I’d like to tell you it was some sort of plan, or that it came to me in a dream, or that I had an experiment in mind. The truth is simply that I had a pile of random flies and the luxury of time to fish them.
In 2019, I spent six months on the road living out of my minivan while traveling the US. The trip included Wisconsin’s Driftless region, Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Appalachia, Rocky Mountain National Park and North central Colorado, Utah’s Provo river and amazing southern canyon land, southwest Colorado’s Grand Mesa region, and California’s Yosemite, King’s Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. Regretfully, circumstances kept me from visiting the Pacific Northwest or bouncing back to Appalachia in the fall as intended, but I sure got around for a while.
I learned a lot along the way, sharpening my tenkara rod fishing skills and adapting to new conditions as I traveled. As it turns out, I had almost completely overlooked preparing for the trip when it came to stocking flies. But that turned out to be a good thing, because I noticed a definite theme as I shifted from place to place – the fish didn’t seem to care what fly I tied on, and I was able to produce reasonable success with just about any pattern on any water – so long as I focused on a few principles.
First, while your dedicated “match the hatch” angler could fill a dozen boxes just stocking themselves up with a single region’s patterns, filling rows and rows with natural imitations in various sizes in colors, that’s never been my speed. I’ve never been much of a match the hatch angler, instead choosing to focus on targeting specific places and depths where trout are looking for food. This “hone the zone” approach focuses more on the idea that “something” that looks like food placed where a hungry trout is looking for food will trigger a strike. It’s not science, but it’s an approach that’s worked better for me than any attempt I’ve made to match hatches.
Second, to put that fly in “The Zone” you must deliver it into position and control its behavior. After the cast, the laws of physics dictate that there are only a certain number of things you can do to a fly. Every manipulation is a variation of time (Stop, Go, Slow, Fast) and space (Up, Down, Left, Right). Convincing trout that a fly is something worth eating is matter of making it behave as other natural food options do in the trout’s environment – making it appear normal in the local flow of time and space.
Based on these personal angling principles, my tenkara rod fishing style has increasingly focused on creating and maintaining line tension – because without it I cannot control the fly into effective manipulations or receive accurate feedback from the overall system. Ideally, I’m looking for minimal slack in the line the very moment the fly hits the water. With that I can sense strikes easier, control the fly with more precision, and score clean hooksets.
I’ve been focusing on creating instant line tension by stopping the rod tip at specific positions, depending on the intended range and position of the casting target. With practice and consistent rigging, you can really dial in your range, stopping that rod tip at the right point during the cast to allow the line to reach full extension as the fly lands. Creating and maintaining line tension is critical to manipulating the fly in my tenkara rod fishing.
There were several categories of flies on hand when I started the trip. First, a random collection of dozens of hand-tied kebari gifted or traded to me over the years. Soft hackle, stiff hackle, classic patterns or interesting experiments, in all colors and mostly size #12 & #14.
Second, about an equal number of random western patterns – killer bugs, various nymphs, some bead heads, soft hackles, scuds, caddis, and the last handful of my beloved Pass Lake wet fly stash. All anywhere from size #6 to size #18.
Finally, a big pile of very basic, commercially tied #12 Takayama kebari, in a half dozen colors and sporting an extremely oversized soft hackle. In a rush to get everything ready for a long expedition, I put them all into a fly box in no particular order. It ended up only slightly more organized than a kindergarten playroom at recess, but ready or not, it was time to throw feathers!
I’m sure I started the trip fishing whatever fly was last tied on whatever rod I chose to carry that day, because that’s how I start 90% of my fishing. I don’t remember what it was. I do remember the first time I re-rigged, reaching into the fly box, feeling the familiar size and oversized soft hackle of one of those cheap commercial kebari. And thinking “Meh, they’ll eat anything today” as I tied it on without much more thought.
The trout being willing, and me being an innately lazy angler, the cycle continued in similar fashion for another few days. Until, on one instance…my fingers came across a small bead head hare’s ear instead of a kebari. It was and had been nothing but top water action to that point, and that was really all I was after, looking to tease the trout to the surface for those splashy and exciting takes. Maybe It was my trademark laziness or maybe it was over confidence born of a few days of hot fishing, but I shrugged and said to myself “Meh, they’ll eat anything today”, and tied it on without more thought.
Besides adjusting to a slight weight and balance shift in the system, there was no shift in the tactics I would employ. Keep the fly in the top few inches of the water column, because that’s where the trout were visibly feeding. Yes, nymphs are most often encountered and eaten sub surface, but it looks like food, and I’m placing it where the hungry trout are looking for food. I’m looking to capitalize on the limited processing power of the trout brain and its natural instincts to react when faced with a possible meal.
I fish the little hare’s ear the same way I had been fishing the Pass Lake wet fly that was tied on before it, checking the rod tip at a familiar point to the ensure the line system extends and gains tension just as the fly hits the water. I adjust the rod tip position to maintain that tension throughout the drift, allowing me to control the fly and react to environmental changes or set a strike.
Applying a series of variations, I shift from dead drift, to pulse, to swing, working the same zone I’ve previously created success in. It’s more difficult because this pattern is smaller and harder to see than the patterns I’ve been fishing, but it works, and I keep catching fish at a reasonable rate, certainly no more or less than with the wet fly.
Eventually the nymph was lost to tree or tooth or rock. I thought to myself “…How ‘bout we let this ride?” and reached blindly into my box for another fly. I continued fishing whatever I drew for the next 6 months of the trip.
Sometimes I’d see a seamless transition between two different patterns, with little difference. Other times, I had to stretch to make the characteristics of the fly applicable to the situation. If it was a cold rainy day and the fish were sulking low, drawing an elk hair caddis meant you had your work cut out for you. Shallow, still, clear water makes it very hard to work a weighted pattern without startling everything within sight. But I stuck with it, and despite a few frustrating days of mismatched factors, I was able to have great days on the water everywhere I went.
If I focused on working fundamentals, fly selection was largely irrelevant to my success. No color, or shape, or characteristic was unable to produce results. Kind of like if I am standing within sight of any sort of buffet or snack table, if the food is somewhere predictable and looks good, I’m going to go eat it. Just put something fried with ranch dressing in front of me and the reaction is predictable.
In retrospect, this experience explored the concept of the “one fly angle” approach just as much as the “any fly” approach. I truly do believe that if any fly will do, an angler who commits to fundamentals and focuses on fly control could commit to a single general-purpose pattern and generate success on just about any trout water in America.
There is a good chance I’ll do my 2020 tenkara rod fishing with a single pattern, to continue that exploration and compare it to the results I got last year. One thing is for sure, from now one, I’ll feel confident fishing any pattern I choose. If the fish don’t care, then neither do I.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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