The theme of this weekends trip was similar to the last one. I really wanted to go explore some different waters and enjoy some new surroundings. The difference this week was that I actually assumed I might catch some fish. The universe had other plans.
I was heading to the upper reaches of one of the better know trout fisheries in the area. I had been here one time before in the spring and it was pretty productive for smaller wild trout with a few bigger ones spotted and spooked during the day. It is wonderful tenkara water with lots of beautiful riffles, runs and pools.
So I ate a pretty light breakfast, packed the days food and water and left the house full of optimism. Weather was supposed to creep up to the mid 50’s with sun shining. The plan was to park at a trailhead I knew and hike a few miles upriver fishing along the way. I was 95% certain I remembered how to get to this trail head. It was the other 5% that got me this day. First I missed the turn to go up to the trailhead and wound way up a separate dirt road. A few miles in I found a pull out to relieve myself and try to figure things out. Once out of the car I could hear running water and saw a small foot path leading into the woods. I headed down and when the stream emerged I was very impressed! It was gorgeous! Right there were several good looking runs so I decided since I’m here I might as well have a go at it. I spent 20 or 30 fishless minutes before bagging it and attempting to reach my original destination. Was glad I stopped though because I will certainly be back to dedicate more time to this little gem.
So back off I went. Now it’s creeping on noon and it had been about 5 hrs since breakfast and I was excited to get the trail head, eat my lunch and embark. I again took another wrong turn, went down a very poorly maintained dirt road for probably 10 miles before it met up with the road I actually meant to be on. Another set back but spirits were still high. I arrived finally and went to the back of my subaru crosstrek to retrieve my gear and get at my cooler. Aaaaaand no cooler. I instantly got the vision of exactly where all my food and water were. At home in the garage on the work table. This was a problem. I had to look at the situation. I am a few hours from home, many miles from any people or cell service, the weather was still in the 40’s and I had no food or water. In my younger day i’d have said fuck it and went anyways. But at 41 I opted to fish a few holes nearby then sadly bag it early and try again another day.
Towards the end of 2021 I took the nastiest spill I have ever taken in a river. Fishing alone like usual I was crossing what seemed like a decent stretch of stream to wade. About 3 quarters of the way through it started getting real sketchy. I was struggling with every foot step and finally got knocked off my feet. I landed with all my body weight on my shin against a sharp rock. Washed downstream up to my neck I was able to eventually climb back up and out. It was about 42 degrees, I was soaked and my leg felt like something was very wrong. Luckily that was the worst of it. I had to cross again to get back to the car and found another shallower spot to do so. For the first time in my fishing life I was really shook up. It took several trips to get my confidence back wading and I am now starting be a little more cautious when fishing alone. I’d rather miss a day of fishing as opposed to dying of exposure on some stream bed. My wife agrees!
The fall was also one of many catalysts that inspired me to get into better shape for spending more time off the beaten path. I competed as a super heavyweight in powerlifting for many years and ended that phase of my life in 2021. I was 365lbs when I stopped and around 340 when I took the spill. Today I am under 290lbs and dropping. Yet another thing that tenkara has done for me. Inspire me even more to get in shape. The lighter I get, the more miles I can chew up and the more I enjoy my time on the water. Being mobile and not feeling like I’d been hit by a truck at the end of a long hike is pretty damn cool.
So all in all a disappointment but not a total bust. I found a new stream and on the way out I found a much better road to get to the trail head. Better luck next time eh?
Last Friday I needed to get outdoors. There are days when the quality of the experience outweigh the quantity of fish caught. While I am not a fish counter nor am I competitive about any of my fishing I do generally prefer to avoid a complete skunk. I spend a lot of time learning about fish and attempting to catch them and more often than not I am successful on my days out.
Friday was one of those days where I wanted to get more out of the experience than just catching some fish. There are places very near me that fish pretty good all winter long if you are willing. It’s nymphing 100% and often windy, rainy and overall unpleasant. I still go often but sometimes it just doesn’t sound appealing. After many weeks of working on my nymphing techniques I really wanted to cast a light fly on an awesome rod.
So I packed up and headed to a beautiful little mountain creek I know of. This place has trout but even in peak season it is never really hot and heavy. I headed knowing I would likely not catch a thing but I would be able to fish some fantastic water in a gorgeous location and I would be completely alone. I spent several hours exploring, casting unweighted flies to likely looking spots and enjoying the clean air and solitude. After the years spent in this pandemic and the ugliness its brought out in society I have become a much more patient person. I am grateful for every good experience I have and seize any opportunity to build more good memories. I’ll find myself in situations like in these photos where I will go out more for peace and a clear mind than to rack up a high fish count.
Take nothing for granted. Enjoy every single second you get to spend on an enjoyable pursuit like tenkara. Tie the flies you like tying, fish the rods you love casting and go to the places you love fishing for the sheer sake that they exist.
It took me a minute to get past the use of the word “tactical” when it came to fly fishing. When I see the word it conjures up images of very serious looking dudes with a dozen spools of tippet and other doodads hanging off a stuffed vest and lugging around 3 fully rigged rods. Attacking the river like some kind of black ops trout fishing navy seal making sure no trout is safe. The thought of a fishless day inducing dry heaves and profuse sweating.
For me fixed line fishing was a pursuit in the opposite direction of all that. At the end of the day fishing is a past time, a hobby. It is supposed to be enjoyable and a relaxing mental break from the seriousness of normal day to day life. I spent several decades taking it way to serious. When I recently found and cleaned out my old steelheading jacket I found seven fly boxes. Seven. This jacket has two pockets. In all my years of steelhead fishing in Alaska I pretty much used two flies. A glo bug and a black wooly worm. On rare occasions I’d use an egg sucking leach when the worm wasn’t doing it. Why didn’t I just have one box with those patterns only? Why seven boxes with hundreds of flies that would never see the light of day? It’s because I took it all very serious. I’d lose sleep at night staring at a blank ceiling thinking of the horrors of being on stream without the perfect fly for whatever situation presented itself. I would do this even when I knew that the perfect fly was always a glo bug or a wolly worm. For almost 20 years.
That sort of anxiety of not having enough “stuff” ultimately took the luster off of fishing for me. I started to loose interest because this need to be a master of any and all situations overtook the true need that got me into fishing in the first place. The need to be outdoors. The need to be in fresh air and flowing water away from people and the trappings of life. Getting out in nature for me is the point, the fishing is a pleasant by product of that. So when I took up tenkara the desire was to keep it really easy and simple. From a gear standpoint I think ive stuck to my guns on that one. I don’t have bushels of tenkara rods or jackets packed to the brim with fly boxes. I only carry one rod on stream and my little chest pack.
So with that groundwork laid I wasn’t interested in becoming “tactical” as I previously knew it. However something interesting happened as I began getting more focused on tenkara. For the first time ever I really wanted to increase my overall stream craft. I wanted to become more in tune with the water and fish behavior. I wanted to become a better fisherman and I wanted to achieve that through knowledge and technique not by throwing expensive gear at it. When I took the time to read fully through tacticalnymphing.org with an open mind it finally clicked for me. This process of looking over the 5 tactics wasn’t about being some deadly serious trout slayer but about being a smarter, more efficient angler. To me it was about making smart choices and establishing sensible tactics to get more enjoyment out of your time on the water.
As of this writing I am at the early stages of embracing these philosophies. I currently only apply a few of them consciously to my angling. My intention now is to go through them one at a time as the apply to me know and how I wish to incorporate them. I want to spend a solid length of time utilizing them then revisit the 5 tactics down the road and note how I may have changed as a fisherman in that time. Knowledge, growth and refinement are all things I value and I am looking forward to this chapter of a lifelong fishing journey.
Tactic 1. Lightweight. This is something I am steadily working towards achieving in many aspects and will account for the small amount of gear acquired to get there. I have always fished with heavier slow action rods since they fit my style of fishing heavier rigs. I was a split shot guy from way back. A lot of the rivers I grew up fishing in Alaska were big and swift and required a good deal of weight to get down fast. It was a real adjustment for me to just fish lightly weighted flies with no added weight to the leader. One area where fixed line rods have allowed me to improve is lighter tippets and increasingly lighter casting lines. Using these lighter lines and flies has definitely increased my hook up rate. Using sparser nymphs on light FC tippets is allowing me to reach depth almost as fast as split shot on heavier tippet. The addition of a lighter rod will be joining the mix soon when I receive my riverworks ZX4. An area of lightweight that has benefited my fishing the most has been a decrease in my own body mass. The Summer of 2021 marked the end of a long “career” in competition powerlifting. After the last meet that I competed in I weighed close to 370 lbs at 6’7” tall. In my early 40’s now I knew it was time to hang it up and focus on a better quality of life. The desire to fish in more remote tougher to access streams was a big motivator in getting my weight and mobility under control. I am under 300 lbs now and it has had a drastic impact on my fishing. I am able to hike longer and farther, navigate obstacles much easier and generally not feel like ive been hit by a truck at the end of a long days fishing. Finally, I only pack what will fit in my small chest pack for the day. One box of flies, two spools of tippet, a small length of extra sighter material and casting line, clippers, forceps and one small box of nontoxic shot for the occasional drop shot rig. Depending on the length of the outing a may bring a small back pack with food and water.
Tactic 2. Low Profile. This one is real struggle for me in some ways. By virtue of being a gigantic human being I struggle to keep a physical low profile. I am still too heavy to enjoy spending any length of time on my knees or crawling about and even crouched I still present a fairly large profile. I will cover some of the things I do to deal with this when we get to stealth. I am just now really starting to establish a low profile kit to fish. I have purchased lighter lines that I will be experimenting with soon, my nymphs are becoming much more streamlined and I am utilizing new to me innovations like uv resins and tungsten beads. I am also stubbornly learning new knots for my rigging that form smoother transitions from line to sighter to tippet. I do still use tippet rings on occasion especially on really cold days when I just lack the dexterity to be fucking around with knots and 6X.
Tactic 3. Dense. Another work in progress for me as far as my equipment goes. I have already switched to exclusively using denser fluorocarbon tippets while nymphing. The casting line portion I am still trying to dial in. While I am sure a lighter #2.5 level tenkara line is light enough and dense enough to handle almost any situation I do feel that with a little experimentation there could be better options out there. I will be trying a variety of lines over the coming months. The first attempt will be with a fluorocarbon coated line recommended to me by Jeff Lomino. Kastking Flourocote in 10lb test to be exact. I will also be trying spiderwire stealth, Gary Yammamoto Sugoi line in grey and some of the Sempe brand nylon and fluorocarbon lines. My basis is to first try these lines sized off the Japanese level line rating system. So if a #2.5 Japanese level line has a diameter of 0.260 then these initial experimental lines will have similar diameters. This might be a flawed approach but it’s a start and for the most part these lines are cheap. I’ll do little write ups on my experience with each and post it to the tactical nymphing FB group. What I wish to find is the absolute lightest line/tippet combo possible that I am still able to cast with my current skill set. Knowing that some competition fly fishers are running and casting straight 4x gives me hope that with some practice a lot is possible. Density of fishing time is also more of a consideration now. Rather than bounce from prime spot to prime spot I try to be more methodical in working all likely looking water. I have been pleasantly surprised enough to know that is worthwhile and trout will hold in water I use to walk right past. Doing this also improves one’s ability to read water in general. I now see likely holding spots all over. It’s a cool feeling.
Tactic 4. Stealth. Ahhh stealth, the bane of my big clumsy existence. I WANT to be stealthy. I know how to be stealthy but knowing and implementing are entirely different things. I watch videos of these amazing Japanese anglers gliding from rock to rock, dropping to their knees, crouching low and silently slinking up and down these mountain streams as light as the breeze. In comparison I am a neon orange terrified elephant. I am huge, I am duck footed, I have sheet metal screws in my boots and with the mobility of a 2×4 I am just not a stealthy being. I do however have a few things to offset this. I dress in very drab earth tones, tans and olives and camo. I approach the water slowly and I always start fishing close to the bank and work my way towards the likely holding spots. I move slowly. I constantly practice casting and presentation to drop my flies as gently as possible. Fly first and line off the water. When available I try to utilize shade and/or broken water to hide my silhouette. In Paul Gaskells wonderful book “How to fool fish with simple flies” he talks at length about using the “noise” around you to better conceal your position. I am incorporating less hi-viz lines into my set up I am also trying to learn to cast these longer lighter lines more accurately. For me my least favorite thing about fixed line fishing is hand lining fish to net. Generally, if I lose a big trout it’s because I’m screwing around trying to pull in the last few feet. Like everything else this will just take practice. I do now use an oversized extending handle net which does help some. Lastly I do strongly believe in leave no trace approach to the outdoors. Basically follow the regs and don’t litter. As simple as that seems they are still very foreign concepts to a lot of people based off the amount of trash I see in the mountains but I digress.
Tactic 5. Contact. This is the one that I relate to and understand the most I believe. Being a self-taught fly fisherman starting out in the early 90’s pre internet there just wasn’t the vast wealth of shared information available today. At as a teenager I scoured the library and magazine stands for anything I could find on fly fishing. I do not remember what magazine I read it in but was very influenced early on by an article on hi stick nymphing. The jist was to cast upstream, as the rig flowed down you matched speeds and slowly raised the rod tip to take up slack with the highest point being when the rig was in front of the angler. Then you lower the tip accordingly to continue the drift downs stream. Rinse and repeat. This made a lot of sense to me at the time and became the predominant way I nymphed for decades to follow. I didn’t even know what a strike indicator was until my mid-twenties and by then was so adept at this form of nymphing that I never needed much else. So the idea of maintaining a perfect amount of contact with your flies is very familiar with me. Where that can be improved upon is going increasingly lighter with the equipment. While I felt I always had great contact, I was also fishing a shit ton of split shot and usually two big flies on soft action rods. Replicating that same sensation with 10lb test casting line, 6x tippet and size 18 flies on a 2 oz fast action rod is a completely different feeling all together. The most difficult part for me will be reprogramming a lifetime of muscle memory in my casting stroke. When I focus I can generally get these lighter rigs to do what I want but will quickly revert to my old ways as soon as my mind wanders. This leads me to be brought back to reality by a piled up wad of a cast or a nice big wind knot to undue.
So reflecting on these 5 tactics I see them not as a way to become the most lethal angler on the stream but as a way to simplify and maximize my own time on the water. I hope to make these things habit so that my focus can be narrowed down to feeling everything around me. From the nymphs ticking along the river bottom to the pressing current on my legs. Not being overburdened with an impossible amount of choices but with a small set of very refined techniques. I also believe there is joy in being lighter and more refined. Lighter in physical presence as well as thought. I am excited to see where the tactical nymphing philosophy takes me in the coming months. If you made it this far thank you for letting me share my thoughts.
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
With fishing out of the question in my area for the past few weeks or so due to heavy winter rain and snow storms i’ve turned to my two favorite winter pastimes, tying flies and photography.
I have long had a passion for photography but when it comes to photographing flies I always struggled to produce anything that appealed to me. I decided this year to put a little more time and effort into documenting my fly tying in a way that visually appealed to me and satisfied that creative itch.
I have definitely simmered down on the photography hobby now that I have resumed fishing as often as I do. With that came the unloading/selling off of a ton of camera gear leaving me with a pretty bare bones system to work with. My only regret has been selling off my dedicated macro lenses. To make do I am left with using my few lenses from the lensbaby company and macro extension tubes. While not quite as “macro” as a true 1:1 macro lens it gets the job done and forces me to focus more on creatively capturing the image as opposed to a technically precise photograph. I am happy with the early results and am looking forward to more experimentation.
Most of these kebari are ties inspired by Jason Sparks and his “gnarly fly” split hackle style. I through in a few pics of some beautiful mountain stream rainbows for good measure. Hopefully their friends will be seeing these patterns soon.
We have had pretty intense weather around here the last few weeks. Several feet of snow followed by warm weather and inches of rain produced flooding events all over. Had a nice break in the weather today and against my better judgement ventured out in an attempt to fish. Ive recently purchased the Sagi model rod from Zen Tenkara and wanted to play around with it a bit.
I spent about 15 minutes on the bank debating if I should climb in my waders and rig up ultimately choosing to do so. As a neared the water several large logs floating by told me to stay out of the water. I found the only slowish piece of water I could safely access and rigged up a very heavy two fly rig. The Sagi handled this with ease and I spent a little time just getting to know it better. With that out of my system I milled around a little doing some iphoneography before calling it a day.
I’ve been chipping away at this series for awhile. The goal was to make little square prints of kebari that were processed to look like they came from an old weathered book. I am still refining it a little as the longer I look at these the more they seem a bit overdone. All of these were shot on an iphone12 and processed using the Snapseed app. Printed on matte paper they look are close to achieving the look I’m after.