How does tenkara translate to conventional fly fishing?
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.
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?!?!
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.
Special thanks to Tim and Julia, and Dustin and Dee. It was a great visit, and a sincere privilege to learn from an expert angler. If your ever out in the Glenwood Springs area - link up with Dustin for a great fishing experience!