Balance, Power, and Precision for Unconventional Tenkara Fishing
Mike rides the power curve with a nice smallmouth on the hook.
As Summer slides ever closer and the weather here in Wisconsin continues to stabilize, our tenkara fishing focus shifts from trout to bass. We've started making the rounds on our local smallmouth streams, and slowly but surely, the bite switch is definitely moving into the "on" position! The timing couldn't have been better - we just got our first shipment of the new WISCO 2 rods in and we've been excited to get them on the water. We took them out to "Little Left Branch" to see if the Bronzebacks were ready to play, and got to put the rods through the paces on some nice fish...
Remember to think on your feet when tenkara fishing
I was losing the fight. In the moment, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. In retrospect, it is all terribly clear. The fight in mention was a sparring match during a recent Tae Kwon Do tournament. My first round opponent was a good guy that I have beaten a number of times. I certainly was not taking him for granted, but I was perhaps a little too certain I would make it to the next round. This time, though, he came at much more aggressively than I anticipated and I immediately went into defensive mode. To paraphrase Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.
Attention to detail helps sharpen the fundamental skills of successful Tenkara fishing
When we say "small water tenkara" we mean it!
I had a few extra hours to spare on the first day of spring, so I swung by one of my favorite "small water" gems to sharpen up my game. This tiny, spring fed stream barely registers on most angler's radars. Averaging about 18 inches deep and 2-3 feet wide, the water is crystal clear and rarely moving fast enough to break up the surface. It is best to fish early in the season before overhanging brush clogs the casting lanes, but I visit it on and off throughout the year when I want to polish my casting and stalking skills. Because make no doubt - fishing small water will push your abilities to the limit!
"As I was driving along a country two lane, I noticed a trail marker I had not seen before. I pulled off and took a look. There was actually a trail map! It looked like the trail ran along a creek. The topo map showed canyon-like features. In my opinion, there’s not much prettier in this world than rocky stream running through a canyon, so I mustered some energy and decided to give a go."
Its been a busy Spring here at Badger Tenkara. We hosted the Midwest Tenkara Fest, launched two new rod models, and we've done a whole mess of presentations, shows, and guide trips. Its been fun, but it hasn't allowed as much fishing time as we'd like. For a while there, the weather seemed bent against us too - high winds and bright sunny days made the times we did make it out a bit frustrating. Luckily, circumstances and nature seem to be loosening up and we are finally getting some good fishing in!
Last Friday looked perfect on the weather reports, and I was anxiously peering out the window all day at my "day job", smiling at the cloud cover and lack of wind. Of course, by the time I broke free and rolled into the pullout at Wolf Creek, the clouds had opened and the sun was shining merrily. Not ideal, but I honestly couldn't care less. The breeze was light, Redwing Blackbirds were chirping territorial warnings, and the stream was slightly colored from the previous night's rain. It was a perfect spring day and I was thrilled to be out fishing it!
I rigged up my BAD AXE rod with 12 feet of BADGER LITE floating line and another 6 feet of 5x tippet, choosing to start with a #12 bead head Black and Olive Woolly Bugger. Not knowing where the fish were feeding yet, and seeing that the water was a little clouded, I figured that something fished deep and that offered a bold profile was a good place to start.
It wasn't long before I had one on the hook. Using a little rock outcropping to conceal my cast, I drew a solid strike from a dead drift and it was on! I brought him to the surface after a few short runs and could see he was a good sized Brown. And this is where a few things became readily apparent. First, I was pretty slow in getting myself into position to land the fish. I was so excited to be fishing that I hadn't really planned that far in advance. Secondly, my hand-lining technique was slow and sloppy. Both of these combined to lose me what turned out to be the biggest fish I would hook that day. My best eyeball put him at about 14 inches, definitely on the larger size of what Wolf Creek holds. Disappointed but not feeling down, I moved on upstream...
The day continued to impress, as the sky clouded back up, and it was one of those times when it just felt right to be in the water. A strange shape floating downstream turned to be a good sized turtle. I watched him float closer, then bolt for shore as soon he noticed me. As I leaned in to try and get him on camera, a solid thump against my leg told me a panicked trout had just flushed and ran downstream too! I chuckled and moved on.
Where I started getting lots of creek bed snags on the bead head pattern. The bugger wasn't drawing strikes either, so it was time for a change. I hadn't seen any surface feeding, but I still wanted to something with a little bulk to give the fish a clear target. Being early season, I wasn't sure that it was time for bulkier patterns on top, but what the heck - I just happened to have a fresh supply of Dale's increasingly famous Pass Lake with me. It worked so well last year, why not?!?!
It didn't take too long before the Pass Lake worked its magic. I started drawing consistent strikes, and getting into some good fish! Problem was, I was losing A LOT of them after a few seconds on the hook. Here is the third thing about the day that became readily apparent - my hook set and timing was way, way out of practice. Even though I brought about a dozen decent trout (and at least as many creek chubs!) to hand, I had a solid dozen trout get loose after a few shakes.
And that is why this post and video is called "Spring Cleaning". It was a good day to knock the dust off of my skills and tidy up my technique!
How does tenkara translate to conventional fly fishing?
Beautiful Colorado River Rainbow
Before I started fishing Tenkara style, I was a casual angler. Bobber and worms were my primary tackle, and I had little interest in "Western" fly fishing, which seemed complex and a bit intimidating. Since I've become immersed in exploring Tenkara and other fixed line styles, I've had a growing curiosity about fly fishing with a reel.
Luckily for me, time, space, and circumstance lined up perfectly while in May when I visited Colorado. My good friend Tim just happens to be good friends with an incredibly skilled and highly experienced fly fishing guide, Dustin Harcourt of Harcourt Fly Fishing 3G. Dustin is the 3rd generation of his family to guide or outfit fly fisherman, and he literally grew up floating and fishing on the Colorado river. I could not have been more lucky in meeting him and having him as a guide/teacher for my first fly fishing experience with a reel!
The snow melt was in full swing and the river was blasting along at 19,000 cubic feet per second, leaving the water a deep chocolate brown that pretty much ruled out doing any fishing, but Dustin suggested we take a float and enjoy the ride. So off we went downstream, on a surprisingly calm float. While entire cottonwood trees were rocketing past us, we glided calmly along the surface, talking about fishing and enjoying the scenery. Up ahead, Dustin pointed out where a creek joins the Colorado, and said he had excellent luck there the week before on wading trip. Should we pull over and see if we could find some fish? YES SIR we SHOULD!
In contrast to the rivers silty dark brown, the water from the creek is off-color but definitely within a fish-able tolerance. We put in just below the creeks mouth, and he hands me a rod. I deliberately refuse to ask what kind it is or check the label for a brand, because I am certain that its a nice (read = expensive!) rig and I am already terrified I'll break it. "We are going to fish this in a style called high stick nymphing" he says..."It should be pretty close to the Tenkara your used to". The rod is rigged up with an 8 ft leader on sinking line. There is a strike indicator about 6 feet from the tip, a good sized stonefly nymph about 4-5 feet down from that,and on the tip - a bare, red hook I'm guessing was somewhere around 1/0 in size. "The fish really go for this bare hook!" I am puzzled by this, but Dustin is an expert and I trust his judgement and experience.
We are casting pretty close to shore - about 10-15 feet - so long casts wont be needed, thankfully! The cast requires more arm motion, and less wrist movement than I am accustomed to, plus the heavy weight of the indicator and double rig feels a clunky at first. I take a few practice casts, which are pretty clumsy to start with, but I soon pick up on the balance and weight.
He explains to me that when I hook the fish, I am to grab the line below where my right hand trigger finger is holding the line and pull the fish in that way. I'm also told I can release the trigger finger to give the fish some line if it is big or makes strong run. Ok then - this seems to make sense and I am at the bare minimum required knowledge needed to give it a try.
I spot the nearest obvious current seem and chuck my cast there. Once the cast lands, the drift feels familiar. I keep the rod tip high and the line taught, with the indicator riding the surface. My casts are short and ugly but I am landing them in the target zone more often than not. I get into the groove and enjoy the mechanical repetition of cast, drift, repeat. I'm quickly warming up to it and starting to feel a bit more in control of the system.
BAM - The indicator dives, fish on! I pull straight back on the set and the rod bends - and then I freeze for just a moment. WHAT DO I DO WITH ALL THIS LINE?!?!?!?!?! I break from my initial shock and begin to strip the line in, but I need to take my eyes of the fish to do so, because I have no muscle memory trained for this task. Instead of playing the fish, I quickly develop tunnel vision on the line, which I am pulling back in large clumps ABOVE my right hand trigger finger which is tightly clinched against the rod. Luckily, I managed to drag the fish close to shore in the midst of my daze, and Dustin netted it easily.
Still looking shocked that I caught this first fish on a Western Rig!
Dustin patiently offered some feedback, and over the course of the next 45 minutes or so, I managed to pull in a half dozen nice Rainbows. Two of them ended up being delicious with butter!
One thing I found interesting was that all but one of these fish chose to bite the bare red hook! I believe this was because the fish were holding tight on the bottom due to strong current, and when something sufficiently worm-like drifted in, they were happy to see the twisting, bouncing hook as a squirming worm. More evidence to support "hone the zone" over "match the hatch". Get SOMETHING food like into the water level where the fish are holding, and don't worry about specific patterns!
Another thing I'd like to highlight is just how effective Dustin's experience and skill at reading water is. I put a lot of time into learning and improving my ability to read water, but he really takes it to the next level. While I was competently able to identify decent good target zones, Dustin took a look at the mess of currents caused by the joining of this creek with the Colorado, and was able to spot a seam of nearly motionless water. It was 5-10 feet long, but maybe 2 feet wide at best. Dropping the cast into the top of this flow resulted in a slow, creeping drift that floated along at a snail's pace. Once he pointed it out - It didn't take long to start catching fish. Where else would they be when the water was this fast?!?!
Obligatory cheesy thumbs-up picture!
Naturally, I've since given some thought to how my short experience with western fly fishing compares to my Tenkara fishing. Here are a few thoughts and observations:
As mentioned early, I found the cast to be "bigger" than my typical Tenkara cast. I needed to keep my arm locked in place, which resulted in most of the action being located in my shoulder. There was no wrist movement at all. When casting Tenkara rods, the action primarily takes place from my elbow and beyond. Its a consistent wave of movement that travels from elbow, to wrist, to finger, to rod, to line, to fly. With the western rig, I felt I was moving the system and my arm as one solid unit.
When fishing Tenkara, my set is usually "up and back towards me". This is because I am often fishing terrain where the bank and vegetation restrict me from sideways movements. Dustin advised me to set "sideways and downstream" so that a null set doesn't snap back and hit me in the face, which it almost did several times. I am pretty sure I hit both him and Tim a few times!
One thing I liked was the ability to give the fish some line. The sound of the reel screaming as the fish bolted was a rush! That being said, I am pretty confident that despite the fish size and strong current, I probably could have landed fish under these conditions with an appropriate fixed line system.
The high stick nymphing style we used was very, very close to the dead drifting we do on Tenkara. For this style of fishing, I'd say the advantage goes to Tenkara, in that there is simply less equipment to manipulate. I'm not sold on the need for strike indicators. My normal setup of floating line with a longer tippet would have excelled in this situation, as leaving 4-6 inches of the line tip on the water serves the same purpose and adds no additional weight to the system.
Even though the main river was blown out, Dustin showed me some examples of how he approaches and positions his boat to fish spots along the bank. He usually parks his clients pretty close, about 15-30 ft away from target zones. I am convinced that with a robust fixed line rig, an angler could have a lot of success fishing from a boat on the Colorado. A Keiryu style rod fished with a fly would be ideal!
Finally, trying out a new style is a great way to see what your habits and trained responses are. When acting under stress or stimulus, our reflexes tend to jump straight to the motions and actions we are most familiar with. I ended up doing things ingrained in me by Tenkara fishing when faced with a new style, or just outright blanking out when I had nothing to reference. Two good sayings come to mind:
Practice makes permanent, so practice perfect!
Under stress, people do not rise to the occasion, they default to training and experience.
As much as I love Tenkara and fixed line fishing styles, I'll definitely continue to develop my "Western" fishing skills. I'm certain that the learning experience from both will improve them each in turn.
In the last of week of May, the Badger stepped away from the land of cheese and spring creeks to explore Colorado fishing. Unfortunately, the majority of the water was blown out by snow melt and a recent string of stormy days just prior to the trip. Despite the swollen, muddy waters below, the creeks and ponds higher up in Grand Mesa National Forest were clear and fishable!
While we normally like to offer a more narrative trip report, we will shift gears this time and focus specifically on some different techniques that worked well. If your familiar with the Badger, you know that Killer Bug variants are among our favorite, most productive fly patterns. This trip was no different; Killer Bug variants tied on #12 barbless hooks proved to be versatile, and the only pattern I needed to catch Browns, Rainbows, Cut-throats, and Brookies exhibiting varied feeding behaviors.
1. Conventional wisdom states that if you have a fish actively feeding on the top, you should offer it a dry fly. Several times now, I've chosen to drift a KB through the feeding zone instead, and successfully drawn strikes. The more active the fish is, the more willing they seem to hit the KB regardless of whether they are feeding on something else. This supports the "hone the zone" concept - put something "food-like" into the correct zone and you'll catch fish, whether or not you have "matched the hatch".
2. While the "dead drift" is an effective primary technique for KBs, they also work exceptionally well when given action and worked across the top of the water. Un-weighted KBs can easily be stripped and twitched across the top, swung in the current, even fished static by holding the fly on the surface downstream from your casting position.
3. Color seems to be a factor. While I am not a big fan of constantly switching out flies, if a piece of obviously fishy water doesn't produce, I will shift to another KB color before moving on. In doing so, I've discovered that sometimes one can work a piece of water for 10-15 minutes with no strikes, and then switch colors and almost instantly start catching fish. Its this experience that drove me to carry KB variants in 3 colors, with a few variations in wire and bead head color. I use Olive yarn for the darkest, Oyster for the tan/grey, and Sun-glow for a brighter orange/red, finishing with red or copper wire, and just about any color bead head. Beginning the day, or on new water, I start with the middle color (Oyster) and adjust from there.
All and all it was a great trip! It was a bit disappointing to not have gotten more fishing in, but as they say - "there aint no sense in arguing with the weather". The most important take-away from the trip was that good techniques and general purpose patterns can be applied just about anywhere to catch fish. Practice the fundamentals, and develop a solid understanding of how the fish relate to your angling, and you are increasingly likely to see success!
A great day of early season tenkara in the Driftless
Well, for the first time this season Matt and I got to get out and fish in what most humans would consider comfortable conditions. We did have gusting winds over 20 MPH and bright sun to contend with, but that's still better than freezing I suppose.
We fished a lower section of one our current favorites, which I had not been on in a couple of years and I don't think Matt had ever fished. This creek is of the type Matt and I tend to favor: small, maybe 6-8 feet wide in most sections, but deep with pools waist deep or deeper. The water runs very clear but there is plentiful structure for the fish to find shelter. I fished this creek a fair amount before I started fly fishing with Tenkara, and I actually catch more fish on it with Tenkara than I did with "regular" fly fishing. You could argue that I am a more experienced fisherman now that I was then, but I think it has more to do with how well suited these types of creeks are for Tenkara. I snagged on my second cast, and as is often the case, started to question my competence as a fisherman. Matt hooked a nice fish on his second cast, which should have helped me feel better, but did not. I should know better to despair, though. Once I worked out the kinks, I caught a nice size fish and everything was right with the world. The fishing was good for both of us several medium size fish brought to hand. Matt caught the largest of the day, about 12 inches and fat. I know there are bigger fish in this creek, but catching your fill of medium size fish is always nice.
We were having luck fishing variations of beadheaded killer bugs. There was a sparse hatch of caddis flies, but not many surface feeders. One small surface feeder hit my killer bug the instant it hit the water. Not how it is supposed to happen, but I guess that fish just wanted to eat.
After fishing a nice stretch of the creek, we decide to try another creek. I guess you shouldn't leave fish to fish, but we have been wanting to fish the improved section of another nearby favorite in better conditions. When we arrived, we found nothing short of a blanket hatch of small, dark colored caddis flies. These locally are referred to as the "Mother's Day Caddis", as they usually hatch around that time (though typically well before Mother's day). I thought we were in for the best fishing of the season. Neither Matt nor I are really "match the hatch" fly fisherman, but it is hard to ignore such a massive hatch. I tied on an elk hair caddis of roughly the size of the bugs coming of the water. I took some time to observe the creek before fishing, and surprisingly there were very few surface feeding fish and the ones I did see looked to be pretty small. I worked the caddis pretty extensively, but did not have much to show for it other than a long distance release. Matt had similar results. I consulted my fly fishing mentor as to why there were so few fish feeding on the surface with such a dense hatch. Our conclusions were that: a) it is very possible that the larger fish were feeding on caddis puppae subsurface, which might not be apparent and b) sometimes it takes time for the fish to really key in on the hatch. I was hoping that such a dense hatch would lead to fish feeding recklessly on the surface, which was not the case. It was still pretty cool to witness.
In one bend, I saw something snake-like move under the water. I really wasn't sure what to make of it. When i caught up with Matt, he told me he saw several critters that looked eel-like in one of the runs he fished. He thought maybe they were lampreys. I took our nets and managed to net a few. They sure as heck looked like small lampreys, but I have never seen them in a trout stream. It certainly made me reconsider my plans to wet wade next time we were out. Turns out they are American Brook Lampreys. They make run up the creeks in the spring. He tells me that they are not parasitic during this time, but I'm still not sure I want to wet wade that creek any time soon. We were running out of time that day, but if had more time, I think we would have kept a few lampreys and tried our keiryu rods.
We finished up by fishing the deep bridge pool where Matt had an absolute monster break off a few weeks ago. No monsters were caught, but we managed to get some nice size fish on the line.
So, we have yet to get that "perfect condition" day so far this season, but we are still enjoying some good success and having a lot of fun and process. Please contact us if you are interested in our guide service. We would love to share these creeks with you!
Fennimore creek offers a chance to hone tenkara fishing skills
Not long ago, we got out and fished Fennimore Creek. I was lucky enough to start the day on this productive riffle that coughed up two nice Browns in the first 15 minutes of the day. The water was about 2 feet deep, and as you can see above, the main current spills into the riffle through a narrower channel on the top of the section, then splits into a loose "y" as it runs. Having worked my up the choppy lower section of riffle, I took a moment to examine the prime section that was now in casting range.
The larger rocks (marked in red) created a very solid seam (larger green zone) to the left of the riffle, as well as smaller pocket of calmer water on the lower right corner (green triangle). On the top right side of the riffle, calm water made a nice seam, but the 6 inch depth made it an unlikely lie (orange zone).
I started by drifting the #12 Black Bead Head Woolly Bugger across the lower right corner. Fishing the tail and corners of the riffle first gives the chance to pull some fish off the section without spooking everything in the area. No joy in that zone, so I started drifting the lower portion of the left side seam, which almost instantly produced. You can see where the fish breached after the hook set. My best guess is he was holding just inside the that nearby cluster of rocks, and took the fly where that lightening bolt is.
After that first catch, I moved slowly up the base of rocks to work the rest of the riffle, and here is where I caught the second fish - about 6 feet in front me! I'd been casting to the top of the riffle and dead drifting back to my feet. Pulling the rod back for another cast, i was surprised to feel a sudden tug and resistance on the line. As you can see in the video below, the take was so close that it took me a moment to locate the fish and get some tension on the line.
This second fish had a few lessons to offer:
1: After catching a fish from a prime lie, don't count it out without giving it some more attention. There is often more than one fish there, and your catch may not have spooked the others!
2: A slow approach into terrain that limits the trout's sight lines (like a rocky riffle) can put you into very close proximity to fish. The broken up surface and "compartmental" nature of areas with larger rocks are an excellent opportunity to get into great casting positions.