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.

Phantom Ranch and the Mouth of Bright Angel 1 (Copy)

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.

Phantom Ranch adn the Mouth of Bright Angel 3 (Copy)

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.

Video: Landing Big Fish on Tenkara with Rob Worthing

At last weekend’s Tenkara Jam, we were able to grab some video footage of Rob Worthing’s (Tenkara Guides) presentation – specifically, the portion on how to land big fish with your tenkara rod.  Rob was gracious enough to allow the video to be published for public consumption, which Tenkara Angler is presenting today.

If you enjoyed this video, please visit www.tenkaraguides.com, where Rob and his partners Erik & John have been operating the first fixed-line fly fishing-only guide service in the Western Hemisphere since 2011.

2017 Tenkara Jam

Thought it only proper to send out a quick post this morning, as a follow-up to this past weekend’s Tenkara Jam in Boone, North Carolina. Simply wanted to express extreme gratitude to all that participated; be it from an attendee, presenter, vendor, and (of course) organizer standpoint. The tenkara community came together as one and showed very well, we should all be extremely proud of the Jam.

I also can’t say enough about the many jobs Jason Sparks took on wonderfully as host, emcee, and educator, and if he’s considering “running it back” in 2018, Tenkara Angler would love to participate again.

As a reader, if you’re new to the magazine (& website) as a by-product of the Jam, welcome. It’s great to have you here!

Since Tenkara Angler was referenced in several of the presentations, I also thought I’d list some of the links to articles that were specifically mentioned for easy referral.

As a matter of fact, most of the presenters and vendors have contributed to Tenkara Angler in one form or another since the magazine’s inception in 2015. If you’d like to page through the various back-issues at your leisure, they are best accessed for free, HERE.

An Angler’s Guide To Insect Repellants & Other Ways To Prevent Insect Bites

Editor’s Note: It’s atypical to take articles from Tenkara Angler magazine and re-post them here on the blog. That said, this article is so informative (and topical in these summer months), it probably deserves to be caught up in things like Google search for all to find. It was written by Rob Worthing for the Summer 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler. I hope you find it helpful, I know I did. 

AN ANGLER’S GUIDE TO INSECT REPELLANTS AND OTHER WAYS TO PREVENT INSECT BITES
By Rob Worthing, MD FAWM

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The author displays a classic rash of tick-borne illnesses like Lyme

I’ve always wanted to write something about biting insects for anglers. But, the inevitable distractions – like actually fishing – always got in the way. Today, I find myself in a position where I have no excuse. Instead, I appear to have a tick-borne illness. I got lazy, didn’t protect myself, and I got bit. As I sit at home, using up my sick days from work, enjoying a screaming fever, fatigue, malaise, headache, and one crazy bull’s eye rash, it only seems fitting that I write this article. So read up and arm yourself with some knowledge, because you don’t want what I got!

Each summer across fly fishing rags, forums, blogs, and social media outlets the debate over the best line of defense from mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting insects erupts. Why? Two reasons. First, these little bloodsuckers are annoying. Second, they carry diseases that we really don’t want. Diseases like Lyme, West Nile, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Tick-Borne Paralysis to name a few. Throw in Zika and a few news reports on Powassan virus this summer, and things get bonkers.

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Matt Sment fishes a buggy lie in the Driftless region of Wisconsin

The difficult part for most of us fisherpersons is trying to figure out the good information from the bad. What really works, and what doesn’t work so well? What’s safe, and what’s not so safe to use? Many of us have a particular product that works well for us around our home waters. Such experience can be very helpful. To further help us make an educated choice, this article will summarize the best evidence on the subject of insect bite prevention that science has provided us to date. Only here the info is geared for real-world use by anglers, not so much the scientists.

A fly fisherperson can control biting insects in two ways. First, using physical barriers. Second, using chemical barriers like insect repellants. There’s also the not-so-effective, sometimes dangerous stuff out there that we ought to address. That gives this article a total of three parts – physical barriers, chemical barriers, and not-so-effective/dangerous stuff. And since the chemicals are what seem to be debated the most, we’ll subdivide a few to try and provide everyone with an evidence-based plan to prevent bites they can feel good about.

Physical Barriers
Physical barriers are your primary protection from biting insects. A physical barrier is anything that minimizes access of biting insects to your body, whether limiting exposed skin to flying insects, or entry points for crawling insects.

  • Light colors. Light colors are less attractive to mosquitoes and certain biting flies and make it easy to spot crawling insects for removal.
  • Layers. Tuck in your shirt and pants. Button sleeves and collars. Overlap base layers, socks, outer garments, and accessories like gloves. This eliminates entry points for crawling insects like ticks.
  • Loose fit. This deters thru-bites from mosquitoes and certain biting flies.
  • Long sleeves and pants. Limiting skin exposure minimizes access for biting insects. Popular sun protection items like fishing gloves, glasses, and neck gaiters help, too.
  • A wide-brimmed hat. Black flies and midges avoid the area under the brim. That’s right, somebody actually published a study on wide-brimmed hats.
  • Mesh. If you want to use a mesh head net, or looking at a mesh tent/bivy, get one that is 27 mesh/inch or finer to keep the smallest biting flies away.

Chemical Barriers
Choosing and using chemical insecticides and repellants can be intimidating, even scary. But if you want the most effective prevention strategies, you need chemical barriers. Here are the important facts about three different effective chemical strategies.

1. Permethrin + DEET
This is the most effective combo known, and it has the longest track record of safe use. Permethrin is a clothing treatment. DEET goes on the exposed skin. These products should be used in combination. Together, they can prevent 99.9% of mosquito bites (1 vs. 1888 bites/hour in one Alaskan study).

Permethrin:

  • A synthetic version of a natural chemical found in chrysanthemums.
  • It works by repelling insects and killing some on contact.
  • Resulted in 100% tick death after contact with a treated cloth.
  • Also effective against chiggers, fleas, lice, mosquitoes, and biting flies.
  • Poor absorption and rapid inactivation in mammals, but you can still make yourself sick if you don’t use it right
  • Meant for treating clothing only, NOT SKIN!
  • Be sure the clothing is completely DRY before using
  • Don’t treat underwear, base layers or the inside of hats. Socks are okay, though.
  • It is also really toxic to aquatic life. Luckily, once dry it is water-insoluble, which means you can wear them fishing without any worry. Just don’t treat your clothes around any water sources, and (repeat) make sure clothing is completely DRY before using.
  • Not only is it water-insoluble once dry, but resistant to UV degradation, too. It will still repel insects after as many as 50 washes, but its ability to kill flies on contact wears out faster.
  • It binds to cotton and nylon really well.
  • It does not bind to DWR treated fabric like your rain jacket and tent fly. A lot of outdoor shirts and pants have a DWR coating, too. So check before treating.
  • It is flammable in liquid form, but dry clothes are fine. So treat your clothes before you travel – don’t try to bring a bottle on the plane.
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Sawyer Permethrin for treating clothing & gear

DEET:

  • Works by vaporizing, forming a barrier of vapor over your skin.
  • Effective against mosquitos, biting flies, fleas, ticks, chiggers, and mites. But less effective against certain species of biting midges.
  • 200 million users worldwide, less than 50 cases of significant toxicity in over 50 years of use. It has the longest track record of safety of any insect repellant, as long as you FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS.
  • Use on exposed skin only. No need to put it on under your clothes.
  • Don’t put it around cuts and scrapes or mucous membranes like your eyes, nose, mouth, or genitals.
  • Don’t rub it on your head. A little swipe on the back of the neck is fine.
  • 100% DEET is BAD. It is less effective, and increase the risk of making yourself sick.
  • Look for a 20-40% concentration of DEET. Less than 20%, and you loose duration of effect. There is zero added benefit to concentrations above 40%.
  • Also look for a polymerized DEET. Polymerization slows the vaporization process. This stuff is controlled release, lasting 12 hours.
  • It still repels if you sequentially apply it with sunscreen, only the SPF of the sunscreen might be reduced.
  • DEET is a plasticizer. It melts plastic. Keep it away from your gear.
  • For all of the above reasons, wash your hands really good right after putting it on, before you touch your gear or go fishing.
  • 3M Ultrathon and Sawyer Controlled Release are good. These are around 33% DEET in a polymerized form.
Picture 5 (Copy)
3M Ultrathon, a sustained release DEET product

2. Permethrin + Picaridin
A great alternative for anglers. We already covered Permethrin. Picaridin is a skin repellant like DEET, only with some bonus features.

Picaridin

  • Used on the exposed skin similar to DEET.
  • Effective against mosquitos, biting flies, and ticks.
  • 20% concentration offers 8-hour protection.
  • Not greasy like polymerized DEET.
  • It won’t melt plastics, and won’t hurt your gear.
  • It’s a newer product, so it doesn’t have the long track record like DEET does. But studies so far suggest it is as effective and safe.
  • Natrapel makes a great 20% picaridin option.
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Natrapel, an effective alternative for anglers that won’t melt your gear

3. Oil of Citronella
For those who want an effective all-natural option.

  • The most effective botanical repellant.
  • EPA registered in 1948, so it has a long track record of safe use, too.
  • But you still have to FOLLOW DIRECTIONS to avoid getting sick.
  • Used on exposed skin like DEET and Picaridin.
  • The downside is a really short duration of effect. The recommendation is for reapplication every hour to maintain its efficacy.

Not So Effective/Dangerous Stuff

  • Area Repellants. Candles, coils, butane burners, vermiculite, etc. Their efficacy under ideal conditions varies widely. Wind, humidity, and other environmental factors impact the effective area. In Japan, incense coils burn regularly around the dinner table after a long day of fishing. If you’re going to fork out the dough, just know that the evidence is kind of weak and that their ability to deter insects is dependent on a lot of other things.
  • For Wear Devices. Bracelets, pins, and the like. Their efficacy is limited to the immediate vicinity around the device. In other words, the skin right around the bracelet on your wrist. Might be enough if you’re covered up, but there is likely a better option out there for you.
  • Animal Products. Flea and tick collars, cattle tags, and the like. These contain a variety of pesticides not cleared for human use. Adverse local and systemic effects are associated with use in humans. For example, more than one Marine or Soldier has suffered chemical burns on their legs from using flea collars as anklets. Leave the animal products to the animals.
  • Ingested Products. Garlic, vitamin B1, and more. There just isn’t any evidence to support their use. Some can be harmful. For example, eating match heads to prevent chigger bites. Sulfur products used on the skin are, in fact, effective against chiggers. But eating match heads doesn’t work. Neither does getting drunk. In fact, the metabolites that leak out of our skin after a heavy night of drinking might attract certain flying insects.
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Big fish and bloodsuckers abound in the author’s home water

Advanced Tenkara Casting: Rob Worthing

One of the highlights from Day One of the 2016 Tenkara Jam was Rob Worthing’s presentation on Advanced Casting. Not only did he explain what the heck a “Supine J” is, but he also did a great job visually demonstrating for those in attendance.

rob-worthing-advanced-tenkara-casting

If you weren’t able to make it to Cherokee, fear not!  Rob’s presentation was covered in the Winter 2015/16, Spring 2016, & Fall 2016 issues of Tenkara Angler. Or, if you were at the Jam, and just want a refresher and a copy of the progression tables to practice at home, the links to each can be found below:

Winter 2015/16: Advanced Casting Part I
Spring 2016: Advanced Casting Part II
Fall 2016: Advanced Casting Part III

 

Tenkara Guides Host 2016 Oni Tenkara School

Friends of Tenkara Angler, the Tenkara Guides LLC, are hosting the Oni Tenkara School in the United States again this summer.  Featuring the teachings of “Tenkara no Oni” Masami Sakakibara, the 3-day session will take place at Sundance Mountain Resort, UT between July 7-9, 2016.

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Spaces are limited, so if you are interested, check out the Tenkara Guides’ website HERE for more information.

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