Thursday, June 22, 2017

Tenkara and Hook Weight

Tying is something I have always enjoyed, since the beginning of my fly-fishing journey.  Even now, as I pare down my fly patterns to a handful of workhorses, I still enjoy tying, tinkering and experimenting.  I don't think that will change anytime soon. As such, I am always on the hunt for the perfect hook.  I think I am not alone in this quest.  I find it comical that one can get obsessed over a bent piece of wire!

Hook shape tends to be the first consideration, and understandably so.  While that is still a factor when I am choosing hooks, I have begun toying around with an added component: hook wire weight. This is nothing new or revolutionary, but I've noticed that discussions around "one-fly" or the like tend to revolve around size, shape, and color.  In his book, Small Streams, author Dave Hughes advocates a "simplified" box of dry flies and nymphs, with each pattern tied in three sizes with #14 and #16 being the sweet spot.  In my experience as well, one rarely has to go as large as a #12, or as small as a #18.  Again, I am speaking about low pressured, Appalachian freestones, so your experience may be different.  These fish rarely get selective, but they can become slightly fussy, and when that happens, one can usually err on the smaller side. I have landed on a relative size that I tie my tenkara flies and just go with that.

If one is going to fish a very limited number of patterns, it makes sense to me that maximum versatility is gained in each one. We focus on surface currents, looking for seams, tongues, eddies, and back-currents, which is of maximum importance; sometimes I think it is easy to lose sight of the third dimension of the water column level at which the fish are feeding.  I like to figure this out quickly, so that I can make any necessary adjustments. On two or three-second drifts, to work from the lower column up, I like to use a heavy gauge wire hook.  Thanks to the growth of interest in competitive fly fishing, we have access to some very interesting hooks. Heavy wire gauge, wide gape for better hooking, barbless, and dangerously sharp; these are the qualities I tend to look for. I am not suggesting that you ditch all your favorite flies and only use heavy wire.  But I think having variations of you confidence patterns increases your versatility with minimal patterns; that versatility could be the difference between an average day on the water and an extraordinary one. Though I will always be on the lookout, here are a few hooks that are working very well for me.

From left to right: Owner Tenkara Main Stream No. 4, Umpqua/Hanak C260BL, and the Fulling Mill Heavyweight Champ No. 12.

The Owner Tenkara hook is a light to medium wire hook available from TenkaraBum. Chris equates the "No. 4" with being around a number 14 or so.  This was my first "standard," and one I make most comparisons to as I move forward.  The shape is beautiful, with a short-ish shank, wide gape and tiny barb.  This hook makes for some beautiful, traditional Japanese tenkara flies.

The Umpqua/Hanak 260BL was a hook I found by accident, and it has since become something of a "desert-island" hook, in that, if my life depended on catching a fish, most of my confidence flies are tied on this hook.  It has a similar shape to the Owner hook, but the shank is a little shorter, and the wire noticeably heavier.  I like this hook for jun kebari. A number 12 in this hook produces a fly body that looks more like a 14 or 16. Unfortunately these hooks can be hard to track down at your local fly shop.  Competitive Angler and the Tactical Fly-Fisher are good sources for Hanak hooks (and you might even find your own, new go-to hook.)

The final hook is the Fulling Mill Heavy Weight Champ which I picked up from Anthony at Three Rivers Tenkara.  He sells them in sizes 10 and 12.  This hook is similar to the other two, but with a further departure in the longer hook shank.  I have been using this hook for sakasa and "regular orientation" soft hackles.  The extra length looks more proportional with longer hackles, but more importantly, takes a traditional pattern and makes it a little more versatile while searching for fish.

I would like to share an anecdote that I hope illustrates my experiences using heavier wire hooks.  In the past month I twice fished a stream in the Smokies.  Though it was accidental, I fished the exact same stretch, with the exact same setup using the exact same fly both times.  The fly was a takayama-style kebari tied on the Fulling Mill hook.  On the first trip, I only became successful after I let the fly reach the lower depths.  Of course, with the heavier hook this was quickly and easily accomplished. The second trip began with the same technique, but it was not producing fish.  Instead of letting the fly plummet, I would let it attain middle-depth, and then quickly work the fly toward the upper levels. My catch rate skyrocketed for the remainder of the afternoon.  On the way home, I thought about how interesting it would have been if the conditions from those two trips had been experienced over the course of a long morning and afternoon, something that is definitely feasible.  I could have covered all my bases easily with that one pattern.  Of course this is true for most patterns, but I think having that small amount of extra weight in the hook offers just tiny bit of versatility.  And as we strip away all the clutter, asking to do more with less, that little edge might make a difference.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ditch Tarpon in Coastal Georgia

I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from my last post and soft announcement of my guiding service. I even found myself mentioned on the Troutrageous! blog, and for that I am especially grateful.  My wife and I found a little window of opportunity two weeks ago to get out of town, and without hesitation we packed the car and pointed south to Tybee Island, Georgia.  We are fortunate in that my wife's family has a place on the Backriver, and we have been going there for many years.  For some reason or another, however, I have always felt too out of my element to carry a fly-rod.  This time, I figured I would grab the 8 weight, my biggest rod, and try as I might.  If nothing else I could practice my double hauls!

After settling in, I headed over to the fly shop over in Savannah and talked to a few fellows about what to expect.  I grabbed a small box of flies, an extra leader, and armed with a little bit of information headed back to the island.  For the first couple of days, I struck out, fishing right off the beach and into the mouth of the backriver.  My plan was to wait until the next flood tide, and head over to Little Tybee to explore some of the creeks.  In the meantime, I headed to a little place on the island that for a long time I wondered, "what if?..."  It is a little ditch, always tannic, and mangrove-y looking.  I had seen fish splashing on previous visits, and knew that there must be some aquatic life in there.  I tied on a small clouser minnow, and chucked a few casts into the lower portion of the ditch. On my third cast, the fly was crushed and before I knew it, a small band of silver took flight into the air.  I couldn't believe my eyes!  I knew that I would have to see the fish up close to really believe what I was seeing.  Soon enough the fight was over, and the fish at hand.  When I beheld that eye, that eye that has driven so many dreams in so many anglers, I knew I had landed my first tarpon.  I reached for the camera; wait, where was my phone?!  Oh no, in my excitement, I had left it on the nightstand.  I rushed back to the house to tell my wife and grab my phone. She was in the middle of a painting, and so I headed back to get one on film.  I missed at least 7 fish before I finally went back in frustration.  Why couldn't I get a hook set?  Was that the only fish I would catch?  I had to get one on film!  That night, I did as much research as I could on baby tarpon.  The next few days played out much the same.  Hit after jolting hit, but still no positive hook-set.  Then, I found the answer.  The strip-set.  As a mountain trout angler, this was a skill I had never really had to master, and a light flick of the tip to set the hook was doing me no favors at the ditch.  After stinging so many fish, I think they were finally getting wise to what was going on.  Now, I was desperate.  But I knew that if I went out there half-cocked, I would blow casts, splash water, rant and cuss up and down the bank, and therefore catch nothing.  I took a deep breath and watched the surface.  It was early morning, steamy, but not miserably hot.  A few tarpon made splashy surface rises, which I found out was a means to gulping much needed air in the low-oxygen environment of the tannic backwater.  Then I spotted a gentle roll.  A well placed cast was made, and I began to strip.  Strip, strip, strip....Bam!  I made a solid hook-set, and the fish took to the air.  I relished every moment of the dance, but it was over all to soon.  This time, I had my camera with me.

I felt satisfied, and figured I would let the little guys rest.  Their position seemed hardscrabble at best, so I figured they needed all the help they could get.  But at least I know where they are, and hopefully they will still be there next time we head to the coast.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A New Venture

In the early nineties, rummaging around my grandfather's garage, I noticed an old fly rod hanging among his other fishing equipment.  I had been fortunate that my dad was a passionate bass angler, and had me fishing from a very early age.  Fly casting seemed like a reasonable challenge, so I picked up the old Heddon and taught myself to fly fish.  Nearly 25 years later, the passion still burns as intense as ever.  I certainly couldn't have predicted that.  As I approached the end of high school, I desperately wanted to become a full-time guide.  For various reasons, I put off that dream, until nearly half forgotten.  

I've reached a point in life where I realize that time is finite, and one has to try to live this life to its fullest.  I have also reached a point in my fishing that I am confident enough in my acquired skills to share them with others.

With that said, I am ready to say that with 25 years in the making, I am ready to hang my small shingle.  

I am beginning this venture solo, as I want to focus as much as possible on including tenkara options in my guiding services.  Many fly shops are still leary of the "T" word, but things are changing.  I will start very small, first offering trips on the public tailwater here in Blue Ridge.  I am working on the permitting process for backcountry access.  I have also acquired a small drift boat, but that also falls into future planning.  

I want to make it clear that I am not trying to "cash in" on the tenkara community, or the growth of fly fishing in general.  I don't think anyone goes into guiding thinking they are going to line their pockets.  Its a labor of love, and when one is passionate to the point of bursting, even after nearly a quarter of a century, it hard not to want to share that with others.  I hope that the shape of this business becomes as much about education and spreading the "stoke" as solid catches.  I want, in my small way, to be a part of the journey that creates a lifelong angler, rather than just a forgettable weekend of fishing.

So, let's begin...

Back of Beyond, LLC., catering to tenkara and fly fisherman alike, with plenty of experience in both (8 years & 24 years respectively).  Fully insured, and located in beautiful Blue Ridge, Georgia.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Beautiful Day in the Smokies

Sunday, I had a free pass and nothing but time on my hands, so after my second cup of coffee, I packed up the car and headed out for a much needed day afield.  I hadn't been to the Smokies in a while and figured it was long overdue.  I chose a stream on the south side of the Park that's an easy drive from Blue Ridge, and though crowded in the lower portions, would allow some privacy within just a short walk.  Upon arrival, I quickly suited up and grabbed three rods stuffing them, some water and macadamia nuts into my trusty Vedavoo pack.  Locking the car door, I said goodbye to a jam-packed parking lot.  There is a really nice riffle right out of the parking lot that has varying depth on on side of the current tongue, and a harsh seam/circulatory pool on the other.  To my surprise, I rarely see people fishing this run.  I assume that they assume the water is no good due to the proximity of people, but I have caught some nice fish there.  I also use it as a way to calibrate the day, and warm up the senses in preparation.  After picking off four fish, and missing a dandy of a hit in the pool, I collapsed the big Oni (the Nissin Oni Honryu 450, just right for the largish stream) and took a walk.  The rest of the day was sensational.  Even though it was midday with bright sun and blue bird skies, I still managed thirteen fish by the end of the session.  Rather than repeating the same thing over and over again, my fishing becomes ever more dynamic, changing techniques constantly, rather than flies. By the end of the day, my kebari was totally ragged.  I knew my time was coming to an end, and began to suffer from the "one-more" syndrome, seeking the right fish that somehow quells the imaginative longing for the perfect ending.  There was a long, deep current tongue on the far bank.  At it's head, it dropped off of a shoal into a pool with broken water on the surface.  A tree and large boulder formed the shore, and a deep dark pool with a hard seam edged up against the bank.  I hooked a good fish in the broken-water pool, but he threw the hook in his mad-dash.  I doggedly continued working both sides of the flow, employing as many presentations as I could conjure up.  Finally, I made a pile cast into the top of the strong current seam, allowing the fly to perform a "mystery move" (old squirt boating jargon), quickly dropping into the lower levels of the water column and pulling the line tight. I repeated this presentation a third time, and midway down the pool the line paused ever so briefly.  I set the hook and felt the weight of a good fish.  By the angry, doleful head-shakes, I could only guess that it was a decent brownie.  Seeing that this tactic wouldn't work to shake the hook, he unwillingly left the pool and took to the current.  The fish put a nice, deep bend in the big Oni, but couldn't overcome the uncompromising backbone of the rod.  And just like that it was all over, fish in the net, photographed and released.  A wave of satisfaction washed over me, knowing there was nothing left to do but walk back to the car, drive into town, and grab a few frosty treats for the road.

A good way to begin the day

Creek Chub?  Fought like a brownie twice its size!

A tattered kebari after long day of fishing
Final fish of the day. Not a giant, but hefty and determined.

Nantahala Brewing, always a good way to finish a day of fishing.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Taking a Much Needed Break; New Diversions

I check a few of my favorite blogs daily, and am grateful for their output and content.  Just the other day, as I was discovering a new wet fly pattern, I drifted over to the "B" Blogger icon to check on my own blog. To my dismay, it had been well over a month since my last post!  Same for Instagram, which I am much better with in terms of output; one month!

Sometimes one has to take a step back from it all.  Fortunately, there is the reliable, steady rise of the trout.  There is the continual honing of my tenkara skills; the realization that one is mainly a wet fly fisherman. The latter makes one do a double-take at that 2 weight glass rod collecting dust. That glass rod gets paired with a small tin of favorite caddies dries, and taken to my small stream, running flush with the recent spring rains.

Did I mention the wet wading?  It's wonderful to see the water levels up, especially after a dismal summer last year.

There's also the tiny rivulets that form headwaters; rhodo-choked hellholes where Georgia brookies, literally at the end of the line, cling tenaciously to life.

Not to mention that the local ponds are warming up, and the bass are finally getting aggressive.  I can watch a bass take a popper all day long.

Not Tenkara! 

And finally, I got a new toy, but more on that later...

So it's been a good break, but it's time to step back into the maw of the beast.  I have a few things in the works, and for better or worse, the internet plays a big role in facilitation.  The interconnection is part of daily life now, and like it or not, it is hard to escape its increasing necessity.  But it does feel great to step away every now and then.  Maybe next time, it won't take so long.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Adding 'Wonkiness' to Your Kebari

Because I have been tying my own flies since 1993, my sense of craft and tidiness are always at the fore.  I don't claim to be a great tier, but I have noticed improvements over time and I take pride in consistency when I am cranking out a half dozen or more of some pattern. I am clearly aware that the need to make every fiber or hair lay just right, or every rib wrap have equidistant spacing is more for my pleasure than for the fish.  How many times have you heard someone say a pattern doesn't begin to fish well until it's been beat up by a few fish?

In my tenkara, I am finding that I derive the most pleasure from fishing it as was intended, with lightly weighted or unweighted flies, relying on stealth, skill, and manipulation.  As I continue to settle into this comfort zone, I have been absorbing Discover Tenkara's free and paid content (which I couldn't begin to recommend enough.)  There are two films dedicated to kebari, both in tying and practical application.  One thing that stands out when watching these films is the haphazard way that some very skilled and very experienced tenkara anglers tie their patterns.  They take the attributes that make a beat up fly so attractive to fish, and incorporate them from the get-go.  On the first viewing I cringed, but after multiple viewings, I began to see that something really interesting was going on. Back at the vise, I tied up a simple kebari in my favorite style, jun with short cock hackle and a dubbed body.  I just let myself go, wrapping bare thread over the previously dubbed areas, using a half-hitch tool to press the hackle back from the eye.  You may laugh, but it was incredibly difficult to be messy!!

Bare thread over dubbed body equals shudders!

 Another kebari from the DT series that caught my eye was a pattern tied by Makino-san.  The entire fly is formed from one feather, in the case of the video, a partridge feather.  The body is composed of the flue from the bottom of the feather.  This is the fuzzy, downey stuff that we typically strip off before tying in the feather.  Makino-san takes the flue, laying in on the hook shaft, and lets the thread do the rest.  "Anything goes" as he says in the video.  The result is a very buggy looking fly.  I found a random ringneck pheasant feather on the floor of my tying room, and thought, "why not give it a go?"

I was really pleased with the results, as I was able to achieve a buggy body, striking a nice balance between being haphazard and working with care.  I tied this particular pattern in the sakasa, or reverse hackle style for no reason other than whimsy.

To conclude this little experiment, I tested the patterns on some North Georgia wild trout.  I opened my little mint tin, selected one of these flies at random, and well, the results were favorable:

One of my favorite tiers has been Fran Betters. I have heard him described as a poor tier, but I have seen examples of his personal patterns versus ones he tied for his shop, and I don't think this is the case.  His personal flies are messy, out of proportion, and well, super-buggy.  To me they always looked un-godly-fishy straight from the vise.  Its funny to come full circle to this through tenkara, but no matter how you come to it, I think there are some valuable tying lessons here.  Add a little wonkiness to your kebari, or any pattern for that matter, and see if it adds to your tenkara experience. The goal is to add to, and never detract from your experience and education on your personal tenkara journey.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Furled Tenkara Lines

I really enjoy watching a fluorocarbon level line slowly unfurl from the rod tip in its graceful loop, stretching out and lightly dropping the fly first.  I also enjoy how how little sag is in the line when keeping the line off of the surface of the water.  There are some situations where I look at a furled line as a useful tool.  I also understand that some people like furled lines because of the way that they cast.  As with everything in tenkara, it all comes down to personal preference.

One thing that I have discovered over the past few years is that not all furled lines are created equal. Here are a few of the furled lines that I have tried, and a few thoughts about them.  Again, bear in mind that some quality I may like about a line may be the very thing you dislike.  I think you have to cast different lines until you find one that suits your temperament and casting style.  It's really not something you can "group-think."  Another thing to remember is that comparing them to level lines is like comparing apples and oranges.  Furled lines are going to sag more, and it takes a little more doing to keep them off the water.  Some are just too heavy to not keep 6-12" anchored on the surface. They definitely load the rod a little more (whereas casting a level line typically depends on the rod to do the work), which is something some people prefer, especially if coming from a background of 'western' fly-fishing.  Loading the rod can also be beneficial especially if it has a stiff profile, like some keiryu rods.

Tenkara USA "Traditional Line"

I bought the first generation of this line with my first tenkara rod, which was an 11' Iwana.  I think it was made of furled nylon, but I can't remember. I do remember thinking it was the bees knees until I bought a light level line, and then not so much  I gave this one away to a friend, and bought the second iteration that was made of furled kevlar.  I still have this line, though I don't really fish it anymore.  In fact I haven't fished it in so long, I don't think I could give a very fair assessment of it.  I remember it casting graceful loops and turning over a dry-fly very well.  I also remember it being on the heavier side, especially when wet.  I know a lot of people fish and love this line. I keep it in my chest pack at all times, however, as an emergency backup line (in case I forgot a line or something blows up).

Horsehair Line

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I finally got around to twisting a couple of horsehair lines, mainly as a winter project.  I took it fishing and fell in love with the way it casted, especially on my 9 foot Iwana, which is crisp but not overly stiff.  I mainly fish this combo when I know that the monster trout of the stream is going to be about 6" or so.  I recently added a floro sighter to the end, as the white of the hair is easy to lose in some lighting conditions. I also started conditioning my 9 foot line with Mane and Tail conditioner, but if that makes a difference or not remains to be seen.  My 9 foot line is made up of four sections, going from five to three strands of hair.  There is some slight sag, but it is light enough to keep off the water with ease, and delicate fly first presentations are a snap. Horsehair lines are not very durable, at least not compared to modern materials.  I have broken a section on my 12 foot line, but fortunately repairs are easy.

Zen Outfitters Level Furled Line

A fly shop in a nearby town recently went out of business, and while that is unfortunate, I did pick up a some great tying materials at a fraction of the price.  This line was also half off, so I figured I wasn't really losing much by giving it a try.  The line I purchased is about 13 feet in length, and appears to be made of furled monofilament.  It is a bright green color, and is pretty easy to see in most conditions.  The packaging states that the line is treated with some kind of floating treatment.  The line actually does float, though after a bit of fishing the tip of mine will sink a little.  The line is heavier than any of my other furled or twisted lines, and will load a pretty stiff rod.  I have casted it on both my Tanuki 375 and Oni 450, which are on the stiffer side, and this line will load fairly deep into the rod.  With that weight comes a great deal of sag, and I have found it best to keep about 6-12 inches of the line anchored in the water.  I don't fish this line very much, because it doesn't really mesh well with the way I like to use tenkara.  But the line does have a few benefits that could be useful from time to time.  Because of its weight, the line will punch through some pretty decent wind. On those windy days, especially on an open tailwater, anchoring that first bit of line on the water is nice.  No one likes having the wind blow their line up and out of the water, fly and all, dangling like yesterday's laundry.  And because it actually floats, I could see dry fly enthusiasts liking this line. The shop also had an eight foot version, and I've kinda kicked myself for not getting it. I think it would have loaded my Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 24 enough to feel like it was actually casting!  That reminds me of another benefit to furled/twisted lines: on really small streams, in spots where casting loops becomes problematic, the slighter heft can provide nice turnover for aerial roll casts or bow-and-arrow casts, especially in the wind that tends to blow through these tunnels.

Sebata Line

After being delighted with the horsehair line, I was wondering if it would be possible to replicate the feel with modern materials.  While I have yet to twist any monofilament or fluorocarbon, I decided to purchase a twisted line as a frame of reference.  I almost purchased a Nissin line, but when Tenkara-ya offered another round of the furled Sebata-san lines, I couldn't resist.  I purchased the 3.8m, but I wish I had also gotten the 4.5m as well.  I have only had the opportunity to fish this line once, but I hope to spend more time with it as the spring begins to warm.  My initial impression was surprise, for the line was much lighter than I had anticipated. When I refer to weight, I am referring to weight in hand, at the rod tip. I did not weigh the lines themselves.  I think this line will be a pleasure to fish.

So there you have it.  Not much of a review as much as personal musings about a couple of furled lines that I've tried.  With light-line tenkara, there is so much control over the fly that these lines rarely make it into the mix.  But like I said, there is a time and place for everything, and I think its good to experiment, fail, and be a dynamic angler.