Thursday, June 2, 2011
A rookie's experimentation with an ancient technique
Story and photos by Trevor Shpeley
Fixed-line flyfishing has been around a long time. Before there were steel line-guides, fancy reels and braided silk, there was a piece of string tied to a stick and a few feathers tied to hook waving around on the business end of the string. Since those early days the sport has come a long way. Somebody eventually did get around to inventing those fancy reels, guides and braided lines and building Fishing rods became a science, as did everything else having to do with the sport of catching a fish. Fixed-line flyfishing has at this time been consigned to history books and nostalgia buffs with a few notable exceptions. One of those exceptions is the centuries old practice of Japanese Tenkara fishing.
When I'm not fishing, or riding a motorcycle or up to my eyeballs in the “honey-do” list, I enjoy spending a few hours cruising the internet fishing forums. They are a great place to meet new fishing partners, tell a few tall tales and every so often catch a little information you had never heard before. That was how I first heard about Tenkara and it's long whippy rods with just a few feet of line and a fly tied to their improbably thin tips.
It wasn't just anybody talking about this simple setup, it was some of the most modern, up to date flyfishermen I know and they were waxing on about an angling technique Mark Twain would have recognized immediately. I was obviously missing out on something interesting so I set out to find out for myself what all the buzz was about.
I had to start somewhere and since I knew less about Tenkara fishing than my dog knows about lawn mowing, I placed a call to my friend and fellow internet dweller, Aaron Laing. In addition to his skills as a fly tyer, competitive flyfisherman and flyfishing blogger, he is probably the best river fisherman I have easy access to so I recruited him to join me for a day of fishing on one of his favourite urban streams.
I then executed a quick Google search and with a decisive push on the “BUY NOW” button, my new gear was on it's way for about the price of the new shoes that regularly appear in my wife's closet to the familiar audio accompaniment of “what those old things? I've had those forever”
Nobody is sure what the word “Tenkara” actually means. Some say it translates as “from the sky” in reference to the delicate way flies seem to float down from the heavens. Others say it refers to a child's jumping game, mirroring the way fishermen hop from rock to rock as they fish. The only thing everyone seems able to agree on is that it's been around about 1200 years and it was a very effective method for the commercial fishermen of the day to harvest small fish from the rushing mountain streams of Japan. Fishermen could tie on a simple inexpensive fly and fish for hours without having to worry about re-baiting their hooks between every cast.
The traits that made it so effective back then, simplicity, low cost, and efficiency carry over quite nicely to our own mountain stream fishery with the added benefit that it's just plain fun. Nowhere is that quality more obvious than on a small river or stream where you can effortlessly control your drift as your fly moves through the pools and riffles close enough for you to watch the fish rise and turn as they take it down. Less gear means a stealthier presentation and a lighter line means less chance of spooking a fish by accidentally slapping 20 feet of thick plastic cord onto it's head.
The Modern Tenkara rod is typicly12-14 feet long and are usually graphite, telescopic, and often come in a scaled down aluminium rod tube depending on who you buy them from. The small size of the rod case, approx 20 inches long and 1.5 inches in diameter make the Tenkara rod perfect for back-packers, motorcyclists or anyone who just wants a creek rod available in their vehicle at all times and doesn't have a lot of room behind the seat for storage.
The rods also sometimes come with a spare, easily changed tip. It's not so much because the fish might break it off in the heat of battle but because overly eager fishermen will sometimes snap them in their zeal to open or close the rod quickly. A fresh Tenkara rookie would be wise to heed the warnings and instructions included with the rod package.
If you want to go full-Monty with the Tenkara fishing then you need to tie or buy some Tenkara flies. Luckily for the beginner there aren't a whole lot of Tenkara patterns to choose from, the prevailing wisdom is that pretty much any Tenkara style fly works as well as any other so just pick one you like or is quick to tie and you are good to go. In Tenkara the operative word is “presentation”. Fly selection is far less important.
A typical Tenkara pattern will have some sort of simple dubbed body with the hackle tied in reverse, angling forward toward the eye of the hook so that the fly will pulse in the water when the soft rod tip is twitched. The flies are most often fished on or just below the surface but are sometimes sunk to the bottom and fished in a drag free drift like a standard nymph. Another favourite traditional technique it to slap the fly onto the water and snatch it away several times in the same spot before dropping the fly into the film and letting it drift. Quite often it doesn't get to drift very far.
Of course many Western patterns work very well with a Tenkara rod. Heavily weighted Czech nymphs are especially well suited to the long stick as is any familiar nymph you might normally use. You don't usually need an indicator since you can control depth very easily with the rod tip and tippet length but a small tuft of yarn tied to the leader is helpful for detecting strikes. Dapping dry flies in the pocket water and small pools of a stream is a piece of cake when your line is as light as a Tenkara line and your rod is 13 feet long.
It is generally agreed among enthusiasts that the best line to use is the traditional furled line which offers some shock absorption and unparalleled delicacy but does so at the cost of disturbing behaviour when stretched past it's limit. Level line is also popular and some people I know use sections of light fly line, 2wt or less, which will deliver the fly well but is not recommended due to the tendency of the heavier fly line to form a “belly” in the middle between the rod tip and the water with the resulting sag pulling the fly towards you and removing much of the “magic drift” effect people expect from a Tenkara setup.
The total length of the line and leader is usually about the same length as the rod so a 13 foot rod would give you a reach of about 26 feet, give or take a couple of feet. Relatively short leaders are tied to the Tenkara line which is in turn looped onto the end of a small piece of cord attached to the end of the rod called the “Lilian string”
When you hook a fish, you lift the rod to set the hook and then let the long flexible rod absorb the efforts of the fish as you guide it to the net by raising the rod tip above your head. With bigger fish you will have to let it fight for awhile but the process is very intuitive and about the only way you can really do it wrong would be to just hold the rod static and wait for something to break. Move your rod with the fish and keep your tip high as it runs around the pool in front of you and it will tire and come to the net in the usual way. Don't be afraid to put a bend in the rod, the soft tip will protect the tippet and a fish played too long is a fish with a diminished hope of survival.
On the day Aaron and I chose to hit the water it was a typical Vancouver fall day, which is to say the rain was falling at a rate somewhere between a tropical monsoon and a biblical population adjustment. The rivers were running high and muddy and the hope of a productive morning chasing small trout and the occasional larger sea-run cutthroat got dimmer and more distant with each new rivulet of icy rainwater down the back of my wading jacket.
As if on cue after we got comfortable in a nice run the heavens parted, the sun shone down upon us and the river which had been rather drab up until this point was transformed into a gorgeous imitation of the prettiest Vermont spring creek you ever saw. If you added a covered bridge and a few guys in tweed waving bamboo around, the illusion would have been perfect.
This wasn't Vermont though, it was Vancouver. The covered bridge was cement and by covered I mean somebody had spent a lot of time covering the bridge supports in colourful street art. It may not have been New England but it was very pretty in the rising mist with the emerging sun shining off the tangled blackberries and lush green willows that dip down to overhang the rivers edge.
The high water meant the larger fish we were targeting were probably going to be spread out and very tough to find but the alternative was packing up and heading back to our uninspiring, non-fishing related, daily activities so we decided to give it a yeoman's effort and waded out into the stream at a spot where the current washed over a shelf of submerged weeds and into a deeply undercut pool at the head of a long riffle.
Aaron started out by showing me how to cast with the Tenkara outfit. The technique uses a motion that would not be unfamiliar to anybody who'd spent even a little time swinging a fly rod, it's just a little slower and the stroke is a little shorter than a standard overhead fly cast. The line is easy to direct and hitting your target is intuitive and quickly mastered. The temptation to use the longest line your rod will support is strong but Tenkara is all about control and control in this case means being able to hit your mark without having to choke up on the rod.
You would be well served to carry a few extra lines of different lengths wrapped around an old spool and change them whenever the conditions warrant. Spare lines are not expensive and it literally takes only a minute or two to switch between them and is no more complicated than changing a tippet on a traditional outfit.
A few casts in to our trip I discovered why some people do not like to use the traditional furled line. A sloppy attempt at a roll cast had solidly lodged my heavy Czech nymph in the bark of a tree branch above my head. I thought that perhaps I could just pull on the line and bring the branch down to my level which I attempted to do until the tippet broke and the line snapped back into my chest. What I was left holding in my hand looked more like spaghetti than a fly line. The braided material of the furled line acts like a spring when it is stretched and recoils into a tightly curled mess when released. The line can be worked until it is more or less straight but it takes a few minutes. Level line doesn't do that but it does not have the built in shock absorbing qualities of the Tenkara line either.
The river we were fishing is the closest stream to Aaron's house so it isn't surprising that it didn't take him long to catch the first fish. His line twitched, he lifted the rod to set the hook and the battle was on. After a short but spirited fight he slid the net beneath the fish, all six inches of it. The fact that it was an enjoyable experience is due to the nature of the long flexible rod. Tenkara gear will handle fish up to 16 inches but is still light enough to make catching the smaller fish fun. A quick flick of the barbless hook and the tiny fish was released to grow a little larger.
We didn't catch any more fish that rainy fall morning but we had a great time effortlessly moving along the overgrown banks and through the rushing water without a lot of extra gear to snag or weigh us down. We could easily have continued our day with steadier action by heading over to the Fraser river delta and fishing the sloughs and backwaters for coarse fish and it would be tough to imagine a better fishing method for those types of fish in those waters.
As luck would have it however, Aaron knew a place in Mallardville that was serving an awesome cheeseburger and since the rain had started up again, we chose the option that included a fireplace, big screen TV's and a total lack of icy cold rivulets of water running down the backs of our wading jackets.
Tenkara is made to order for the minimalist fly-fisherman. It is easy to learn, you don't have to cash in your kids savings bonds to buy the new gear and it works. If you like to do things a little different, you admire efficiency and you fish smaller waters, then this modern adaptation of an ancient method is for you.
Maybe it isn't really a smart thing to go ahead and order a bunch of new gear because some guys you barely know on the internet suggested it might be fun. Maybe you shouldn't ignore all the innovations in the fly fishing world and go back to a method that has been kicking around for six centuries. Maybe you shouldn't have said to your wife “what that old rod? I've had that forever” and just fessed up to the fact that you went out and bought another fishing rod.
I'm certainly very happy I did all those things and I look forward to many wasted afternoons on mountain streams, urban rivers and lowland sloughs with nothing but a few flies in my pocket, a stick in my hand, a piece of string and a grin on my face. Tom Sawyer would have been proud.