Techniques Trout & Char

Tenkara Lessons Learned in the Rockies

Article by Adam Rieger

I love reading books and watching videos on fishing techniques, but I have never been one to learn well from them.  I have always been much more successful in learning from someone skilled who has the patience and the interest to show me and help me succeed.  Those people are called mentors, and I seek them out in my tenkara learning.

I was fortunate in early August 2019 to join a group of tenkara enthusiasts organized by Adam Klagsbrun in Rocky Mountain National Park to fish with Go Ishii.  We were a group of 9-10 who not only fished but camped together and shared so much knowledge and skills with each other from our various backgrounds and parts of the world.

This was a group focused on the strict definition of tenkara and also on the culture around genryu fishing.  What does this mean?  This means fishing for trout and char in mountain streams with a fixed line rod and Japanese kebari patterns. The genryu culture aspect meant we were going to hike up streams (often in the water) and try to get to places where very few anglers venture. In addition, we were going to do some foraging, some fish harvesting, and some drinking all while spending time bonding in the mountains.

Adam Rieger FA19 - Lessons Learned in the Rockies - Water

The streams we visited in the park were still experiencing melt out, but were at a point where it was subsiding.  This meant the headwaters still had high flows but most of the streams dropped significantly where there were now “edges” of runs or pools that could be fished with unweighted kebari patterns. The key to fishing without weight was to find these “slow” or “quiet” spots and get the fly there and “lure” the fly in some fashion to get the fish to notice the fly before it got swept out.  Easier said than done!  

I was fortunate to get some mentoring from my first mentor in tenkara, Adam Klagsbrun, and also to get a nice chunk of time on-stream with Go Ishii. Not only have him coach me, but also to watch him do what he does! In addition, I got time to watch the others in the group fish. All were serious tenkara anglers with serious time spent studying and practicing the craft. Some even having done it in Japan. I will try in words to describe some of my key learning points.

Line Length

With a decent amount of trees and brush on the banks of these streams, and roaring currents the quiet spots you needed to cast to were most likely on the opposite bank.  Sometimes this was not far, but most of the time it was far enough to need to cast line longer than your rod.  In deciding on a rig, I learned that there is an “optimal” line length for most tenkara rods and that length is about a meter or so longer than the rod. 

I mostly fished my Shimano Pack Tenkara which has a long length of about 330 cm – so my line length was somewhere in the zone of around 430 cm. If I went much longer than that, once I added tippet (we will get to that in a minute) then it would become too difficult to hold the line off the water and get the fly to stay long enough in the quiet pockets. If I went much shorter than that then my casting options would be limited.  

Adam Rieger FA19 - Lessons Learned in the Rockies - Adam

Could I have just used a longer rod and shortened the line?  Of course. Go Ishii fished his favorite rod the Rinfu at 450 cm, yet he still went with line longer than his rod, fishing probably about 5.5 meters of line. Why still longer? More reach, but the longer rod did mean in some places there was not an opening large enough and he would have to change his location to make the cast, just as I did with my rod. Perhaps it balanced out in terms of fishing ease between my rod and his?

If you have trouble casting line this length ratio on your rods I suggest you practice as it is a good place to be and will open up more fishing opportunities. If location and situation require a shorter line, doing that will be no problem.

Tippet Length

I usually fish here on the east coast about an arms length of tippet which is probably about 2-3 feet. In Colorado, I added an additional foot or two. Why? The tippet length was critical in the drape (or Otsuri) equation.

Adam Rieger FA19 - Lessons Learned in the Rockies - Kneeling

My usual length of tippet did not allow me to keep the fly in the quiet zone long enough before the current moved it out of the zone. It also did not give me enough time to also let the fly sink a little and pulse it once or twice before leaving the quiet water. That extra foot or two left more tippet slack in the spot I was casting to and that slack was critical for adding a few extra moments for the fly to stay there and be seen and taken by a fish. 

Sasoi or “Luring” the Fly

Because the water was fast and fishing unweighted flies, we were targeting tiny quiet pockets of water and our flies were staying near the surface. The fish were resting near the bottom so the fly had to both stay in the zone long enough but also had to grab their attention. Often the dead drift did not cut it and we had to “tell” the fish our fly was there. This is where pulsing the fly was important. The added tippet both helped keep the fly in the quiet water longer but also allowed for the fly to sink to add a pulse or two. This was often the difference between catching a fish or not.

Downstream Presentations

I had to sometimes fish downstream because of the “geography” of the quiet spot. As I did it, I started to notice I was enticing and getting more fish. It was explained to me that being able to keep the fly longer in the quiet zone was the key. Beyond tippet length, one other way to do that is to cast downstream and on a tight line let the fly drift slower than the current. This makes “noise” in the water and animates the fly like pulsing does and also make the fly seem like something the fish can get. 

Adam Rieger FA19 - Lessons Learned in the Rockies - Fishing

The issue is slack and ability to get hook sets. It is very hard, but you have to resist the urge to set the hook and try to instead push your hand/wrist forward a touch. A centimeter’s move on your hand’s part translates down the rod to be much more. That slack allows the fish not to feel tension and turn with the fly, hooking themselves. This is hard, but keep it in mind when doing this type of presentation.

False Downstream Presentations

Go Ishii showed me this concept during one of our times fishing together. You cast across or even slightly upstream and then position your rod tip upstream of spot you casted toward. This angles the line like it is a downstream presentation. This then sort of becomes like casting below your position, and keeps the fly a tad longer in the zone. That tiny bit of extra time can be enough.

Stiff Hackled Wets

These flies were the ticket. I did use some soft hackled flies with much success as well but they tended to be shorter stiffer soft hackles. The stiffer hackles helped you “grip” the water in the quiet places and hold the fly there longer. A nymph or fly without hackle would never have stayed long enough in the quiet spots or allowed you to keep all the line off the water. I also think stiff hackles make more “noise” in the water in terms of vibrations, similar to that of an insect, that fish can pick up on.

Adam Rieger FA19 - Lessons Learned in the Rockies - Trout

Tenkara “hang outs” like this are just amazing ways to learn from others and to learn from doing. My fishing skills have been impacted greatly from these few days. I hope more of these types of gatherings pop up in and around the country for serious tenkara anglers to meet and learn. I know many of us do this for solace but the occasional social outing with potential mentors is priceless. Online chats, books and even videos can only do so much, there is simply no substitute for time on the water with those more experienced and skilled than yourself.


Adam Rieger works for a wine and sake importer and distributor in New York and New Jersey. He lives in the Croton River watershed about an hour north of New York City, but travels the tri-state area hunting brook trout whenever his wife lets him. Follow his fly tying videos on YouTube.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks. Great “how to” lesson. I am a first year Tenkara Angler who has not quite mastered tying Tenkara flies and manipulating these flies in such a way that attract trout. You article has me thinking I need to try shorter hackles and also try stiff hackles.

    1. Welcome to the sport of tenkara Bob! I’m glad you liked reading this article. It’s kind of funny, the most popular articles here at TA are gear-centric, yet the articles that explain how to use that gear usually go underappreciated.

      Personally, I love stiff hackle kebari (look up “futsu kebari” on Google for inspiration). If you’re really interested in learning how to fish tenkara kebari, two of the best resources in my opinion are:

      How to Fool Fish with with Simple Flies (Book)
      http://karasuproductions.com/how-to-fool-fish-with-simple-flies/

      Manipulations (Video)
      https://www.discovertenkara.com/manipulations-vol-1/

      Both are premium (paid) content from DIscover Tenkara and aren’t necessarily inexpensive. However, if you really want to shorten that learning curve and haven’t checked out at least one of them, you owe it to yourself to splurge a little.

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