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.