Tactical nymphing and nerding out

Before I dive into this let me state that I am aware a lot of the things I am going to write about are probably old hat to most of you and some of this stuff has been well known for a decade or more. For me it is all very much brand new. You see I was truly in a fly fishing time capsule that was sealed tight around the end of 2009 and re-opened in the late summer of 2021. For those 12 years I was completely unplugged and disconnected from fishing. In that time I may have fished a half dozen times, all with existing gear that I owned and all pretty half assed. My life took a detour I wont go into details about that lead me down some roads far away from a pursuit that between 1992 and 2009 I was deeply passionate about.

It took a global pandemic to get me back on track. With anxiety, depression, anger and resentment replacing so many of the good feelings in my mind I knew I had to get back to the one thing that always filled me with peace, joy and happiness. The catalyst was a close friend of mine that wouldn’t stop talking about these gigantic canal trout in New Zealand. He was telling me about these grotesque freaks of nature every time I saw him so one day I looked it up on you tube, watched a few videos and had to agree that yes indeed the trout were absolute freaks.

Winter days and nymph fishing

    Well youtubes algorithm saw I was interested in fishing so it started suggesting videos for me. One of these was from Tristans Tenkara Addict channel.   Tenkara had just began to emerge in the US right when I was drifting away from fishing. I remember a friend of mine being all excited about it and me thinking it looked fucking ridiculous, gimmicky and a waste of time and money. People can change though right? Tristans videos were really cool. He was fishing the super tiny creeks, enjoying solitude and catching a lot of trout. I pretty much binged watched all his videos and just like that the flame was reignited and I knew what I had to do. I went to Cablelas, bought the only tenkara rod they had and was off to the races. 

My first rod was a very stiff triple zoom with a max length of 10 ft. I went to the local fly shop and asked for a tenkara line. They sold me a 10 ft poly leader and a 9 ft tapered leader, told me to tie them together and I should be good to go. Needless to say this was awful to cast, the rod felt like shit, the almost 20’ line was way too long and my first few outings were pretty shaky.

Victim of the human trout vacuum

    It was at this point my hyper obsessive side kicked in in full force and I turned to the internet to figure this all out. I was absolutely blown away. Since I stopped fishing in 09 the amount of progression was dizzying. The entire written history of tenkara in the US was there to be ingested. Fly tying techniques and materials and tutorials were miles ahead of what I knew. The biggest eye opener for me was euro nymphing techniques. This had not picked up steam before 09 and I had only a hint of knowledge about it. Mostly that it was a weird competition thing and that some of the nymphs were woven. That was all I knew about it.

   So at this point I knew 2 things as certain. 1 was that fixed line fishing was the direction I wanted to go. 2 was that I wanted to become proficient with modern nymphing techniques. I loved the sensitivity and extra length of the tenkara rods and the amazing drifts one could achieve and overall just found the experience of fishing with these rods more pleasurable than traditional fly fishing methods. I felt more focused and in tune with what I was doing on the water. My preferred method will always be dry or unweighted flies on my soft action Japanese rods but nymphing is a close second. It also opens up the entire year of fishing for me as winter where I’m at is cold and the fish don’t look up. 

   At first and up until very recently I tried to mimic euro nymphing techniques associated with western fly rods on my fixed line rods. I even bought a rod that I would dedicate to these techniques that at the time made sense to me. This rod is a 13’6”  “7wt equivalent” with the add on option “performance tip” that is supposed to enhance feel and hook up rates. It’s a big rod, heavy in the fixed line world at 3.6 oz but very tough and very capable at horsing in bigger trout. My initial set ups with this rod did not follow a lot of the tactical nymphing ethos. A standard rig was about 5’ of 20lb maxima, 18” of homemade sighter material, big ass tippet ring and a long tippet of 6x. The tippet length was determined by water depth but could be as long as 6’ to the dropper fly, up to 8’ to the point fly. I would fish this with a low rod position, lobbing the rig straight upstream and immediately tracking the rig down. I would attempt to match the speed just enough to have contact but not enough to effect the drift. I cleaned up. My catch rate started going through the roof. I bought a bigger net because I was catching bigger trout. I was amazed. I always felt confident in my fish catching skills but this was on another level. On a river where I was happy catching a dozen fish in a day I worked through 2 runs and landed 27 trout on an early outing with these “new” methods.

The joys of tying tiny knots with frozen fingers

    As rough as these rigs were I attribute the success to the tippets. Lighter and longer than id ever fished. It allowed me to fish without split shot and for the first time I was using small, sparse nymphs that were able to sink fast on this light tippet. I stuck with this for several months and had a lot of fun through fall and early winter. 

    It was towards the end of 2021 when a few things happened. I bought a tenkara nymphing tutorial from Discover Tenkara that featured Shin Takahashi. It came with a 40 minute video of Shin in action on a Japanese stream applying his techniques. One of the main take aways for me was that he fished with a very light #2 level line. Muuuuuch lighter than the 20lb maxima I was using. His casts were precise, his drifts short and everything appeared very delicate and unobtrusive.  I also stumbled across the riverworks and tactical nymphing websites. Again these were driving home this message of ultra light, stealthy presentations with very thin lines and small nymphs. The tactical nymphing rods they sold looked awesome but I couldn’t see how they would be any different than the ones I fished with. That was until I met Jim Vandagrift. 

The first time I went fishing with Jim he pulled out a riverworks ZX3 to use for the day. I thought it looked cool with the carbon fiber handle and red accents. Jim had it rigged up with some light reaction FC stealth grey line and a 2 fly rig. After making a few passes through one of the spots we stopped at he asked if I wanted to try it out. I think the best complement I can give the makers of these rods is do not accept the offer to try one out. Do not try one out 4 days after Christmas when the bank account has taken its annual beating. You will need one. Not just want.

   While I am an infant in this fixed line world and I don’t have bins of tenkara rods at my disposal I do have some nice gear. The tenryu furaibo tf39, the troutbum 40. These rods are not slouches and are widely embraced as excellent. Something about the ZX rods immediately strikes you as different. It is a purpose built tool, extremely well balanced and the feel in the hand seems weightless. After drooling over it Jim put me in touch with Jeff Lomino the maker and I was able to get in on the pre-order list for the not yet released ZX4 (as of 1-18-22). 

   I am looking forward to receiving the rod and really spending some time embracing the tactical nymphing thought process of fixed line fishing. I am a nerd. I like to nerd out on things. I enjoy spending time researching line diameters and materials and experimenting to see if the perfect combo exists. I will document that whole process on this blog and am interested to see on what level this will improve my fishing.

   What I am expecting to gain from this isn’t so much to become a much more lethal trout vacuum, pricking the lips of any and all thigs finned. What I would like to get from is more enjoyment out of the precious time I get on the water. A lighter rig is more enjoyable to fish.  A finely tuned fishing rod is a pleasure to cast. I love the look and feel of a well cast tenkara rod. It’s meditative and engaging on a high level for myself. 

    The great thing about fishing is you can get as technical and nerdy as you want, or not. At my core I truly believe a few wet fly’s and some tippet will get fish an almost any given day and I still fish that way and enjoy it. I also love deep diving into the minutia, looking for that bleeding edge of what’s possible. When Jim and I last fished he was using the ZX3, a light stealthy line and a brace of nymphs. I had my maxima rig tied to my broom handle rod. After a full day we pretty much broke even on hooking and catching. Would I have caught more fish if I had my pre ordered ZX4 in my hand, 8 lb test invisible level line and size 18’s on 6x flouro? I truly doubt it. Would I have had an overall more enjoyable experience and less fatigue in my shoulder? 100%. 

The fun part of experimenting

   So ultimately I would like to give these methods a solid season spring through winter. Document it and look back and see if going to these extreme ends of things makes me a better angler and if so in what ways. More proficient? Higher catch rates? Higher enjoyment level? Time will tell. 



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