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.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Hand Tying Update

Because of some other pressing projects, I haven't had time to carry out the experiments laid out in the previous post.  However, I did sit down and work on my hand-tying without a vise.  I have seen photographs of really nice kebari tied in-hand by master Japanese tenkara practitioners.  I knew with a little practice, I could do better than the ratty little fly I photographed.  So I tied, cut, retied over and over again until the muscles began to relax to their task, and the process became a little easier.  I also discovered that half-hitches are a hand-tier's best friend.  Anyways, its fun to mess around, and I look forward to doing this in the field.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Shoku-ryoshi Inspiration

If you don't subscribe to the free Discover Tenkara email tutorials, I highly recommend it.  One email was a head's-up for an hour long documentary of the commercial mountain fisherman of Japan, the shoku-ryoshi, forerunners of the sport we now know as tenkara. The film features Dr. Ishigaki, and is a production of Shimano as part of their "Fishing Cafe" series.  The film is interesting and enjoyable, enough so that by the end I was longing for more information.  If only there were a book!

In the presentation, Dr. Ishigaki tours the Omachi Alpine Museum.  While looking over an exhibit of the clothing and gear used by the professional fisherman, the curator points out a couple of flies and a small box.  The fly is ratty by any standard, with a "tail" formed by the tip of the hackle tied in at the rear of the hook shank.  The hackle is palmered forward in open wraps.  The body is nothing more than hackle and thread wraps.  The fly looks to be tied rather hurriedly and without great concern for detail.  The small box contains the materials to tie these flies stream side along with materials for line-making/repair and a few other bits and bob's.  The flies would have been tied in hand, rather than in a vise.

The unattractive little fly became an image stuck in my mind.  Finally I decided to tie something similar, though in a vise. I tossed the scraggly little creation in my fly-box and vowed to use it on my next outing.  Though it shouldn't come as a surprise by now, the fish responded well, until all the material came off the hook.  I would have been too embarrassed to show anyone that fly, for fear that they would think I had no skills at the vise, but I was enormously pleased.

Reflecting on this experience, I decided to take this little rumination a step further.  

First I secured the necessary materials, an old mint tin and some magnet material with adhesive backing.

One strip was cut to fit the length of the tin: this will secure a few hooks.  For this little experiment I used a Dai-Riki #135 scud hook in size 12 and 14.

As you can see,  I added a few pieces of various colored hackle and some silk thread.  With these small spools of Pearsall's silk, the lid will still close properly.  All I need are a small pair of scissors and my kit will be complete.

I went ahead and tried to tie one by hand with no vise.  The result will look horrific to veteran fly-tiers (including myself), but the result is not too far off from that in the video.

So what's the point you may ask?  Not much except for being a fun little mental exercise and historical reflection. I do think it will be satisfying to take a rod, line, and this little box and nothing else.  There, on the bank of a mountain stream, I will tie a fly in hand and take a fish on it.  I think little reflections like this are becoming increasingly common with those that enjoy crafting a skill set as a hobby.  These exercises don't prove or validate anything; rather I think they gift the practitioner with a deeper connection to the thing they love doing.

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.