Isaac Tait splits his time between managing gear reviews at Seattle Backpackers Magazine and blogging for his site Fallfish Tenkara. When he is not writing he can be found guiding Tenkara trips and exploring the mountains of Japan. He also enjoys skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing.
Lessons from a Japanese tenkara master
The weekend was an exceptional learning experience on many levels. Rather than try to cram everything into one post, we're going to break it down into a few posts so we can focus on different topics in a bit more detail. This post will convey observations about Tenkara-no-Oni himself, the equipment he favors, and his angling style.
Soft spoken and quick to smile, Masami Sakakibara is humble and well mannered. His English is very limited, but not once did I see him become frustrated with the gestures and hand signals that passed as communications when the translator was not around. He did a remarkable job of transmitting information despite this disadvantage. Corrections to body stance or an adjustment to a cast's timing were all made with a subtle nudge and gentle re-positioning of arm or wrist.
On the water, he fished more practical lengths of line (4-5 meters) with a tippet section of about 3 feet, but on several occasions Oni demonstrated long line casting with line lengths exceeding 10 meters. It was explained that while this would be largely impractical on the water, it serves as excellent training for casting and manipulating "normal" length level lines. The idea being that if you can control a 10 meter line, you'll be able to exert even more control over a 3-5 meter line. There is certainly a logic to that!
As far as all of those amazing, graceful casts that you see Oni make on YouTube videos - 100% real. He makes crisp but never overpowered casts that rely more on timing than force. One major thing to note is that he does not give his cast time to straighten out behind him. Often times, the line was still travelling backwards, the line tip overhead, when the rod tip was snapping forward again. The cast's backstroke was the familiar abrupt stop at 12 o'clock, but it was a much faster backstroke than I expected.
Oni keeps a light and flexible grip on the rod. During the cast, the butt travels 2-3 inches out from his wrist before returning. I saw him make several corrections on casts where the angler was creating too much separation, so this is likely a core aspect of his casting style. A frequent move I observed was Oni re-positioning his hand on the upper, middle, or lower grip by doing a small, quick toss of the rod into the air and then grabbing it where he wanted it next. I suspect that this was largely to make minor adjustments in range, used in conjunction with body position when setting up for a cast.
Tactically, he made very thorough and varied explorations of key water. He would target specific zones and terrain features, in sequences set to minimize disturbance to areas he had not yet hit. When fishing a pool, he would fish the near edge, then the bottom, then the far edge, then get out and move around the far side of the pool, and fish the entire pool again from an upstream position with different drifts and tactics.
On some casts, the line would be kept off the water entirely, and others, half the line was in the water as he played the fly downstream. Some drifts were very short, 2-3 seconds long, and others were very long, as he drifted an entire broad section of current from top to bottom. There did not seem to be any hard and fast and rules, and his tactics were extremely dynamic.
Of course, it goes without saying that his casts were precise and consistently impressive. You could tell that he was not just casting into that shadowy area by the bank, he was casting to that clump of grass sticking out by that particular rock in the shadowy area by the bank - because that is exactly where the cast would land.
I had the pleasure of watching him catch a good sized cutthroat that gave him some nice runs and those of us watching a good look at him playing the fish. The fish put a serious bend into the rod and Oni brought up his off hand to support the rod. If you have not seen this technique, it is a good one to learn. He applies his off hand with an open palm to the section up above the grip. It is important to note that he does not grasp the section - that would stop the section from being able to flex. He simply puts his open hand there to act as a resistance for the fish to pull the rod against, and at the same time, drops the rod sideways so that it is mostly parallel to the water. This lets the rod flex and distribute the force of the fight across the entire rod.
Thank you Masami Sakakibara for sharing your time and knowledge with us!
Knocking the dust off the tenkara skills
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!
Finally Time to break out the Tenkara Rods!
After a slow start to the Wisconsin early catch and release trout season, things have really started to pick up in the last week. Today, I was able to get out and fish "wolf creek", one of our favorite little trout streams on the eastern edge of the Driftless region.
Wolf creek is very narrow for the most part. Parts of it are only 5 or 6 feet across and I would venture there are few sections more than 8 feet wide. It benefited from some stream restoration work many years, but according to a contact at the DNR, it has not been stocked for quite a long time. Despite being a relatively narrow creek, sections of it run quite deep. It always surprises me when I have to worry about my sling pack getting wet in such a small creek. It also has incredible structure, thanks to the restoration work and the machinations of nature. Accordingly, it is absolutely brimming with trout. Most of the fish you will catch in the creek are in the 7 to 9 inch range. They are not all that big, but they are wild and feisty. If you play your cards right, though, you can hook into some much larger fish.
For today's outing, I used the Badger Tenkara Bad Axe. I really like this rod for smaller streams, and I thought I might want to use the shorter setting in certain sections. Having an adjustable rod is kind of like having four wheel drive: you don't need it very often, but when you do, you're really glad you have it. I used the Badger Lite line, which is perfectly suited to the rod. Given the tight casting quarters, I shortened up my tippet section to about 4.5 feet, about a foot and a half shorter than my typical set up for our driftless creeks. The fly of choice today was a size 12 leech pattern.
Conditions were about perfect. Temps were in the 50-60's with overcast skies and only a light wind. I'm not sure what the water temp was as I forgot my stream thermometer in the truck. Again. There were quite a few stoneflies hatching today (and crawling on the streamside brush). Trout were feeding on the surface, but I decided to stick to the leech pattern so I could probed the deep nooks and crannies in the creek.
I caught a nice little 8 inch brown in the first run, and then donated my first fly to the brush. A couple of other similar sized trout were picked up in the next run, and then I lost a fish pushing 14 inches at my feet. This pattern seemed like it was going to repeat itself: catch a couple of nice 8 or 9 inch fish and then lose the big one at my feet. In fact, it happened a total of three times.
Despite losing some nice fish at my feet, I was having a great time. I was tempted to switch to a surface fly, since I saw several trout presumably eating the stoneflies on the surface, but stuck to the leech mostly out of laziness. Somewhat to my surprise, I managed to catch several rising fish on the leech pattern. I do believe there are such things as selective trout, but I believe their existence is exaggerated.
Once I reached my usual turn around point, I had to decide whether to head back to the truck and head to new creek or explore unknown territory. I had been further upstream in the past, but found it was mostly silty and shallow, not very trouty. I decided just to press on and at least lay eyes on sections of the creek I have not seen before. I'm glad I did.
There were portions of the creek that were just not trout friendly whatsoever, but there were also pockets and bends with just about perfect trout habitat. I don't think this little creek gets a lot of fishing pressure, but I would venture this section gets almost no pressure at all. Every favorable segment of the creek held trout, and they were seemingly all naive and eager. As I approached on nice corner, I said to myself "Mike, I think a big trout lives there. Here's what you need to do: step 1, approach with stealth. Don't spook the fish. Step two, don't blow the cast. Step three, catch a big fish". I love it when a plan comes together!
I was thrilled to land this guy (pictured above), especially after losing three nice sized fish at my feet. After releasing him, I thought "I bet at least one more nice trout lives in that pool". I cast again just a little further upstream, and sure enough, I caught his slightly smaller but still impressive counterpart.
Those two fish were certainly the highlight of the trip. I managed to hook a couple more as I hopped from pool to bend, and then finally called it day. In a way, it was bittersweet. It was certainly a great day, but sadly, a day like that could be my best all season, and the season just started!
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