I rarely nymph on the mountain streams that I most often fish in southwestern Pennsylvania – it’s usually just not necessary. But when I head to the limestone streams of central Pennsylvania or the spring creeks in the Driftless region of Wisconsin I like to have the tenkara nymphing card to play.
Tenkara rod nymphing has resulted in lots of excellent fishing days for me. The main purpose in this article is to emphasize the idea that you can have great success with tenkara rod nymphing without the need to add extra complication to your rigging and gear.
The Nymphing Goal
In rich aquatic environments like spring creeks, trout are often content to sit tight in feeding stations near the bottom of the stream. They have food drift to them and not move much to chase flies. When they’re sitting tight and not actively moving for flies that’s when nymphing is a nice skill to have in your toolbox. At its most basic, nymphing for trout in moving water is designed to target these fish by casting upstream and drifting a nymph with the current. The goal is for your artificial nymph to mimic an insect larva, pupa, nymph or even aquatic worm that is drifting helplessly with the current near the bottom of the stream.
If you just toss a weighted nymph, or bead-head fly into the water unattached to a tippet and line it will sink well. Tie it to a tippet and a line at the end of a rod, and suddenly it is not going to sink as well. The tippet, and the line will work against your goal and try to pull the fly to the surface. The water velocity varies from the top of the stream to the bottom. Generally, the water will be fastest at the surface and slowest near bottom. Figure 1 illustrates the basic idea of the current velocity gradient.
My Typical Rig: Short Lines and Long Tippet
My reality is that I need to keep things simple. If something requires too much forethought, and preparation, too many doodads or special supplies I will not do it. So, I stick with a very basic setup when tenkara nymphing: 12 foot rod (sometimes longer), Hi-viz fluorocarbon level line (#3 usually), tippet, fly. Basically the same stuff that I use in my “regular” tenkara with the exception that the fly may be weighted or have a bead-head. The basic set-up allows me to move from more traditional tenkara to tenkara rod nymphing on the fly.
Shorter lines are more easily kept off of the water than long lines and they allow you to lengthen tippets while keeping the whole length of line+tippet manageable for tight-line nymphing. The goal is to have just fly and tippet in the water. By keeping the tenkara line off the water you can reduce the drag that wants to pull the fly up to the surface.
Increasingly smaller diameter tippets will have increasingly less drag: 5X will sink better than 4X and so on. Typically, I do not go much smaller than 6X, it’s a personal choice. For best results you may consider denser (but much more expensive) fluorocarbon tippet, but I use regular old nylon too. It is just fishing for fun after all and you’ll catch plenty of fish with nylon tippet.
Lengthening the tippet is another part of the trick that allows you to fish deeper and still keep the line out of the water.
Figure 3 is a simple illustration showing this tenkara nymphing rig of a short line and long tippet in action.
The terms “short line” and “long tippet” are relative. I’ll define “short line” as a line no longer than the rod (and usually shorter) and “long tippet” as one that is 4 feet long or longer. For example, when using a 12 foot rod I may start out with an 10 or 11 foot line and 4 feet of tippet. If the water is particularly deep, I may lengthen the tippet up to as much as 6 or 7 feet.
I want the nymph to be ticking the bottom of the stream from time to time. If I’m not occasionally snagging on the bottom, I figure that I’m not getting deep enough and I may put on a slightly heavier nymph or lengthen my tippet or both. I want the tippet to be long enough to allow my fly to get to the bottom without any tenkara line being subsurface.
If I need to use 6 or 7 foot tippets I may need to shorten the line even more so that the whole length of tippet+line is still manageable. Perhaps I’ll be using 8 or 9 foot line with 6 feet of tippet on a 12 foot rod.
I don’t want to give you hard and fast rules about tippet and line length but just give you the notion that a long, thin tippet can help sink a fly deeper. If you want to keep the line off of the water as tippet lengthens you may need to shorten the line.
Armed with that notion you can experiment on you own.
The requirement of no extra doodads or special equipment is part of my simple tenkara nymphing methodology, so I do not use additional strike indicators. Luckily the typical hi-viz tenkara level line is an excellent strike indicator. During the drift I am constantly moving the tip of the rod to keep the tip of line downstream of the drifting nymph. Ideally leading the nymph but not dragging it unnaturally. The end of the hi-viz tenkara line is the strike indicator.
With a tight connection to the fly and as little slack as possible when a fish takes the nymph, I will have the best chance to notice a hesitation in the drift of the line or even feel the take. Slack line will not allow you to effectively detect strikes and set hooks. But even with great diligence and practice I am sure that many fish take and spit flies without detection.
If you’re new to nymphing, strike detection can be a challenge – but you’ll get better with experience. Many nymphers will speak of a “sixth sense” that they develop regarding strike detection. It’s a real thing. Of course, I don’t think it’s supernatural, but you will develop this sixth sense as you get tuned into the way a nymph drifts and what your line does when a fish takes. Other visual clues will be used too, such as a flash of fish movement, or if you can see your nymph, the sudden disappearance of said nymph.
A Word on Flies
The challenge with selecting flies is that you want a fly that can sink near the bottom in a reasonable amount of time, but not sink too quickly. If the fly is too heavy for conditions you will be constantly snagging bottom and that’s no fun.
I try to use the lightest fly that I can get away with. Typically, an unweighted wet fly tied on a heavyweight size 10 or 12 hook or a size 16 tungsten bead-head is a starting point for me on small to medium sized streams. But I will go heavier as needed.
In all honesty my belief in magic fly patterns has really waned over the years. I have caught so many fish on so many different flies that I am convinced that particular patterns do not matter all that much most of the time (let’s leave hatches out of this discussion). With the one big caveat that the fly needs to be doing what you need it to do functionally (i.e. sink quickly or float or whatever).
One last big piece of the puzzle is casting. All the details that go into successful tenkara nymph casting are beyond the scope of this article. But I need to talk about it briefly to complete the picture. As with traditional tenkara casting, the goal is to make the fly hit first and to keep the line off the water. But when nymphing you want to do it with a little more force and with a slight tweak that something like the tuck cast allows.
The tuck cast will drive the fly more vertically down into the water than a typical cast. The way I do this is to stop high on the forecast, maybe a tad earlier than I normally would and more aggressively. If executed properly the line will stop suddenly and the tippet and fly will dive downward and slightly back toward you “tucking” under the line and into the water with a downward trajectory. You may need to put a little more energy into the forecast than you normally would as well. It’s harder to describe than it is to do really – just get out and practice it.
Also, as flies get heavier (and tippets longer) you may need to adjust your backcast to avoid a face full of fly. Basically, I find myself tilting the rod away from the vertical on the backcast. Essentially doing a sidearm backcast and bringing the rod around to nearer vertical on the forecast, this is similar to what is called a Belgian cast in western fly fishing. This keeps tension on the which helps avoid excess shock on the backcast with heavier flies. Be careful with the weighted flies. It is probably a good idea to wear some sort of eyewear to protect the peepers.
And be aware that a beadhead fly hitting your tenkara rod can break it. I haven’t done it yet, but it can happen!
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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