Article by Dave Morris
In early 2020, I began my first season of tenkara, fishing the Driftless trout streams of Southeastern Minnesota. It was a year at the end of a long journey.
I began fly fishing decades ago on ponds and small impoundments in the Kansas City area. Starting with a 7-weight rod and floating line, I spent evenings and weekends casting for bass and bluegill. Of course, my rod collection grew to include 5-weight and 2-weight rods with reels, extra spools and a variety of lines. Next came fly tying and the accumulation of tubs of material. Books and videos filled a long shelf. Tying a fly, reading the water, making the cast, and netting a bass was one of the quiet joys of life amid days of work and stress.
Then, I retired and moved to a lake deep in the woods of the Minnesota Arrowhead. A lake populated with walleye! Still, I fly fished. Armed with a new 9-weight rod, I cast for spring steelhead in rivers rushing into Lake Superior. I bought a float tube, tied large gaudy flies for northern pike, and drifted among loons on summer evenings. Occasionally, I bushed my way to a local stream and cast for brook trout, but spin fishing on a lake from a boat, kayak or float tube was my common choice.
My first notice of tenkara? Several years ago, I was wandering through the small fly fishing section of an outfitter in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and came upon a long telescoping rod made by Tenkara USA. I gave it no notice and thought, “this is a useless piece of equipment.”
In 2019, at age 75, I reconciled myself to the realities of a physical life lived at the end of the road deep in the woods. It was time to give up my chainsaw. I moved to an apartment in the tropics of Southeastern Minnesota. I had heard of the Driftless, but never paid any attention. Now, I was in the midst of it. For the first time in my fly fishing life, trout streams would be my primary destination.
I began reading, watching YouTube videos, and searching the internet. For all the reasons so often recited, I decided to add tenkara to my fly fishing repertoire. I bought a TenkaraBum Traveler 39 from Chris Stewart and began tying Killer Bugs and sakasa kebari. In the Spring of 2020, in Forestville State Park on the South Branch of the Root River, I made my first tenkara cast and snagged in a tree high overhead. I had a lot to learn. By the end of the summer, I had completed the trifecta of brown, brook and rainbow trout, all caught on tenkara. I never touched my Western fly rods.
For what they may be worth, here are some reflections, suggestions, and lessons from my first tenkara season.
For most of the summer, I fished only the TenkaraBum Traveler 39, shortening and lengthening it as appropriate for the stream width. Its minimum length is 10’ 6” and the maximum is 12’ 11”. Toward the end of the summer, I added a Suntech Keiryu Sawanobori 53 to reach the far bank of some of the wider streams.
I began with level lines at 12 feet with 3 feet of 5x tippet. Over the summer I experimented with furled lines and even tied my own clear tapered line beginning with 0x tippet. By fall, I had returned to level line as my first choice.
I tied mostly Killer Bug and sakasa kebari variations on #12 and #14 hooks. As the summer progressed, I added copper ribbing to weight the flies. During the heat of August and early September, I tied bead head variations. I also moved to eyeless hooks, which allowed me to tie a modestly larger eye that made changing flies much easier on stream.
Windy days, 15 mph and higher, are common in Southeastern Minnesota. Each morning, I checked the forecast for wind speed and direction, then chose a stream that might offer some protection. I also kept an eye out for any daily thunderstorm pattern and chose a stream outside the probable track.
The Minnesota DRM and the National Trout Center in Preston, MN, offer amazing online resources for finding and evaluating suitable streams with public access. Before each trip, I printed a map and checked Google or Apple maps, including the satellite images. The aerial views are particularly useful for identifying streams flowing through open fields, where walking and casting are easier.
Early on, I recognized the need for an on-stream fishing with a guide experienced in tenkara. I found Mike Warren, Trout Buddy Driftless Guides, in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. He spent an afternoon with me, and graciously answered all my questions, corrected my casting technique, introduced me to the Killer Bug, and gave a short class on understanding a Driftless trout stream.
At 75, my gear choices are dictated in large part by age. I have two sling packs, one minimalist from Zimmerbuilt, and the other with a bit more capacity by Patagonia.
My two critical items of gear are: hiking staff and polarized, magnifier sunglasses. I am no longer nimble, if I ever was. Walking along a stream on uneven ground, with sink holes and hidden drop offs, is a serious challenge. My hiking staffs are Kingfisher and TyRoam. I fish with the hiking staff in my left hand and tenkara rod in my right.
For sunglasses, I took hooks and tippet with me to LensCrafters to make sure the magnification worked for tying knots. One final piece of essential gear is an emergency whistle. Although I’ve always had cell phone coverage on the streams I’ve fished, I carry a whistle as backup. At the very least, a cow might wander over and rescue me.
I ventured forth on even the hottest days and caught fish. I’ve already had a skin cancer, so I’m covered from head to toe — broad brimmed hat, neck gaiter, long sleeved shirt, sun gloves, and lightweight, multi-pocket pants. On the first trip to a stream, when I don’t know the walking conditions, I wear hiking/wading boots. On the next trip, if footing is not difficult, I switch to mesh wet wading shoes. I have a pair of Patagonia wading pants, but rarely find the need for them.
I had no real experience with trout streams, so I read Dave Hughes’ Reading Trout Water and Daniel Galhardo’s Tenkara: A Complete Guide. These books, along with Mike Warren’s instruction, got me started. In the beginning, I cast to every inch of the streams I fished. This helped me improve my casting and taught me where I would not catch fish. As the summer progressed, I concentrated on all the places accepted wisdom predicted would be the location of trout, and, sure enough, that’s where I caught fish.
I highly recommend a fishing journal. Not only will journaling create memories, but information on weather, rod, line, flies and water temperature can become a valuable database for future trips.
Some of my most fun days were ones with unexpected experiences, which had nothing to do with catching trout, such as the afternoon an exuberant black Lab joined me along a stream and insisted on swimming in every likely spot before I could make a cast. Later, I learned from a DNR agent that the dog adopted everyone who fished that stretch of stream. You never know what experience awaits.
The Driftless is an amazing place, and I am blessed to live within an hour’s drive of hundreds of miles of publicly accessible trout streams. Fishing them is all the more special because it has led to the discovery of tenkara. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to pass through the last years of my fly fishing life.
Dave Morris is retired and lives in the Driftless area of Southeastern Minnesota. When he is not fishing, he enjoys reading, writing, sketching and baking bread.
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