How Stuff Works – Tenkara

Tenkara Fishing Smoky Mountains
Fishing with tenkara

Many of you have already entered the world of tenkara. Others have probably at least heard a little bit about of it. Many fly fishers think its the greatest thing that’s ever happened, and just as many more think it’s just plain stupid. Regardless of what you may think, what many thought was a passing trend appears to be here to stay. So let’s learn a little something about it.

The Big Picture

By definition, tenkara is an old, simplistic form of fly fishing that comes from Japan. The reason many think of it as simplistic is that there are very few moving parts. There is no reel and no extra line. There is just a single length of line that is attached to the tip of the rod.

The rods are on the longer side, typically 10 – 12′, but there are shorter and longer versions. This method of fishing often involves a single cast and the length of the rod is used to reach and keep much of the line off the water. So, it’s a long rod with a single length of line attached to the end? Isn’t that just cane pole fishing? Yes.

Anyone who tries to tell you differently is lying to you or themselves. It has been marketed as this revolutionary style of fly fishing, but it really is no different than fishing with a cane pole. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Old timers in the Smokies fished this way for decades and caught A LOT of fish.

Tenkara USA Rod
Typical tenkara set-up

The only thing that makes it different is the use of more modern materials. Rods used for tenkara are made from carbon fiber and are very light weight. They are also telescopic, so that 12′ rod travels at about 18″. The tips are very fine so they have an incredible amount of feel. Old cane poles were long and heavy.

The lightweight and packability is a big reason they are so popular. They are just really easy to throw in a backpack. But many seem to think their simplicity equates to less stuff to carry, and I just haven’t found that to be true. You may not need to have a reel, but you still need wading gear, flies, tippet, snips, water, etc. Sure you can just take the rod and some flies, but you could do that with a conventional fly rod. You’ll just have a reel on the end. The simplicity is more with the technique.

The Technique

We have a tendency to complicate things. I can use a conventional fly rod and use the same techniques as you would with tenkara. I’ve done it for years. But when you add a reel full of line, many people want to cast farther than they need to, and consequently end up with too much line on too many currents, resulting in a poor presentation. When you remove the extra line from the equation – when you can only use a fixed amount – you are forced to read water and properly position yourself. And the longer rod allows more reach to do those things.

There are times when you need to make longer casts. In long, slow pools, you often can’t get close to the fish without spooking them. Tenkara can put you at a significant disadvantage in these situations. I can’t think of too many places on the Clinch River, with its long slicks, where tenkara would be very practical. But in the Smokies, where we have a lot of pocket water and riffles, it’s deadly.

The Gear

Tenkara Lillian
Lillian

Again, a tenkara rod is just a long, telescopic rod with no place for a reel. Since there is no extra moving line, there are no guides on the rod. At the tip of the rod is a permanently affixed piece of cord, called the lillian. You attach your line here.

There are a few types of line used for tenkara. Some prefer a braided line with a length of tippet on the end. Others use a long, single piece of heavy, often colored, piece of mono with a length of tippet on the end. I build a specific line when I fish tenkara. I build a taper with different diameters of colored mono and attach the appropriate size tippet to the end.

Tenkara Line Tender
Wheel style line tender

There are also a number of different line tenders you can use when you want to break down the rod but keep the line and fly attached. Some of these devices are actually on the butt of the rod and you wrap the line around them. Others are a separate wheel that you wrap the line around and slide the wheel on the rod. The more popular this becomes, the more gadgets appear.

You can also find specific tenkara flies. They always seem to be tied with an unusual inverted hackle. I’m sure they catch fish but I never bought into this. I choose flies based on fish, stream, season and conditions – not what type of rod I’m fishing.

Learn More

This is very much an overview. A quick Google search of tenkara will provide a lot more details. Tenkara USA is one of the better companies selling this gear and they have a number of instructional videos on their website to help with everything from rigging to technique. Of course, I am always happy to help with any of this on a guide trip, as well. Bring your own rod or use mine if you’re just wanting to get a taste.

How Stuff Works: Sink Tip Fly Lines

Rio Sink Tip Fly Line
Sink tip fly line

Floating fly lines are by far the most common, and for most trout fishing situations, they are all you need. When nymphing below the surface, weight in the fly or on the leader (split shot) is enough to get the fly and leader down where it needs to be. Doing this while the fly line is still floating can be advantageous as it allows the line to be mended when necessary and provides for quicker pick up when setting the hook on a dead drift.  Even when fishing with streamers, a floating line is often adequate when stripping a weighted streamer through shallow trout streams.

But what if you want to get a streamer down and keep it down when retrieving it through deeper, swifter water? Such scenarios might include a mountain trout stream that’s running high from recent rain, or a tailwater fishery during generation. Both of these scenarios have produced some of the largest trout I’ve ever caught. Or what if you’re wanting to fish a streamer 12’ deep in a lake for stripers?

Performing the above tasks with a floating fly line would require a very heavy fly with a long leader. And the result would be extremely difficult casting and very limited “contact” with the fly. When fishing streamers, shorter leaders allow you to better control the motion of the fly when retrieving it, and give you much quicker feedback when the fish takes it.  Additionally, because of the floating fly line, the fly would rise with every strip of the line rather than staying deep in the target area.

Breakdown of a Typical Sink Tip Line
Breakdown of a typical sink tip line

A sink tip fly line solves these problems by allowing the front portion of the fly line to sink. Weightless flies that are easier to cast and sometimes have better “action” can be used and so can shorter leaders. And with the fly line submerged, the fly will stay down and retrieve more in a straight line rather than upward toward the surface. Full sinking lines can also be used for this task but can be clumsy to cast and nearly impossible to mend. A sink tip line more or less gives you the best of both worlds.

Sink tip fly lines have a number of variations. First, they will often have different lengths of sinking heads. In other words, the entire fly line will float except for the front 6’ or 15’ or whatever the case may be. In general, a shorter head will be easier to cast. A longer head will keep more of the line, and consequently the fly, down deeper. They will also come in different sink rates. Some manufacturers may provide a measurement in grains but most will be designated in a class – like a class 5. A Class 5, for instance, will typically sink at a rate of approximately 5” per second. A Class 2 will sink at approximately 2” per second. They commonly range from Class 1 (often described as an intermediate line) to Class 6.

Sink Tip Fly Line Sink Rates

Very often, the weight classes will correspond specifically with the actual line size. For instance, you may find a 10-weight sink tip line that is a Class 5, or a 6-weight sink tip line that is a Class 3, but there may not be an option for a Class 5 6-weight.

Sinking Poly Leaders
Sinking “leaders”

You can also find separate add-on sink tips to convert any floating line into a sink tip. This is convenient if you don’t want to carry an extra spool or if you don’t plan to fish sink tip lines frequently and don’t want the expense of an extra spool and line. However, my experience with these is that they hinge at the connection with the floating line and cast terribly.

As with nearly everything in fly fishing, you need to figure out what’s best for your task at hand. Where are you going to be fishing? What are you trying to do? What size rod will you be using?

Hopefully, this sheds a little bit of light on sink tip lines. They can be terribly confusing, mainly because every manufacturer seems to have their own way of describing them. You really need to read through the fine print in the description of the lines to figure out what’s what. Your best bet is to talk to someone at a local fly shop. They can really break down the differences for you.

How Stuff Works: Packs and Vests

Guided Fly Fishing in the Smoky MountainsAs with most things in fly fishing, fishing packs and vests have come a long way over the years.  The great thing about that is you now have a seemingly endless array of ways to carry and organize your on-stream tools and accessories.  The bad thing is those seemingly endless choices can be a bit overwhelming.

There is certainly no right or wrong pack or vest.  The best option for you will boil down to how much stuff you plan to carry. Where you plan to carry it (backcountry or more roadside) is another factor. And how do you want to organize things? As with fly rods, the more diverse your fishing adventures are, the more likely you’ll need multiple options. What might work well for backcountry trout fishing may not work very well wading saltwater flats.  But for most folks, you should be able to find one system that works for all of your fishing needs.

Again, what works best for me may not suit you at all. I’m not going to try to tell you the best product.  However, I have had the opportunity over the last 30 years to use most every style of vest/pack.  I’ll share below what I believe are pros and cons of each.

Orvis Fly Fishing Vest
Fly fishing vest

Vests: For decades, this has been the standard for carrying fly boxes, tools, etc. on the stream. While there have been some changes over the years, the basic concept is still the same. This is still the choice for many anglers.  One of the greatest benefits of a vest is that with individual pockets for nearly everything, it’s really easy to keep things separated and organized.  And the design of the vest is such that you can keep most of those items quickly and easily accessible.  Most vests will also have larger compartments on the back for items that you may not need to access as frequently, like a rain jacket or lunch. D-rings on the back of a vest also make a great place to attach a net where its out of the way but easily accessible with the addition of a magnetic or clip attachment.

While there have been numerous improvements over the years, the biggest complaint with vests is that they feel heavy. You carry most of the weight on your neck and shoulders.  Another downside is they do not wear well with a backpack.  If you like to do a lot of backcountry fishing, you may want to carry more safety and comfort provisions. That often necessitates a backpack in addition to your fishing gear.  It can be difficult to comfortably and practically wear a backpack when the straps are going over full, bulky pockets on a vest.

Umpqua Hip Pack
Hip pack

Hip Packs: You wear these around the waist on the rear when not fishing. Rotate to the hip to access items in the pack. Probably their greatest advantage is that they stay out of your way when fishing. This offers total freedom of movement when casting, etc. You can also add accessories (built in to some packs) to a net.

The biggest downside to a hip pack is that it doesn’t keep items as organized and it can be more difficult to access those items.  Additionally, the hip pack, by itself, usually does not have the capacity to carry larger items like a rain jacket or lunch.  However, a hip pack does wear comfortably with an additional backpack. Many will use the hip pack alone when fishing closer to the car and add a backpack when fishing in the backcountry. Finally, these are not the best option for someone who does a lot of deep wading.  Although, there are a lot of waterproof options now.

Fishpond chest pack
Small chest pack

Chest Packs: These, as the name implies, are designed to be worn on the chest. They come in a number of sizes and they organize things in much the same way a hip pack does. But items are far more accessible on your chest and high out of the water.  Many will have a D-ring on the rear of the neck strap for carrying a net. I would include a chest fly box (like I use) in the same category as a chest pack, except that there is no need for separate fly boxes.

Richardson Chest Fly Box
Chest Fly Box

Some don’t like having a cumbersome item on their chest and some of the larger chest packs can be quite cumbersome.  Smaller chest packs are very comfortable but don’t carry as much stuff.  In either case, you won’t have enough capacity to carry large items but like a hip pack, you can easily wear a backpack with your chest pack to carry more things when traveling far from the car.  Some companies even make “fishing backpacks” designed in such a way that a compatible chest pack can clip to the front of it.

Orvis Sling Pack
Sling pack

Sling Packs: These are the latest trend in fishing packs. They’re designed to be more accessible than a hip pack and more out of the way than a chest pack.  They’re worn diagonally across your body so that they can be easily “slung” around to your front when you need to get to it.  It can then be “slung” around and secured out of the way on your back when you’re fishing.  They come in small and large sizes depending on how much you need to carry.

These packs are well designed and very comfortable but even the big ones don’t have enough capacity to carry everything you might want to take on a trip deep into the backcountry. On such a trip, I typically carry a rain jacket, lunch, first-aid kit and plenty of water.  I also regularly carry my wading boots in on long hikes. You need a backpack to carry those items. A sling bag just can’t be worn and utilized with a backpack.  The other downside to a sling bag is there just doesn’t seem to be a good place to carry a net (if needed) without it getting in the way.

Orvis Fly Fishing Lanyard
Fly fishing lanyard

Lanyard: A fishing lanyard is basically a necklace for carrying your essentials around your neck.  Most will comfortably carry and organize nippers, forceps, tippet, floatant and small fly box.  By itself, this is for the absolute minimalist.  For others, it may be a way to keep essential, frequently used items immediately accessible while carrying other less frequently used items in a hip pack or backpack.

The downside is fairly obvious with a lanyard.  It has almost zero capacity.  There is no place for rain jacket, lunch, water, camera, leaders, multiple fly boxes, etc.  In my opinion, the only reasonable use for a lanyard would be in a boat or in conjunction with another pack as mentioned above.

How Stuff Works: Floatants

Parachute Adams Fly Pattern
Parachute Adams dry fly

One of the worst things you can do to a dry fly is catch a fish on it!  They slime it and submerge it and swim it around… Just in general, keeping a dry fly floating better and longer seems to be an ongoing quest for many fly tyers and fishers.

There are a number of factors that can go into how well and how long a dry fly continues to float high. Certainly the materials from which the fly is tied will play a big role, as will the skill of the angler.  The more you allow your fly to drag across currents, rather than drift on them, the more waterlogged your fly will become. Where you are fishing will make a difference, too.  It’s easier to keep a fly floating high in big, open rivers where false casting is an option than it is in a small, tight mountain stream.  In any case, an endless number of products exist for this task. We lump them all into the category of “floatants.”

As with many products in the fly fishing world, if you ask ten different anglers which one is the best, it’s entirely possible that you will get ten different answers. Sometimes those answers will come in the form of a specific brand of floatant. Others will come in the form of a specific style.  When it comes to brand, I believe that is a matter of personal preference and you’ll just have to try a few different ones to see if one in particular earns your loyalty.  But when it comes to different styles of floatant, the specific task at hand may determine which will be best.  In fact, you may want to have more than one style of floatant to perform different tasks. Listed below are a few different common styles of floatant and a description of how and when they might best be applied.

Loon Hydrostop Fly Floatant
Liquid floatant

Liquid Floatants
While many anglers use them in different ways, liquid floatants are probably most useful before you ever get to the stream.  Whether dry flies that you tie yourself or buy from a shop, you can use a liquid style floatant to “pre-treat” new flies in much the same way as you might “Scotchgard” your sofa.  Exact application may vary. Read the recommendations for the specific brand you purchase. You typically soak the flies in the liquid for five minutes or so and dry them overnight.  In theory, after application of the product, water will better bead and roll of the fly material rather than absorb into it.

Orvis Hy-Flote Fly Floatant
Orvis gel floatant

Gel Floatants
Gel floatants are probably the most common and popular style of floatant.  They come in a small, very portable bottle and, like the liquid floatants, are designed to be a pre-treatment to an already dry fly.  The big difference is gel floatants are designed to be used streamside, immediately before fishing the fly.

It is important that you don’t “over apply” the gel.  Rub a small amount  into the fly and any remove any excess.  Gels are also frequently mis-applied – after a fly has already become waterlogged.  If a fly is already saturated, applying a gel floatant will essentially trap moisture into the fly and make it worse.

Loon Fly Spritz Fly Floatant
Spray floatant

Spray Floatants
Also normally applied while the fly is still dry, spray floatants are basically just a variation on a gel floatant.  Spray floatants come in a bottle with a pump top and apply much like you would spray an eyeglass cleaner.  They are not as messy as the gel but are sometimes more challenging to completey coat the fly.

Loon Payette Paste Fly Floatant
Paste floatant

Paste Floatants
These are basically just a thicker version of a gel floatant.  They really create a mess on smaller dry flies. Use paste for larger dries like hoppers and stoneflies.  A lot of people prefer a paste floatant to apply to yarn strike indicators or even on a leader to keep it floating better.

Shimazaki Dry-Shake Fly Floatant
Powder floatant

Powder Floatants
Use these less as a pre-treatment and more as a means to revive a saturated fly.  As mentioned above, when a dry fly becomes oversaturated and begins to sink, applying a gel or spray can often make it worse by trapping moisture in.  Powder floatants absorb and remove that moisture from a fly.

Typically they will come in a bottle with a wide, flip-top lid.  Keep the fly, on the tippet, put it in the bottle and close the lid.  Shake the bottle a few times to remove moisture from the fly.

At this point, there is a lot of debate on whether to re-apply a gel or spray type floatant. You’ll just have to find what works best for you.  I usually don’t re-apply another floatant unless I’m using a synthetic (like foam) dry fly.

Frog's Fanny Fly Floatant
Brush-on floatant

Brush Floatants
Brush floatants are essentially another version of a powder floatant.  Rather than shaking the fly inside the bottle, use a small brush to apply the powder to the fly.  Again, it’s personal preference but with brush floatants, expect a little frustration on windy days!

There are countless styles and floatants on the market today and all have their place.  And unlike the homemade lighter fluid and paraffin concoctions of days gone by, they are typically odorless and environmentally friendly.  You just need to find a system that suits your needs.

Personally, I carry a gel floatant for pre-treating dry flies and a “shake style” powder for reviving them and get by just fine.  But I offer the disclaimer that I often offer in these newsletter articles… This is just one man’s opinion!

How Stuff Works: Forceps

Forceps
Forceps

In the world of fly fishing, there is an endless array of gadgets designed to serve every purpose, from threading a fly, to removing a fly from a tree, to tying knots… If you have any task to perform in fly fishing that you find the least bit frustrating or unpleasant, chances are someone has invented a gadget to make it easier.  But I’ve never been much of a gadget guy. I try to keep the number of items I carry on the stream to a minimum.

It’s funny how different folks have different priorities when it comes to what they carry with them.  For instance, I never go into the backcountry without a daypack that includes a first-aid kit and the basic necessities (fire source, water purification, etc.) to spend the night if I have to.  99.9% of backcountry fishing trips go off without a hitch, but things happen. And I like to be prepared for the unexpected.  I learned long ago that there is a name for people who go into the woods unprepared: “Statistics.”  Yet, I regularly encounter fishermen deep in the backcountry with no such provisions. But they have fifteen different knot tying tools hanging from their vest!

I’ve taken a really long way around the barn to say that there are only two fishing “tools” that I routinely carry with me when I’m fishing: nippers and forceps.  I’ve talked about nippers in another article.  They are responsible for most of the work I’m doing with my line.  Forceps handle pretty much everything else.

If you get in certain circles, mainly the medical community, someone might correct you and say, “Those aren’t forceps.  They’re hemostats.”  Another might refer to them as clamps.  Maybe there are subtle differences in the three – I don’t know.  But in fly fishing, the three terms are interchangeable and refer to a tool that looks kind of like a pair of scissors but with a nose more like a pair of pliers.  While they come in slightly different shapes and sizes, most are fairly long and narrow and have a locking feature.

Forceps have a number of different uses but I mostly use them to perform three common tasks.  If I need to crimp the barb on a hook, whether required by law or simply preferred, I use my forceps.  If I need to squeeze a split shot on a leader, I use my forceps.  And if I happen to hook a fish a little deeper in the mouth and the fly is difficult to reach without harming the fish, I use my forceps.

The locking feature is frequently used for hook extraction.  I clamp the forceps on the hook and carefully remove it from the mouth of the fish.  I also use the locking feature to clamp the forceps to my pack or shirt when they’re not in use.  For these reasons, I greatly prefer a pair of locking forceps to pliers.

Medical Forceps
Common “Medical Forceps”

I also prefer to have forceps with flat jaws.  Many forceps offered to you by your friend who works in the ER have grooved jaws.  Those grooved jaws are great for many of the intended tasks in medical applications, but they can be a hindrance when trying to crimp the barb on a hook.  Trout hooks are often so little that they work themselves into those grooves making it difficult to meet the barb with enough metal to flatten it.

The other downside to forceps made for the medical community is quality.  I know, it seems strange that a fly fisherman’s forceps would be superior quality to a doctor’s.  But medical forceps are often designed to be “single use,” so the metal used to construct them is inferior.  They bend and rust easily.  Forceps built for fly fishing are usually made of high quality stainless steel and built to last.  And assuming you don’t lose them, they should last forever.

Beyond that, the only real differences in fly fishing forceps are shape, color, and features.  Some designs have a variety of add-ons, such as scissor blades, which are great for anglers who use yarn for strike indicators.  Color is sort of personal preference but there are also practical considerations.

Orvis Trout Skin Forceps
Trout Skin Forceps

When fishing for spookier trout like those in the Smokies, I prefer not to have the bright silver or gold forceps. I think they “flash” too much when the sun hits them, potentially spooking trout.  But flat black ones are sometimes difficult to locate when you inevitably drop them in the water.  I personally like the the “trout skin” colored forceps.  Not only are the cool looking, but they’re dull enough not to reflect much light, yet light enough to see in the water.

As always, a lot of it boils down to personal preference. How do you want to carry them? How do you plan to use them? Do you care how they look? In any case, pick up a pair if you don’t have some already.  You’ll use them a lot.

How Stuff Works: Fly Boxes

Various Fly Boxes Full of FliesI’m a bit of an oddball. This is not exactly breaking news for most folks who know me.  But to paraphrase John Gierach, “If, from time to time, people don’t walk away from you shaking their head… You’re doing something wrong.”  I could certainly dedicate an entire article, or even a book, to my oddball qualities. But I am referring to one specific oddball quality.  I fish and guide with a set-up that combines a pack and fly boxes all in one contraption. You’ve seen it.  It’s my chest fly box, custom built by the Richardson Chest Fly Box Companyin Pennsylvania.  It’s awesome and I love it.

Richardson Chest Fly Box
Chest Fly Box

So, that makes it a little more challenging for me to give advice on individual fly boxes.  But I have over the years used about every kind of box and pack known to man.  And along the way I have learned a few things. Hopefully, they’ll be helpful to you when purchasing or organizing your flies.  At the least, it might get you thinking about it.  And who knows?  Maybe one day you’ll come to your senses and buy a Richardson!

While chest fly boxes like mine are more common in the Northeast, they are hardly common.  Most folks go a different route.  They have a variety of different fly boxes that they stuff in a vest, hip pack, chest pack, sling bag, or some other carryall.  No matter how you decide to carry them, fly boxes are essential organizational tools in our sport and it helps to know a few things about them.

Fly Box with Slotted Foam
Medium Box with Foam

First, they come in a number of different sizes. There are large, briefcase size boxes for boats to ultra slim boxes not much bigger than a smartphone.  When choosing a fly box size, you have to consider how many flies you need to carry. Also consider how you’re going to carry them, how big the flies are, and how you want them organized. For instance, a big, briefcase size box may hold every fly you have but it won’t be very portable when wading creeks.  Or a small, ultra slim box might be convenient to slip in a pocket, but if you plan to store bass bugs in it, you’ll only be able to carry a couple and you won’t be able to close the lid.

In addition, you’ll have to consider how you want to organize your flies within your box. There are countless options for securing your flies from slot foam, flat foam, and nubby foam to compartments, clips, and magnets.  Some boxes might even have a combination of both. A box might have foam on one side of and compartments on the other.  Certainly personal preference plays a big role in you box interior of choice, but there are practical matters to consider as well.

Fly Box with Compartments
Compartment Box

Compartments tend to lend themselves well to beefier patterns, or large quantities of the same fly. For instance, if you fish a lot of Pheasant Tails and carry a lot of them with you, it’s far easier to dump them all into one compartment rather than trying to line up three dozen Pheasant Tails across multiple rows of foam.  I find foam more useful when I am trying to organize a lot of different patterns but small quantities of each.  It’s easier to see what I have.

Ultra Thin Fly Box with Magnetic Compartments
Ultra Thin Magnetic Compartments

The type of fly may also determine the best way to store it.  Thin foam or magnetic boxes can be great for midges and nymphs. But they can crush the hackles on many dry flies.  On the other hand, trying to carry midges in deep compartments can be a waste of space. It can also be difficult to grasp them with your fingers when removing them from the box.

Finally, when you’re on the stream, you don’t want to spend your time hunting for flies or digging through your pack for fly boxes.  Try to have a designated area of your pack or vest for boxes rather than burying them under a rain jacket somewhere.  And if you carry five fly boxes on the stream, try to make them five different, or at least different looking, fly boxes.  This will save you all kinds of time when trying to locate a specific box of flies.

How Stuff Works: Fly Rods

An Assortment of Fly RodsThis should probably go without saying, but the fly rod is the tool used to cast the line when fly fishing.  It is also used to manipulate line on the water after the cast, to set the hook on a fish (usually), and to fight the fish after hooking it.  It is certainly one of the most important pieces of your equipment and likely the piece of equipment in which you’ll invest the most money.  So, what do you need to consider before making this investment?  The three most important characteristics of a fly rod are its length, its line weight designation, and its action.

Fly Rod Length
While there are specialty sizes on either end, most common fly rods are going to range from 7’ to 10’ in length.  Longer rods aid in keeping the line higher off the water. This can be helpful when trying to achieve longer casts or when trying to cast from a lower position, like sitting in a float tube or canoe.  Longer rods are also helpful when trying to reach to keep line off of faster currents.  If you’re planning to regularly fish from a float tube or canoe, fish open areas like wide rivers or lakes, or fish a lot of pocket water on medium to large mountain streams, you may want to consider a 9’ to 10’ rod.

Shorter rods are most beneficial in small, brushy streams where a longer rod will be hard to maneuver. If you’re planning to spend most of your time on tiny tributaries and backcountry “blue lines,” you may want to consider a rod in the 7’ to 8’ range.

Line Weight
The next thing to consider is the line weight.  Each rod has a line weight designation like a 5-weight or a 9-weight.  That just indicates what size line it is designed to cast. You typically want to match that to the fly line size.  For instance, a 5-weight line will properly load a 5-weight rod and make it cast its best in most situations.  Using an 8-weight line on a 5-weight rod would over-load it, resulting in an awkward, “clunky” cast.  Using a 3-weight line on a 5-weight rod wouldn’t load it enough. The result is little line control and a significant compromise in accuracy and distance.

When you’re choosing the line weight of a rod, you want to consider what you will be fishing for. For trout, you are commonly using a 3 to 5-weight.  For largemouth bass, you might use a 7 to 9-weight.  The difference has little, if anything, to do with the size of the fish. A largemouth won’t snap a 3-weight rod. It’s more about the necessary fly sizes and the required presentations.

For trout, we are most often fishing with smaller flies on a dead drift.  Lighter lines allow for a more delicate presentation and create less drag.  On the other hand, when fishing for bass, we are often trying to “punch” flies into tight areas and quickly pull fish out of areas with a lot of woody structure.  And we are typically using larger, heavier, wind-resistant flies.  Often, there is simply not enough weight in a 4-weight line to effectively “turnover” a larger bass bug.  Rather than the line carrying the fly on a level plane during the cast, the fly travels below the line, often catching the rod tip or worse, the back of your head!

When you get into saltwater species and some large freshwater species like salmon, you may be choosing a particular rod and line weight because of the size of the fish more than the size of the fly.  Yes, a 13-weight helps to cast bigger flies to tarpon. But mostly the larger butt section on that size rod is necessary to fight a 150 pound fish!

The other thing that can necessitate a rod with a heavier line weight is wind.  Saltwater species like bonefish, snook, redfish, etc. often aren’t particularly big and they don’t demand unusually large flies, but you encounter a lot of wind around the coast.  In the American West, you tend to encounter more wind and may consequently want a 6-weight rod for trout.  The accompanying chart lists appropriate rod/line weights for common game fish.

Compromise
So, you really need to consider what you’ll be fishing for and where you’ll be fishing to determine the best rod length and weight for your needs.  In this part of the country, most people want to fish for bass and bluegill in streams, ponds and lakes, and they want to fish for trout in the mountains and tailwaters.  But if you’re just getting into the sport, you probably don’t want to rush out and buy four different fly rod outfits.  Fortunately, there is a middle ground.

If you’re the person described in the paragraph above, your ideal rod lengths might range from 7’ to 10’. Your ideal line weights might range from 4 to 7-weight.  While it is impossible to get one rod that is perfect for everything, you can sometimes get one rod that is good enough for a lot of things.  An 8 ½’ rod is long enough to get by on bigger water and short enough to manage on smaller streams.  A 5-weight is light enough for trout fishing and ideal for bluegill. It’s adequate for bass fishing if you scale down your fly size.

Later, if you get really interested in bass fishing, maybe you add a 9’ 8-weight to your arsenal. Or if hiking into small brook trout streams becomes your thing, maybe you add a 7 ½’ 3-weight.  You can certainly get by with one rod, but the more diverse your locations and species become, the more necessary it will be to have multiple rod sizes.

Fly Rod Action
Once you’ve narrowed down the rod size, it’s time to consider the action of the rod.  The action of a rod is slow, medium, or fast.  A slow action rod feels softer and more “noodly” because it flexes closer to the butt of the rod.  A fast action fly rod will feel stiffer because it flexes closer to the tip of the rod. And as you might guess, a medium action rod sort of falls in between, flexing more in the middle of the rod.

Fast action rods are capable of generating more line speed and, in the right hands, more easily achieving greater casting distance.  With their stiffer butt sections, they also tend to have more “backbone” when it comes to apply pressure when fighting fish.  Most fly rods that are 7-weight or heavier will only be available in a fast action.

Fly Rod Actions
Fly rod actions

Slow action rods are more delicate in their delivery of the line and are more ideal for softer presentations.  You tend to feel the fish more on a slow action rod and because it flexes much deeper in the rod, it is capable of better protecting very light tippets. Most rods in the 1 to 3-weight range are slower action rods.  Typically, rods in the 4 to 6 weight range are available in a number of different actions.

Your own personal casting style will also be a factor in the best rod action for you.  People with a more aggressive casting stroke tend to favor a fast action rod.  People with a more relaxed casting stroke tend to favor a slow action rod. Experienced fly casters can pretty easily adjust their casting stroke to the rod.  If you’re new to fly fishing, you may not have enough experience to even know your preference.  In that case, it’s usually safest to stick to the middle and go with a medium action rod.

Fly Rod Material and Price
Bamboo Fly RodIn the old days, fly rods were made from bamboo and their price depended on things like who made them and whether or not they were mass-produced.  Some of the rods made by certain independent makers are extremely valuable today.  Most of the bamboo rods mass-produced by larger companies have little value.  Bamboo rods made today are mostly made by independent makers and have price tags in excess of $1000. This is largely because of the amount of time and craftsmanship that goes into making them.

Today, bamboo rods definitely still have a following much like classic cars have a following.  When compared to more “modern” materials, they tend to be a little heavier and almost every bamboo rod will fall into the slow action category.  I wouldn’t recommend them to a beginner looking for a rod to get into the sport but for the more seasoned fly fishing enthusiast, they sure are cool!

Fiberglass replaced bamboo in the 50’s as the most common material for fly rods.  It was lightweight, and after the trade embargo with China (where rod makers got their bamboo), it was far more available and cheaper to produce.  Fiberglass rods have seen a recent return in popularity because of their soft, unique action (slow).  Many large rod manufacturers are currently offering select models of fiberglass rods built with more modern components.

Most rods today are made from carbon fiber (graphite) and that has been the case for probably forty years.  Carbon fiber is strong and much lighter than fiberglass or bamboo.  It can be made in a number of different actions. And it can be made in multiple pieces while still maintaining that action.

Echo 4-piece Fly Rod
Multi-piece fly rod

Bamboo rods, for instance, had/have metal ferrules (joints).  To make a four-piece bamboo rod results not only in a lot of added weight, but “dead spots” at each of those joints.  Carbon fiber rods have carbon fiber joints. This is what allows a multi-piece rod to remain light and still maintain its action.  Most carbon fiber rods today break down to four sections, allowing for easy storage and travel.  Some break down into as many as seven pieces!

The prices of today’s carbon fiber rods are all over the place.  Some are mass-produced overseas using less expensive components (guides, reel seat, etc.) and can be found for well under $100.  American made rods tend to start around $200.  When you bump up to about $400, you’re getting a higher modulus graphite that will feel lighter and crisper. You’ll notice a difference. When you get into the real high-end stuff ($500-$1200), you are getting more technology as well as higher-end components, but most beginner to intermediate fly casters won’t be able to tell the difference.

Keep in mind that many of the things that influence the price of the rod won’t have anything to do with how it casts.  For example, a mid to high end rod might have some exotic, $150 piece of wood used for the reel seat. An entry level rod might use a $30 piece of walnut.  One might use titanium for the guides while another might use stainless steel.

In other words, if you have the disposable income and want to spend $1200 on a rod, have at it. Just don’t expect it to necessarily cast better or catch more fish!  Buy the best rod you can afford.  There are some great rods in the $100 – $300 range, many with an unconditional guarantee. That’s right.  Some of the major rod manufacturers provide an unconditional guarantee (or variation) on their rods.  Orvis, for instance, offers a 25-year guarantee on all but one series of their rods.  No matter how it breaks, they’ll fix it or replace it for 25 years!  To me, it’s worth spending a little more to get a rod with a good warranty.

Narrow down what size rod you need and what your budget is. After that, it boils down to personal preference.  If you decide that an 8 ½’ 5-weight is what you need and you’re willing and able to spend up to $400 on it, go to the fly shop and cast every 8 ½’ 5-weight rod under $400 that they have.  Any fly shop worth their salt will have a place for you to cast a rod. And they will gladly let you cast as many as you’d like.  And when you do, one of them will just feel right.

How Stuff Works: Tippet Rings

Tippet Ring
Tippet Ring

Over the last few years, tippet rings have been gaining more and more popularity and acceptance.  Most new fly fishermen love them.  Most traditionalists hate them.  What are they?

In case you’re new to the sport, lets start with a quick overview of leaders.  The leader is simply the monofilament connection between the the heavier fly line and the actual fly. Typically 7 1/2′ to 12′ in total length, leaders are tapered from a thick butt section that attaches to the fly line to a finer tippet section that attaches to the fly.  Check out this link for more detailed info on leaders and tippet.

As you change flies (or lose them in trees), your tippet gets gradually shorter. Eventually, it is no longer the proper length, or worse, you’ve cut it away to the point that you’re in the thicker part of the leader.  In this situation, you would cut a length of tippet from the appropriate size spool of tippet material. You’d then tie it to the existing leader, and ultimately rebuild your leader back to its original length and size.

Tying the knot to splice the new piece of tippet back to the leader is not very complicated. With a little practice, it’s downright quick and easy. Bu many anglers struggle with it, or don’t want to take the time to learn it.  For these fishermen, the tippet ring is like an answered prayer!

Various Tippet Ring Sizes
Varying sizes of tippet rings

Tippet rings are very small metal rings, available in a few different sizes, that simplify this splice.  You tie it to the end of your leader using whatever knot you prefer for tying on a fly.  Then you tie a piece of tippet to the ring using that same knot.  You could also tie a second piece of tippet off the ring to add a second fly for a dropper rig.  So, all of your frequent connections can be made using the same knot.

Tippet Ring Storage
Multiple tippet rings are stored on a clip and for convenience, are often threaded and attached before removing from the clip

This is one of the biggest benefits to using tippet rings.  They just simplify the process, particularly for someone who may not fish frequently and may have trouble remembering or executing various knots.  Another benefit is that they can greatly prolong the life of your overall leader. You’re always replacing tippet off the ring and not cutting part of your leader away every time you change tippet.

Of course, there are also down sides – at least in my opinion.  First, I don’t think it makes as strong of a connection as when you splice using more traditional Surgeons or Blood Knots.  This may not make much difference on smaller fish, but I believe you have a much better chance of breaking off a big fish if you’re using a tippet ring.  Second, the tippet ring creates a “dead spot” in the leader. That can negatively impact you in a couple of ways.

One way is with straight line nymphing.  This is a common technique in mountain streams that requires a certain amount of feel.  With that tippet ring creating a dead spot between leader and tippet, I believe you’re more likely to miss some of the more subtle takes of a trout.  That dead spot also can create problems with accuracy.

One of the main functions of a tapered leader is to transfer energy during a cast.  It’s what helps prevent things like hard splash downs or tippet pile-up on a cast.  When you put a tippet ring in the middle of all of that, the dead spot created can act almost like a short in an electrical current.  The energy doesn’t transfer smoothly from the taper of the leader to the tippet and can create a hinging effect – resulting in a significant loss of accuracy.

Like most things, you have to consider the kind of fishing you do and how important things like feel or accuracy are to you.  For me, they’re pretty important.  For others, they may take a backseat to convenience.  And that’s okay!  Figure out your system and roll with it!

Trout of the Smokies

Native Smokies Brook Trout
Native Smokies Brook Trout

One of the most frequent questions people ask me is about the trout in the Smokies. What kind are there? Where did they come from? How big do they get? Why don’t they get bigger? Why don’t they stock fish in the park? The list goes on and on. I thought I’d take this opportunity to satisfy some of the curiosity of enquiring minds.

Trout fishing in the Smokies starts with brook trout. They are the native fish of the Smoky Mountains. People don’t always use the terms native and wild correctly when referring to fish. To clarify, a wild trout is a trout that is born in the stream. However, it may have been introduced through stocking at one time. All trout in the Smokies are wild – there has been no stocking since the early 1970’s. A native trout is one that has always been there and was not introduced by humans. Brook trout have been in the Smokies since the last ice age!

Wild Smoky Mountain Rainbow
Wild Smokies Rainbow

It used to be that every stream in the Smokies had brook trout and rainbows and brown trout were non-existent. The intense logging of the area, prior to its designation as a national park, sparked that change. In the early 1900’s, logging practices simply weren’t very responsible and they cut any and every tree they could get to. When trees near mountain streams were removed, critical canopy to provide shade on these waters disappeared and water temperatures climbed to levels in the warmer months that made them uninhabitable for coldwater species like brook trout. Many of the brook trout migrated to high elevations for cooler water. The ones that didn’t died.

Over time, logging operations came to a stop – in some places because there was nothing left to cut, and in others because the national park was formed and the land was protected. In the former, many streams were stocked with trout (mainly rainbow) to appease some of the emerging sporting clubs and camps. Brown trout were also introduced in a handful of rivers. Even after the formation of the park, the National Park Service continued to stock these rivers with trout.

Wild Smoky Mountain Brown Trout
Wild Smokies Brown

By the time the forest regrew to a level of maturity and much needed canopy returned to cool low and mid elevation streams, the rainbows and browns had established a foothold, and the native brook trout could not compete for the limited food source, forcing their relegation to the high country.

This changed again in the early 1970’s when the NPS began using electroshocking techniques to sample streams for data on fish population and size. Prior to that, they had to rely solely on creel surveys – asking fishermen how many they caught and what size. Well, as you hopefully know, just because you’re not catching fish or seeing fish doesn’t mean there are no fish! The electroshocking proved that, and they learned that they were stocking fish on top of fish. The rainbow and brown trout were all reproducing, and had been for some time.

They ceased the stocking of streams at that time and they have been thriving as wild trout fisheries ever since, boasting park-wide populations of anywhere from 2000 to 6000 fish per square mile. The only two things that seem to make that number fluctuate are flood and drought. They have determined that fishermen have absolutely no impact on the fish numbers. In fact, fisheries biologists agree that it could very well be a healthier fishery, at least when it comes to fish size, if more fishermen kept fish to keep the numbers down.

Brook trout and rainbow trout in the park only live about 4-5 years. Brook trout rarely exceed 10” in size and rainbows rarely exceed 15”. There are no regulations, like catch-and-release or slot limits, that can change this. These mountains are some of the oldest in the world and consequently are more acidic. Streams with low ph levels have less aquatic insect life, which is the primary food source for rainbow and brook trout.

Clinch River Rainbow Trout
Stocked Clinch River Rainbow

So we simply have too many fish for the available food source. Years with heavy flooding or intense drought often kill a generation of fish, reducing the population significantly. In the year or two following such an event, the fish population may be 1/3 of what it was before. But creel surveys indicate that fishermen still catch the same number of fish they always did. Yet the fish they do catch average 1-2” bigger. More food for fewer fish equals bigger fish.

Brown trout in the Smokies seem to be the exception to all of this. While they are only in a limited number of streams, they can live 15 years and reach lengths of 30”! Biologists believe one of the main reasons for this is their tendency to add bigger fare to their diet. Rainbows and brookies pretty much stay bug eaters in the park. While brown trout also eat bugs, when they reach a size of 8 or 9”, they also begin eating crayfish, mice, leeches, and smaller fish – including smaller trout!

Brown trout like low light, do a lot of their feeding at night, and are just generally reclusive. This makes them very difficult to catch. You simply don’t go to the Smokies expecting to catch 20” brown trout on every trip. But in the right rivers, it’s always a possibility. In general, if you catch a trout in the Smokies bigger than 7” you’ve caught a pretty good fish. If your goal is purely to catch big trout, go to a tailwater, the Smokies isn’t for you.

Releasing water from a dam is what creates a tailwater, and there are several in East Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stocks these rivers regularly. Most of the trout they stock in these rivers are 7” or bigger and grow quickly thanks to the ample food supply found in these fertile waters.

When it comes to fish size, the bottom line is it’s relative to where you are fishing. A 12” native brook trout in the Smokies is a rare thing and surely qualifies as a “trophy.” A 12” stocked rainbow in the Clinch River is a dime a dozen.

How Stuff Works: Waders

Simms Zipper Front Waders
Zip Front Waders

October is the time of year I start wearing waders again in the mountains. For much of the year, usually from May through October, water temperatures are comfortable enough to wet wade, wearing only the wading boots and neoprene socks. But in winter, early spring, and late fall (or any time of year on tailwaters), you better have a decent set of waders if you want to stay comfortable on the stream.

Orvis Stockingfoot Chest Waders
Stockingfoot Chest Waders

In the 30 years or so that I have been fly fishing, I can’t think of any fly fishing product that has improved as much as waders. Early on, your only choices for wader materials were canvas, rubber/plastic, and neoprene. All three of these materials were pretty heavy and pretty warm. And any time you were doing anything active, like hiking or just climbing around on rocks, these things would sweat you to death. Even with less active fishing, like standing in a tailwater, these materials would roast you on a warm day.

Waders made of breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex started showing up in the mid 90’s and are now the standard. Early breathable models were not terribly durable and were prone to leaking but today’s models are not only comfortable, but when properly cared for, can withstand years of heavy use. If you’re in the market for a pair of breathable waders, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Chota Hippies
Stockingfoot Hippers

First, there are a few different styles of breathable waders. Chest high waders provide coverage all the way up to your chest. Pant waders provide coverage to your waist. And hippers provide coverage to the upper part of your thigh. When wading small mountain streams, you rarely stand in water much above the knee so hippers will handle most situations. But it seems that when wearing hippers, there is always that one deeper pool of water that you have to cross to get to the other side of the stream. It’s the same thing with tailwaters. Since you rarely wade much over the thigh in tailwaters, pant waders would be adequate most of the time but there always seems to be that one deeper spot…

I don’t like my gear to determine where I can and can’t go when fishing. For that reason, I stick with chest waders to handle all situations. Of course, if the water is too deep for my chest waders, I shouldn’t be trying to wade it anyway! And on warmer days, I can always roll the bib down on my chest high waders, essentially converting them into waist highs.

One thing to consider with breathable waders (or any loose fitting wader) is the possibility of falling in deep water. Particularly with chest high waders, this is a safety concern because the waders could fill with water and essentially drag you down. Wearing a belt around the outside of the wader will create an air pocket to prevent this from happening. Pretty much any chest wader sold today will come with a belt. Wear it!

Another big difference in waders is whether they have a boot foot or stocking foot. Boot foot waders have a boot attached to the wader. They’re convenient because you can just slip the waders on and you’re ready to go. However, this is typically just a loose fitting rubber boot. They are heavy and clumsy, and they provide very little in the way of ankle support. If you’re standing still most of the day, these will probably be adequate. But in places like the Smokies where you’re moving a lot from spot to spot, usually over very uneven terrain, you will hate these. You’ll be compromising comfort and safety.

Orvis Neoprene Stocking Feet
Neoprene Stocking Feet

I prefer stocking foot waders. These have a neoprene foot to provide a little insulation on your feet. You wear a separate pair of wading boots over this neoprene boot. Going this route allows you to wear a lighter, form fitting boot that you lace up just like a hiking boot, providing far more comfort and ankle support when walking on uneven terrain. Additionally, you can wear the boot without the wader in warmer months when you may choose to wet wade. I’ll talk more specifically about wading boots in a future article.

If you’re fishing in colder weather, it is important to remember that breathable waders are designed to keep you dry but, other than the neoprene foot, provide very little in the way of insulation. You will want to layer accordingly under the wader based on your weather conditions. Just keep in mind that breathable waders are only as breathable as the fabric beneath them, so synthetic fabrics like fleece or nylon are recommended over something like denim. Find tips on dressing for cold weather in the “Winter Fishing” article on my web site.

Finally, there is the pesky little issue of price. Breathable waders are certainly not cheap. You can get a really good pair of waders for under $200 and you can spend upwards of $600. All of them will keep you dry. More expensive waders will sometimes be more durable with extra reinforcement in high wear areas like the seat and knees. Mostly though, you’re paying for extra features like pockets or zippered fronts that may be handy but not necessarily critical.

The life of any wader can be extended or shortened by how you care for them. Other than avoiding obvious things like walking through briar patches, try not to walk around in your stocking foot waders without the boots on. Either be prepared to step right into the boot when you put your waders on or carry a mat to stand on when getting dressed. Hang them up to dry after each trip and don’t store them folded. Clean them periodically according to the care label and from time to time, consider applying a coating of DWR.