactly what we decided to do. It wasn’t perfect conditions or even the perfect time in the season to do this, but a day on the water casting a line can always be put to good use. Just because it wasn’t going to be an easy day, didn’t mean it had to be a bust either. We changed the game plan and decided to chum the water for shark.

The Kyojin is not a rod for common folk. It’s an extreme, crazy kind of rod that is uniquely special. From a manufacturer perspective it’s not a “hot seller” but it does have an extremely loyal and unique fan following. These people like to push limits, try new things. They are a fun bunch, don’t take life too seriously and typically have really excellent fishing skills. They are the ultimate “cool fishing guys.” To those of you who fall into that category (you know who you are), high-five and chest bump all the way because you can imagine the fun I was about to have.

Water now chummed and sharks coming in from different directions Scott started calling out, “9 o’clock, 40 feet out! Eleven o’clock, 30 feet out!” And there I was roll casting about 25ft of 8wt running line plus several feet of 40lb test, 35lb test, tapering to a few more feet of 30lb test with a bite guard on the end. Total line length was about 35ft. It was heavy with a large streamer on the end plus a meaty chunk of squid that I hadn’t accounted for when I was practicing casting this much line a month before the trip. It was not delicate, nor pretty but it was accurate and I got those chunks of squid exactly where I needed them to be. I’m athletic and have some arm strength, you might even say I have small (very small) “guns.” But casting that much line with a loaded end is a little bit of a work out. An average built guy or someone with a bit more arm power could probably swing more line and do it easier (and I don’t admit to that everyday so run with it.)Shark are smart, who knew?! They would bump and taste and seemed to have very discerning palettes. Not everyone bit. It wasn’t the savage, ravaged feeding rage I imagined it would be. Instead the shark were selective and decisive. When they decided no, they were off. But when they decided yes, WOW! They came down with a solid hammer that locked into place. My experience was not so much of them running as darting and thrashing. I really have no idea if that was typical or just my day but a 3ft – 5ft shark (Hammer and Bonnet Heads were what we were attracting) were extremely manageable on the fixed-line Kyojin. I lost a few that came down above the bite guard (like they knew or something) but was feeling pretty competent and confident. 

Okay, what’s next? We headed off to another area Scott said was usually home to tarpon, back to that again. It was close to shore and a deeper pool area. My naive eyes saw nothing but I was instructed where to shoot. First cast in, “stripping” with whole rod movements I missed the hit. I totally knew that feeling from nymphing but it was SOOOO much different and SOOOO much more intense. All that came out of my mouth was “Holy Sh*t!” Point and shoot again and the rod was heavy with another one on the end. This guy went aerial immediately! He was rocketing out of the water with massively strong and powerful tail thrusts that made adrenaline pound through my veins. This was way different than sharks. It didn’t take long, but in between jumps, while I steered, Scott grabbed hold of the line and pulled it in towards the boat. This silver beauty, taught and muscular was now in my hands. I was very satisfied. At that moment all was well with the world. I had pretty much done what I set out to do. But here’s when I got cocky.

“So Scott, I came to break rods. The Kyojin is handling this stuff just fine. We need to find bigger fish.” Scott responds, “Okay, let’s go get bigger fish and break rods.” He starts the boat up again and off we go to our final destination. Scott powers down in a nice channel with a good current and again, starts chumming the water. Standing on the bow of the boat above about 10ft-15ft of water my heart starts pumping hard and I feel the anticipation and excitement growing. Then methodically, from his platform, Scott begins cataloging the sharks using location, distance and size so that it sounds like this, “10 o’clock, 40ft out, 10 footer.” These guys are big and they feel much more aggressive than the others we were casting to earlier in the day. These are the predators that I remember from my boating days in the Bahamas. These shark are all big and coming in fast and with more purpose. I am imagining the feel of their impact as I scout the water following Scott’s inventory and trying to decide which shark to cast to.

Finally I move my feet and pull back my arm like I’m about to swing a sledge hammer. I bring it up over my head and fully forward, hoping to make the best D loop of my life. I’m grasping the 16“ handle way too hard and I know it. I have singled out a “smaller” Lemon Shark about 6ft -7ft long that’s the runt of the current subsurface, litter that has begun to cover the white sand with long, sleek, graceful, serpentine movements. The streamer hits the water a foot from its mouth and it disappears. At that moment everything goes out the window – all my self-talk, all my strategy (because I did have one), all my patience, gone in an instant. Mr. Lemon gives a good, powerful head heave to the left and I prematurely and way too abruptly, give a good, powerful rod heave to the right. “Pop!” is what happens next. I am left standing, lifeless rod in my hand, shark gone, on the bow of the boat with an anti-climactic “pop!” ringing in my head.

All I can say is “Why, why did I do that?!” Of course I broke the rod tip. I put all the pressure into that tip and snapped it prematurely. I never even felt the pressure and haul into the body of the rod. User-error again, not rod malfunction. The rod was going to break on something that size with that much power, no doubt. But I wanted to at least get into the fish and hold onto it for a short while. I wanted to feel the pressure exerted on the rod deep down and low, and I wanted to splinter the thing in a way that demonstrated the load it could bare, but I didn’t. I absorbed nothing through the rod and felt utter and complete disappointment in myself. With no additional line set-up, the day was done. I smiled from residual adrenaline but spent the entire boat ride back to the dock hitting replay over and over again in my head.

I returned to my room, laid down for a moment just to close my eyes and awoke 3 hours later in darkness, door wide open to the porch. That evening eating stone crabs, sipping a rum and coke and hitting replay many more times, I consoled and reminded myself that I did catch shark and tarpon on a tenkara but I didn’t really learn anything new about the Kyojin. It was still a beast of a rod but I still had no idea what its limit was. To fix the melancholy I was feeling, I ordered a Cuban coffee and a slice of Truffle Chocolate layer cake. I few sips and swallows into dessert I started planning out another trip for late August or early September to try again, to come back and explode a Kyojin rod. Maybe then I’ll be lucky enough to find that school of rolling, splashing tarpon I was hoping for. Or even better yet, bonefish that we never found. Either way it was an awesome trip and provided a thrill that might not be easily beat. We’ll see what Las Pampas Lodge in Patagonia offers up in a few weeks.


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