Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Astral Brewers, One Year On

For the short amount of time that I used Facebook, it seems like a repeatedly asked question was about wet-wading shoes. Inevitably someone would mention Astrals, though it would rarely seem to come from a place of experience.  The following is a report of a year of hard fishing in a pair of Astral Brewers, and mostly in waders.  This is not a review, nor is it a judgement (positive or negative) of the company.  I used to live in a small town about an hour out of Asheville, and being that Astral is located there, I am very much supportive of them as a regional company. Therefore, this is just a report of use, and you can do with the information as you will.

First, a little backstory.  Several years ago, I bought a packraft and the necessary accoutrements.  For shoes, I chose the Astral brewers, because I thought they would best suit my packrafting needs and protect the bootie feet of my dry suit.  Flash forward a little bit to when my wife and I packed up our Corolla and hit the road for a while.  I wanted to take my wading gear, but space was clearly at a premium.  The Astrals would take up a much smaller footprint than my clunky wading boots. Fortunately I bought them oversized, so they just happened to fit over my Simms neoprene bootie on my waders.  Thus the Astrals went out west.  What I discovered was that not only were they lightweight and packable, but also super comfortable for both walking and wading.  Plus the rubber was pretty grippy;  with the exception of late summer moss or rounded quartz, pleasingly so.  After our road trip, I found that I continued to use them with my waders, grabbing them instead my wading boots.  Wet wading is a different story.  I like my 5.10 Canyoneering shoes way to much for that use.  They offer much more support for my feet plus they are far more durable.  But after a year of hard use, I am surprised that the Brewers made it this long. It should be noted that the Brewer, as I understand it, was designed as a whitewater boating shoe.  Think kayaking, rafting and canoeing, with portages and bankside rambling.  I clearly have used the shoe beyond its intended purpose.

The first thing to go was the stitching around the toe.  The abrasion from underwater rocks frayed the exposed stitching pretty quickly, but that was an easy fix, and for future reference, completely preventable.  I seared the frayed thread with a lighter and applied a healthy coat of Aquaseal around the toe and over the stitching.  If I had done that from the outset, the wear would not have been an issue.

Later on, the seam along the edge of the shoe started to go.  That was remedied with some dental floss.

Then I kind of stopped paying attention.  I just kept grabbing them, fishing in them, letting them dry and on and on.  This past week marked the beginning of the end for my wet wading, and I donned my waders for the first time in a couple of months.  After my fishing session, I was removing my Brewers and saw that the year was beginning to catch up with them.  Aside from general abrasion, wear and tear, I noticed a large hole in the front inside seam of the shoe.

Though I can stick my finger through this hole, its nothing a little floss and Aquaseal can't fix.

While the sole has held up incredibly well, it is beginning to peel away from the shoe in several places.

A few dabs of Gorilla Glue, and these should hold up a while longer.

One year later, fishing on average two to three days per week, these shoes are beat up but still usable. With a little glue, dental floss and Aquaseal, I don't see why these shoes won't make it a full two years.  If it seems like this post is some kind of knock against Astral, it's not. I will readily acknowledge that I grossly abused these shoes far beyond their intended use. As a matter of fact I will most likely buy another pair when these give up the ghost.  They are comfortable, pleasant to walk in and if you fish from a boat, they are framed raft/driftboat friendly (no cleats).  They are really lightweight. If a backpacking trip occurred during a period of the year when waders were required, they would be perfect for that application. Unfortunately these are a bit of a consumable item when compared to a pair of wading boots, something that may or may not be of significance to you. I would like to see Astral develop a line of dedicated wading shoes, with beefed up areas especially around the toe, while remaining lightweight.

Is there a takeaway from all of this? Well, everyone's experience is different, but I will venture to offer these conclusions based on my experience.  I would say that with low to moderate usage, these shoes should last in the 2-4 year range, and with repair work maybe a little more.  For heavy usage, it looks like they will last about a year without major surgery. With some repair work, I hope to get another year out of them.

I hope this was helpful, especially if you have been thinking about these shoes.  Durability issues aside, for backcountry/backpack fishing, when hiking in with waders and boots rather than wearing them in, these so far, in my opinion are the shoes to beat.  For me, I'll keep beating the hell of out 'em on a regular basis.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A (Last) Saturday Loop

My wife and I decided to hike a loop in Southwestern North Carolina.  The first part of the loop follows a tributary to what becomes a pretty famous river in the region.  Although the focus was more on trekking than fishing, I still lined up my 3 weight glass rod in the parking lot that morning.  The night before had hinted at fall with its temperatures, so I rigged up with a small nymph and a tiny yarn indicator. A previous trip up this creek let me know there are some healthy fish in such a small creek, though those were taken on a dry fly.

The hike began with a nice climb and before too long, we ran into the stream. The trail follows a pretty gentle grade in the lower parts.  I stopped and fished a handful of pools, but swirls at my indicator let me know I probably should have gone with a dry fly.

After a few misses, we continued up the path, until we reached a nice, deep pool flanked by a large boulder.  On the first cast, the little yarn indicator darted just below the surface, and a nice rainbow was at hand.  This situation repeated itself several more times before the pool was exhausted. Satisfied, we continued to walk.

We reached a pool that was too good to pass up, so I tossed the little black nymph into the run...

...and was rewarded with a beautiful jewel of a rainbow.  We still had many miles to go, so I had to make the tough decision to pack up the rod.  The stream remained fishable, even after splitting into two feeders, but that will have to remain for another time.  This stream really deserves a full day or two. We stopped for lunch to regroup, and after several threatening clouds moved by, we packed up and continued on our way.

At this point, I notice that neither my wife nor I took any further pictures, a testament to the rugged terrain that lied ahead.  We reached the end of our trail and turned onto, let's say, a famous long-distance hiking trail.  For the next few hours, we found ourselves climbing until we topped out at 5,000 feet.  Time was slipping by, and though I knew we would make it out before dark, we had to keep moving.  After a breathtaking section of knife-ridge trail, we turned onto a side-trail that would lead back to the car.  The one thing I didn't account for was losing nearly 3,000 feet of elevation in just over four miles.  The downhill was unbelievably steep, and though downhill sounds fun and easy, it's actually much harder on the joints than climbing.  Ask any trail runner.

We wended our way through a beautiful hardwoods, the smell of loam rich and heady.  By the time we reached the car, it was close to sunset.  A quick glance at my watch let me know we were just around 12.5 miles by the end of our journey.  We ate a well deserved dinner in the parking lot and headed back to Georgia in the remaining evening light.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Finding 'Adventure' Close to Home

I'm always dreaming up new adventures.  Sometimes they get accomplished, but far too many never materialize.  Too often I find myself relegating adventure to the deep backcountry.  But what is 'adventure' anyways?  Alastair Humphreys has proven with the concept of microadventure that these experiences can be had closer to home than we think.  I would even go one step further and add that an overnight element may not always be necessary, and that adventure often comes in the form of a surprise, regardless if pleasant or unpleasant.

With that in mind, I decided to go hunting for a lake one evening after working inside all day on a sunny, pre-fall afternoon. Someone told me of a lake on the backside of our neighborhood that was nice and fairly private.  I use the word neighborhood loosely; it's more like a string of cabins linked together by steep gravel roads.  I shoved a rod, line and a tin of micro-wooly buggers into the framepack of my bike, and off I went.  A little research on Google Earth gave me a few clues as to where the lake would be.  After a few unrelenting, steep punchy climbs, I finally came to a dirt-road turnoff.  The road quickly degraded into a track that was full of mud and washed out trenches.  At many points I felt as though I were in the jungle, surrounded by loads of kudzu, and pushing my bike through knee deep, red clay mud pits.  Finally, I saw a clearing in the trees and I emerged on the lake. The area of course is slated to be sold off in parcels for homes to be built on, but because it is so far out, I don't expect that to happen within the next couple of years.  I was surprised to see one home had been built across the lake, as well as a simple wooden dock on the embankment.  I dug out my rod and flies, and in the fading light put a handful of panfish and a few small largemouth in hand. Satisfied, I closed the rod, packed up my stuff, and headed back, taking in the sunset as I rode home for dinner.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Finesse Fishing

I was preparing in my head to write a small piece about packrafting and tenkara/fly-fishing, as well as #coffeeoutside on a fishing outing, but I have a dark secret I can sit on no longer.  If you have been perusing Chris Stewart's TenkaraBum site, you may have noticed he added some high quality spin gear to the shop.  If you dig a little deeper, you will discover he has opened a new web store, a sister-site called Finesse Fishing.  It's a rabbit hole that I have recently fallen down, and it just may have saved fly-fishing for me.  I can promise you it's a discipline that I would never have foreseen myself investigating, but after some research and then experience, it has opened up a whole new world.  I'm not going to try to justify it; I'm not going to tell you it's better or worse or that it should even be compared in some weird hierarchy against fly fishing.  I'm just going to tell you it is what it is: fun.


Finesse Fishing is just a fancy way of saying ultralight spin fishing, right?  Well, I don't know, maybe. But it's not just chucking lures into a river, reeling it in and hoping for the best.  Well maybe it is in some places, but I'm talking about spin fishing on high gradient mountain streams.  So why finesse? After your first ten or so casts, most of which end up in trees on the bank, snagged on structure, or otherwise everywhere but where you want to put the lure, you'll understand that placing an 1/8th ounce lure in a target zone the size of a basketball or smaller does indeed require some finesse.  As does retrieving the lure in relation to variable currents. You can believe it or not, but presentation matters.


I don't know what would compel you to try this.  For me, it was to break up monotony, and to break down hierarchy.  I had long been guilty of looking down at spin fisherman, and it's hard to admit that. I saw fly fishing as the ultimate proof of skill, therefore "better." Tenkara came along and refined that skill even further. Now we start getting into "purity," and that's where I had to draw the line.  With the current zeitgeist of tenkara and fly-fishing traveling in seemingly opposite directions, I needed to redefine what fly-fishing, or just fishing even meant to me anymore.

I think for me, the seed was planted over at the Fiberglass Manifesto.  Over the years, he had posted some custom builds from some well know builders of glass fly/spin combos.  Hmmm, fly/spin, that's pretty neat and multipurpose.  A little later Chris added the Tenryu Rayz 3'9" rod on tenkarabum.  I read the description and something clicked.  Flipping tiny jigs into the tightest of headwaters where I have trouble even casting my 6 foot glass 3 weight?  Yes, please!


I couldn't justify paying $600 dollars for the Tenryu rod and Shimano reel that Chris suggests as a match, especially given the fact that I didn't know if it was something I would truly like or not.  I did a little digging around and eventually landed on a Cabela's rod.  I wanted something multi-piece, short, and durable. Given that this was an experiment, it also had to be affordable. At around seventy bucks, their 5'6" Fish Eagle two-piece fit the bill.  I paired it with what is apparently the warhorse of spin reels, the Pflueger President 6920, and for well under $150 I was set.  For line, I almost ordered some hi-vis line, but went with green Stren in four pound test.  I am thinking that will change.  I may eventually change that to hi-vis with a clear "leader" section.  I can imagine that the hi-vis line will act as a tracer as the line shoots into micro-pockets.  Lures are a whole thing into themselves and consider me stumped.  Well, learning at least.  I chose to buy several different types, to experiment in different situations to see what works when and where.  From Chris, I bought a couple of Daiwa jigs and some single barbless replacement hooks.  He was kind enough to offer to sell a Daiwa minnow that he was messing around with, so I added that as well. I rounded out my selection with a couple of inexpensive Rapala's, both floating and slow sinking. Talking about lures, I should point out the following:  GETTING RID OF THE TREBLE HOOKS IS NON-NEGOTIABLE! They inflict a tremendous amount of damage to the fish.  Chris has Japanese barbless hooks for both minnows and spoons.  I removed the front hook from all my lures, as most of the places I enjoy fishing require artificial lures to have a single hook.  The rear treble hook was replaced with an Owner hook in size 8.  As I found out, split-ring pliers are a must. Other than that, I carry a few barrel-swivel snaps for quick changes, and the swivel seems to reduce line twist.

As a quick aside, the Japanese are apparently really into handmade lures.  I am not talking about a chunk of wood with a hook hanging off of it, or one of the beer cap "spoons" that proliferate Google images.  They are high quality, high finish balsa lures with crazy airbrush paint jobs.


The same streams I fly-fish. Small, high gradient mountain streams.  Reading the river the same way I fish with fly rod in hand, looking for the same likely lies.  I enjoy streams with challenging features to cast around or into.  One stream I fish a lot is loaded with giant root balls, downed trees, ledges and large rocks. It makes for challenging casting, but it keeps the learning curve and interest levels high. My former imagery of spin fisherman was one of standing in a broad slow river, blindly chucking a lure and letting it dangle in the current, hoping for a strike. Hoping a strike would occur before their beer went flat.  But this couldn't be further from the truth for ultralight finesse fishing.  Nothing changes: same canyoneering shoes, same wader gaiters, a fly box is exchanged for a small box of lures and tucked into the Zimmerbuilt pack, my handypak net lashed around my waist.  I look exactly the same as when fly fishing; only the rod, presentation and method of delivery is different. But I might take that beer though!

The result?

On my first outing I got totally skunked.  I spent a lot of time fishing lures out of rhodo branches and tree limbs.  I cringed every time that $15 Daiwa minnow smacked a rock on an errant cast (thus the Rapala's; at $5 per lure, they are good to learn on until your casting is dialed).  On subsequent outings went much smoother, and my casting was already improving.  There is a great deal of satisfaction in putting the lure right where you want it.  After a while, I also starting figuring out how to swim the lure in relation to the current.  First I started getting chases, and finally a couple of fish.  I was so excited I forgot to photograph them.  Watching the trout chase a lure is pretty awesome.  Much like streamer fishing, they are chasing as one of two responses: as a territorial response, or a predatory response.  It's easy to see why "slinging meat" has become such a craze in fly-fishing.  Fish aren't sipping your flies.  They are trying to kill.  Watch a trout swim across a pool in pursuit.  It's addictive.

In Conclusion

I am no expert.  I'm not sure I am even doing this justice.  For one thing, I do not want to take any business away from Chris.  If you've got the money to burn, I would definitely suggest getting a premium rod from him.  I can only imagine that that the difference between a cheaper rod and a premium Japanese rod would be comparable to a cheap tenkara rod and a premium Japanese tenkara rod: night and day. If this sticks, I will most likely upgrade to one of his rod/reel combo's.  He's a great guy to do business with, and I hope this new venture takes off.

This isn't going to be for every body, and I am sure that I am losing 4 of the 5 total readers I had just writing about this.  But the results for me are exactly what I needed.  To do away with snobbery and elitism, and return angling to a fun, complete experience outdoors.  It certainly isn't replacing fly fishing for me.  It's more like a reset button.  It's also an effective and efficient way to get food in the backcountry.

Alluding to the point of snobbery, it's ironic that Orvis still offers a fly/spin combo.  They also use to produce a spinning reel that was a rebranded Italian reel. If you listen to the Gritty Angler podcast at all, there is an episode with Hutch Hutchison of Orvis.  At some point in the conversation, he admits to still spin fishing.  In the end, it's just fishing, just like hunting with a rifle or an atlatl is just hunting. The ultimate point is to be ethical and respectful, of both the animals and your fellow outdoorsmen.

If any of this grabs some part of you, my first bit of advice would be to contact Chris at TenkaraBum/Finesse Fishing and ask him your questions.  From there the information is sparse.  Like the early days of Tenkara in the U.S., most of it is in Japanese and you have to put the odd bits together to work out a system.  There is an article from Field and Stream here that might be of use.  From there it's YouTube, Instagram, and footwork.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Fur Ant, a Tenkara-able Terrestrial

Today, my wife and I slid across the border into North Carolina to fish a little stream that I hadn't been to in years.  She took off on a trail, and I slid into the creek.  I was surprised by the temperature of the water.  Not only was the stream nice and cool, but it was at a decent volume, especially for this time of year.  I quickly rigged up my Oni type III with a 10.5' foot, old tapered (hand-tied) nylon line that used to be available from TenkaraBum back in the day.  At the business end, I tied on a soft-hackled pheasant tail, a reliable standby.

Quickly I was into fish, including a hot little rainbow that tested the Oni's tip by wrapping the line around a rock.  Fortunately, both fish and tip were saved.

I continued working my way upstream, taking more than enough fish to be satisfied.  On a missed strike that sent my fly into an overhead branch, I decided that I had earned a little freedom to experiment.  I quickly plucked out a #18 Fur Ant, and went at it.  This pattern has always been a day saver for me, even when faced with really picky fish.  I also enjoy the simplicity of the tie.  I used to use it more in slower waters, where I would grease it up slightly and fish it in the film. That way, I could track it better with a fly rod.  But using a light-lined tenkara setup, I chose to fish the pattern wet, as I knew I would have control over the fly as I never had in the past.


The results were more than favorable, and I think my catch-rate went up a little from using the soft hackle.  I dead-drifted the fly, with no manipulation.  I would just watch the line for the tell-tale sign that a fish had taken the fly, and gently lift the rod tip in delight.  

I tie my ants on a light wired dry-fly hook; that way I can keep it in the mid to upper water column. Other than that, it's nothing more than a little dark rusty brown possum and brown saddle hackle. While any terrestrial could be strapped on a tenkara rod, I don't like the way they cast.  Bulky hopper patterns, foam beetles, and the like, are usually reserved for the fly rod.  But if you like to stick with a more traditional tenkara approach, using unweighted or lightly weighted wet flies, I think you would be pleased with the fur ant in your arsenal.  It's deadly effective here in the southeast, but I'm sure it would be in your neck of the woods as well.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Power of Dreams

North Georgia is finally bearing the full brunt of summer, with high temperatures and at times, unbearable humidity.  It's this time of year that I slow down (a little) on the trout fishing. As streams reach lower flows and the water temperature rises, it seems like the ethical thing to do.  These little guys are barely hanging on as it is.  I try to restrict my small stream fishing to early morning or late in the evening at this time of year. Or, I seek higher elevations and native char.

One begins to dream of cooler weather and better water flows. Recently I was thinking back on a trip last fall.  Prior to the Tenkara Jam of that year, a friend and I decided to check off a bucket-list journey up a very special drainage in the Smokies.  An idea that originally began as a multi-day trip became a one day blitz up the entire drainage, with a bushwhack out of the very top and a decent hike back to the car.  We began in the dark, and it was in the dark we finally reached our cars.  All told, I think it was in the vicinity of a 13 mile circuit, but with all of the bushwhacking, elevation gain and loss, we were both exhausted. On the whole, I would say we did more walking than fishing, but it was easily one of the best days of my life.

Trips like these inspire, not to outdo something or someone, but to seek that special quality that only wilderness can give.

There has been a stream that I have long wanted to fish in the Smokies.  It is not a secret. In fact, I would say that it is the most mythicized of all the streams inside the park. A person can reach it in one of two ways. A really long hike, or by boat.  Because of a notorious bear problem in that area, with frequent campsite closures, the former has never been too appealing to me, especially solo and overnight. One could hire a shuttle, but then you are on someone else's clock, so...

This arrived in the post the other day, all 2.3 HP of potential energy.  It doesn't seem like much, but it should push the Flycraft around at a decent clip. Enough to get a tenkara angler across a lake and into the back of beyond, as Horace Kephart liked to call it.  Enough to power a dream that will see me through until fall, and will likely see me through future moments as well; dreams that haven't even been dreamt yet.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

One Bomber of a Day

Dry flies are one of the things that keep a few reels lying about the house.  I couldn't imagine ever giving up that joy.  I have rises from fish etched in my brain from as long as 20+ years ago.  I can recall some of them as vividly as if it were yesterday.  A rise is a rise you would think, but each one is so different. Different lighting, varying outside circumstances, a change in mood or mental state; so many factors contribute to make a few of those rises indelible.
Last weekend, I managed to find a window between relentless rain and thunderstorms.  I hadn't fished dry flies in a while, and knew immediately the way I wanted to spend that precious window.  It didn't take me long to find my faithful small stream companion lying at the very back of a wooden crate that contains all of my tenkara rods and a few short fly rods.  A 6'2" fiberglass 2/3# from Cabelas; a delight to cast up in the headwaters.  I headed to a stream that was a sure bet for some native brook trout, and I figured that the water levels would be good but not blown out.  I had tied a few flies for just such a trip, and I knew exactly what I wanted to tie on:

The Ausable Bomber.  If they worked so well on the Appalachian Char's northern cousins, surely the pattern would do just as well here.  It didn't take me long to find out the answer.

The stream had become so choked with rhododendron growth, that it was impassable in places.  I would fish up to a section, and then have to backtrack downstream.

A stream emerges from the tunnels

Crawling for Brookies

I caught my fill, and then retreated to a nearby clearing for lunch.  I was fortunate enough to apply a good coating of sardine juice on my shirt, which seemed a little sketchy since I was in an area known for decent bear activity.  Satisfied with my Bomber experiment, I moved over to another stream to try another nondescript pattern I had previously tied.

A simple parachute, with little more than moose for the tail, rainbow-warrior dubbing for the body, and a few turns of grizzly hackle over an yellow antron post.  Again it did not disappoint; these little guys are hungry after all.  More of a mental doodling on behalf of the angler.  All in all, not a bad outing.  A few native fish, and time spent in these ancient mountains that I love so.