Mending Line

Most of the time when trout fishing with dry flies or nymphs, you try to achieve a drag-free drift. This is also known as a dead drift. Essentially, what this means is you try to make your fly drift at the same speed as the current. That would be simple if the fly was drifting independently down the river. But it’s not. It’s attached to your line. Consequently, line management is a vital skill when it comes to fly fishing success and mending line is a big part of that skill set.

If your leader, or especially your fly line, is in a different current speed than the fly, it will pull or stop the fly when the line tightens. The term we use for this is drag. If your fly is dragging, you won’t catch many trout because it doesn’t look natural. Not only will the trout typically refuse to eat your fly when it has drag, they will often spook. This is especially true when you repeatedly drag a fly over a fish.

When you’re fishing small creeks and/or pocket water, you can often get closer to the fish because the broken currents help conceal you. In those instances, you can usually prevent drag by just keeping most of the line off the water. The less line on the water, the less there is to pull the fly.

But in slower pools or in bigger, deeper water, you may not be able to get as close to the fish. This forces you to make longer casts. As a result, you’ll have more line on the water. The more line you have on the water, the more currents you’ll have pulling it at different speeds.

Fly Casting Upstream
Casting Upstream

When possible, I like to cast mostly upstream when I’m fishing bigger water. This allows me to stay behind the fish and it puts my fly and line more in the same speed of current. When the fly and line are in the same current speed, line management is much simpler. You mainly just have to strip the slack in as it drift back to you.

However, sometimes a particular run won’t allow for a practical upstream cast. It could be that the depth of the water won’t allow you to get in the proper position. Or maybe it’s a slick with really spooky fish and you’re concerned about casting your line across them. You may decide to get above them and cast downstream.

Fly Casting Downstream
Casting Downstream

You have to be careful with this approach because you’re moving into their direct line of sight, and anything you stir up while wading will drift down to them. Excessive debris or a big mud cloud will send them running. The other challenge casting downstream is the drift.

Using S-curves for a Downstream Drift
Downstream Presentation

If you make a straight, fully extended cast downstream, your fly will start to drag almost immediately because the tight line will prevent the fly from going anywhere. It just drags in the water. I see a lot of people try to feed line at this point. But if the line is tight from the start, you’re just feeding a dragging fly. The trick is to land your cast with slack in the line. Using something like a pile cast will allow the line to land with little s-curves in it. You’ll be able to achieve a good dead drift while the s-curves straighten out. And if you want it to drift farther, feed line while you have those s-curves to get a nice, long drag-free drift.

The big challenge is when you have to make a longer cast across the river. It’s something I avoid if I can, but often, especially on large rivers, you have no choice. Casting across the river will almost always put your line and fly in different current speeds. And the longer the cast, the more different current speeds your likely to find.

Fly Fishing Mending
Initial Cast Across River

So, let’s say you have a nice, slow current on the other side of a wide run. There’s a fast current between you and the slow current. When you cast your fly into the slow current, your line will lay across the fast the current. Consequently, the fast current pulls the line, the line pulls the fly and you have drag. This is a scenario when you need to mend line.

Fly Fishing Mending
Drag Setting In

Mending line means that I am going to manipulate the line in such a way that I put it upstream of the fly. By the time the faster current moves the line past the fly, the fly has had an opportunity to naturally drift through the target area. You can make this mend during the cast with what’s called a reach cast. This is known as an aerial mend. Or you can make the mend after the cast has landed by using the rod to flip the belly of the line upstream. Sometimes, longer casts or longer drifts may require you to do both. Longer drifts may also require you to make multiple mends.

Fly Fishing Mending
Drift After Upstream Mend

Let’s pose a similar scenario, but this time you’re casting across a slower current and the fly is landing in a faster current. Consequently, the fly will move ahead of the line, tighten and swing (drag) out of the drift lane.  In this situation, you want the line downstream of the fly to give the fly time to drift before it overtakes the line. You would use a downstream mend. Like before, this could be achieved with a reach cast and/or by flipping the line downstream after it’s on the water. 

Fly Fishing Mending
Drag Setting In
Fly Fishing Mending
Drift After Downstream Mend

Mending is not easy and requires some practice because a lot of it has to do with anticipation and timing. If you wait until the fly starts to drag before you mend, you’ll move the fly out of the drift lane. You need to anticipate that the fly will drag and make your mend before, while you still have slack. This will disrupt the fly’s drift very little, if at all. Again, it will just take some practice.

Fly Fishing Mending
Side to Side Mending Motion

The other big key is how you mend the line. I see a lot of people keep the rod on a level plane and make a side-to-side motion to mend the line. As a result, the line pulls through the water and drags the fly. Instead, point your rod down and toward the line you want to move and make a sweeping, semi-circle motion to move the line. The idea is to essentially pick the line up and place it in a different position… without moving the fly.

Fly Fishing Mending
Semi-circle Mending Motion

How much line you have to move will determine how big of a semi-circle you make. For instance, a big mend with a short line will likely pick the line and the fly up off the water. You don’t want that. A small mend with a long line likely won’t pick up the entire line belly, and you’ll still have drag.

As I mentioned before, it will take some practice. But it is an essential skill when drifting dry flies or nymphs to trout, especially on bigger water. Keep messing with it and before you know it, it will be second nature.

On the Fly – Perfection Loop

Loop knots have many uses in fly fishing, and there are probably just as many types of knots as there are uses. While it has other uses, the Perfection Loop is my favorite knot for putting a loop in the butt of a leader. Because the Perfection Loop keeps the leader “in line” with the loop, it allows for more accurate casting. Other loop knots often leave the leader at a slight angle from the loop.

Most commercial leaders already have a Perfection Loop tied in the butt section when you buy them. But if you are thinking of making your own leaders or just need to make a repair in the field, this is a great knot to know. Near the end of the video, you’ll also see how to make a loop to loop connection to attach the leader to the fly line.

On the Fly is a segment of my monthly newsletter featuring simple tips for fly fishing.

Tying the Perfection Loop

March Fishing Forecast

East Bradley Fork, NC
Nymphing a riffle in early spring

Smoky Mountains

Fishing will likely be hit and miss in the Smokies this month. Of course, we’re starting the month off with very high water. Additional large amounts of rainfall in March could really shut things down. Hopefully, we can “regroup” with a stretch of dry weather.

Water temperatures are the other issue this month. They tend to rise and fall significantly in March, creating wild swings in fish activity. We’re looking for water temps to get in the 50’s for the better part of the day, for at least a few days in a row. More than likely, that will begin to happen at the mid to late part of the month.

When that does occur, not only will you find more active fish, you’ll begin to encounter some of the better hatches of the year. Small black caddis and stoneflies will hatch sporadically through the month and you should begin seeing better hatches of Quill Gordon and Blue Quill mayflies toward the end of the month.

Clinch River

Spilling at Norris Dam, TN
Spilling at Norris Dam

I honestly just can’t imagine much happening on the Clinch or other Tennessee tailwaters this month. After all of the flooding, most dams are currently spilling. That will likely be followed by weeks of heavy generation. Let’s look at the Clinch again next month!

The Effect of Severe Weather on Trout

In the wake of our recent flooding in East Tennessee, I’ve been hearing the same question that always surfaces after a severe weather event. What does this do to the trout? It depends. It depends on the fishery and it depends on the fish.

First, let me clarify that what I’m going to talk about here is severe conditions. For instance, a few hot days and a little bit of low water does not constitute drought. Those conditions have to persist over a longer period of time. Similarly, a few days of high water doesn’t equal severe flooding. What we’ve had this February (2019) is severe flooding.

Bald River Falls, TN
Bald River Falls after last week’s floods

In general, when you get severe conditions as described above, you’re going to lose some fish. A major drought is harmful to all trout but tends to impact the bigger fish. Low, hot water depletes oxygen and bigger fish require more oxygen. A major flooding event will have the greatest impact on younger, smaller trout because they don’t know where to go. Stocked trout are also very vulnerable to high water events for the same reason young wild trout are. They just don’t know what to do.

Nearly 20 years ago, we had a major flood and were catching large brown trout around the picnic tables at Metcalf Bottoms. However, I should point out that it wasn’t a guide trip. Rather, it was a group of very experienced Smoky Mountain trout fishermen who all knew the area VERY well. In other words, don’t try this at home! But the point is, the bigger, older wild fish knew where to go to get out of the heavy currents. In that case, it was under a normally dry picnic table!

Flooded Little River, TN
Little River in the trees

So, you are absolutely going to lose some fish, maybe a lot, when these sorts of things happen. For some fisheries, it can be devastating. In a small, stocked stream, you may have some really crappy fishing until they stock again. For the Smokies, it tends to be a good thing in the long run.

As I’ve discussed before, the streams in the Smokies are very healthy as far as fish populations, but they are nutrient poor. Nutrient poor streams have a far less dense population of aquatic insects. When you have trout streams with very healthy fish populations but an inadequate food supply, you end up with a lot of small fish. So, when you get a major drought or flooding event that “thins the herd,” there is more food for the survivors and they get bigger.  In the Smokies, this is especially true for the rainbows and brook trout.

Years ago, we had a major drought in the Smokies. Prior to the drought, we averaged 4000 fish per mile. Following the drought, the number dropped to an average of 2000 fish per mile. Half of the fish were gone! Local fishermen learned about this and started pulling their hair out thinking fishing in the Smokies was going to be terrible.

Instead, in the year or two after the drought, they found that they still caught about the same number of fish they always did, but the fish averaged an inch or two bigger. After all, you’re only going to catch so many in a pool before you spook it. So, you may only catch six fish out of a pool whether it has fifty fish in it or one hundred.

Abrams Creek Rainbow
A really nice park rainbow

The impact drought has on fish size is not usually apparent for a year or two. But the impact that floods have on fish size are often more immediate. You tend to find noticeable differences that same year and significant differences the following year.

In other words, if you fish the Smokies this year and next year, don’t be surprised if the rainbows you catch aren’t a little bigger! 

On the Fly – Double Surgeon’s Knot

One thing that you will certainly do plenty of when fly fishing is add tippet. As you change flies through the day, you shorten your tippet. When you hang up in trees and have to break the line, you shorten your tippet. There are a few knots that you can use for this but the Surgeon’s Knot is one of the easiest and strongest. Here’s how to do it:

“On the Fly” is a feature in my monthly newsletter offering quick fly fishing tips to make your life on the water a little easier…

Adjusting Weight When Nymphing

Split Shot

Warning! This article contains terrible illustrations!

Several years ago, I was fishing a stream in the Smokies that I probably know better than any other. It was an early spring day and the water temperature was marginal at around 50-degrees, and the water level was a little high because of recent rainfall. I’d been fishing for two hours and hadn’t even had a strike. I knew it wasn’t a dry fly kind of day. Therefore, I continued to switch nymph patterns, trying to find something that would fool one trout.

Eventually, I decided to stick with one fly pattern, a Pick Pocket, that I had a lot of faith in and to begin altering the way I fished it. Since it was an un-weighted wet fly, I already had one split shot about 8” above it. I began swinging the fly a little more, but the result was the same. Next, I added a second split shot and fished with a mix of swing and dead drift techniques. Nothing. Finally, I added a third split shot and hooked a fish on my second cast. I proceeded to catch another 30 fish or so over the next couple of hours.

I should have known better but we all seem to get too caught up in fly patterns and lose sight of other important factors like drift and depth. Well, I had been fishing good drifts all day, but these fish were hugging the bottom. My fly was not getting, or at least staying, down in their feeding zone.

Split Shot Assortment
Split Shot Assortment

Do you use split shot when you’re nymphing? There are definitely times when you need to. One of the best nymph fishermen I have ever fished with is Joe Humphreys. It is excruciating to watch him fish because every time he moves to a different spot, he adjusts the amount of weight on his line! But he often catches fish that others don’t because of those adjustments!

Being willing to add or remove split shot to your line is the first step. Knowing where and how to place those weights is the next. For instance, if you put three split shot right next to an already heavily weighted fly, you may have a hard time keeping it off the bottom. So, you have to figure a lot of things, like how heavy your fly is, how deep the water is and how fast the water is. Just the weight of the fly may be all you need to get the nymph near the bottom in slow water, but faster currents may move that fly all over the place. Extra weight can be used not only to get the fly deeper, but also to slow the drift and keep things where they should be.

Shot placement is tricky in places like the Smokies where depth and current speed can vary significantly, even in the same run or pocket. Short casts and good line control can significantly help combat this. Strategic split shot placement can also make a big difference.

Split Shot Placement
Split shot placed at the fly

The closer you put the additional weight to the fly, the more you’re going to put the fly on the bottom. As a result, you’ll probably hang up more. But if you put a concentrated amount of weight on a section of leader above the fly, that portion of leader will be what drifts deepest, and the fly will ride above it. The farther the split shot is above the fly, the farther off the bottom the fly will drift.

Of course, there are variables like how heavy the fly is and how much split shot you use. Sometimes you just have to play with it a little bit. When you get as good as Joe Humphreys, you can make those calculations in your head and adjust perfectly for each new spot you fish. Here are a few examples of how you might want to adjust your setup. 

Split Shot Placement
Split shot placed above the fly

The Clinch River often has long, slow slicks that maintain fairly consistent depths. Consequently, the weight of the fly alone should be sufficient to get and keep the fly where I want it. In a 6’ deep plunge pool in the Smokies, I’m going to need a lot of weight to get my fly deep and keep it there because of the water depth and turbulence. I’ll likely use a heavily weighted fly plus a few pieces of split shot placed near the fly. But fishing pocket water in the Smokies, the depth in one pocket probably varies from 12-24”, with a lot of fast currents. Here, I would probably use a lightly weighted (or un-weighted) nymph with one or two split shot placed 6-8” above the fly. This will keep everything down but allow the fly to drift just off the bottom where it won’t hang up as much.

Split Shot Placement
Split shot placed below the fly

There is another method that some anglers use where a separate piece of tippet is added to the leader or to the back of the fly. The desired number of split shot are then added to that piece of tippet, allowing the fly to remain above the weight. It works, but I find that split shot hanging on a loose, vertical line like that have a greater tendency to get hung up and pulled off on rocks. As with most things, you sometimes have to play with a few methods and figure out what works best for you.

There are, of course, different sizes of split shot and what size you use can certainly determine how many you need to use. I typically use small to medium size shot because it gives me more flexibility and versatility to add or remove as needed.

In any case, if you are only nymphing with a weighted fly under a strike indicator, you are just scratching the surface of nymphing. I encourage you to experiment with different amounts of weight and different weight placements. You’ll probably start catching a few more fish… and maybe a few bigger ones, too!

How Stuff Works: Fly Categories

Box of Wet Flies

If you’re new to the sport, sometimes it is difficult to navigate all of the terminology. There is probably no facet of fly fishing where that is more complicated than in the world of flies. I’m not even talking about specific names of flies. That water can definitely get over your head in a hurry. Before you can even begin to make sense of those fly pattern names, you have to get a handle on the more general categories under which they fall. And that’s what we’re going to tackle here.

Let’s start with the term flies. I frequently hear it misused as its own separate category. For instance, someone might ask me if we’re going to be using flies or nymphs. That’s kind of like asking if you have a poodle or a dog. Of course, a poodle is a type of dog. And a nymph is a type of fly. Regardless of what it is supposed to imitate, any lure that we fish with a fly rod is generically referred to as a fly. Flies are then broken into more specific categories.

Dry Flies

Popping Bug
Popping Bug

While it can certainly be broken down to more specific sub-categories, the main category of Dry Flies refers to any fly that is designed to float and be fished on the surface. This would include something like a Parachute Adams that might represent some sort of adult mayfly. It would include a Dave’s Hopper that imitates a land-based grasshopper that has ended up in the water. Or it could even be a large, hard-bodied popping bug used for bass fishing.

One might fall under the sub-category of Trout Flies, another under Terrestrials, and another under Bass Bugs.  But they are all flies because they are fished on a fly rod and they are all dry flies because they float on the surface.

Nymphs

Hare's Ear Nymph
Hare’s Ear Nymph

Nymphs are a category of flies that you typically fish under the surface and more specifically; they imitate the juvenile stage of an aquatic insect. A Tellico Nymph, for instance, represents the juvenile stage of a stonefly. A Pheasant Tail Nymph imitates, most often, the juvenile stage of a mayfly. Most nymphs drift helplessly in the current and we use tactics that allow our imitations to do the same.

To confuse things a little, some flies that don’t imitate juvenile stages of aquatic insects get lumped into the nymph category because they are fished like nymphs. For instance, a Green Weenie is a representation of an inchworm that has fallen into the water. Though an inchworm is obviously not a juvenile stage of an aquatic insect, when it falls in the water, it sinks and drifts helplessly with the current. So, you fish its imitation like a nymph. Sowbugs and scuds are other good examples of this. They are actually crustaceans that will never hatch into an adult that flies from the water. But their imitations are most often fished like other nymphs, so they fall into the nymph category.

Wet Flies

Early Wet Fly
Typical Wet Fly

The category of Wet Flies is a little confusing and could probably be more of a sub-category of Nymphs – or vice versa. Wet flies are usually not tied with materials that allow them to float. They are also not really designed to sink. Rather, they often have a soft hackle that provides a lot of motion and you commonly fish them on a swing rather than a drift. So, you mostly fish them in, or just under, the surface film. A wet fly could imitate a variety of things. Mostly they are suggesting a mayfly or caddisfly as it is emerging to hatch.

Streamers

Clouser Minnow
Streamer: Clouser Minnow

Streamers are also flies that sink but more specifically, imitate things that swim. Again, anything you fish on a fly rod is generically referred to as a fly, but these flies represent things like minnows, crayfish and leeches. So unlike nymphs that you usually fish on a dead drift, or wet flies that you usually fish on a swing, you typically strip and actively retrieve streamers through the water.

Naturals and Attractors

So you can take all of the flies that are out there and lump them into four categories: Dry Flies, Nymphs, Wet Flies and Streamers. Now, you can take all of those and split them into another two broad categories: Naturals and Attractors.

A Natural is a fly that specifically imitates something that exists in nature. A Blue Wing Olive dry fly specifically imitates a Blue Wing Olive mayfly adult. The Hot Flash Minnow Shad is a streamer that specifically imitates a threadfin shad. A Green Weenie imitates an inchworm. They’re all fly patterns intended to represent something specific.

Hot Flash Minnow Shad
Hot Flash Minnow Shad

You most often fish naturals when fish are keyed in on a specific food source and you know what it is. If there is a big hatch of Blue Wing Olives, trout may not eat anything that doesn’t look like a Blue Wing Olive. Or because stripers are working a school of threadfin shad, they may not consider anything that doesn’t look like a threadfin shad.

Attractors are flies that don’t look like anything in particular. They are also sometimes called Generals or Prospecting Flies. They might just be something very generic that looks like a lot of things. Or they might be something that doesn’t look like anything at all. They may just have a certain color or other trigger that generates a feeding response from a fish.

Most of the time, you are fishing with attractors, especially in places like the Smokies where fish are more opportunistic. There are rarely big enough hatches in the Smokies to allow a fish to efficiently key on one particular bug. You fish things like a Parachute Adams because it resembles a lot of things fish might see on the surface. Or you fish a Prince Nymph because it has characteristics that trigger a feeding response from a fish.

Wooly Bugger
Wooly Bugger

If you’re fishing for smallmouth and you’re not sure what they’re feeding on, you might tie on a Wooly Bugger. Depending on its color scheme and how you fish it, it could pass for a minnow, leech or even a crayfish. Essentially, it just looks like something to eat.

Yes, flies and the vocabulary that describes them can be confusing. Hopefully this article has helped a little. Don’t get frustrated. Embrace and enjoy the chaos. It’s all part of the fun!

February Fishing Forecast 2019

Tennessee Winter Rainbow Trout
Winter Rainbow

Smoky Mountains

Winter fishing in the Smokies is not usually productive, at least not consistently. And I don’t expect this February to be an exception. We’re off to a very cold start with water temperatures right at the freezing mark. Hopefully we can at least get a break from all of the recent rain and keep water levels respectable.

If water levels are cooperative, one of the best things about fishing the park in the winter is the solitude. You will likely only see a handful of other people and probably no other fishermen. Embrace the solitude and significantly lower your expectations on activity and you can have a pretty enjoyable day!

And keep an eye on the weather. In recent years, we have had some brief warm stretches in late February a few warm days in a row can turn these fish on and showcase some fairly good hatches. Little Black Stoneflies, Little Black Caddis and Blue Wing Olives are all common during the late winter months.

Clinch River

The Clinch can fish well in the winter because it’s a tailwater and its water temperatures remain pretty constant. The water temperature in February is nearly the same as it is in August. However, we are still paying for a VERY wet 2018.

The Clinch is not only releasing water all day every day, they are sluicing approximately 6500 cfs. That’s a lot of water. You definitely can’t wade it under those conditions and it’s really too much water for decent fishing from a boat.

If they relax that water release schedule, this will be a good option. But it looks like this is what we’re stuck with for a while.

Delayed Harvest

The delayed harvest streams in the Cherokee National Forest are the best things going right now. Stocked fish continue feeding more regularly in winter than wild ones do. They’re not as good as they were in the fall, mainly because of poaching, and the later in the DH season we get, the fewer fish there are. But there are still some fish, particularly in the Tellico, and they should remain active through February. Assuming roads remain clear and safe to drive on, this is probably your best bet right now.

Flies: Prince Nymph

Prince Nymph Fly Pattern
Prince Nymph

Whether describing a nymph, dry fly or streamer, an “attractor pattern” refers to a fly that doesn’t really imitate anything in particular. It could be that the fly is relatively generic and looks like a lot of different things. An Adams dry fly, a Pheasant Tail Nymph or a Wooly Bugger would all match that description. An attractor could also be a fly pattern that really doesn’t look like anything at all.

I think the Prince Nymph definitely matches that second description. Its body, hackle and general color scheme might suggest some sort of mayfly nymph or caddis larva. Though it’s thick, split tail is more reminiscent of a stonefly nymph. But those white “horns” on the back? While I don’t know of any aquatic insect that has anything like that, perhaps it is suggestive of the white back on an Isonychia nymph. But there certainly don’t need to be Isonychia nymphs present for this fly to work.

That’s because this fly works well nearly all of the time and in most any environment. In mountain streams and tailwaters, this fly catches trout. In spring, summer, fall and winter, this fly catches trout. It’s no wonder this is one of the most popular nymphs of all time and why it would be on nearly every trout fisherman’s must-have list. Nobody seems to care what it imitates or if it makes sense. Because it makes sense to the trout and that’s all that matters.

Apparently, it also made sense to Doug Prince, the originator of the pattern. Doug was an innovative fly tyer who didn’t get a lot of recognition because he mostly tied for himself, rather than producing fly patterns for shops and catalogs. It is believed that he created the Prince Nymph sometime in the early 1940’s. He called it a Brown Forked Tail Nymph and fished it primarily on the King’s River in California.

One of Doug’s fishing buddies was Buz Buszek, a fly shop owner in California. Apparently Buz was in a rush one year to put out a catalog and wanted to include a peacock body nymph pattern. He decided to use Doug’s pattern but couldn’t remember that it was called a Brown Fork Tailed Nymph. He did, however, remember that it was Doug Prince’s pattern, so he put it in the catalog as the Prince Nymph. The name stuck.

Beadhead Prince Nymph Fly Pattern
Beadhead Prince Nymph

Because of its popularity, there have been countless variations of this fly over the years. Everyone seems to think they can take a great fly and make it better. While some are made with wire bodies and some have rubber legs, others use a flashy dubbed body or have a flashy, reflective material on top, in place of the traditional white goose biots. One of the earliest and probably most popular variations was the addition of a bead head.

Over the years, I’ve had success on most all of the variations. But in my opinion, nothing beats the old standard for catching fish in the Smokies. I tie and fish them in sizes #16 – #8, but most often use a #14. And I have success with them all year, but seem to do best with them in the “fringe months,” when the water temperature is a little colder than ideal. In fact, the Prince Nymph is one of my most productive winter patterns, fished deep and slow.

So, if you’ve done much fly fishing, you likely know this pattern already. If not, definitely add some to your fly arsenal. The pattern for the traditional version is included below.

Prince Nymph

  • Hook: 2XL nymph hook, sizes 16-8
  • Thread: 8/0 claret
  • Weight: Non-lead wire to match hook size (typically .015 or .020)
  • Rib: Small to medium gold oval tinsel
  • Tail: Two brown goose biots, divided
  • Body: 2-4 strands of peacock herl (more on larger hook sizes)
  • Hackle: Brown hen feather
  • Wing: Two white goose biots, divided

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.