Article by Jack Harford
Let me set the stage; I live in Indianapolis. There are no mountain streams in central Indiana. The closest tailwater is a 90 minute drive. There is a pond and a creek two blocks from our home both of which hold bluegills, bass, crappies, rock bass and a few catfish and carp. I like fixed line fly fishing with a tenkara rod.
The pond, previously known as “Fishless Pond” is the test ground for new flies, rods, methods and techniques. I say previously known, because up until last year it was quite difficult to land many (sometimes any) fish in that pond. At that time, I was using a three or five weight rod, making 40-50 foot casts, and mostly using foam floating flies. Results were not good. Last year things were different. The pond gave up more fish in 2017 than the previous ten years combined.
Three factors lead to this difference:
- Tenkara Rod
- Soft Hackle and Wet Flies
- Systematic technique
As I pick up on things tenkara from different sources, it seems to me that original fishers developing tenkara techniques and equipment did so out of practicality. In other words, what process will land the most fish in the shortest period in the mountain streams? The fish living in these streams provided life and livelihood for the tenkara fishers. This pragmatic approach of tenkara early adaptors is quite interesting as well as essential to the spirit of tenkara fishing.
The pragmatic approach, out of necessity, learns from what “has been done,” but does not depend on it. It is not satisfied with what everyone else is doing; rather it looks for ways to adapt methods, techniques, and equipment to the current situation to bring optimal results. Pragmatism also lends itself to new gear, innovation, and fresh techniques.
I have not been in a situation where my livelihood, family, or their next meal is dependent on whether or not I land fish. Perhaps a small percentage of those reading this have had that kind of experience. The early tenkara anglers were in such a situation and therefore looking for effective ways to catch fish.
These days it is easy to romanticize about the beauty of the mountain streams, the simplicity of the tenkara equipment (though is seems to get more complicated each year), or the beauty of small fish on a glorious day. This is a much different situation than the one facing the early tenkara angler.
The Tenkara Rod
Frankly, I had a hard time adjusting to a tenkara rod. I fished a couple of times with friends tenkara rods, but did not find if very satisfying. Kelly Galloup, in talking about the push for faster stiffer fly rods said, “Most of us have an ego bigger than Montana.” My name is Jack… and I am a castaholic! I love casting a fly rod, shooting out 40, 50 feet or more line. The stimulation felt by a great cast, that moment of mind/body unity, strokes the ego in marvelous ways. Unfortunately, it does not always help one land more fish.
Tenkara oozes with minimalism. Minimalism requires limits, restrictions, and discipline. Even though I like the philosophy of minimalism, I am not so keen about limitations. My ego desires the constant stroking and joy of long and beautiful casts. Addictions are difficult to break. Yet, I found, from a purely pragmatic view, that adapting new equipment, different flies, and innovative techniques can lead to greater results.
First, a few lessons learned from fixed line fishing with the tenkara rod:
- Long casts with a heavy line scare fish the whole length of the cast. After the first cast, all subsequent casts are in disturbed water. (more on this in systematic technique)
- It is easier to detect subtle takes with a shorter line.
- It is much easier to set the hook when the fly is closer to you.
- With a shorter line, you can often see the fish take the fly.
Soft Hackle & Wet Flies
The second factor has to do with the flies. Soft hackle flies and some traditional wet flies have become a part of my arsenal since meeting Davy Wotton and studying his DVD, “Wet Fly Ways.” Also, Sylvester Nemes book, “The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles” is a great resource for gaining an understanding of the value of Soft Hackle Flies. Davy and Sylvester are strong advocates of these flies and their effectiveness in seducing trout. Here in Indiana bluegills, crappie, and even bass like to catch soft hackle flies.
The Green Tail Caddis, a Davy Wotton pattern, was the most successful in my first year of wet fly angling. A fellow angler invited me to his farm pond with the expectation of some large bluegills and the expectation was a reality. I had been trying for years to land a 10” bluegill with no success (even at this same pond). On this outing, about a half hour in a 10.5-inch bluegill latched on to a Green Tail Caddis and about 30 minutes later I landed his 11.25-inch big brother. I will often use a two fly setup when fishing the Fishless Pond. This gives the bluegills and crappies two chances to catch a fly.
Other soft hackle flies and wet flies that have been successful are:
When fishing a two or three fly set up, I like to use the wet fly technique of dancing the top fly in the surface film. This acts like a floating insect struggling in the water and the commotion attracts fish to the trailing fly. Sometimes pulsing the flies under the surface just a slow steady retrieve is needed.
The third factor is developing a systematic technique. Again, I credit Davy Wotton’s insights with helping me to understand this. In “Wet Fly Ways” Davy elaborates on making a few casts to an area and then moving about a leader’s length up or down stream to make the next 3 or 4 casts. Casts are landing in fresh water on a continual basis, not constantly “lining” the fish, and disturbing the water.
The 3-4 Method: Make 3 casts and then take four steps and make the next 3 casts, moving around the pond. A fisher can make it all the way around a small pond in an evening. A couple of times around the pond will reveal a few hot spots to hit when you have little time and a big urge to fish.
Here’s my setup:
- 12’ Tenkara rod (Iwana)
- 12’ orange level line (4.5) attached to the lilian with a slip knot and ending with a figure 8 knot
- 3’ mono 4x tippet material attached above the figure 8 knot with a Davy knot
- 30 inches of 4x attached to the existing tippet with a double surgeon’s knot, leave a 6’ tag on the down side.
- Dropper fly is a wet fly, soft hackle, caddis emerger, Harford House Fly, etc.
- Point fly – a bead head soft hackle or nymph
Inherit the pragmatic approach of early Tenkara anglers and find out what works for you. Let me know how it goes – firstname.lastname@example.org. Tight lines and good luck!!
Jack Harford is the editor of the Armchair Angler, a monthly newsletter of the Indianapolis Fly Casters. He began fly fishing as therapy and spiritual practice of engagement with nature. Jack has tied flies at the Sowbug Roundup and several other shows. He is enjoying the philosophy and lessons learned from tenkara.
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