Can "solar eclipse magic" help counter the challenges of small Driftless streams when tenkara fishing in late August?
Driftless small streams in late summer mean high grass, and that means you better be ready to dial your game in tight.
Nope. Badger don't believe in any "solar eclipse magic" nonsense! That being said, I hit the water on Monday hoping that some extra darkness would give me an edge for tenkara fishing, but the truth is I don't think it made a lick of difference. Maybe it looked a little more like a gloomy February day then a gloomy August day, but the fish didn't seem to care. They were tucked safely into rocky cut-banks protected by tall grass overhangs that blocked most of the clear casting lanes. It was a good opportunity to hone my skills, so despite extremely overgrown condition of the stream, I got to work.
The target zones were small. 1-3 feet wide, and 2-4 ft long. Depths maxed out around 3-4 feet, but that was only on a few holes, mostly I was working water about 18 inches deep. Every space had cut-banks and overhangs for the fish to dive for once hooked, so all of the fights were short and focused on landing as quickly and cleanly as possible. It was sweaty, hot, and tiresome pushing through tall grass looking for spots to cast to - but I brought close to 20 brown and brook trout to hand in about 3 hours! Sizes ranged from 6-14 inches. How did I make my tenkara fishing produce in such restricted terrain?
1) I fish a rig I am well practiced with. I can sense the casting range, balance, and weight shifts very easily because I am highly familiar with it. Practical Consideration: Get to know your rod and rigs, introduce disruptive system changes slowly and as a last option. Learn the feel of the casting range of the rig. This is critical and extremely useful!
2) I've developed confidence in dealing with snags. In many cases now, I can gently pull and lift most grass snags back and recover them. Practical Consideration: The key to this may be found in the cast and the way your fly presents. If you are watching it present and it falls on grass - don't yank or pull back hard, causing a "hard snag" that requires an up close and personal recovery. Instead, freeze - then bring it back softly and see how many less snags spoil those nice bends you are targeting.
Brook trout caught at the time of Eclipse totality.
3) Using the system familiarization from point #1 to dial in my tenkara fishing, I do a of casting to target zones that I simply cannot see. But If I know the zone looks clear, then I can stay out of fish sight lines to deliver the cast and work the drift. Practical Consideration: Using your ability to sense balance and weight on the system, and watching your line to maintain proper tension, you can still get excellent drifts in the in the top water column. A secondary consideration to this is knowing just where to stop your cast to make sure you do not lay too much line down and spoil the drift, or too little and leave the fly dangling in the air.
4) I work shorter drifts and accommodate for obstacles. Practical Consideration: Focus on delivering solid technique, and make those presentations count for the short amount of time you have. Be prepared to alter your drift and technique to address obstacles as your line navigates the course. I have executed drifts were I guided the fly slowly through a 4 ft section, moving the rod tip gently to ensure that the line stayed clear of grass overhangs along the way, and picked up fish 3/4 of the way through the drift. You have to steer without disturbing the fly's drift or action, and maintain proper line tension while doing it.
This hefty 14-inch Brown was the best of the day.
Like most things in life, there is no magic shortcut to productive tenkara fishing in challenging conditions. It requires a focus on the fundamental skills, attention to detail, and a willingness to push your limits. The cool thing is, if you work hard on that - it may start to feel like you ARE working magic!
Summer brings unique challenges and joys to tenkara fly fishing on Driftless spring creeks.
By late June, the conditions on Driftless spring creeks have changed dramatically from the easy going days of Spring. Grass and weeds along the banks grow jungle-thick and face high. Pesky insects like gnats can swarm thick enough to make you run screaming back to the truck. Heat waves can drive water temps so high that we often stop trout fishing for weeks at a time. But sometimes things line up perfectly for a spectacular day of tenkara fly fishing - which is exactly what happened on the Summer Solstice!
If you haven't caught on yet - Badger Tenkara is just short of obsessed with fishing for Smallmouth Bass on Tenkara rods. Seriously - we are thrilled to live on some of America's most unique trout water, but we countdown to when the creeks warm up enough for the Bronzebacks to get fired up. I made it out over the weekend to fish a new section of a smaller river. Things started out so slow I almost packed it up and left - intermittent rains moved in and likely water wasn't producing. I told myself I'd fish one more likely run before heading back to the Jeep. Luckily...that is when the bite kicked in!
The Smallmouth Bass may be the perfect Tenkara sport fish
Quite possibly the Midwest's PERFECT Tenkara sport fish!
If there is such a thing as "Smallmouth Fever", Badger has caught a serious case of it! Don't get us wrong, we love the field-craft and rich traditions of trout fishing (both Japanese and American!). But the Smallmouth Bass is a ferocious opponent that may just be the Midwest's perfect Tenkara sport fish. Why is that? Being a warm water fish, it enjoys a range much wider than trout, so it is more readily available to a larger number of anglers. Most importantly - ounce for ounce and pound for pound, NOTHING fights like a Smallmouth on the Hook!
An opportunity opened up to explore a new section of Left Hand Branch the other day, and it did not disappoint. It was one of those evenings on the water that washes away the last few weeks of stress and reminds you of everything about fishing that you love. I caught about 30 fish in three hours, and while none that I brought to hand was more than 12 inches or so, even those "average" sized stream bass were a BLAST!
I fished the Classic rod with 12 feet of Badger-Lite line and 6 feet of 6lb test mono. Having the fished this water with the WISCO before, I knew that the rod was overkill for this kind of water - but the Classic is just right for these size bass. Size #6 Pass Lake flies with chartreuse wings (the "Nuclear" recipe") or white calf-tail proved yet again to be devastatingly effective against smallies.
Greeting me at the turn-style was this sign, posted by the Wisconsin Smallmouth Alliance. They are a great conservation group, similar in mission to Trout Unlimited. The sign's title really speaks to me. It's message supporting catch and release is a great way to ensure that we have good fishing for years to come, and the "fighter" nickname really suits the smallmouth attitude. It really stuck with me throughout the evening. Man, I hope if life ever puts a hook in my mouth and starts to pull me into a net, I fight back with the same spirit as a Smallmouth Bass!
Knee-deep in perfect Smallmouth water!
So, on to the fishing. This section of of Left Hand Branch is spectacular smallie water. Rarely more than knee-deep, it was full of classic structure - a rocky bottom and occasional patches of vegetation that made great holding lies. Casting to visible structure, edges, and current streams was productive. In slower, flat water where structure was harder to see, a steady prospecting pattern of dropping casts every 15-20 feet worked well, often pulling fish from every spot before moving upstream to repeat.
Dead drifts were effective, but many casts produced nearly instant top-water strikes! Since the water was shallow, most times you could see the fish rocket up for the take, and in the first catch of the video, you'll see the v-wake as the fish launches out of cover to make the strike. Another technique that worked really well was following up a big splashy presentation with finger taps to the cork grip during the drift. This noisy approach drew a lot of strikes, especially when used on the edges of cover.
The bass were really in the mood to feed. Not only did they bite steadily on the flies I cast, but I witnessed some minor "crash" behavior too! I stumbled onto a section of the stream where bass were driving shiners out of deeper water into the shallows where they would attempt the kill. It appeared to be one or maybe two bass hunting, instead of a larger school like we've seen on the Wisconsin river, but it was really cool to see. Check out the slow-mo footage in the video!
You'll see in the video that I had an intense battle with what would have been the "fish of the day" IF I would have landed it. We had a serious duel there for a while, but then the fly snapped off. I am certain that this happened because I had already caught a mess of fish on the fly and had not bothered to re-rig or even inspect my gear during that time. Especially with bass, I should be checking and making sure that the my gear is in order, because, bass teeth can do a number on tippet sections. That fish did give me a solid fight, so after taking a moment to vent, I rendered him a hand salute in respect. Fair warning fish - I'll be back for you soon!
If the stream temps are too warm, try tenkara bass
It is HOT here in Wisconsin right now. Hot and dry. The trout streams are running a little warm, so Matt and I have largely left them alone and will continue to do so until it starts to cool some. But hey, the bass don't care, they like it! So when I had the opportunity to fish after a night shift this week, I naturally decided to chase some bass. I went to one of our favorite creeks. The fish there are not all that large, but they are plentiful and usually cooperative. Additionally, the creek is easy to wade and there is not much to snag on, which is nice for my post-night shift foggy brain.
The first big pool is always hit or miss. Today it was a miss. I know there must be fish there, but I'm guessing the fish get more pressure here than other parts of the creek, since it is right at the access point. No sweat, that's how it goes. The next pool was a different story. I cast along a downed log and hooked into a feisty little rock bass. Not my target species, but I always enjoy catching them. Where there is one rock bass, there are usually several, so I cast to the log again, and sure enough, another one came out to play. As long as I could get my fly to drift under the log, the fish seemed willing to take it. After catching a few, I moved up towards the head of the pool, and to my surprise, caught a bluegill. And another. I'm not sure I've ever caught bluegills in this creek before, but again, I won't complain. The next pool I is one I would consider marginal. The water there is deep enough to hold fish, but just barely. There is some nice structure, though, and a well placed cast will usually draw a strike. I was again surprised here to hook into multiple fish in a pool that is usually only good for one or two. It also turned out to be the pool of many species: smallmouth, rock bass, bluegill and one big ol' creek chub! Not too bad.
At the head of the pool, I hooked into two nice smallmouth, one which I landed and one that came off the hook at the bank. Both of these fish were decent sized, just under a foot or so, which is pretty average for this creek. I was using the Badger Tenkara UNC for a change of pace, and I have to say, it is a blast to catch smallmouth on the UNC! I was using about 11.5 feet of the Badger Lite line with six feet of tippet. With this set up, I was not missing out on much casting distance compared to the Classic or Bad Axe, but had the joy of fishing with an extremely light weight rod.
The "bigger" bass put a bend in the rod and made the fight pretty entertaining, but the rod still has plenty of backbone to handle angry bronzebacks. I look forward to testing the rod on the Little Left Hand river, where the bass are bigger and even meaner! During the dogs of summer, consider giving the trout a break if the stream temps are too warm. Go chase some bass. You'll be glad you did!
Big Smallmouth Tenkara Fishing on the Wisconsin River
I think the real measure of a fly fishing guide is the ability to put clients on fish despite adverse conditions. In the little informal guiding I have done, I have been blessed with days of favorable conditions, fish on the bite and having the creeks pretty well to ourselves. It is easy to look like a great guide on those days. On my recent trip with Kyle Zempel from Black Earth Angling Company, conditions were not so favorable, but Kyle still managed to get us into plenty of fish.
Kyle is a fly fishing guide based outside of Madison, Wisconsin. While he loves to fly fish (and guide) for trout, I think Wisconsin River smallmouth bass are his real passion. Kyle knows the river and its fish like few others. On the day of our outing, the river was at one of its lowest points in Kyle’s guiding career. Some of his “good spots” were now only inches deep. Not a great way for a guide to have to start his day. It is a big, sprawling river, so finding the fish can be no easy task. We were also facing gusting winds that proved challenging for casting at times, not to mention boat positioning. This was also Kyle’s first exposure to tenkara. No pressure here, folks!
A bit about the boat: Kyle owns what is probably the ideal boat for fishing the Wisconsin. It looks like an elongated skiff. It has a nice fishing platform up front. It can be drifted and rowed like a classic drift boat, but when you need to get from spot to spot, or back to the boat launch, Kyle fires up the jets. Yes, it is a jet boat! The jet motor allows you to cruise across the shallows of the Wisconsin River at speed. Drift boats are romantic, sure, and canoes have their charm, but the jet boat is really the way to go!
As we drifted down the banks of our first section of the river, we found the water level to be unexpectedly low. Repeated casts drew nothing. After giving it the college try, Kyle fired up the jets and hit the next spot. One of the great things about fishing on the Lower Wisconsin River is the opportunity to get out and wet wade. You can boat along the river, beach the boat on a sand bar and then fish to drop offs and structure as you wade in the shallows under the summer sun. It will make you feel like a kid again, for sure.
At one such stop we were fishing where a cold water trout stream fed into the Wisconsin. Feeling the cold water of the trout stream pour into the warm Wisconsin river was an enjoyable contrast. I hooked my first fish of the day there, a feisty fish we estimated to go about 17 inches. After letting the fish ride the rod for a bit, I started to hand line him in. I got him to my feet when, inexplicably, I arrogantly uttered “you’re mine now, fish”. Then he broke off. Talk about karma.
We drifted along again and then anchored at a section of river that offered a variety of fishing opportunities: rocks, logs, current fluctuations and bank structure. I handed Kyle the Badger Tenkara Classic rod while I continued to fish the WISCO. Kyle quickly landed a nice 14 inch or so bass, his first fish on tenkara. As he fished along a log, he hooked into a beast. I tried my best to coach him, giving him the abbreviated version of Rob Worthing’s “How to land big fish on tenkara” talk (should be required viewing for anyone chasing big smallies on tenkara). For better or worse, the fish wrapped itself around a log. I was able to net it, snap a photo and release it. The fish measured 20 ¼ inches. It is one of the bigger fish Kyle has caught on the river, and it was on a Tenkara rod! What impressed me even more than the fish’s length was its mass. The proportions of the fish were like nothing I have ever seen. I was in awe the rest of the day.
Kyle caught this beast, which was released safely so that it could report to work as an NFL linebacker.
Our next spot proved even better. The current here ripped along the bank of a small island, creating a deep channel. The perfect ambush spot for hungry bass to chase bait. We hooked one fish after another here. Every time the fishing would start slow down and I would think it was time to move on, another fish would hit. I did not land them all, but I landed quite a few! The biggest was 17 inches, which is the second largest smallmouth I have caught on the river. The largest was on my 8 weight fly rod, so needless to say, this was a much more interesting battle on the Classic! Most of the fish we caught in this section hovered around the 14 inch mark, some a little smaller, some bigger, but all vigorous and strong. I completely lost count of the number of fish we caught in this section, which is always a good sign!
At our next spot, we were treated to one of the iconic spectacles of fishing the Lower Wisconsin River: “the crash”. Smallmouth will chase bait into the shallows, then explode at surface as they feast. It is cool enough just to watch, not to mention fish. We drew repeated strikes from the fish and landed several more. It was pretty darn exciting.
Bring your “A” game! This is NOTHING like fishing for trout, even big trout. Pound for pound, I don’t know that there is another freshwater fish that fights like a smallmouth, and there are some big ones in the river. I highly recommend watching Rob Worthing of Tenkara Guides LLC “fighting big fish on tenkara” presentation.
Consider a “big fish” tenkara rod. We caught a lot of fish on the Classic that day, and it stood up to the abuse, but we were really asking a lot of the rod. The WISCO is a great rod for this sort of fishing!
Consider bringing a back up rod, spare tip section and/or field repair kit. These fish really push the limits of what can be done with tenkara. These fish can break rods if you are careful on how you play the fish.
I can’t wait for my next opportunity to chase big smallmouth on the Wisconsin River. You should try it, too!
Fishing the WI River Smallmouth Feeding Frenzy with Tenkara
Ben waiting for the water to boil.
Earlier this year we started hearing stories about an early Summer phenomenon that locals call "The Crash". The word was that the Smallmouth Bass in the Wisconsin River like to school up, drive bait-fish into the shallows, and then feast on them in a feeding frenzy that puts the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" to shame. When my friend Ben suggested we canoe out to a few spots where we'd be likely see the Crash and fish it, there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to see it first hand!
This also happened to be a great opportunity put our WISCO rods to the test. Ben said we'd need some range to keep from spooking the school, so we rigged up with 18 feet of floating line and another 8 feet of 6lb test mono. The plan was to fish the surface with Crease Fly Poppers, similar to the one pictured below. We were lucky - the first place we checked had a school of Smallies crashing, so we pulled up the canoe and got set.
A Crease Fly Pattern similar to what we fished.
It was like an old west shootout! You stand there, ready to cast, waiting for the first sign of a disturbance on the surface. Suddenly, you'd see a bait-fish jump, or the swirl of a near surface take, and you'd cast out past it and pop/jig the retrieve back towards you. By then, most of the surface would erupt with jumping and thrashing bass as they picked off the trapped bait-fish. The strikes came as the frenzied bass mistook the crease fly as a fleeing victim - BAM! They'd crush it and the fight was on. Once we had them on the hook, we'd move them back and away from the "crash zone" to make sure we didn't spook the school off the feed.
We caught over a half dozen nice fish ranging from 14 - 17 inches and the WISCO was far beyond capable for the task. Moderate current with plenty of room and depth for the fish to run made no difference - when we decided to bring the fish in, it was done. The third and last segment has the best footage I got of the crash itself, check out the chain reaction on the water as the bass go after those bait-fish!
Look for more Tenkara vs. Smallmouth action coming soon!
Tons of Tenkara Smallmouth on the Downstream Swing
As summer weather began to set in, Matt and I decided it was about time we started chasing some warm water fish. We had the opportunity to fish a river we heard about some time ago, but had not yet made the time to explore. I'm really glad we finally did! For the purpose of utter obfuscation, we will refer to this Wisconsin gem as the "Little Left Branch".
We had some trouble finding the river, which really isn't all bad, considering that our misdirection led to the sighting of an older gentleman piloting his powered wheelchair through a small town, shirtless, in brightly colored pajamas pants with a large cockatoo on his shoulder. You just don't see that sort of thing every day. On the way home, we learned that some Amish buggies are equipped with headlights. It's about more than just the fishing, you see!
When we finally arrived at our jumping off point, we were greeted by a groomed fishing platform installed by a fishing club. There was a deep pool with swirling back eddy that looked very promising. It was big enough for us both to fish, so we started at opposite ends and worked towards the middle. Nothing. I'm sure this portion of the river gets some pressure, but it was still a little disappointing to draw a blank from such promising water. We then had to decide whether to move upstream or down. Upstream looked narrower with a canopy of trees, so we chose the downstream route. We decided to hike downstream and then fish back upstream.
After a couple hundred yards, we found a nice looking run with a bubble line along the far bank. I cast and quickly got into a fish, perhaps a 9 or 10 inch smallmouth. I lost him as I was about to net him. Our intel had told this creek is loaded with bass, but they are generally small, around 10 inches being the common size. Fine with us. A couple minutes later, Matt hooked into a larger fish that really gave him a fight. We were reminded just how pugnacious these stream smallmouth are compared to even wild brown trout. Frankly, they make the trout look a little lazy. Matt did a great job playing that vigorous fish, thanks in part to some great tips from the presentation given by Rob Worthing of Tenkara Guide LLC at Midwest Tenkara Fest.
I then noticed a very promising looking cliff pool downstream from us. Our original plan was to head back upstream, but this section of water looked too good to leave behind. I suggested to Matt that we alter our plans. I avoided the temptation to go straight to the cliff and worked my way downstream instead. I'm glad I did. There was a drop off a few yards ahead of the cliff pool that was more or less invisible. It turned out to be one of the most productive portions of the creek. I landed my largest fish of the day from that pool, and it gave up several more for both of us.
Most of our casts were down stream. The fish would take the fly on the swing or as it was twitched on the retrieve. They were not subtle in the take! Now, I have to say that Matt is pretty good at fishing downstream, but it feels very foreign to me; a little like writing left-handed. I'm just very used to fishing upstream. Our tenkara journey, though, has always been about learning and trying new things.
I should mention a bit about our gear. We were both fishing the Badger Tenkara Classic, which Matt has dubbed "the AK-47 of Tenkara rods". It is affordable, durable and can function in a variety of environments. We were both fishing Badger floating line. Matt had 4 pound test tippet, I had 6 pound test mono-filament. Matt was using a variation on his go-to fly, the "Nuclear Pass Lake", tied by our buddy Dale Hewitt. I was using a white cone head streamer. They both worked great.
We continued to move downstream from there. Fishing was steady from there on out. We were surprised at the size of some of the fish we caught. We caught many fish larger than 12 inches, which we were told would be exceptional for this creek. They were all fat, healthy and feisty. We came upon several pools that produced multiple fish for each of us. It was joyful, relaxed fun fishing.
Around sunset, we were fishing a very promising looking long run with plenty of depth and structure. For whatever reason, it seemed that the fishing had completely shut down at that point. Matt pointed out that the clouds had changed, suggesting an atmospheric pressure change. Depending on who you believe, such things can greatly influence fish behavior. As we waded back up stream, we saw some fishing frolicking near the surface. I figured they were carp, but as we got closer, we could clearly see they were gar, all in the two foot plus range. There were several of them roiling just below the surface, occasionally sticking their needle nose snouts out of the water. We guessed they were spawning, but also thought perhaps their presence put the bass off the feed.
Not every creek we explore turns out to be winner. This one was. Get out there and chase down those blue lines on the map. You never know when you will find a real gem!
The day started cloudy and threatening rain - looking at the radar I thought I might actually be stuck in the car and waiting for a storm to pass when I hit the access. The weather rapidly blew over, and by the time I arrived, it was full out beautiful sunny day. There are worse problems to have, right?
Conventional wisdom says that going trout fishing on a sunny, late summer day in Wisconsin is a fool's errand, but with some careful use of terrain and a bit of water reading savvy, a Tenkara angler can still have a great day on the creek. I rigged up the Badger Classic with 12 ft of floating Badger line, 6 ft of tippet, and one of the larger "Pass Lake" flies I'd been itching to fish.
Shiners and creek chubs were hungry and I caught several of them in places where you'd typically find actively feeding trout, but other than that the first few runs were lifeless. Time to shift tactics.
An August thunderstorm makes for excellent tenkara
A nice afternoon of thunderstorms had just washed across the Driftless region, and being without obligations - I made a bee line for my favorite stream. happy to see no one else parked anywhere along the creek, I made my way to a section I'd yet to fish. The entire segment runs through grazed pasture, meaning its an easy walk, and the stream itself is only modestly wide, so there really is no "bad" place to fish from on either bank.
While I had spotted a few creeks that were blown out, chocolate milk messy on the trip there, this water was a bit higher and faster than normal, and tinted just enough provide an advantage for an angler in a lazy mood. The local herd of cows were either downstream and fenced away, or sheltering in the wood line far from the creek. Jackpot!
I decided I'd start with the largest hopper I had along, thinking the bigger profile would help increase its chance of being detected in the murky water. It worked like a charm, and drew a nice hit on the first cast. Unfortunately, both that fish and the next two, were able to slip the hook before I could land them.
I downgraded to another hopper, this one smaller - but bright green, figuring that the larger size may have been an issue. It seemed to do the trick, as the hits kept coming but I was also able to get much better sets on the strikes.
After just an hour and a half of fishing, I'd caught 5 nice browns all 8-12 inches, and missed or "long distance released" another 6. This section is high on my list for a repeat trip - I'd love to fish it when the water is calm and clear.