Tenkara Fly Fishing and Packrafting on Montana’s West Fork Bitterroot River and Rock Creek

Brian and I have been friends, and fly fishing partners, for a long time. We’ve spent a fair bit of time logging trail miles and floating together, always searching for streams off the beaten path that hold big trout.

We like to spend our Spring Breaks in Western Montana. Sure, the beaches are a bit snowy and we can’t wear Speedos and Reefs, but we do float some beautiful water and tie into some fantastic trout fishing for big, wild Montana rainbows and cutthroats.

I have fished Tenkara exclusively on our last two spring break trips, and mostly with soft hackle nymph patterns that mimic the soon-to-erupt skwala stoneflies. Occasionally, we get to cast to tiny midges which start hatching profusely this time of year.

Ryan Jordan is a licensed fishing guide in the state of Montana and one of the only guides in the USA to focus exclusively on teaching and guiding traditional Japanese tenkara methods. Learn more about tenkara and catching large, wild Montana trout by visiting Ryan’s tenkara page.

Tenkaranicity

“There’s more to life than fly fishing.
In fact, real life offers, and demands, a lot more.
And that’s a good thing. Because fly fishing can get really boring.
Unless, well, you’re actually fly fishing.” – An anonymous truth

~

I love to fly fish.

The satisfaction I get out of casting a rod, or hearing the ripple of water around my waders, or watching a baetis mayfly struggle to get out of its shuck on a cold October day never goes away. And feeling adrenaline coursing through my veins when I know I have a twenty inch trout on the end of my line is something that’s hard to replicate. I like that feeling. A lot.

This brown trout is a little less than twenty inches, but provided fodder for a memorable moment for Chase and I on the Madison River near Varney Bridge.

Tenkara has renewed my passion for fly fishing because the lack of gear required to fish with pure Tenkara methods is almost comical in the context of the amount of fly fishing gear available for sale in the Orvis and Cabela’s catalogs. So, I suppose I like Tenkara because it’s a little bit on the fringe, but I think I like it more because it reflects a deeper simplicity that I’d like to achieve in other areas of life.

In other words, I’d like to bring a little bit of Tenkaranicity to my home, my garage, my office, and even my locker of backpacking gear. I spend way too much time dealing with things – shopping for them, buying them, maintaining them, counting them, storing them, cleaning them, moving them, garage sale-ing them, and then feeling guilty about not using them.

All this requires a lot of time.

And that cuts into my fishing time, which is not a good thing.

Not because I have to fish to be happy, because I don’t (but I’m happier when I’m fishing, go figure). And it’s not because I feel the need to catch monster trout (but when I do catch one, there’s no question that I’m on the lookout for #2…#3…etc.).

No, it’s not these things, but more.

This September, my dad came to visit me in Montana to fish for a few days. We were joined by my wife Stephanie, and son Chase. We didn’t catch a lot of fish this year, but we made a lot of memories, and at its core, I think this is what I enjoy most about fly fishing: the quietness of the outdoors that allows relationships to foster.

Here’s a list of my favorite moments from my September trip:

  1. Watching Chase take his first steps ever into the Firehole River with a Tenkara rod in hand, and the excitement of knowing that some of the toughest trout to catch in the world were rising all around him.
  2. Rowing my drift boat for my Dad while he fished from the bow, and being able to repay him for all the times he did it for me while growing up and fishing for steelhead in Washington State.
  3. Taking a  long walk with Stephanie up the banks of the Madison River because I left my rod on an island upstream, and being more acutely aware of bears because I had every intention of smoking them with pepper spray if they messed with her.
  4. Having Chase by my side to net a big brown that I caught (photo above), and then releasing it back into the river with grace and gentleness that reflected an awe of nature in him that I’m glad for.
  5. Feeling sorry for my landlubber labrador, who shakes in the boat because floating scares her, who jumps from the boat at inopportune moments because she’d rather swim or run along the bank, who not-so-delicately chases my flies as I cast them delicately to rising trout, and who breaks anchor and sends the boat downstream unattended when I tie her to it because she’d rather follow me while I fish.

The bottom line is that while I really do like to fish, I like fishing with people (and some dogs) a lot more. So it is with me and outdoor recreation in general. Sure, I like it well enough and enjoy using the gear, learning the techniques, and conquering nature, I like it more when I can share all those things.

Stephanie, Chase, and Maia in the Clackacraft on the Madison River near Lyons Bridge.

And I think at the core, this is the primary appeal to me for simplifying my life and thinning my possessions to manageable levels – being able to maximize opportunity for relationships, and minimize barriers to developing them.

To that end, then, Tenkaranicity is not so much about the gear, but about what less gear allows you to do, and be – less cluttered, and more focused on the important things.

Jorden Lake: A Different Kind of Special

Jorden Lake is perched near the western terminus of the Beartooth High Lakes Trail, which you’d infer to be popular simply because the trail is named on the old USGS maps.

In July, I walked the High Lakes Trail west from Island Lake and saw only 9 people, 6 of which were day hikers near its eastern terminus.

In late August, I walked the High Lakes Trail and saw another 6 day hikers near Island Lake, and only 3 other parties of backpackers.

So it was not a great surprise to find out that we’d have one of the Beartooth’s most spectacular lakes all to ourselves when we arrived.

Jorden is a neat lake. Superb scenery, remoteness, and an outstanding cutthroat trout fishery means that it’s worth being a destination.

Jorden Lake outlet stream (Farley Creek), July 2010. LEICA M9, ZEISS BIOGON-C 35/2.8.

 

 

However, on my trip in late August, it was only a stopping point.

We arrived late in the evening to calm skies and rising trout, and I remember the evening well: a pleasant breeze, a bright moon, a small campfire, grilled trout, a mule doe, and crawling into a dry sleeping bag on a crisp, starry night.

Jorden Lake cutthroat, caught with a Tenkara Hane rod after dark, during a stonefly hatch on Farley Creek, August 2010. We grilled these trout over fire using the 1-oz Zia Titanium grill. PANASONIC TS-1.

 

 

 

We woke up to something different.

Hostile winds, enveloping fog, cold temperatures, and sleet.

Our morning fire was to be a functional one: for cooking a hot meal, and warming up extremely numb fingers.

Morning fire at Jorden Lake, August 2010. There’s a pretty blue lake behind the fog. LEICA M9, ZEISS BIOGON-C 35/2.8.

 

 

This day, too, was to be a special one, marking the beginning of our three-day, six-mile descent of the Farley Creek canyon in conditions that could be described as being on the wrong side of pleasant.

It was one of my most memorable, and rewarding, three day treks ever.

The photo above tells only the beginning of that story, and I like its composition for its simplicity. I can feel the magic warmth that fire gave to me, and boy oh boy, did I like it. That, and knowing that behind the fog, lies one of the most beautiful blue lakes in the Beartooth Range. I felt strange when I took this photo (self-portrait, from a tripod): like it was just me, and the fire, and a few scrappy trees, and then – nothingness. It’s a weird feeling, being engulfed in mountain fog this thick – me and the fire. The fire and me. Me and the fire… (I’ve felt this weird fog-feeling only a few times before. Once was when I was caught in a dreary rainstorm on the Valhalla Traverse en route to climb the Black Ice Couloir in the Tetons. I was bivied on a desperate ledge, soaking wet, and there was nothing but fog around me – just me, the bivy, and a lot of dangerous exposure, and no fire.)

I’ve passed Jorden lake a dozen times before, but this time, because it marked the beginning of something special, it’s forever cemented into my memory as one of my favorite spots. If you ever have the chance, go to Jorden Lake …

… and then take a dive down the Farley Creek canyon for an adventure into the unknown, but beautiful, bowels of the Beartooth Range.

Place

Lake Chain Packrafting

Slow paddling through mountain lake chains offers a unique type of solitude and an entirely different way of seeing “routes”.

In recent years, it’s become one of my favorite ways to travel through the mountains.

The Martin Lake Chain in the Beartooth Range is a case in point.

A traverse of this basin by foot, which is arguably one of, if not the most, scenic short trek in the Beartooth Range, takes only a day from what most people consider as the “top lake” (Rachel Lake, 9864′) to what most people consider as the bottom lake (Estelle Lake, 9182′), because it’s only 2.4 miles and is an easy enough day hike from a base camp at Martin or Wright Lake.

In fact, most people skip Estelle, and few go “up” to Rachel, so their day trek becomes less than a mile from the outlet of Martin to the inlet of Whitcomb, and they get to see four lakes in the chain (Martin-Wright-Spogen-Whitcomb).

Granted, the Rachel-to-Estelle chain is full of scenic awesomeness at every turn but it’s only a little piece of the pie, and can’t be appreciated fully in one day trip.

I knew that on my first Rachel-to-Estelle traverse in 2001, I had to come back and spend some time.

So in 2002, I came back and caught a fish in each lake, which required me to spend at least 10 minutes along each shoreline. I was done in a couple of hours.

So in 2003, I came back and spent 3 days camping in the chain at various locations, and knew that I was starting to appreciate its intimacy.

But it wasn’t until much later, while peering at the maps, that I realized that there might be stuff higher than Rachel and lower than Estelle that were worth visiting.

In fact, I went to the headwaters. The highest lake in the chain is actually Silver Tarn, at 10,846′, just SW of Grasshopper Glacier, and way, way off trail. I reached it via an ardurous off trail traverse that started in the Lake Fork of Rock Creek, and then climbed through dense brush, talus, and blowdowns to Black Canyon Lake. Six miles and seven hours after leaving the car, we bivied on a windy pass overlooking the lake.

After descending to and then paddling (via packraft) across the mile-long Black Canyon Lake (thus avoiding talus and cliffs), we reached the Grasshopper Moraine and more pain until we crested the hydrologic divide of the Beartooths just above Grasshopper Glacier wearing Kahtoolas and breathing a sigh of relief because we didn’t have to arrest with packraft paddles equipped with lashed picks of granite shards on the ends. We reached the crest at midday on Day 2 and enjoyed knowing that it was to be all downhill from here, with a view of Silver Tarn glistening below us.

A short descent down the glacier brought us to the tarn, where we bivied for the night on a big, sloping granite slab.

From here, we inflated our packrafts and kept them inflated for the rest of the trip (with a few notable exceptions), strapping them to our packs for the interim treks between the lakes that included a lot of talus hopping, scree sliding, blowdown limbo-ing, and bushwhacking.

We rafted from the inlet to outlet of every lake in the chain: Silver Tarn (10868′), Two Bits (10211′), Triskele (10190′), North Cloverleaf (10130′), West Cloverleaf (10110′), Rachel (9864′), Martin (9658′), Wright (9630′), Spogen (9583′), Whitcomb (9542′), Estelle (9182′), Granite (8630′), and lots of wide spots, and fast spots, in the wild outlet creek of Granite Lake down to its confluence with Highway 212.

The final route was only 25 miles (with five miles on trail at the beginning and less than a mile of “faint paths” en route), with immense – and I mean immense – on the ground routefinding challenges. I mean, how hard can it be, right? You’re just following a stream — all the way! If not for the faint trail sections here and there created by hardy fishermen, bear, and elk, we might still be trying to find our way out of there.

But that’s not the important or dramatic part.

The best part of this trek was using packrafts to navigate lakes along a natural route corridor. I think this is one of the most spectacular and gratifying means of wilderness travel style: you really do become one with the drainage.

From the ice fringed shores of Silver Tarn to the cliff-rimmed waters of Rachel Lake to our thunderstorm-trapped bivy on the island at Martin Lake to the waterfall at Spogen Lake to dramatic scenic beauty at Whitcomb Lake to the West Wall of Estelle Lake to the exciting paddle of Lake Creek as it fed into Granite Lake to the camp in a bay of Granite Lake that we were convinced had never been visited by man to the 3.5 mile paddle through Granite Lake and its outlet creek and lakes, to the almost-accidental-drop over waterfalls on Lake Creek to trout-infested waters deep in the low country to the hand over hand descent of waterfall chains near the end, to the horrified looks of tourists in a passing Eurovan as we emerged from trees onto Highway 212 with torn up packrafts, dried blood on our clothes, and shoes with half soles…

Packrafting the Beartooths can sort of be like that.

Tenkara Bums and More

Little bits of random goodness about Tenkara fly fishing gear, technique, and people.

Tenkara Bums

I do possess totally nerdy roots as a computer programmer and can remember even as a kid my obsession with what eventually became known as “program bumming” – the removal of code that results in no loss of efficiency (and often, in improvement) or function. To be a bum, was a badge of honor that eventually earned some of my peers a ticket to an early retirement. I chose the far more altruistic, and far less profitable path, of attending University.

So I smile a little bit whenever I hear of a “ski bum” or a “hiking bum” or a “fishing bum” and instead of scoffing at them, I study them, because like the programmer who changed the world, these are the guys innovating and changing our favorite pastimes for the better. The only difference between these bums and code bums is of course, the money, which is why you should try to support them instead of upgrading to Windows 8.

This brings me to the main point and that is the emergence of the Tenkara Bum, a recent new subspecies of Bum.

I joined the Tenkara Bums (has anyone tattooed this yet?) because I’m hopelessly enthralled with this modern day “willow-stick” style of fly fishing. It’s an interesting circle of influence we share, because frankly, there isn’t a lot of gear to buy and there’s precious few skills to learn and master.  Like other classes of fishing bums (I’ve been a member in the past and present of groups known as Steelhead Bums, Madison River Bums, Beartooth Plateau Bums, etc.), I think Tenkara Bums are drawn to each other in search of a common experience, and for Tenkara Bums, it’s simple: we like to catch fish on minimalist tackle, and we like to see each other catch fish on minimalist tackle.

Many of the Tenkara Bum Inner Circle found our way here because it was a natural progression from ultralight backpacking and we are finding that Tenkara fishing reflects the ethos we already possess, and have honed, for years.

So this post is as much a tribute to the Tenkara Bum as it is to Tenkara gear and technique, and here are my #followfriday recommendations for a few up-and-coming Tenkara Bums with interesting Tenkara experiences:

The Tenkara Hane

I see the Tenkara Hane is sold out over at Backpacking Light, so I put in another order for them this week. Be sure to sign up for a stock alert if you want to get on the waiting list.

We originally developed this as a limited edition. Tenkara was supposed to be a fad, a passing thing. We were supposed to sell enough rods to satisfy the demand of the people who wanted these kooky collapsible willows – you know, like GoLite did with the Breeze.

Instead, we commissioned several more production runs, and have had a tough time keeping these in stock (surprise, surprise). There’s a good reason for that, I think, and it’s because they fill a unique niche amongst Tenkara rods: they’re short, and compact. Their short extended length means they are a fantastic option for tight situations where a long rod is unwieldy. I wish it could be even shorter, and I may indeed start playing with shorter designs. Their short compacted length has obvious benefits in that it can be stowed inside a small carryon or pack.

The most common inquiry I get about the Hane goes like this:

Its short length (i.e., 9’10”, or 3m) makes it impractical for big fish, big rivers, and lakes, right?

Let’s talk for a moment about ideals vs. practical use.

I’m an idealist too, so I recognize that when I’m fishing a big river, playing a big fish, or extended my reach as far as possible, I may want every advantage available. Within the confines of Tenkara fishing, that means I want a long rod. Within the confines of fly fishing, that means a long rod, a reel with disc drag, good double haul technique, and 2X fluorocarbon tippet.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

My short reply is thus a simple one:

Stalking big fish by getting close to them, hooking them, and playing them to shore on a little rod like the Hane is an experience unto itself!

In other words, can it be done?

Of course it can. It’s up to you — not your gear.

The Little Bamboo Tenkara Box

There’s a lot of hype about the environmental benefits of bamboo but until somebody can start growing it in my backyard in Montana instead of having to ship it from southeast Asia, I’m probably not inclined to listen to them, and for me, those are not the primary benefits of using bamboo.

I love wood. I love art. Bamboo is beautiful. So I designed a Tenkara fly box out of it for Backpacking Light. It should be available in their new Tenkara fly fishing kit, which includes the box, flies, tippet, and some other neat accessories sometime soon.

Backpacking Light’s new bamboo fly box, to be launched Fall 2010 as part of an ultrailght Tenkara fly fishing kit. LEICA M9.

 

 

It’s pretty light too, but not as light as the Morell Foam Fly Box, the creation of which we owe to the likes of BP, Exxon, and others. The Morell is my second favorite box, but only because I didn’t think of it first.

Tenkara Eating Techniques

The Tenkara-caught trout is best dressed with a Baladeo Knife, sprinkled with sea salt, placed atop a Zia Titanium Grill and cooked over a fire started with a Firesteel Mini, and eaten with a Light My Fire Titanium Spork. The reason I love each of these pieces of gear is because of their (mostly) simple design aesthetic, and the fact that they just plain work. The knife, the grill, and the spork are true works of art. The Firesteel Mini’s aesthetic could benefit from a nice teak handle!

(Disclaimer: I profit from products that I promote and sell at Backpacking Light. Maybe I get a dime every time you buy a firestarting kit, I don’t know. I just know that I’m pretty thankful to have a job in today’s economy running Backpacking Light and I don’t have to eke out a living as a Tenkara Bum. The reality, however, is that I do use this gear, and the reverse is usually true: Backpacking Light stocks, and sells, the products that I use and recommend the most to others. You see, it does go both ways. It’s also more fun than selling advertising. Remember, there is a reason this stuff is out of stock a lot: it’s really good gear.)

My son Chase, now 12, and a Backpacking Light customer (I wonder if Sam gave him a discount on that titanium spork?). He loves all aspects of trout fishing, and has a special affinity for Tenkara, cooking fish over fire, and eating them. Here he is in the Beartooths this summer enjoying one of the brook trout shown in the stringer in the main photo accompanying this post. PANASONIC DMC-TS1.

 

 

 

 

And yes, this is exactly how I dress, cook, and eat Tenkara trout most of the time.

The Most Important Tenkara Skills

The most important Tenkara skills are not casting or mending and they have nothing to do with knots or flies.

The most important Tenkara skills are Vision, and Stealth.

With Vision, you can see fish underwater and be like Superman. To have Vision, you need polarized glasses, knowledge of where fish like to hang out, and patience.

With Stealth, you can sneak up to within casting range of those fish without them seeing you. To have Stealth, you sometimes need to be willing to crawl, and you always need to both plan your approach, and then have the patience to go slow.

With both Vision and Stealth, you can elevate your Tenkara fishing from hobby fishing to real hunting.

With both Vision and Stealth, you can find, reach, and catch Big Fish – even with a Hane.

In Conclusion: It’s About the Experience, Ya Bum!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Tenkara really isn’t about the gear or the skills, it’s about the experience of catching fish (notice that I didn’t just say “fishing” – how boring is that!) on minimalist gear.

It really is a wonderful thing, and I can’t shamelessly promote it enough as a sport in its own right, especially for the ultralight backpacking community.

Besides, there are plenty of other support groups out there to help the Tenkara Scoffers, those bums.