Fixed-Line Article by Bob Long, Jr.
These flies are called Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead. So, just how do they apply to tenkara rod fishing?
The point at which these flies (as well as lures, lines, techniques, etc.) meets fixed-line fly fishing is about ‘Creative Possibilities.’ Which lines, tippets, flies, lures, weight, casting techniques, or presentations might work for me with my tenkara rods in any given situation? Especially, for me, with smallmouth bass in rivers, creeks and streams. While tradition might provide a bit of direction, a few answers, or at least a starting point, I ultimately agree with 20th Century, English writer, W. Somerset Maugham,
“Tradition is a Guide, not a Jailer.”
Over the next some paragraphs, I hope to lay out, in a reasonable way, how Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead meeting my tenkara rods is a good representation of the concept of creative possibilities. However, there is another quote that has guided much of my life, including my love and fishing lives, regarding what might be considered reasonable;
“The heart has reasons, that reason knows little of.”Blaise Pascal, French, 17th Century
So, we shall see.
Upsizing Elk Hair Caddis
These, quite non-traditional, Elk Hair Caddis are over 25 years old (I tied them in the early 90’s and first wrote about them in 1994). I patterned them after the Elk Hair Caddis used for trout. For reasons I’ve long since forgotten, I thought the Elk Hair Caddis dry fly might work as a wet fly or nymph for autumn and spring-run steelhead in the Wisconsin tributaries of Lake Michigan. However, the Elk Hair Caddis dry flies (which I’ve always called “EHCs”) as they existed were too small and wimpy for Steelhead.
So, taking the form while abandoning the function, I tied them up in sizes 6, 8 and 10 on 3X nymph and dry fly hooks, and the ever-so elegant and graceful, (3X) Tiemco 200R.
I wanted a larger size and sturdier fly as steelhead are a big, rough-and-tumble fish compared to fresh-water ‘bows and browns. Also, floating on the surface was a non-issue. I was going to fish them sub-surface in current, as a duo-service wet fly and/or nymph; to drift them anywhere from just inches off the bottom to about 6-inches below the surface.
As they were going to be used for steelhead (and anadromous brown trout) I tied them in a variety of steelhead attracting colors, not the standard, match-the-hatch ones (although some are also tied in softer, more muted tones). Body materials varied by whim: sparkle braid, chenille, vernille, dubbing, four-strand floss, embroidery floss. Soft, slightly longer fibered hackle is used instead of dry fly. But I still liked elk over other hairs (I liked the way it looked – on the fly and in the water).
The verdict? They worked wonderfully for those steelhead and browns, October through March/April, season after season. And, as a bonus, I found them to be a good-looking fly; one that is fun and creatively rewarding to tie, and that photographs well.
An Unexpected Discovery
One hot summer evening BT (Before Tenkara) found me fishing my favorite smallmouth river, The Kankakee in Illinois. A marvelous, heavy-duty mayfly hatch was coming off with bugs filling the air as thick as February snowflakes. All types of fish were coming up everywhere, busily slurping flies off the surface.
I thought, “Oh yeah, time to switch from a crayfish pattern to a full-bodied streamer (like an older, Dan Gapen-styled Muddler Minnow – a mouthful of a fly and a fave of mine) and swim it just under the surface film.” But, darn it, I had not one streamer box with me. However, while rummaging around in the back pocket of my vest looking for something, anything, I found a small EHC for Steelhead box.
“OK,” I sighed, “might as well try one of these, I guess.”
I did. They worked; marvelously. Again, I fished them as a wet fly/nymph, working them from a few inches under the surface to just off the bottom. Towards dark a number of guys passing by on their way back to their cars asked me what I was using. I told them. They looked really skeptical; more like I was B.S.ing them, actually. I showed them a couple of the EHCs – tied on size 6, Tiemco 200Rs – and shared how I was fishing them. I think a couple of them wanted to believe me, but the iron grip of tradition overruled any possible leap of faith. Oh well.
Since that time, whenever I go out to fly fish smallmouth, I always have a small box of EHC for Steelhead in my fishing box in the car. Although tied un-weighted, they aren’t designed to float (and I like the lightness of sub-surface action they have un-weighted – especially when used with a non-slip loop knot). I fish them with a size ‘B’ split-shot or two placed right up against the loop knot to get them down as current dictates (it can be tough to get a fly to sink in current when you want it to, especially when its fished downstream and across-and-down. Over the course of my life, I’ve very seldom experienced split-shot being so visible to be a problem for the fish).
OK, So What Does This Have to do with Tenkara?
The intersection at which all of the above (flies, lures, lines, techniques, etc.) meets tenkara is about ‘Possibilities.’ Such as, in this case, my tenkara rod, Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead and smallmouth. Didn’t see that one coming, but glad I was open to it.
“The only limits to the possibilities in your life tomorrow are the ‘yeah buts’ you use today.”Les Brown
An unexpected discovery. When I took up tenkara, around 2011, I was not interested in using the rods for trout – nor in using sakasa kebari. I wanted to use my newly found tenkara rods (a 6:4 and a 7:3) to fish for smallmouth in rivers, creeks and streams, using my existing smallmouth flies and small lures. (Yeah, I know, I was asking a lot; still am). One day, as I prepared to go smallie fishing, tenkara rod in hand, I again found that small Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead box deep in one of my wading pouches. Although there was no hatch going on, I smiled and thought…
“Oh yeah…these. Oh well, might as well try them with this rod and see what’s cookin’.”
I did. They worked; marvelously – fished sub-surface with a split-shot or two as necessary. And, as a part of the discovery, I gave these EHCs those enticing, pulsing actions associated with tenkara and sakasa kebari (as seen in Youtube videos from Japan) as they drifted downstream; starts, stops, pauses, holding in place, swim them left and right, bring them forward, drop them back. Love that about tenkara.
While I didn’t, and don’t, consistently get the bigger fish with these EHCs (even at a size 6, 3x, the fly at 1.5” is just too small for that), the numbers and the action keep joy and hope alive.
“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”Kurt Vonnegut
I discovered several interesting differences between using EHCs with tenkara rods vs. western ones. One difference comes with the short, max casts of 30-feet (or less) I get with my tenkara rods. The rods 12- to 14-foot length and short, fixed length of light-weight line and leader, allows me a masterful sense of control and feel over my flies. In the clearer waters of summer, I can often see my lighter and/or brightly colored EHCs as they drift high through the water. Sometimes I can see the takes with the flash of a fish as it turns or, more often, when the color of the fly simply disappears.
Another difference for me when using tenkara rods is that even when I can’t see the EHC in the water, the tenkara rod’s shorter lines, tippets and minimal slack, I have a good idea of where it is, and I can respond to subtle takes via movements of my bright orange or chartreuse furled line. Third, I thought I might have some casting issues with the limber tenkara rod and fly/weight combo. I don’t. In the wind, it’s actually of benefit.
Tenkara and My Attitude
Various lines of thought have been present and guided me for much of my life, among them;
- Homage to tradition, but never slavish imitation, and
- an attitude of Shoshin, “Beginner’s Mind.”
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”Shunryu Suzuki, 20th Century, Soto Zen Monk
Thus, when I choose to use a tenkara rod, there is no demand, dictate or insistence upon which flies (sizes, styles or colors), lures or techniques can be, should be, or must be used. Traditions can be good, not all are bad, but often strict traditions can take the joy of discovery out of life. (Please note, my way is NOT the only way. I have no issues if you are a person who likes or benefits from varying degrees of structure and/or direction. Please, go for it.)
Still, I hope some of you may be willing to consider (just consider, mind you) such things as Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead, as well as other possibilities and out-of-the-ordinary flies, techniques and tactics for your tenkara and fixed-line fly fishing. Consider what discoveries may await you in creating new paths from older ones; exploring a search for expression outside of what is expected.
“Great things never come from comfort zones…”Unknown
Oh yes, there is much to be discovered with this sublime and marvelous tenkara thing.
Bob Long, Jr. is in charge of Chicago’s Fish’N Kids Program which takes kids ages 8-12, teens, adults, seniors and people with disabilities of all types fishing. He also teaches many tenkara and fly tying.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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