I’m a guitar player, a mediocre one — ok, maybe just plain bad. But I’m fond of using guitar analogies when I talk about tenkara. One thing that happens to folks like me struggling to learn the guitar is that you reach a certain point and get stuck in a rut. You’ve learned a few basic chords, some simple riffs and easy songs and are happy to have made it that far. You can make some noise that sounds passingly like music. If you’re just a casual guitar player, it’s very easy to get stuck in that place. It’s fun enough that you can linger there for years without making much progress. Eventually though you may feel like you’re spinning your wheels and get a little bored with what you’re capable of. Maybe you don’t even realize you’re stuck until you see some 10-year-old kid on YouTube that’s playing like Eddie Van Halen in his prime and you’re still struggling with the Ramones.
The same thing happens in my fishing from time to time. It can get stale. I’m fishing in the same places, in the same ways, with the same flies. I’m catching fish and doing pretty well and feeling accomplished. Over the years I’ve learned that when I’m feeling even slightly accomplished, that’s exactly when I need to mix things up and try something new because I’m getting complacent, stuck in a rut, and my progress has stalled.
In my guitar playing when things feel stale I turn to YouTube and learn some new song. Learning a new song can do wonders. Not because of the song itself per se, but because often a new tune uses chords and scales in ways that I haven’t mastered. Maybe it introduces new chords or just new ways of playing familiar chords. Even if I don’t fully digest the things I’m investigating, by pushing myself I learn something and make some progress – and at the very least my playing gets a much-needed injection of novelty; I feel reinvigorated and I have more fun.
So how about some concrete examples that involve fishing? In the spring of 2018 I visited Arkansas to participate in the Sowbug Roundup as a vendor (in my guise as Three Rivers Tenkara) and as a fly tyer. The main trout fishing in the area is in the White River. The White River is big and it’s not the kind of place that I’d normally fish. I must admit I was not super excited at the prospect of fishing it. The White River was a bit out of my comfort zone and so it was daunting. But after a just a little while I started to figure some things out. I started to learn to recognize holding water in a stretch of river that at first looked featureless and I started catching some fish.
After a day of fishing tenkara on a large river was I anywhere near figuring it all out? Not at all. But I was becoming intrigued and my fishing world was expanding. I was learning things about reading water that were new to me. And all sorts of ideas about new rigging schemes were infecting my brain. In short, I was learning and being mentally stimulated because of the novelty of my situation. I was adding more tools to my tenkara tool box.
So, what are some things that you can do to break out of the box or get out of a rut?
Fish Some New Water
One of the easiest things to do is to fish some new water. It need not be as extreme as my example of going from my usual small mountain streams to the White River. It may just be a new mountain stream. Being on new water can be a real rut buster. Some of the streams that I fish often are so familiar that I’m fishing on auto-pilot. I fish the same spots and for all I know, catch the same fish. Which is okay and enjoyable. But it is not the most mindful way of fishing and does little for my progress as an angler. It’s like driving home from work. You get home and you don’t even remember driving.
A new stream will require some more focused mental effort, you’ll have to do a little more work to unlock it than you do on that same familiar stretch. You won’t be able to rely on familiarity with the known fish lies and holding water, you’ll have to use your water reading skills. And that’s always good for learning a thing or two.
“Changing of contexts … generates imagination and creativity as well as new energy.”Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness
Fish New Types of Water
Recently I took a short Pennsylvania fishing road trip. I did some small mountain stream fishing in the Laurel Highlands of southwest Pennsylvania and then headed to Spring Creek in central Pennsylvania. Spring Creek is a different animal than the small mountain streams of southwest Pennsylvania. I learned to fly fish on Spring Creek and I’ve spent lots of time fishing it over the years and most of that fishing, except during hatches, was with nymphs. Fishing a limestone spring creek was a nice contrast to fish the mountain streams. If I was feeling like a master of tenkara techniques on the mountain streams, but I was not on Spring Creek.
When I came across some of the sporadic rising trout I could often lure them with kebari fished in a traditional manner. And I even coaxed a few with kebari and wet flies while blind prospecting. However, when I switched to fixed-line nymphing, well that’s when things got amazing. Luckily, I had that tool in my tool box to pull out when I needed it. Could I have continued to fish kebari and wet flies and catch fish? Yes. But switching to nymphs was more productive at that time and in that place.
At other times I’ve had good success with kebari and tenkara techniques on Spring Creek – and perhaps given some time I’d have figured out some a way to make them work better on that trip too. And that’s the learning advantage of a new type of stream – it makes you try new things or tweak old things when the old standby doesn’t work well.
If you normally fish big water head to some small streams. If you’re a small stream guy go to some bigger rivers. When you’re going from a small stream to a big you’ll have the chance to practice some long line casting that you may not normally. If you’re going the other way, you’ll get to hone you casting in tight cover and your stealth. Go to some spring creeks if you’re mountain stream guy and vice versa. Try some still water. Or warm water. The point is that different kinds of water may demand different types of skills and techniques.
Fish Different Types of Flies
Break out of your fly comfort zone. If you’re a bead head nymph guy give wet flies and kebari a chance. Take all the nymphs out of your boxes and make the kebari work. It took me a few years to get any kind of confidence in kebari and wet flies. It finally took a commitment to put away the nymphs for a season for me to learn how to have consistent success. And of course, that can work the other way too. If you’re a kebari guy, try some nymphs. You may be surprised. On one stream I fish I never realized how many wild browns it had until I started fishing it deeper with nymphs one day as opposed to the kebari I’d been using for the wild brookies.
Dry flies will cast differently than kebari, which will be different than nymphs. Big flies will cast differently than small flies. So, casting different flies will make you work on casting skills too.
Try Some Different Lines
Every time I put a tapered furled line on a tenkara rod I smile. They are so darn awesome to cast. It’s almost like they cast themselves. Same goes for the ultralight floating tenkara lines that I make from Euro-nymph lines. What a joy. And then after I’ve been fishing those for a while and I go back to a light level line I’m astonished by the way I can keep the line off the water and the delicacy of the delivery. I like different types of lines and prefer different types for different conditions and flies. But just the feel of casting a different type of line is a fun twist and will make explore different ways of casting and fishing.
Fish in Different Conditions
Make a point to get out at different times of day, or year and under different weather conditions. Fish in the rain when the water is up and off color. If you haven’t done this before you may be in for the time of your life. I’ve had some transcendent fishing in high water (this is a time to put on that streamer, woolly bugger or ginormous kebari)
The same stretch of water, on the same day can be like different worlds at different times of day. I’ve seen seemingly dead water come to life at dusk and fish show up everywhere even though you’d swear there weren’t any around.
Try Different Techniques
Short-line nymphing, dry fly fishing, dry and dropper… two nymph rigs… downstream wet flies… popper fishing on a floating line….
I am never disappointed when I delve into a new technique. I got a book on French nymphing curious to know what it was all about. Even though I won’t employ the same exact gear and rigging as described in the book it was still a great read. By learning what problems French nymphing was designed to solve and then learning how those guys solved them and why they do what they do I learned more about my quarry and I got ideas of things to do in tenkara.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few”Shunryū Suzuki – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice
So, I could go on and on. The take away is that there is a lot to learn in fly fishing and tenkara and when you start to feel like you know it all, or when things start to feel stale, then maybe it’s time to explore a little bit. Solving new problems, having new experiences and fostering new ways of looking at things are good for your brain and for your tenkara.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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