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.