Winter tenkara makes you work for your catches
We were fishing Willow Creek in Richland County, Wisconsin. Both Matt and I had heard good things about the creek. It has a reputation for being very pretty and fishing well. One of my guidebooks even had recommendations for which sections of creek to fish. Well, suffice it to say that we did not think the creek really lived up to it’s reputation. The banks were typically between 6 and 8 feet high. You could certainly fish from the bank, but good luck landing a fish if you did. The stream bed was mostly sand and the water was low and clear. If you did get in a wade, making a stealthy approach was almost impossible. There was very little cover in the stream, other than blow downs and the occasional bend. We only saw a few fish in the stream, mostly in the 6-8 inch range. I did get one fish to thrice swipe at my wooly bugger, but never was able to hook up with him, perhaps because I was perched on a bank 7 feet above the creek and at an awkward angle. Nevertheless, Matt and I kept giving the creek the benefit of the doubt, fishing it for about two hours. We kept thinking that perhaps around the next bend it would better. It never really did. Eventually, we decided to cut our losses and move to a known creek to get some better fishing in.
We headed to Adams creek (not a real name) where we had success earlier in the month. I failed to put my rod away properly and was rewarded with a giant rat’s nest of line when we arrived. I told Matt to go fish the bridge pool while I re-rigged. Within a couple minutes, Matt was hootin’ and hollerin’ something about a big fish. I was wrapping an Albright knot at the time. Failing to recognize the significance of the situation, I continued to tie the knot rather than run over with the net. As I got up to walk over, the bend in Matt’s rod straightened itself out. His tippet had snapped and the fish was gone. He thinks the fish was pushing two feet in length, a figure I think is possible given the depth of the pool and some of the other fish we’ve seen in it.
We then fished the upper section of the creek, which has not seen much in the way of improvement. Most of the fish there are in the pools. Some of the pools may hold a couple dozen fish each. I had a long distance release on a fish about a foot in length in a pool that was maybe only 2 by 4 feet. I did manage to land a fish about 11 or 12 inches long in one of the bend pools. After that, we made the long walk to the lower section of the creek.
We fished our way back to the bridge pool. Matt started fishing while I switched from a nymph pattern to a streamer. Matt was quickly into a fish. I would estimate it at 16 inches, perhaps more. Again, Matt’s tippet snapped and fish sulked away. We both re-rigged with 3x tippet and heavy streamers. I was surprised how well the Badger Tenkara Classic cast with 12 feet of line, 7 feet of heavy tippet and a large, ridiculous weighted streamer. It seemed like our plan was for naught when Matt announced his “ceremonial last cast”. His rod bent, and he was into another fish. I came down with the net, determined to not have him lose a third fish in this pool. Matt kept the line tight and I netted the fish. It was not as big as the previous “ones that got away”, but it was still pretty respectable, around 14 inches. We elected not to tempt fate and packed it in from there. It was a long haul back to Madison, but we’d do it again.
The very cool/cold early season has been frustrating. Fish have not been terribly active and the hatches have been sparse. I think I can count the number of surface-feeding fish I’ve seen so far this season on one or two hands. Still, we’ve enjoyed reasonable success despite these conditions primarily by fishing with nymphs and small streamers. We’re optimistic that some of these creeks will really produce when conditions become more favorable.
We set out to scout what we thought was a very promising stretch of new water, but Willow Creek was a disappointment. It had lazy flow over a very sandy bed, and its only notable structure came from downed trees. While it held a few nice pools, most of the water that we like to target was crowded into tangles of deadfall and steep, restrictive banks. While I’d like to explore some other sections of the creek in search of better water, I wouldn't give this section another run.
Better water was a short drive away, so off we went. Mike had a nasty rat’s nest of line to deal with...so I strolled off to hit the bridge pool that splits this section of water. We’ve caught some 8-12 inches Browns from this pool before, so I figured I’d sink a streamer in there and see what was hungry.
I was fishing a 12 foot Badger Line, and another 6 feet of 5x tippet with my old standby - #12 black woolly bugger. I let it sink and worked back in with a slow twitch a few times...and then it hit. A strong take and MUCH more resistance to my set than I was expecting. I lifted the rod up and back to try to get him to the surface, with limited success. The first time he breached, I got a decent look (in the video you'll hear my reaction - WHOAH!) and the fish was much larger than I estimated. I thought I saw a bright swath of red along its side, which would have meant he was a ‘bow, but to my knowledge, there are only Browns in this water. The red I saw must have been all the adrenaline dumping into my system when I saw just how big of a hog he was!
I planted my feet firm and decided to stand my ground, managing to bring the fish up a few times but unable to prevent him from diving again. He’d been running side to side, allowing me turn him as he went, but my luck was about change - he started a hard sprint directly away from me. Man, this fish had some muscle! I brought my left hand up to stabilize the rod, hoping I could hold off his charge with a double grip.
I had both hands on the cork, which still allowed for a decent amount of flex in the rod, but then shifted my lower hand up onto the base section of rod above the cork. The fish dug in its heels - we both froze there pulling against each other for a few very long seconds, until - SNAP! The tippet just couldn't take anymore, and my monster dove back down into the pool.
Afterwards, we fished upstream, where I caught a nice 12-13 inch Brown (right after the action cam died, of course), and then hiked down another section and fished up again. As Mike mentioned, this creeks lower section is structured like a Tenkara theme park, but the fish are scarce. The whole time, I was thinking back to that big ‘un that got away! What could I have done different? Should I have moved instead of holding tight? I decided that was the case.
We hit that pool again on the way back to the car. I was rigged up the same way. After a few minutes, suddenly I've got another good sized fish on the line! AWWW YEAH! I brought the rod up high and held the fish on the surface, then started moving him towards shallow water - this time I wouldn't make the mistake of holding tight and creating a stand off, plus - Mike had jumped down the bank and was rushing in for a net assist - I had him!
Or so I thought...SNAP! The tippet gave way and the fish dived out of sight. “Youve got to be kidding me!” I shouted, and literally jumped up and down, stomping my feet in frustration. I'm usually pretty centered, but MAN, I just couldn't believe I had two snap-offs in the same pool.
“I guess the 5x just couldn't take it” I told Mike. “Wait - you were still using the 5x?” he asked. “Thats all I carry!”. Mike still carries some extra tippet spools from his “western” fly fishing days, I rigged up with 3x and tied on a weighted, white marabou streamer to get back in the game.
We worked the pool for another 5-10 minutes, mike throwing some monster purple streamer and I the weighted minnow, and we finally decided to pack it in. I announced my “Ceremonial last cast” and was doing the slow twitch retrieve, laughing and trying to figure out exactly what made it “ceremonial” … when I got a really solid take and managed to land a really nice brown. I guess THAT is what made it ceremonial!