November in Montana is exciting because of the promise of snow.
Before November, you have to go to high elevations to find snow, like in this photo, which is my camp in Maloney Basin in the Anaconda-Pintlar Wilderness with the Ultralight Backpacking Boot Camp on the night of November 1, 2012.
The promise of snow has me excited more this year than in years past, because of a number of projects I want to work on, like:
Camping with a flat, Cuben Fiber tarp in winter.
Catching trout on a Tenkara rod when ice is floating down the river.
Testing the new Alpacka Dry Suit in a packraft while dodging icebergs in the whitewater of the Gallatin River’s Mad Mile.
Hiking in Kahtoola Microspikes on steep, icy trails.
Introducing my son to backcountry skiing in remote couloirs.
Firebuilding in awful conditions.
You see, for me, winter doesn’t mean putting gear a way, it just means changing gears.
A lot of people have anxiety over cold temperatures and snow, but I really like the beauty that winter brings. I want to share that beauty, and help you enjoy winter, too. That’s why I’m making some intentional efforts to bring solid winter backcountry education to the members of BPL this year. We have cool stuff coming about nordic skiing, base layer technologies, winter shelters, traction devices, and gear made with goose feathers.
Here’s a sneak peak at one of my favorite skunkworks projects this winter: a 12 oz down parka shelled with breathable Cuben Fiber. (Yes, it’s rather warm, and not 3-season-ish at all):
I love fishing, and teaching, the traditional Japanese method of tenkara using a light rod, fine tippet, and a sparse and simple soft-hackled fly.
But the season for huge brown trout is just around the corner and one can only eat from a bento box for so long before he wakes up sweating in the middle of the night because a 25 inch fish is mocking the lo-cal snack at the end of your line.
The Tenkarabugger remains my single most effective “guide fly” with clients who want to catch large trout on a tenkara rod.
I tie it in black, olive, yellow, and purple; and always on a #4 drop shot hook*.
This is the fly I would choose if I adopted a “one-fly” paradigm for tenkara fishing in the brawling rivers of Montana or Wyoming.
This is the outcome of my attempt to adapt the Woolly Bugger for a tenkara-style of fishing for large brown trout in big rivers, especially in the low light conditions after dusk and into the moonlight, where I want
Lots of motion and reflectivity for low light conditions, and fishing on dark days with October snow;
Lots of bulk and fluidity for attracting large fish;
A short shank and lightweight materials to maximize natural movement;
This is a killer fly for the deep runs and pools of the Yellowstone River at dusk in the big-brown sections between Livingston and Springdale, or for the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park when the browns are running in October.
If you have to fish it on a Tenkara USA rod, try the Amago with a level line and stout (2X) tippet*, and hold on. Otherwise, think about what you might need to wade deep, fish deep, and enjoy a long drift so you can cover lots of water. My preference is a stiff (8:2), two-handed, 6 or 7m rod – which gives you better fly control and sensitivity for a drop-shot take. This isn’t Japanese mountain stream tenkara, by the way. It’s prospecting for trout in the five to ten pound range. My secret weapon is the Alpacka Dry Suit, and a PFD. Big rods, two hands, bushy flies, heavy tippet, split shot, drysuits (!) – call it what you want. The fish don’t care.
Fished drop-shot style with a shot below it for deep pool drifting is a fantastic prospecting rig that gives you incredible fly control with a tenkara rod tip-and-line, and sensitivity for detecting the take.
Fishing this way takes practice, nerves of steel, and perhaps a willingness to get a little wet when the game is on. It’s worth mastering if large browns are your target.
Wanna try it? Inquire now, because the biggest browns are going to start hyperphagia in a few weeks…
* This may void your warranty. Use stout tippet and large flies at your own risk.
Everyone has different objectives when they visit a Wild Place.
Some go to escape, some go to return, some go to get exercise, some go to fish or photograph or climb or rest, and some go to play with gear.
I love playing with gear at home, in my backyard. I loathe having to mess with it when I’m in a Wild Place.
For me, visiting a Wild Place is about rest, recovery, detox, and the experience that is being delivered by the environment.
In almost every case, I don’t want my gear getting in the way.
When I am seeking an experience free from the clutter of fiddling with gear, I tend to lean towards gear that is simple to use, at the expense of adding a few ounces.
— Packs —
Carrying even 20 pounds of weight in a frameless pack gets old quick. My tolerance for bad pack design is extremely low, and while carrying heavier loads in frameless packs doesn’t hurt me, knowing that the pack is failing to function the way it’s supposed to is a nagging irritation. Maybe it’s my personality type (I’m a strong Myers-Briggs “J”), maybe it’s my engineering background, or maybe it’s a belief that most cottage packs seem rather carelessly designed.
Often, my trips involve carrying packrafting gear, fly fishing gear, photo/video gear, or climbing gear. As such, I prefer a more carefully designed pack that can distribute the load effectively while fitting properly, and maintaining the load mobility that I value in a frameless design.
However, there is something about carrying all that is required for survival and comfort in a tiny homemade sack slung over your shoulder like Huck Finn might have done. The simple benefits of this style are psychological, rather than practical, but still very real.
— Stoves —
There is no shortage of both homemade and commercially available solid fuel and alcohol stove systems that perform inefficiently, slowly, and with more complication than necessary.
These shortcomings are magnified in bad weather, especially wind.
When I want stove simplicity, I simply want a stove that works, boils fast, consumes miniscule amounts of fuel, and is simple to setup and put away, and can be used inattentively. I’m thus a huge fan of the Jetboil SOL Ti, which meets all of these criteria.
My other favorite way to cook is over fire – either over a wood stove, or over the fire directly. The Bushbuddy Ultra and the Backcountry Boiler are probably the only two wood burning stoves on the planet engineered with both performance and simplicity in mind.
— Mess Kits —
Ultralighters (including me) can get pretty fanatical about making sure their gear serves multiple uses. One classic example is the magic little titanium mug that serves as a cook pot, eating bowl, and drinking mug. I’m not convinced, however, that this is necessarily the simplest system for a mess/cook kit. My idea of simple(r) is being able to cook a volume of water in my pot (enough for a meal and a drink) and then distribute that hot water into a cozy-wrapped bowl to dehydrate dry food, and a small mug for drinking. If I’m really trying to save weight, the mug is the first to go, because I know I can always drink out of my pot.
The following video shows one example of a simple cooking system that can be adapted to both group and solo travel.
I can’t recommend enough the need for an eating vessel with no less than 3 cups of capacity for expedition use. Most ultralighter’s skimp on the volume of their eating bowl, and the result is food being spilled, small meals, and failure to adequately rehydrate them.
— Simple Fishing —
The day I discovered tenkara gear and fishing was the day I knew that for me at least, fly fishing would be changed forever. I’ve never, ever had that experience so fast with any other piece of gear.
Eliminating the reel and fly line means eliminating all that is expensive, complicated, and unnecessary for backcountry fly fishing, and stripping both the gear, and experience down to its essential components and actions.
— Shelters —
There is no shelter that is faster, or easier, to setup than a pyramid tarp. It offers full perimeter protection in stormy conditions and a space-to-weight ratio that makes spreading out, drying, and organizing gear more pleasant than when cramped into a tiny tent.
I believe that the pyramid is the most versatile of all types of ultralight shelters.
That said, there is an element of psychological simplicity in using a small, and simple, tarp – an element of simplicity that should not be understated, or undervalued.
There is something about sleeping under an open tarp that is immensely satisfying. Maybe it’s the views. Maybe it’s the exposure. Maybe it’s the risk of knowing that if mother nature breaks loose, you could be in a bit of trouble.
Maybe it’s just knowing that you have replaced your multi-tens-(or hundreds)-of-thousands-of-dollars-home with something that weighs half a pound.
— Two Types of Simplicity —
And so, there is more than one type of simplicity. I classify the two major types as “practical simplicity” and “natural simplicity”.
Pracitical simplicity is that type of simplicity where I crave not having to fool around with anything, and where everything is just plain easy and effective. Practical simplicity is all about the gear.
Practical simplicity is embodied by my internal frame pack, my gas stove, my tenkara rod, and my pyramid tarp.
And then there is natural simplicity – that type of simplicity where the process brings you more in touch with the natural world, thus becoming less about the gear and more about the experience. Natural simplicity has a strong aesthetic component.
Natural simplicity is embodied by sleeping under a tarp (not the tarp itself), and cooking on a wood stove (not the stove itself), and the tenkara style of fishing (not the rod itself).
— Blending Natural and Practical Simplicity —
Gear that is practically simple that also allows for natural simplicity to be realized is extremely rare.
For example, the tenkara rod embodies both practical and natural simplicity in a way that no other piece of backcountry gear can accomplish, and that’s why I think it’s truly a “home run” piece of gear, and perhaps the most extraordinary advance in backcountry gear in the past decade.
My second place vote would be Devin Montgomery’s Backcountry Boiler – a wood burning stove that turns a pint of cold water into boiled madness in a few minutes using grass, or pine needles, or your trash as fuel.
For gear to be heralded as having both practical and natural simplicity, it must:
1. Be light in weight;
2. Be efficient in performance;
3. Be easy to use;
4. Offer tactile benefits during use; and
5. Increase your connection to the natural environment.
6. Have a design that reflects aesthetic simplicity.
— A Call to the Cottage Industry —
Mass market manufacturers are incapable of designing and marketing gear that blends both practical and natural simplicity because the concept is too hard to educate people about. You simply cannot appreciate the value of it, until you (a) experience it; (b) practice it; and (c) refine it. Mass manufacturers don’t have the time. The sales season is only a few months long, after all – and with the need to make sure they are addressing the latest trends in colors and fabrics and features – who has time to educate consumers – or allow them to experience the benefits of simplicity?
And so, as usual, it seems like it’s up to the cottage industry.
That’s not a bad thing.
Except that few of them seem to be pursuing it.
Tenkara USA and Boilerwerks are hitting home runs, but are exceptions – companies that have extreme hyperfocus on what they are creating. The rest of the cottage industry seems to be limping along doing the same old things – that is – trying to be like mass manufacturers, or otherwise trying to compete on the basis of selling features rather than design or performance aesthetics.
— For Discussion —
1. What gear do you use that embodies your perception of simplicity?
2. Why don’t we see more “simple gear home runs” out of the cottage industry?
3. What simple gear do you want that doesn’t exist, that embodies both natural and practical attributes of simplicity?
— Ultralight Gear for the Ultralight Life —
I explore the concept of simplicity in more detail in my letter Ultralight Gear for the Ultralight Life, but don’t necessarily limit the applicability to backcountry gear, but expand the discussion to include gear, supplies, and processes that have the potential to impact your life as a whole on a daily basis.
The big brown’s first aerial leap from the depths of the Madison River made me smile. The second one made me laugh. The third one, at the end of a run in strong current, reminded me that using tenkara gear and methods for big trout in big rivers is as applicable as the practice of small-stream tenkara.
Tenkara has been unfairly characterized as either a “method of choice for small stream fly fishing” or “applicable primarily to small stream fly fishing”. While I agree with the former, I wholeheartedly take issue with the latter.
If you’ve fished with me long enough, you’ll experience one or more of the following scenarios.
Suffering through thick bush, talus, mountain storms, poison oak, or twenty mile walks in a quest to find the biggest trout in the highest and remotest lakes and streams of the Beartooths, Bob Marshall Complex, Yellowstone, Uintas, or Wind Rivers.
Getting up at 5 am to fish the Hebgen Lake trico hatch and not putting the rods away until fish stop rising to the last caddis to hatch at Three Dollar Bridge on the Madison, which is usually after 11 PM.
Hunting large trout on big rivers with tenkara.
This post is about #3, and fish like this:
The Small Stream Myth of Tenkara
The tenkara Wikipedia entry (retrieved 28.Apr.2011) tells us that tenkara is used primarily for small stream fishing.
Certainly tenkara methods offer advantages over western (short-rod-and-reel-fly-fishing) methods on small streams, simply by its virtue of not having to deal with backcasting in brushy conditions and notwithstanding the fact that the $400 line holder you are carrying, with the accompanying weight of gear, is probably overkill.
But the real beauty of tenkara on small streams is being able to control the fly in turbulent water by keeping the line out of the current – one of the most difficult aspects of fishing small streams with western gear.
As a result, I know of many western anglers that now use tenkara rods for small streams, but remain addicted (out of fear perhaps) to western methods on larger rivers. Unfortunately, the myth that tenkara is “best” applied to small stream fishing, or worse, “only” applicable to small stream fishing, isn’t helping tenkara gain acceptance.
Enough is enough.
I think there are two reasons for this.
The first is that once a myth is seeded, it’s easily propagated, because it’s easier to tell lies about something you’ve never tried than tell the truth about something you know don’t quite know how to do.
The second is that as the primarily supplier of tenkara gear in the US Market, Tenkara USA has thus far limited their rod offerings to shorter, collapsible, softer ultralight rods that are gaining a wide appeal amongst ultralight backpackers and travelers.
I can’t help you with #1 other than to say: put up or shut up. Get off the forums and go learn, and then practice tenkara.
And Tenkara USA can certainly help you with #2: enter stage left, the Amago, and say hello to big(ger) river tenkara fishing.
About the Amago
At 13’6″ with a 6:4 taper on the faster side of 6:4, the Amago has the length to manage a longer line on bigger water. It easily throws a 50 foot #5 level line, and you can manage the signature fly-first tenkara cast with #5’s up to 30 feet without difficulty, and only a little practice. You may need a netting partner when using lines longer than 20 feet. Precision casting (without wind) with the Amago is probably best with a #4 or #5 level line that is in the 20-24 foot range – in other words, you can get away with a slightly longer line than “1.5 times the length of the rod” with the Amago, due to its length and action. With wind, I recommend a shorter line in the 16-18 foot range.
In addition, the Amago has both the length and backbone to fight bigger fish. Of all the rods in their line, the Amago is probably best positioned to fish big water, and land trout bigger than 20 inches.
Beyond the Amago
The Amago is the best we have right now from Tenkara USA, but it’s not a square answer to the question of how to land big trout in big water.
For every large (up to 24″) trout that I’ve landed on a tenkara rod, there have been two that escaped because the rod didn’t have the backbone required to steer them out of strong currents and prevent them from running. I recall two fish in particular: a South Fork Flathead River bull trout that was in the 28″+ range and fiery Missouri River rainbow (24″+). The bull trout dogged its way into a log jam and the rainbow screamed downstream in fast water. To be fair (to me!) both trout were hooked on the very soft (5:5) Ayu, which simply doesn’t have the steering power of the Amago.
I’m catching bigger fish on the Amago, but still losing the biggest ones. I’m confident that my fighting technique is improving, however, and more trophies are coming to the net.
My ideal big trout big water tenkara rod might have a 7:3 taper (8:2 would be too fast in windy conditions) and be in the range of 14 to 15 feet in length, with a long grip for cantilever double-handing when fighting large fish.
Why Tenkara Beats Western Methods Most of the Time on Big Rivers
“Tenkara has limitations”.
Oh, if I had a fly for every time I’ve heard this one from a shop clerk, “pro” angler, blogger, or other self-professed expert…
So let’s talk about the real limitations of tenkara methods:
You can’t fish weighted nymphs with a tenkara rod. Sure you can. You might have to wear a bag over your head, because tenkara purists will scoff at you, but I find some degree of satisfaction putting a weighted Czech nymph at the end of the line and managing its position and drift with the precision that only tenkara can provide. See below for more info. Caveat: you can’t chuck weighted nymphs with them. In addition, big weighted nymphs can nick the rod tip and break it. Finally, big flies require robust tippets to cast, and you don’t want to be using tippets stronger than 4x or you’ll risk tip failure. So, fish weighted nymphs all you want, but keep them small and don’t fool around with strike indicators and split shot, or all of tenkara’s fly control advantages will be lost. Tenkara, with a weighted nymph, is high-stick Czech nymphing at its finest, and most effective.
You can’t reach fish that are 50 feet away with a tenkara rod. Then walk or wade towards them, you lazy bum.
Tenkara fishing eliminates the cool factor I get by showing off my $400 disc-drag hi-capacity large arbor reel. Spend the $400 bucks on a nice camera: you’ll be so much cooler landing a five pound brown and asking the guy with the reel to take a photo of you with your “little trout” and “fly stick”.
You can’t look like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It when you’re casting a tenkara rod. Brad Pitt will have nothing on you. Tenkara is sexy – but it’s for Presbyterians, too.
I live, fish, and guide in Southwest Montana on big rivers like the Yellowstone, Madison, and Missouri – and am here to tell you that I’m a big-river-big-fish tenkara addict.
1. Tenkara allows you to deliver a fly-first and fly-only presentation.
The western angler, after a series of false casts to increase line length, will lay out a final cast across the current with delicacy and finesse – with the fly, leader, and line seemingly and softly falling onto the water at the same time that the final loop of leader and tippet unfurls in the distance.
This cast just spooked half the trout between you and the fly.
I cannot recall how many times I’ve seen a fly fishermen ignore, and then spook, every trout within easy reach of a tenkara cast, while casting long lines and then try to mend them in complicated currents.
A more skilled western angler will cast to close fish first, then to fish a little farther away, and finally, to the fish that require long casts. But what if fish are rising everywhere?
Tenkara allows you to pick and choose what fish you are casting to, regardless of where they are (except of course, for those ones that are very far away).
You see, tenkara allows you to deliver both a “fly first presentation” (where the fly hits the water first, before any other part of the line) and a “fly only presentation” (where the fly, and perhaps a few inches of tippet, are the only things to ever touch the water’s surface during a drift).
These two factors make for a deadly combination on spring creeks, but are even more important in big rivers. First, it allows you to more effectively respond to rising fish in front of you regardless of their position, rather than being forced to cast to the fish closest to you before casting to fish a little further away. Second, the fly first presentation allows you to precisely control the fly (see #2 below) with your rod tip, a much more effective and accurate strategy than mending line.
The reason that tenkara can more effectively deliver a fly first presentation is that the rod length allows the backcast to be delivered not only behind you, but high (where the fly is delivered up into the sky at an angle back over your shoulder) rather than behind and back (where the fly is delivered pretty much parallel to the ground behind you). The result of this backcast positioning is that it stages the forward cast for delivery of the fly forward and down (where the fly is delivered to the water at a much lower elevation than the rest of the tippet/line), rather than for delivery of the fly parallel to the ground in front of you, as in western methods.
It is because of these same casting physics that a fly-only presentation is effective with tenkara. Even with long lines (I sometimes use a level line up to 30 feet in length with the Amago), a long tenkara rod can effectively keep most of the line and leader off the water with little or no drag ever imparted to the fly. With 30 feet of double taper 4 weight line and a nine foot rod, this feat is nearly impossible with western style.
2. Tenkara allows you to control the fly.
Big rivers harbor complex, swirling currents. The more line you have to manage, the more strikes that you’ll miss at these current edges. Tenkara allows you to more effectively fish eddy lines, current seams, and over fast current lanes more effectively than western methods.
The sensitivity of tenkara, combined with the rod length and short line, means that every cast is predictable.
The result is that I can regularly deliver a fly at the end of four feet of tippet attached to a 20 foot tenkara level line to a target three inches in diameter, repeatedly.
The ability to cast with precision to a pinpoint location – combined with the fly-first and fly-only presentation style of tenkara – means that you can employ one of the most effective fishing strategies to entice a trout to take your fly: the repeated delivery of a fly to a small area over and over again, at quick intervals (this makes the fish aware of surface activity), followed by one final presentation that allows the fly to travel through the entire feeding lane of the trout. Often, the result is a successful, and aggressive take. Using this method with western gear is difficult (because it’s less accurate unless you are a practiced casting champion) and risky (because the more you send highly visible conventional fly line over a stream, the more you risk spooking trout with the shadows, splashes, spray, and drag of the line).
In addition, because you can deliver a fly-only presentation where the fly is controlled directly with the rod tip, you have immense control over where that fly travels, and can precisely position it into just about any feeding lane. My favorite feeding lanes to fish with tenkara gear are far eddy lines, pockets beyond faster moving water, and the far seams of plunge pools on the opposite sides of rocks – three locations where fish love to feed, and three locations that give all western flycasters absolute fits of line drag.
3. Tenkara requires that you stalk the fish at closer distances.
If you think that you only have to stalk fish in streams and spring creeks, then it’s a sign that you’ve watched a River Runs Through It too many times, and that you’re a western line distance addict. Stalking fish is not the same as “seeing a rise on the other side of the river and casting to it.” Stalking fish may be the single most important skill required to catch big trout, and it’s not the same as “prospecting for big trout in obvious looking runs”.
You don’t have the ability to cast to a fish rising 70 feet away from you, across the river, if you fish tenkara. Thank goodness, because I’ve yet to see a western angler effectively manage that much line in a big river unless he’s stripping a streamer.
4. Tenkara allows you to control the position of an underwater fly around and over obstacles.
We’ve already discussed above how and why tenkara’s fly-only presentation allows you to control a dry fly. This presentation style offers significant benefits for wet fly / nymph fishing as well.
Big rivers have big obstacles. Underwater log jams, boulders, and other structure provide current breaks that allow a smorgasbord of trout food to accumulate. Managing the drift of an underwater fly around obstacles, and over them, is nearly impossible with western methods. With tenkara, it’s as easy as lifting, reaching, and pulling. Tenkara allows you to deliver an underwater fly with absolute precision, simply by moving your rod tip up (raises the fly up in the water column) and down (sinks the fly down), back (upstream, raises and slows) and forth (downstream, sinks and dead drifts), or fore (away from you, sinks or dead drifts the fly away) and aft (towards you, raises the fly towards you). Combinations of these movements can effect additional control over the fly. These movements in combination with river currents give you tremendous control in positioning wet flies – all without the aids of indicators and split shot.
5. When you hook a fish with a tenkara rod, you have more control over the fish – where it goes, what it does.
Playing a big fish with tenkara is very exciting – you control a running fish with rod angle and control, not reel technology – there is more skill and “feel” involved in landing, and you are more connected to the fish. You can feel when it’s getting tired, and you can feel when it’s about to surge.
The length and slower action of tenkara rods are more forgiving than western rods when it comes to your response time to a running trout. There is a common misconception that in order to land a big fish using tenkara methods, you have to be prepared to swim and chase it. Mostly, it’s hogwash, and landing large trout simply means that you have to follow the fish a few yards, but mostly, use the rod, its position and angle, and the river currents, to your advantage to tire the trout.
6. Tenkara is aesthetically beautiful to hold, to cast, to land fish.
I can write about what this feels like, or you can try it for yourself. Go fish tenkara. You don’t need me to fuel the emotional addiction to tenkara fishing.
Ryan Jordan is a tenkara addict. Ryan is a licensed fishing guide in the State of Montana and offers tenkara instruction and guided trips on the Madison, Missouri, Yellowstone, and other big rivers that harbor big trout. Ryan teaches tenkara casting, fly control, big fish landing techniques, and more – learn more at the tenkara fly fishing page.
Since it’s high baetis season in Southwest Montana right now, I thought I’d share what I’d fish with during a baetis hatch if I could only have one fly: the Kebari (Tenkara) Baetis. The pattern is presented in the order of construction, and as typical of tenkara flies, is tied reverse-style.
Hook: standard wire, straight-eye scud hook, sizes 16-22 Head: brown silk Hackle: starling Thorax: ringneck pheasant tail Body: brown silk
Tenkara methods allow this fly to be fished very effectively regardless of its position in the water column. Baetis are dead drifting insects that aren’t as active as say, a caddisfly, so don’t impart a lot of action to the fly. Fish to risers in the surface film, dead drifted just underneath the surface, or fish deep as a nymph. The soft action of the starling feather gives the fly plenty of movement, the pheasant thorax presents the tell-tale wingcase bulge of the emerger, and the brown-and-gray coloring mimic the vast majority of coloration patterns of emerging baetis.
Important: keep the fly sparse. The temptation when tying tenkara flies is to use lots of hackle and fat bodies. Less material means that the fly will sink better, giving you more options for fishing deep, as well as not hold a lot of water, which will allow you to fish it in the film after a false cast or two.
Adaptations: This pattern is easily adapted to other species of mayflies, simply by changing the thread and/or hackle color. I tie it in a pale morning dun version by using yellow silk and the softer feathers of naturally mottled ginger hen hackle.
Ryan Jordan is a former commercial fly tyer and licensed fishing guide in the State of Montana and offers tenkara instruction and guided trips on the Madison, Missouri, Yellowstone, and other rivers. For more information, visit the tenkara fly fishing page.