Have You Ever Set a Hook in Mid-Air?
By John Mosovsky
It was a week since I received my new Suntech Genryu Sawanobori 45 Keiryu rod so I was anxious to test it out. I purchased the rod for its stiffness (54 penny), lightweight (2.8oz), and length. At 14½ feet, it’s probably the longest rod that I can comfortably manage one-handed. That’s an important feature since my intention is to use it for Czech nymphing on big water. Big water where I live is the Lehigh River. Unfortunately, water flow management on this tailwater is controlled by the antiquated Francis E. Walter Dam constructed in 1961. The dam was built for flood risk management but recreation became a Congressionally-authorized purpose in 1988. The Lehigh is a wonderful trout fishery that has overcome a dark history of industrial pollution. It has the potential to be a blue ribbon trout river if design changes to the dam ever become a reality. The Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance and the Lehigh River Stocking Association are two organizations that work tirelessly at trying to make that happen. But I digress!
On August 5th, the Lehigh River water temperature at my favorite spot was 71°F and the flow rate was 320 cfs (cubic feet per second). A little on the warm and low side so I decided to Czech nymph a colder mountain stream called Mud Run in Hickory Run State Park. It was running at 60°F. The air temperature was cooler than normal, registering in the mid-seventies, and cloud cover was thick. Weather-wise a pretty good fishing day for early August in Pennsylvania. For the smaller mountain stream, I decided to use my softer TUSA Amago rod (31 penny/13½ feet) with a “short” 11-foot casting line/indicator sighter/tippet and multiple flies (#16 bead head pheasant tail dropper and a #14 bead head, lead wrapped George’s Killer point fly).
My line to line connections were made with ligature knots and my flies were attached with nonslip mono loop knots. Both knots are highly recommended by Art Scheck in his book Fly-Fish Better.
I was on the stream at 4:00pm and netted two Brookies and a Brownie before deciding to start the 45-minute hike back to my Jeep at 6:00pm. It gets dark early in a canyon! When I reached my Jeep I realized I still had a good 1½ hours of daylight left so I decided to drive to my favorite spot on the Lehigh. I got on the river at 7:20pm, excited to try out my new Suntech rod. Because of the waning daylight and to save time, I decided to use the 11-foot rig I had on the Amago rod. I knew the line length was a little on the short side for the 14½ foot Suntech but the flies were still attached and I was pressed for time.
The water I targeted was a swift, deep run with multiple seams and hydraulic jumps leading into a large deep pool. I started off easy, fishing the near side shallows of the pool working my way upstream along the near side shallows of the run. The rod performed beautifully! In no time at all, I landed a few smallmouth bass, a Sunny, a couple fallfish, and a nice rainbow trout. I caught a few more bass and fallfish before I reached the head of the pool and the swiftest part of the run. A feeding fish in a seam on the far side of the run caught my attention, but it was going to be a stretch reaching over the run to make a presentation to him. I was already in the middle of the river hanging on to my wading staff, but hey, I had a 14½ foot rod (with, unfortunately, a short 11-foot line).
(I often catch more fish Czech nymphing seams on the far sides of runs compared to seams on the near sides of runs. Fish lying in the far side seams have the run between them and us and don’t see or hear us as well. Part of the beauty of Tenkara Czech nymphing is using long rods to reach overruns and target the far side seams.)
I got within one step of the run’s hydraulics, lob casted the flies upstream into the foaming whitewater and hoped that I hit the seam. What happened next was a bit surreal. It was like what athletes say about things slowing done when they are “in the zone”.
My line and flies began moving very slowly downstream in spite of the swift, rushing water surrounding them. I had hit the seam! A split second later (well before the flies were anywhere near the bottom) a big rainbow (18 inches?) jumped 3 feet out of the water facing upstream like a torpedo. I immediately thought that the fish had taken one of my flies even though I never saw or felt any indication of a strike. ALL of my line came out of the water and hung in the air “downstream” of the fish (“downstream” is in quotes because my line wasn’t in the stream at all!).
I instinctively raised my rod to set the hook in mid-air and in doing so turned the fish’s head toward me. When he splashed down on the far side of the run, he took off downriver. I tried to keep the power curve in my rod and because of the swift water and short line, the fish was drawn to the surface in the middle (read swiftest) part of the run. It did a couple flip-flops and somersaults and then broke off! Gone! The only way I could have possibly brought the fish to hand was to go for a swim – but it happened so fast, was too near dark, and the water was too swift and deep to entertain such an idea.
If I had been fishing with conventional fly fishing equipment, i.e. rod AND reel, I believe the drag on the reel would have vastly improved my chances of landing the fish. But then, I probably wouldn’t have had the ability to target the fish’s lie in the first place. I also believe that had I used the appropriate line length (14½ -16½ feet) for Czech nymphing with a 14½ foot Keiryu rod on big water, I could have turned the fish and ran with him. I was disappointed but exhilarated; pleased with my choice of Keiryu rod but upset with myself for not using the appropriate line length. All in all, it was another exciting day on the Lehigh. Tenkara rocks and rules!
When I teach Czech nymphing, I always tell my students to wait a couple seconds for the flies to sink after making a lob cast and before leading them to control depth and speed. Not waiting long enough for the flies to reach the feeding zone is a mistake even the pros make. George Daniel owns up to making this mistake in his book Dynamic Nymphing. He also emphasizes “The key to allowing nymphs to quickly drop is not to create tension on the rig, but to maintain line and leader control so you can determine if a take occurs.”
In his opinion, this is the key to getting deep drifts with little weight. I couldn’t agree more. I was fishing #16 and #14 flies in very swift water when the big ’bow struck. Granted they were bead heads and the point fly was wrapped with 0.010 lead wire, but that’s not much weight considering the conditions. The relatively light casting line and tippet also helped. The beauty of Tenkara! In their Discover Tenkara tutorials, Paul Gaskell and John Pearson call the nymph sinking phase a kind of “induced take” movement that entices fish to strike. Very true! To capitalize on this phase, however, as George Daniel says, the nymphs must be allowed to sink without line tension but at the same time, the angler must maintain line control to detect a strike. This is a very fine line (no pun intended) to maintain in swift, deep water.
After the ‘bow broke off, I was left standing with the pheasant tail dropper at the terminal end of the tippet. There was no indication of any tippet having existed beyond the dropper. When I got home and examined the broken line I could detect an extremely small “tag” coming out of the dropper ligature knot where the terminal portion of the tippet had broken off. This told me a few things. The dropper ligature knot held, the fish struck the point fly, and the nonslip mono loop on the point fly held. I can only assume that the line weakened when I tied the dropper knot because I failed to adequately moisten it. Not a terrible mistake considering the rig held up to a dozen fish and a few snags. The big one always gets away!
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.