Southern Hospitality: Alabama’s Redeye Bass

Southern Hospitality:
Alabama’s Redeye Bass
by Chris Lynch

As a kid, I never really did much fishing. It was not a family pastime of ours. My first exposure to fly fishing was at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico when I was 16, and I absolutely loved it. Why I didn’t further pursue it in the next 15 years, is anybody’s guess.

When I moved to Montgomery, Alabama (I’m active duty United States Air Force), a new coworker of mine was a fly fishing nut. I started hanging out with him, and the fire was lit. While reading up on everything I also discovered tenkara… So, against his suggestions, I got a simple tenkara setup (Daiwa Kiyose) along with a “western” fly fishing outfit (Echo 4-weight).

Fast forward three years; I’m fishing almost exclusively tenkara, although I still have a (different) 4-weight rod and reel setup for when I feel the itch.

Alabama is NOT what you think of when somebody mentions tenkara. It just is not. Most anglers here have no clue what it is, what it means, or why you would use it. Most non-anglers are even more confused by it. In my local fly fishing circles, I’m “the tenkara guy,” and the source of a lot of ribbing, but I have managed to convert a few over in the process.

So, what do I target down here in the Deep South, when I don’t have trout?

Redeye bass!

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To further specialize in my tiny niche of tenkara in Alabama, my favorite species to pursue are the little-known group of bass that are native to the Mobile basin, known simply as “redeyes.” In 2013, redeyes in Alabama were split from the single Micropterus coosae species into four separate but unique species based on their respective watersheds and slight morphological differences: Micropterus coosae (Coosa River), Micropterus cahabae (Cahaba River), Micropterus tallapoosae (Tallapoosa River), and finally the Micropterus warriorensis (Warrior River). There is also the Micropterus chattahoochae in the, you guessed it, ‘Hooch, but it’s essentially extirpated from any flows within Alabama, and found exclusively in Georgia now.

These bass are small (8 to 12-inch average adult length), need clean, flowing water, and are very spunky, eagerly attacking topwater flies such as dries, poppers, and bugs, or even streamers. They also are mostly found in beautiful places, not unlike trout. This has given them the popular name of “Bama Brookies,” for the obvious similarities they share with everybody’s favorite native Eastern trout (char!).

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My first time on a redeye stream (in the Coosa drainage, near Mount Cheaha, Alabama’s highest point), I landed several, and started a bad addiction. These fish are so much fun to chase and catch! That was in summer of 2016, and I’ve since caught all four Mobile basin species, and intend to do it again this summer.

My usual tackle for redeyes has evolved as I’ve gotten more specialized with them as my favorite fish to target. I’ve found a softer, full flex rod with sufficient length, is my preferred method. Rods like the Daiwa Seiryu-X 45, Nissin Royal Stage or Pro-Spec in 6:4, or a longer Air Stage (390) work very well. Realistically, most redeye streams in Alabama are open enough to allow casting a longer rod like these, but there are some tributaries where a shorter one comes in handy.

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Redeyes eat a lot of the same kind of things that trout do; crawfish, insect larvae, and smaller fish. In the early spring or fall, when water temperatures are still a little on the low side, you will get most of your bites sub-surface with nymphs or streamers. In those conditions I have had good success with large (size 6-10) nymphs and kebari, like Chris Stewart’s “Keeper Kebari.” This is about where the traditional tenkara aspect of chasing redeyes ends for me though… so you may want to put on your blinders if you aren’t ready for some blasphemy!

In the hotter months, which are typically April to October in Alabama, the most fun way to catch a redeye is on the top. Whether this is dries, poppers, hoppers… it’s all about big (and often) yellow flies. Redeyes eat a ton of terrestrials, so I’ve had great days where I had a giant foam hopper on all day and it just got destroyed. However, they still act like trout in that if you miss a hookset, you might as well give up on that run, as they’ll be spooked out. These are not dumb sunfish, you still need to be on your game! One of the most popular, if not the most religiously-celebrated, flies for redeye is the Booglebug, a popper made right here in Birmingham, Alabama. People like to say you can use any color you want for redeyes, as long as it’s yellow. This has been pretty accurate from my experience.

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32884867_2000967323246619_4397607453777199104_n.jpgA good buddy of mine, Matt Lewis, recently published a book, (THE book, by the way), about these guys, Fly Fishing for Redeye Bass,” and it is the best single source of information if you have any desire to learn more about them or attempt to catch one for yourself. Matt has helped to organize a Redeye Bass Slam challenge where you can either target the four Mobile basin species, or go after all of the recognized species in the South, which comes out to seven if you count the Altamaha and Bartram’s.

A lot of what Matt is trying to do is bring attention to these awesome and unique fish, which have quite specific habitat requirements and can bring a lot of fun to anglers. Currently, Alabama has some of the most relaxed environmental protection laws in the country, while hosting some of the most diverse and rich habitat. Fortunately, we have some very active riverkeeper organizations here in the state who are working very hard to raise awareness about these issues, and fight against the many abuses of our resources.

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So, while Alabama is definitely more closely associated with college football than fixed line fly fishing, the various species of energetic redeye bass you’ll find within the Yellowhammer State will definitely provide enough southern hospitality to make your tenkara rod feel right at home.

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This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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Tenkara Fly Fishing on a Pacific Isle

Tenkara Fly Fishing on a Pacific Isle
by Rory E. Glennie

From its birthplace on an island along the far western edge of the Pacific Ocean, tenkara style fly fishing has successfully emigrated to an island along the far eastern edge. Much like the mountainous Japanese birthplace of tenkara, Vancouver Island is blessed with countless waters particularly suited to this style of fly-fishing. Small streams during normal/low summer flows offer good trout fishing opportunities. Streams like the Englishman, Little Qualicum and her Big Qualicum sister, Tsable, Quinsam and Elk rivers come to mind, as do many tiny mountainous headwater flows of larger rivers.

Tiny Deep Green Pools Hold Surprisingly Big Trout

There are some streams I know, where at places you can actually jump across without getting wet. They hold some surprisingly nice trout in the random deep spots. These are without exception pretty trout in pretty surroundings. This is secretive fishing in intimate surroundings. The nature of tenkara fly fishing is much in keeping with the laid-back lifestyle which comes with living on a small island along the Pacific coast of Canada… no rush, take it as it comes.

A tenkara setup is perfectly suited to handle small trout in small streams. By small I mean our wild, native-born Cutthroat and Rainbow trout in the ten to sixteen inch length, in streams where you can easily maneuver into position to bring the fish to hand. These fish most often strike with wild abandon, once. After making the move to your fly and missing it, they seem to get very cagey about rising again anytime soon. The clarity of the water and the natural survival instinct of these wild trout probably collude against the fisher.

Native Born Rainbow Trout Are the Perfect Tenkara Quarry

Zen in the Art of Stealth

Simplicity in tenkara style fly fishing frees your mind to concentrate on becoming one with the environment. Dress in muted Earth tones to blend in. Move with purpose and dexterity so not to alarm your quarry. Cautiously ease into the water only when absolutely necessary. Visualize the rise before making the cast. Meld with the moment… and enjoy the surprise as the shock of reality snaps you back into being when a good trout takes your fly.

Wading Wet is Refreshing on a Hot Day

Summertime flows limit trout to specific habitats; greenish hued pools where you cannot see the bottom. Undercut banks with overhanging bushes. A washed-out hole in the substrate near a partially submerged log. The dark watery cavern next to a log jam. These are the prime spots to sneak up ninja style, and drop in your fly.

The Excitement Quotient

These are hungry trout that are willing to oblige with a solid surface rise to a dry fly. The principal is the same as in using a traditional kebari. Toss the fly up into the perceived hot-spot. One or two quick twitch-hops to enliven the fly, then repeat to cover all the prospective fish holds. Unfortunately for many tenkara fishers, that often means experiencing a close-combat style reaction to this visual stimulus; as none of the muscle twitching excitement of a good fish rising up in a lazy S-bend to suck in the fly is missed.

It takes a modicum of self-control to not yank the fly out of the fish’s mouth… thankfully, with practice, that response can be learned.

This original entry was penned by Rory Glennie, a resident of Vancouver Island, British Columbia who has been fly fishing the mountain streams for wild, native-born trout since 1970. He is the only Canadian member of the Tenkara USA Guide Network and has been a Staff writer for Island Fisherman Magazine since 2009. His work will also appear in the upcoming Spring issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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One Really Big Hole: A Story of Trout and Tenkara at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon

One Really Big Hole.
A Story of Trout and Tenkara at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon
By Rob Worthing, with photos by Kaylan & Phil

“Oh, hell yeah.”

That’s the only logical response when Phil, your best friend from college, calls you up to say he’s got a cabin reserved at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Never mind how he got it – cabin reservations at the canyon’s historic Phantom Ranch book thirteen months in advance and within minutes of opening. After twenty years of talking about fishing the Grand, he’s got reservations. So that’s exactly how I replied. On behalf of both my wife and myself, with zero hesitation.

“Oh, hell yeah.”

THE SOUTH RIM

It’s December, and I’m looking out my window at a really big hole in the ground. Phil, my wife and I are spending the night at Bright Angel Lodge, where the rooms practically fall off Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Tomorrow, we’ll make the seven and a half mile hike down the South Kaibab trail to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch.

The South Rim (Copy)

I’m a little nervous for the hike. It’s been a bit since doing something of this scale. Not like my wife, Kaylan, who just finished both the Camino de Santiago and Appalachian Trail. Or Phil, who is the kind of guy that seems to be giving Father Time the perpetual middle finger by growing stronger with age. So I busy myself by going over gear one last time.

The cabins at Phantom Ranch come stocked with linens and the like. No need to carry shelter, ground pad, or a sleeping bag. Two meals a day and a sack lunch at the ranch dining hall means packing a lot less food, too. Normally, that would make for a pretty light pack. But I’m including a few luxuries on this trip. Weather at the rim is cold this time of year, with snow and ice a real possibility on the upper section of the trail. Days are warmer at the bottom, but still cold when the sun goes down. My base pack weight for a winter trip usually comes in around ten pounds. Items like my favorite thick wool shirt with the collar that stands straight up, heavy wool cargo pants to match, a couple cigars, and a healthy dose of quality Kentucky bourbon quickly jack my pack weight to an estimated sixteen pounds or so.

Then comes the fly fishing gear. There’s trout in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. More importantly, there’s trout in Bright Angel Creek, a tenkara-perfect freestone flowing directly past Phantom Ranch and our cabin. Or at least there used to be tout. For the past decade, the Park Service has undertaken the Bright Angel Creek Trout Reduction Project, an attempt to eradicate non-native brown and rainbows inhabiting the creek. The project is one of conservation, with the ultimate goal of restoring native species like the speckled dace, flannelmouth sucker, and the endangered humpback chub. Years of electroshock harvesting while a weir dam traps fish near the creek’s mouth might mean precious few fish for me in Bright Angel. But I plan on being ready anyway.

For this trip, I pack two precision instruments for tenkara fishing in mountain streams – the Oni Type I, and the Oni Type III. At 390cm and 360cm respectfully, the two rods will allow me to cover a wide variety of conditions, and will back each other up in case of a mishap. I pack the two Oni rods along with the Tenkara Bum 36 (an all-arounder, and my wife’s favorite) in my beloved Zimmerbuilt Rod Roll. A single Tacky fly box filled with Ishigaki and Oni kebari, Red Assed Monkeys, and Grave Diggers slides into a Zimmerbuilt Strap Pack along with #3 green level line and my Arizona state license. Combo hemostat scissors and a spool of 5x tippet complete the kit. No wading gear. Just a pair of waterproof Seal Skin socks to keep my feet dry in case I find it necessary to soak my trail runners.

THE SOUTH KAIBAB

I’m more of a backcountry guy. I usually shy away from the main attractions in our National Park system. The South Kaibab and Phantom Ranch are a bit of a main attraction. Though difficult, they stay busy, both with foot traffic and burro trains. At some point during prep for the trip, I guess I had quelled my enthusiasm a bit thinking about piles of hikers and mule shit. Man, was I wrong. Yes, there is plenty of foot traffic. Yes, there are plenty of piles of mule shit. But the vistas are spectacular, truly one of a kind. I am very glad to be exactly where I am.

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Halfway down, I approach a hiker that looks like he could use a break from his uphill slog. He’s carrying a 4wt Sage in a rod tube strapped to the side of his pack, and I happily provide him with an excuse to stop and rest. “Do some fishing? How was it?”

“Yeah . . . did a lot of fishing . . . but no catching”, he replied in between huffs. “Fished Bright Angel Creek for two days. Didn’t get a thing. They’ve got the weir dam up. Fished below it, too, but no luck. Don’t think there’s much left.”

We finish the hike and check in to our cabin. The crew at Phantom Ranch doesn’t do much to improve the fishing forecast. Plenty of people trying, they say. One guy a couple weeks ago that caught some, but nobody else, they say. Guess I’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice casting.

PHANTOM RANCH AND THE MOUTH OF BRIGHT ANGEL

It takes me a whopping ten minutes to catch my first rainbow trout that night. A respectable 12 incher on a size ten Red Assed Monkey delivered with my Oni Type I. I remember a trip my friend and fellow guide, Erik, and I took to Utah’s famed Green River. The water was blown out from a large release. Nobody else thought it was worth the time, and we were the only ones on the water.

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We slayed it, catching big brown after big brown on heavy wire worms and massive tungsten scud patterns using fixed line nymphing techniques. We couldn’t help but share our enthusiasm with the proprietors of the local fly shop as we bought up more of the same patterns. For the next two weeks, fish reports for the area talked of nothing but wire worms and tungsten scud patterns, all based on two idiots with tenkara rods that reported one good day. I was repeating that lesson on Bright Angel. Whether good news or bad, don’t pay too much attention to what other fishermen have to say. Fish your own game.

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One hearty stew dinner later and we’re racked out in our cabin. We’ve got two nights at the bottom. For tomorrow, we decide on a twelve-mile round-trip hike along Bright Angel Creek via the North Rim section of the South Kaibab Trail to Ribbon Falls. That first fish was near the confluence of the creek and the Colorado River, below the weir dam. I want to know what the rest of this creek holds.

RIBBON FALLS AND THE BODY OF BRIGHT ANGEL

Nothing about this place disappoints. We get an early start, long before the sun’s rays will reach the canyon bottom. Our reward is a cool, mist-laden hike capped with explosions of bight gold where the early light smashes into the highest peaks and faces. By the time we reach Ribbon Falls, it’s warm enough to enjoy the water. I hadn’t taken advantage of the bath house back at the ranch, and shed my clothes for a quick shower, au natural. Bribing Phil and Kaylan to destroy those pics is gonna cost me.

Ribbon Falls and the Body of Bright Angel 1 (Copy)

Dressed and on trail, but not dry for long. I’m right back in Bright Angel Creek, this perfect freestone stream that my tenkara rig and I have all to our selves. Every ten feet of trail seems to bring another fishy hole in sight. The creek is small enough that I manage to do all my fishing from shore. Over and over, I cut off trail and pick my way through the rock and brush on the path to the perfect presentation. I can’t get enough of it. No sense in stashing the rod at this rate. It stays rigged and at the ready, steadied in my right hand with the tip facing aft for the rest of the hike.

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I don’t catch many brown trout. The browns feed heavily on other fish, and seem to be the primary target of the Trout Reduction Program. But there are enough bows, outnumbering the browns 5 to 1 on my line. One thirteen incher comes out of a picture perfect hole, hugging the rock near the tail of the pool, right where I thought he would be. He takes me downstream where a Russian tamarisk blocks me from dropping my rod to turn him. I quickly make the decision to wet the trail runners, ensuring a gentle, successful, humane landing. We might be in the middle of a Trout Reduction Program, but no sense in breaking good habits with bad substitutions. My Seal Skins will once again prove to be worth their weight in gold with these wet shoes.

BRIGHT ANGEL TRAIL

With lush riparian lines along gin clear creeks breaking up layer upon layer of differentially colored rock as old as time, the trail back to the South Rim turns out to be even more impressive than the South Kaibab we took down. My legs turn out to be up to the task of the trip as well. Despite seven and a half miles down, followed by twelve miles along the creek, and a mild hangover to start the morning (turns out they sell beer at Phantom Ranch), we manage to kill the ten-mile uphill grunt in around four hours.

Grand Canyon’s upscale El Tovar restaurant is on the menu for dinner. Steaks and a bottle of red are well earned, and that much more tasty for it. Tomorrow, we fly out. The trip turned out to be beyond great. Better than anticipated, really. And after twenty years, there was a lot of built-up anticipation.

At dinner, I catch myself contemplating the Trout Reduction Program. Back in Utah, we’ve seen successful use of rotenone to clear invasive brown and bows followed by replacement of native Bonneville cutthroat in some of Salt Lake City’s streams. I can understand the need to avoid such a program in the case of Bright Angel, but I can’t help wondering about the limitations of an electroshock strategy. Part of me hopes it isn’t too successful, leaving a few trout to chase. But the better part of me recognizes the importance of such a conservation effort, and looks forward to the day when I can return to Phantom Ranch to chase a not-so-endangered humpback chub on the fly.

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Tenkara In The Last Frontier

Tenkara In The Last Frontier
By Paul Vertrees

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I recently traveled to Alaska with tenkara.  It was epic.  In a way, I really don’t know how to begin to tell this story, because the whole experience was so big, so successful, and so perfect!  It was a trip to a place that has left an indelible mark on my soul, because Alaska has a way of getting under your skin.  I suppose I should start at the beginning, as most good stories must.

I have dreamed of visiting the north since I was a boy, spending many nights sitting up in bed with a flashlight propped against my right shoulder, reading about the north country in Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild, which took place in the Yukon, but could have happened in Alaska just as well.  The fact that I’ve always been drawn to wild, lonely places filled with wild fish only pulled me closer to making a trip to Alaska, but it took until the summer of my 53rd year to put everything together and head out.

Many things converged to make this a special trip, but it couldn’t have happened the way it did without two things…a good traveling partner and some folks on the ground in Alaska, who served as my hosts.  I was blessed with both, and that made all the difference.

My good friend, Shawn, and I are nearly twins.  If viewed from behind, you probably couldn’t tell one of us from the other.  The two of us, on a full stomach, soaking wet and fully clothed, wouldn’t tip the scales to 300 pounds.  We both eat like maniacs, live life to the fullest, and we hit the trail and the water the same way.   We’re both slightly over 50 Colorado natives with a love for backpacking, hunting, and most importantly, backcountry fishing.  Shawn and I have hunted and fished wilderness together in the Colorado Rockies off and on, and he was the one person I knew who would jump at the chance to go to Alaska.  I took a well-deserved week-long break from guiding tenkara trips for Royal Gorge Anglers here in my little town in south-central Colorado, and Shawn was wrapping up a six-week sabbatical from his work in financial and retirement planning.   He had just returned from a fly fishing trip to Iceland, and I had wrapped up a very busy week on the water of the Arkansas River in Bighorn Sheep Canyon, and on tiny creeks in narrow canyons.  It was time, and we had some of it.  Alaska would wait no longer.

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My man on the ground in Interior Alaska, Mike, is a fellow backcountry hunter.  We share the same love of foot- and paddle-powered hunting of game, both big and small.  We also belong to the same hunting and fishing conservation organization, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA).  Mike is doing work as the interim state chairman for Alaska, and I serve as the Pike National Forest representative here in Colorado.   After a year or so of corresponding, we finally met in person at the national BHA Rendezvous in Boise, Idaho, back in 2013.  In the years since Mike and I had talked many times about my hypothetical future first visit to the Last Frontier.  Mike has extensive knowledge of Interior Alaska in and around the central and eastern Alaska Range, which contains some trophy grayling fishing.  Based on seven years of solid tenkara experience here in Colorado and elsewhere, I felt that tenkara would be challenging, but very effective.  What I didn’t realize until we arrived in Alaska was how absolutely perfect tenkara is for arctic grayling, how completely suited for the streams and upper reaches of rivers in the Alaskan interior it is.   Mike was a godsend, and I can’t thank him enough.

Any extended fishing trip over great distances is much more affordable and fun with a traveling partner.  Shawn and I split the cost of shared expenses like ground transportation and lodging.  Since we would be camping for most of this trip, we only required lodging for the first and last nights (the only days we would have a hot shower too!).  Our surprisingly uneventful flights from Denver to Seattle, and from Seattle to Fairbanks landed us in Fairbanks at around 1 AM.  After picking up our rental Jeep, we were on the road east, following the Tanana River in near-dark along the Richardson Highway.  Bleary-eyed, we reached Delta Junction and our room at Fort Greely (I was eligible due to my retired military status) at around 3:30 AM.  We couldn’t really see anything in the way of scenery on the drive from Fairbanks to Delta Junction, because it was the middle of the semi-dark night, but we did manage to see a cow moose and her calf along the highway near North Pole, and a porcupine waddling along the shoulder at Birch Lake.  After checking into our room, we caught up on sleep for a few hours and were ready to travel south later that morning.

My friend, Mike, is the sort of guy who goes out of his way to make you feel at home.  After checking out of our room at Fort Greely, we drove a few miles to Mike’s house on the north side of Delta Junction, which is the terminus of the Alaska Highway, and the crossroads for interior Alaska.  Delta Junction is a “big town” by rural Alaskan standards, with a population of around 1,000.  Mike’s wonderful wife, Christy, had prepared a huge pot of caribou chili, and we sat around the table talking about our trip and wolfing down the chili and pilot bread.  Christy also loaned Shawn and I a copy of Milepost (THE Alaska travel guide), some maps, several field guides for Alaskan plants and animals, and a blueberry picker.   The blueberry picker was an ingenious hand-held contraption used to skim the berries off the tiny branches and twigs of the blueberry bushes.  We would learn later that Christy’s comments about the proliferation of blueberries on the tundra were an understatement!  Mike would accompany us south to the Alaska Range, and we would camp there together along with Mike’s hunting partner, Gary.  Mike and Gary were hunting caribou and moose on subsistence tags so our basecamp would support both our fishing and their hunts

As we drove south from Delta Junction, we began to get an idea of the enormity of Alaska.  I had heard it for years, and I always thought it sounded cliché, that “everything in Alaska is bigger”, but as we pointed our Jeep southward up and over the pass on the east side of Donnelly Dome, we began to understand.  The Delta River valley stretched far and wide for many miles, and none of it contained a house, an antenna, a powerline…nothing but wilderness, except for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline zigzagging across the landscape near the road.  Somewhere far below a bend in the Richardson Highway, several miles to the west, a herd of bison grazed along the edge of the alders, aspens, and black spruce on the other side of the Delta River.  The landscape of Alaska at once isolates you and draws you in.  We were hooked.

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Mike had reserved us a campsite at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campground at Tangle Lakes, which is also the spot on the Denali Highway where the pavement ends.  The remaining hundred-plus miles to the intersection with the Parks Highway at Cantwell, is gravel, with a maximum speed limit of 30 miles-per-hour.  The miles between the Richardson Highway and Tangle Lakes are covered with wide-open interior Alaskan tundra, that country above about 2,700’ elevation that stretches up toward the nearby foothills of the Alaska Range.  It’s very different, in distance from the sun than the treeline in my home state of Colorado, which averages around 11,700 feet!  The wild tundra west of Paxson also contains the Tangle Lakes Archeological District, a 226,000-acre area that holds the densest grouping (over 600 documented sites) of early prehistoric archaeology in Alaska.  Near the Tangle Lakes Campground, alongside the Denali Highway, sits the Tangle River Inn, an off-grid roadhouse that offers travelers showers, gas, cabins, canoes, good food, billiards, and beer.

It’s time to get down to the fishing!  I had planned for this trip to be a focus on tenkara.  I personally knew of only one person who had taken tenkara to Alaska, my good friend, Richard Wheeler, from Evergreen, Colorado.  I’m sure others have, but after scouring the Internet, printed articles, and such, Richard was my only boots-in-the-water source of information.  Richard had actually used tenkara earlier the same summer on one of the streams we would visit while in Alaska.  One day in July, while I was working behind the counter at Royal Gorge Anglers, Richard called me.  He was standing on the edge of the Delta Clearwater River, catching grayling!  Richard knew I planned to arrive in Alaska about a month after he did, so getting his call only added to my excitement of the upcoming trip!

Prior to the trip, I had done a lot of research about the fishing in interior Alaska that would be suitable for tenkara.  I had a whole atlas full of topographic maps for the entire state, and I had spent months poring over them.  I had also discovered, and read (over and over), Cecilia “Pudge” Kleinkauf’s excellent book (one I would highly recommend to anyone fishing for grayling in Alaska), “Fly-Fishing for Alaska’s Arctic Grayling-Sailfish of the North”.  After reading Pudge’s book, and talking to Mike about the local water, I knew that Arctic grayling would be what we’d be looking for, especially trophy grayling.  It seems, even to the Alaskans, that respectable grayling start at 16” and anything over 18” is considered trophy-class.  What Shawn and I discovered is that there are a lot of grayling around 16”, but very few at the 18”-plus length.

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The first location we fished was, of course, on the Tangle River.  Our camp at the Tangle Lakes Campground was no more than a hundred yards from the river so we could hike down to everything we would fish there.  The Tangle Lakes is a 16-mile chain of lakes connected by streams.  We fished the stretch between Round Tangle Lake and the next lake upstream, south of the Denali Highway, which crosses the Tangle River.

It didn’t take long for us to get into grayling!  The first day Shawn and I estimated that we each caught around 50 fish, but neither of us are “fish counters”, so that was just a guess.  What we did know is that we caught a LOT of grayling!  We soon discovered that the largest grayling occupied the best feeding lies in the river, pushing the smaller fish out.  We caught many fish over 16” and a few that would go close to 18”.  Both Shawn and I had brought several tenkara rods, but we ended up fishing 12-foot or 360 cm rods all of the time.  We threw dry flies and we nymphed, with nearly equal good results.  Floating lines were used for the dry fly fishing, allowing us to more effectively cast and drift the #16 CDC and Elk, #16 Extended Body PMD, and Larry Kingrey’s #16 Lil’ Hottie patterns, along with the venerable Parachute Adams.  Our nymph rigs were identical to the ones we use at home in the Colorado canyons, with #20 RS2s trailing behind #18 bead head Pheasant Tails with a little weight in front of both of them.  Our tenkara nymphing technique is very similar to the tactical nymphing done by western fly anglers…no indicator, tight-line nymphing.  Tenkara rods are extremely effective at this.  Over the previous few months I had been designing, constructing, and testing a new line for nymphing, and this trip would prove to be an excellent laboratory.

Mike had given us his warnings about grizzlies, and even though we were in a relatively grizzly-free area, we both strapped bear spray canisters to our belts.  Those would be standard equipment for the entire week, and once we moved south into the grizzly’s backyard, we felt much safer than without the bear spray.  We never saw a bear during our week in Alaska, but one evening, while we were picking blueberries along the Denali Highway, Shawn nearly stepped into a huge, warm, purple pile of grizzly scat.  One day, while fishing the Tangle River, I found myself on what looked like a bear trail in the thick of the alders along the water.  Five-foot visibility, and with the rush of the river, I couldn’t hear a twig snap if it was right next to my ear.  Grizzly country…they were here first, we were visitors, so kept our “bear radar” on the whole trip!

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We had hauled a canoe down from Delta Junction to our camp at Tangle Lakes, and after a couple of successful days fishing for big grayling on the Tangle River, Shawn and I decided to carry it several hundred yards down to the lake to see if we could catch any lake trout at the inlet, where the river comes into the lake.  We took turns manning the canoe and fishing, as the wind and the current of the river at the inlet required constant paddling.  What we found was that there no lakers at all at the inlet, and that the grayling were stacked up there, rising and splashing at what we decided must be the smallest midges we had ever encountered.  We had nothing with which to match the hatch.  Traditional kebari were all but useless, as the grayling were very keyed-in to those midges.  We wrote the still water of Round Tangle Lake off the list.

Mid-week Shawn and I decided to travel southeast to the upper reaches of the Gulkana River to look for more trophy grayling.  It was within a half-hour drive, so after a leisurely breakfast at Tangle River Inn, we headed to unknown water.  A quick stop at the small Alaska Department of Fish and Game hatchery just upstream of Paxson proved to be invaluable.  The hatchery worker gave us some good beta, let us know that salmon fishing on the Gulkana was now closed (any salmon caught must be immediately released), and wished us good luck.  We headed down the Richardson Highway, and by exploring a few two-tracks, found a spot along the Gulkana that put us on water small enough to use tenkara.

Where the Tangle River was wide, shallow, and full of pocket water, the upper Gulkana was narrow, deep, and packed with very strong current for its size.  We put boots in the water to find that not only were there big grayling there, the spawning sockeye (red) salmon had moved up into the same water.  Looking down into the crystal-clear water we could see many 24-36” salmon stacked up in the current.  Tangle River, and its surround tundra had a campground within a stone’s throw.  The densely-vegetated Gulkana was totally different, with a feeling of total isolation.  Tangle was relatively bear-free, while the Gulkana was littered with half-eaten salmon, bear scat, and pawprints, and several bald eagles watched us fish from their perches at the tops of the tallest spruce trees along the river.  Wading on the Tangle was routine, on the Gulkana it was suicidal.  We were in no position to call the shots on this water!

Once we arrived on the Gulkana, Shawn and I rigged up and started fishing.  I had gotten some help from my boss, Royal Gorge Anglers owner, Taylor Edrington, on what fly patterns I would need to target grayling and rainbow trout that were following the spawning salmon.  Taylor has extensive knowledge of fly fishing in Alaska, and I valued his opinion.  Although we never even got close to water that held rainbows, Taylor’s recommendations held true for the grayling.  I rigged up a bead type egg pattern, sized and colored appropriate for the task, with a BB split shot about 9 inches above the egg.  Since we were fishing for grayling, I used a smaller hook than the ones Taylor had given me for the trip.  I deployed a fluorocarbon tenkara level line and started drifting the egg pattern.

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We began to catch very nice grayling almost immediately, again with the largest 16-20” fish holding in the deepest and heaviest current, which was very similar to our experience on the Tangle River.  We fished right on the brushy edge of the river, simply because the river was too deep and fast to wade into, and the willows and alders were too thick to step back into for better positioning.  All the while, I kept my bear radar on, mostly because of the lack of visibility along the river’s edge, and the fact that I was almost always within arm’s length of a half-eaten salmon or bear track.

After catching a half-dozen big grayling, I decided to move down below Shawn twenty-five yards or so to fish down by an abandoned salmon cage, left there by the hatchery workers.  I ran my egg down through a deep, fast strip of current as a few yard-long sockeye salmon bumped into my legs in the water.  After a few drifts, I hit what felt like a Greyhound bus!  There was way too much current and very few obstacles in the water, and I know in an instant that I had hooked into one of those salmon!  The fight was on!  I yelled to Shawn to come down and run the net for me.  He ran down, started shooting video, and stayed very close.  That salmon called all of the shots, moving when he wanted to, into and out of the current.  Few thoughts ran through my head, but I remember two distinctly…I’m either going to break my rod, or I’m going to break off this fish!  I continued to dance with the salmon for what seemed like an eternity, keeping him in the power bend of my tenkara rod, and he took me for a walk downstream, into and out of the heavy current.  I finally got him out of the main current and into shallower water near the salmon cage.  Shawn reached out several times with his net, and it took several tries to finally get it done.  Only half of that big fish fit into what we thought was a big net.

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I was shaking as Shawn helped me get a grip on my salmon and remove the hook.  We both marveled at the fact that he had actually eaten the egg, as anadromous fish seldom, if ever, eat once they start their trip upstream to the spawning grounds.  He was heavily colored, had a huge kype and hump, but was still strong even after swimming upriver some 350 miles from the ocean.  After a couple of quick photos, I lowered him into the current, letting go of his tail after he gave me the signal he was strong enough to swim away.  That feeling as he slipped out of my right hand, was one of the most wonderful moments of my trip to Alaska.  I was saying goodbye to that fish, but right then and there I made myself a promise that I would return to do this again.

Shawn and I hit the road the next day, traveling north, for a return to the Delta Junction area.  We were headed to where Richard had made that awesome phone call from the edge of the Delta Clearwater River earlier in the summer, to see if we could match his success with trophy class grayling.  We accessed this gin-clear, frigid, spring-fed river just a few miles northeast of Delta Junction.  There’s a short section of public water there, so we set up for some dry fly fishing, both of us using floating tenkara lines.  We spent all day catching eager grayling, many of them pushing the 18” mark.  Despite the fact that every couple of hours a jet boat would scream upriver in front of us, the grayling didn’t seem to care.  Five minutes after each boat passed, we were back in the fish.  Adult caddis, PMDs, and Adams were the flies of the day.  I simply cannot remember a day when I’ve caught more fish on a dry fly!  The highlight of my day wasn’t so much all of the big grayling I had caught, but watching Shawn fight a 20” monster for at least ten minutes, finally landing him on the far side of the river.  It was a fitting way to end the fishing for the week, and with sore arms, we walked back to the Jeep and stowed our waders and rods for the last time.

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I cannot say when I will return to Alaska with a tenkara rod, but I know it will be soon.  Shawn and I had no sooner unpacked after arriving home than we were planning the next trip north.  As I’ve said, Alaska has a way of getting under your skin, and after fishing there, just about everything you do is compared to it.  We stepped into an unknown…fishing in Alaska for trophy grayling, and the possibility of catching salmon, with tenkara.  It felt so very good to have traveled so far, seen so much country and found success with tenkara.  What’s next?  Trophy Dolly Varden on a wilderness float north of the Arctic Circle?  Coastal mountain rainbows?  Yard-long sheefish along the Brooks Range foothills a hundred miles from the nearest settlement?  Perhaps the answer may be “yes” to all of those, and more.  I’m certain of one thing…this hasn’t been my last trip with tenkara in the Last Frontier!

This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Badger Tenkara: Tenkara vs. Machaca

Mike Lutes of Badger Tenkara recently spent some time fishing in Costa Rica with his WISCO tenkara rod. Chasing trout? Nope. Mastering Machaca? What???

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Image: Badger Tenkara

Check out these videos of Mike’s battles with this extremely aggressive fish and maybe you’ll be interested in heading to Costa Rica tenkara rod in hand as well…