Trip Report by Brad Trumbo
“Are you comfortable taking your rig up there?” I asked Derek as we peered up the 30-percent grade ahead.
“Oh yeah!” He replied, as he dropped the 2000-model Jeep Cherokee into four-wheel-drive and dumped the clutch. Water had eroded a formidable crevasse across the old Forest Service road, but the Jeep lurched ahead. Contorting and clawing its way across the gap, the rig leapt up the far side, seemingly excited by the challenge, and successfully conquering the only obstacle separating us from a trailhead leading into one of Appalachia’s brook trout strongholds.
In February, 2018, I returned from the Pacific Northwest to my Virginia home for a brief visit with family. The weather was unusually warm and attractive and the Blue Ridge Mountains were calling. I moved to Washington State in 2011 where I reside, working as a fish and wildlife biologist, but I will forever be faithful to and mourn my separation from my Appalachian roots.
Derek Blyer has been one of my best friends for nearly twenty years, and we share a passion for deciduous forests and adipose fins. Hence, some time on the water is not an option, but a requirement when my boots land on Appalachian soil. Although I brought a rod for just such an occasion, I decided to head down to the local fly shop and grab a couple choice flies.
I had read about tenkara fishing for the past five years, but had little legitimate reason to pursue it in my area of Washington, as headwater fishing is generally prohibited for the protection of Endangered Species Act-listed salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. Furthermore, I have a cabinet full of custom rods of my own design, making it even less appropriate to buy a new one, but rational thought can overcome passion and curiosity only so long. With a small assortment of flies in hand, I strolled by the Tenkara USA display and mistakenly hesitated to glance at the different rods. The end result goes without saying.
The simplicity of tenkara fishing hooked me immediately, and as Derek and I put boots to the trail, I carried only the rod, line, tippet, clippers, and a tiny box with four classic patterns of nymph and dry flies. I knew this stream well from a decade of monitoring, researching, and fishing wild brook trout populations in Virginia. I also knew that a fifty-degree day in February would set us up for a fine morning.
Working upstream, we approached the first long pool carefully, sizing it up for delivering a short, soft presentation without spooking fish while positioning. The stream cut into a steep ridge, revealing a granite outcrop doused brilliantly in green moss that shadowed exposed bedrock about six feet below the water surface. The upstream run rolled into the head of the pool and met the granite at a near perpendicular angle. Flow seams and minor eddies flanked the flow, deflected downstream and sweeping the bedrock clean. Working along the right side of the pool in protracted fashion, the last fifteen feet were gained on hands and knees.
A number twelve elk hair caddis served as my strike indicator with a number sixteen red copper John trailing about fourteen inches below. A soft flip of the tenkara rod laid the flies out smoothly about mid-pool, and as the caddis gently bobbed into the tailout, a fat, orange-bellied brook trout lazily rose up and inhaled the caddis. A novice to the rod, I swiftly snatched the caddis from its mouth, and recast for an immediate repeat performance, thereby educating both the fish and myself.
Several casts later, the Copper John enticed a young, brightly freckled brookie from the tailout, which made it to shore. As the fish slid softly into the shallow water where I knelt, I admired the brilliance of the pink and blue spotting. I have always found brook trout to be most attractive during winter, possibly because the terrestrial world can be so drab at that time.
Derek followed up at the head of the pool with a few casts into the flow, sweeping a small prince nymph into a divine dead drift as it entered deeper water. The presentation was met with alacrity as a brookie snatched it up. This fish a was a bit larger, between six and eight inches, exercising the tenkara rod significantly more than my previous fish. We landed approximately five fish from the pool and missed several others before deciding we had disturbed them enough for one day.
The first hole set a high bar for the morning. With luck, a trend continued as we cherry-picked the best runs, pools, and pocket water. Fish were hungry and more active with the warmer weather, but fishing was still indicative of early spring conditions. While brookies quickly hunt down a good meal most of the year, the frigid water being fed by fresh snow melt required proper drifts through prime feeding lanes to produce a hookup, not to mention the added challenge of close quarters to present the fly cleanly.
A twenty-five-year veteran of fly fishing, I have experienced many rod types, lengths, weights, and purposes, and built in the ballpark of forty for customers, friends, and myself. I have come to enjoy technical fly fishing as part of the attraction of the game, but the minimal tackle and intimate proximity required of the tenkara style brought the purity of headwater stream fishing back into focus. Tenkara fishing could just have easily originated in Appalachia as it did Japan. The style fits Appalachian stream features and fish behaviors perfectly, and brings the angler closer to the fish and the natural environment; the fundamental draw of fly fishing.
Derek and I rounded out the morning on a staircase cascade with the sun breaking through the clouds, warm on our backs. We broke down our gear, found the trail, and strolled out among the terrain we had grown to love and understand, and my deep homesickness began welling up. Out west, I repress my homesickness by stalking mule deer and cutthroat, and chasing pheasant with my setters, but nothing can replace a timbered Appalachian draw seeping the cold lifeblood of wild, native brook trout beneath the dendritic canopy of hardwoods and white pine.
When folks out west ask what there is to love about the east, I respond that it’s simply Appalachia. Simply perfect for tenkara.
Brad Trumbo lives in southeast Washington State and services the public as a fish and wildlife biologist. In his spare time, Brad volunteers with Pheasants Forever, pens tales of outdoor pursuits, builds (and sometimes uses) custom fly rods, and reminisces of his Appalachian homeplace. www.bradtrumbo.com
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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