Tenkara on the Firehole

Firehole River above Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

The Firehole River has been dubbed by more than one angler as one of the “strangest trout streams in the world.”

Often, you fish next to buffalo and elk, walk along precarious streamside hot spring crusts that an unknowing angler might break through and end up boiled, feel hot water bubbling against your waders here and there, watch out for the weird stinging beetles that once sent me reeling to the medical clinic, avoid slipping on the rainbow-colored mats of bacterial slime, wondering if the smell of sulfurous gases will cause long term lung damage, and of course, wet your pants in response to the occasional geyser eruption that sends hot water raining down the back of your neck.

So yeah, it’s a weird place.

But in the same scene, the angler finds trout rising in concentrations high enough to baffle population biologists amid one of the densest concentrations of hatching insects found on earth.

Firehole_brown
A Firehole River brown trout caught during a baetis hatch.

Living only a few hours from the Firehole River means that fishing its waters is well within range of day trip, so through the years, I’ve come to know the Firehole and its rhythms well.

My favorite hatches on the Firehole are in June: baetis and PMD mayflies. My favorite times to fish it are when the weather is spitting snow amid thunderstorms and blustery winds.

And my favorite method of fishing the Firehole River is Tenkara.

I once fished the Firehole with a guide who lamented that few of his clients were able to catch fish on the Firehole because they didn’t possess the skills required to control drag-free drifts of the fly with such long casts. I posed the obvious solution, as a question: “So use shorter casts?” He laughed. “Firehole trout are smart. They can see you comin’ a mile away.”

I learned this truism the hard way. The Firehole River is exceptionally clear. It is, after all, a spring creek, with spring creek temperatures, spring creek vegetation, and spring creek spooky trout. Through the years, however, I’ve learned the art of stalking, approaching, and shortening my cast to Firehole trout.

And when I discovered Tenkara, I discovered an entire new way of fishing for them.

Pmd-emerger-tenkara
Ryan Jordan’s Tenkara Emerger, this one tied as a PMD. Tail: Hungarian partridge; shuck: dyed pale yellow cul-de-canard; abdomen: yellow silk; thorax: dyed pale yellow rabbit; hackle: dun hen neck; thread: yellow silk. I’m a big fan of using natural materials for dressing a fly, but use a small bit of synthetic materials here and there when a natural substitute is not available. It’s well known that some synthetics in use are considered “indispensible” or even “deadly”. Hogwash. Synthetic fly tying materials have done little more than to simply open up a market for the “latest and greatest thing”. I use this Tenkara Emerger pattern primarily for baetis and PMDs, and with the Tenkara technique, will fish it conventionally dry fly style in the surface film, twitched across the current in the film or just subsurface, or wetted with saliva and swung quartering downstream like a traditional soft hackle. Photo: Panasonic GF1 with Sigma 105/2.8 DG Macro.

With the long rod, supple leader, and short tippet characteristic of a Tenkara rig, I have the line control, range, and versatility needed to dap, drift, swing, twitch, and furl a soft hackled fly within dozens of fish at any given time. I won’t venture to say that I necessarily catch more fish than my guide friend, but I can’t help but think that for the world’s most challenging streams, like the Firehole, Tenkara holds its own.

In fact, Tenkara and the Firehole just seem … to fit.