Friday, 18 May 2018

Zen and the one fly

The first three things I ever heard about tenkara were these: It comes from Japan, there is no reel, they use only one fly. Only one fly. Fishing with just one fly. Always and forever. It's the ultimate skinny-down. 

Now, a little better educated, I know that while this approach is followed by some tenkara anglers in Japan, it's nowhere near to being commonplace. Yet as a concept it has captured the collective western consciousness enough to have become part of the tenkara stereotype.  

Part truth, part myth, it lays at the very heart of the West's perception of tenkara as an esoteric, even mystical endeavour. The 'one fly' is a challenging concept for a few reasons, and I've been giving these some thought lately because my own fishing seems to be drawing me to a one fly approach more and more.   

Victorian code

'One fly' challenges centuries of entomology-based observation and fly fishing. Flyfishers match the hatch with crafted impressions of the real insect, with the intent of fooling the fish into mistaking their fly for the real food item of the moment. To catch a fish in such a way is considered by many as the supreme test of angling skill. So how can there be any real skill in the tenkara one fly approach when it requires no real entomological knowledge? 

One fly also challenges the codified 'Victorian collector' mentality still prevalent in western flyfishing culture, evidenced by boxes and boxes of flies containing row upon row of subtle variations on a theme. It's as if to be found on stream without this precise pattern in that precise size, with this shade of dubbing would be akin to getting caught with ones metaphysical pants down. Surely to rely on just one fly is a dumbing down of intellect, a betrayal even of centuries of western flyfishing tradition, developed by our forbears and then enshrined by our peers. 

self-fulfilling prophesy

Last season I took a limited box of flies with me to the water but found that I was defaulting to one pattern more and more. At first it wasn't a conscious decision, it just seemed that this particular pattern caught more fish more often, and of course once a fly becomes a favourite it is in effect a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because, of all your flies, this one spends the most time in the water, it stands to reason that it will probably catch you the most fish.. until of course it doesn't and then you experiment with a different fly, perhaps get some instant success and then a new favourite emerges..

This fly choice is very subjective and most probably matched not so much to any hatch, but more to the random good fortune of catching a fish that has been offered up by the alignment of all sorts of unknown variables. But as time goes on we rationalise our fly choice, even develop our own theories or adopt the theories of others about why this fly works. However, if we were to try to prove our theory in any scientific way we would only have very scant data on which to base our observations, probably no control subject and absolutely no controlled environment. So we must say that our faith in a particular fly is exactly that - an act of faith or at best, flimsy empirical observation. Rather than faith, I prefer to think of it as 'confidence' and as we all know, confidence in fishing is a very large part of success. 

And herein lies the dilemma of the abundant fly box, for when our go-to pattern/s fail us we search for a new fly that will work. We try this pattern, we try that pattern, but the more choice we have the more likely we are to confuse ourselves with options. And confusion leads to a lowering of confidence. Not only are we no longer fishing effectively but we are actually fishing less - because with all the chopping and changing of flies we have a fly in the water for less of the time. Perhaps then we look to others for advice, which is fine but wouldn't we really be happier avoiding these pitfalls in the first place?

blank canvas 

In contrast to a western-style imitative fly, the kebari is a blank canvas on which to paint a representation of life. This is achieved through how we cast and where, when and how we fish our fly. Our kebari is tied to give an impression of nothing in particular except that of life. The skill is in presenting our kebari to the fish in such a way that it is induced to take our fly, regardless of the natural food forms present. When I decided that for some of my fishing trips I would limit myself to just one pattern, it was with the intention of developing my fishing skills. I would explore the many ways a single fly pattern can be fished and manipulated with tenkara. 

So now, instead of trying to match a fly to any particular scenario I'm selecting a method of presentation to tackle that scenario.  For most of my fishing last season I used just one pattern of kebari in size a 14 for some trips and the same pattern in a size 16 (but with a tiny beadhead) for other trips. Never did I switch between the two versions during the day, I stuck instead with my initial choice for each particular trip. I should also explain here that I often use a tenkara approach to catch many species other than trout and it was with these in mind that the size 16 beadhead kebari was used. If I was fishing only for trout I could have literally confined myself to just one pattern for all of my trips and still have fished with confidence. I would also say that the precise pattern is not so important - I would be equally happy to follow the same approach this season with a different 'one fly'.

These are the benefits I discovered from a one fly approach which are of course highly subjective but worth sharing:

  • no worries
With one fly I am relaxed and free from  worry about things I cannot change:

I'm freed from the worry of leaving this or that pattern at home by mistake or losing my last one of that type in a tree or on a rock - it's pretty quick and easy to tie up a half a dozen kebari of the same pattern at home - more than enough for me for a trip and as long as I take them with me there's not much else to worry about..

I'm freed from the worry that I am fishing with the 'wrong' fly pattern - since I only have one pattern I must by definition be fishing with the right one.. 

  • simplicity
With one fly comes simplicity and with simplicity comes clarity, efficiency and elegance: 

With my one fly tied on I can arrive at the water and be fishing within seconds if I wish. If on the other hand I wish to just sit and observe, I am ready to fish instantly when the desire arises, with no fumbling around for the 'correct' pattern..

and since I'm not chopping and changing patterns, I'm spending more time actually fishing my fly in the water, or alternatively I have more time to stop and observe.. 

  • travelling light
one simple little fly box..

  • clarity
freedom from the confusion of too many choices of fly pattern and freedom to think just about reading the water and observing the fish's behaviour..

  • learning
on-stream, because I'm free to focus on learning to read the water and observe fish behaviour, I'm more open to learning which approach might provide an effective presentation - and since I'm always using the same fly it's a swifter route to learning the subtle nuances of each presentation and how they may be influenced by us or the environment..

  • authenticity  
because there is nowhere to hide with the one fly approach, success is more rewarding and more authentic - somehow I feel more of an angler in the purest sense, fishing this way..   

Where to next? 

By fishing one fly and enjoying these benefits I created a space for myself where I could relax and enjoy my fishing more, catch more fish and learn new approaches. Because of extensive fishing of this one pattern I also learned the limitations of the dark coloured soft hackle kebari I chose to restrict myself to. 
Given differing light conditions and colours of river bed gravels, I felt there were times when a light coloured fly would be easier for me to see and/or the fish to see. There were also times when I would have liked a stiff hackle version to try surface manipulations more effectively or to hold my fly in a pocket within the flow. 

And while none of this is really a surprise it does guide me very nicely in my fly box choices for this year. A collection of just four patterns - a dark soft hackle and a light soft hackle kebari, together with a dark coloured and a light coloured stiff hackle kebari would overcome these 'restrictions' and provide me with a large repertoire of presentations. More than almost anywhere else in fly fishing, the design of Kebari are defined by their intended function, how they will be presented, how they will be fished.

None of these considerations are entomology-based, but they are nevertheless very effective routes to catching fish by induced take. In fact I have my suspicions that even with western style flies most takes are in reality induced and seldom do we actually deceive a fish into mistaking our fly for a specific insect. But this is another subject entirely and one for another time..




Friday, 11 May 2018

favourite rod/s?

Everyone has I think, a favourite rod. In tenkara the rod is so much an extension of the self that the rod may become a fellow traveller, a much loved companion, imbued with the little successes and failures of the stories of our time on the water.  
This is my reasoning for restricting  myself to just a small collection of rods, to find the special few, and then to love, cherish and really get to  know their nature and character. I believe I may in this way become a better angler, because it is so often the tiny and subtle details that make big differences in how and what we catch and our peace and enjoyment on stream. Isn't simplicity of choice at the philosophical heart of tenkara? 

There are many reasons we may choose a rod. We may listen to a friend's (or an expert's) recommendations. We may be seduced by marketing or by good value. Rod choices can also be geographical - what is easily available in the US may not be so readily accessible here in the UK or elsewhere, and vice versa. It may be the aesthetic or brand loyalty that appeals - all of these and a host of other reasons are perfectly valid. But in the end, whether a rod continues to accompany us to the water or just gathers dust in the rod stand - that is down to something else altogether, something that is entirely subjective, entirely personal and has little to do with any of the aforementioned criteria. And that little special something can only be discovered through time spent fishing, and is something that exists solely between you (and only you) and the rod. 
So no one should tell you that you are wrong in some way to like this rod or that rod because it not as 'good' as some other rod. The space you have created between you and your favourite rod is personal and exists only for you, and as such is unknowable to anyone else.     
I know many tenkara anglers have large rod collections, who knows, perhaps in time so will I. But I can't see that happening right now, because the four rods I have (yes just four) already cover for me a lot of bases. They all have different personalities and I love them all for different reasons.

Eso 245 - 206 zoom from Esoteric Tackle on The Isle of Man

This was my first tenkara rod. Unconventional because of its short length -  a severe handicap on many waters - but perfect for the tiny overgrown brooks that it's designed for. It is incredibly sensitive and handles a 7x tippet and little trout with aplomb. It has a special place in my heart for catching my first wild trout on tenkara.

Diawa Enshou LL36 S-F

Now discontinued but still available here and there - a lovely light line rod with a classic tenkara action, designed by Yuzo Sebata. A full flex 5:5, I love the grace and elegance of this rod and the tactile feel when casting and manipulating flies. For me the comfort zone on this rod is with fish up to 15". Ironically, I broke the tip  when I collapsed the rod to minimise (or so I thought) the chance of breakage while climbing through a tree that had fallen over the stream. I've drawn a blank in sourcing a new tip section but I may well purchase another one (or two) editions of this rod while I still can. 

Karasu 360 from Discover Tenkara

A very different rod to the Enshou, with an action described by its designers as 'tip-focused progressive'. I would say that it has an atypically fast action for a tenkara rod with top quality carbon and a very clever taper. For me this means fast tip recovery, great feedback and accuracy with the lightest of lines, and some authority with powerful fish. Like the Enshou, I would say I feel most comfortable with fish up to 15" with the Karasu. It's also a great fixed line nymphing rod and I've had a lot of fun with the Karasu and winter grayling on beaded bugs. There's so much I love about this rod.

Hellbender 390 - 340 zoom from Dragontail Tenkara

Classic tenkara anglers look away now, this is nasty! The Hellbender is a powerful, big fish rod with a 7:3 action, very much in the American tenkara style. I love this rod! Great quality, and actually still with surprising sensitivity for smaller fish (although I wouldn't go lighter than a 5X tippet). I've had so much fun with this rod and really only discovered the full breadth of its versatility recently when I used it for some delicate dry fly presentations to a range of trout, hooking and playing everything in the 6" to 20" plus range. I can happily cast 2/0 streamers, heavy jig flies or tiny kebari. Not a conventional, classic tenkara rod by any stretch, but very capable across the whole range of fixed line fly styles. So, if like me you like to pursue a wide range of fish species with a fixed line fly, this rod is highly recommended.

So, which is my favourite? I honestly couldn't answer. Perhaps I just need to spend more time on the water with all of my rods..  

Saturday, 5 May 2018

horses and unicorns

I'm writing this at 5 am, I can't sleep. Horses and unicorns are riding unbidden again through my waking dreams.  The rivers of the Derbyshire Peaks, and the fish that swim in them - well, they get under your skin. 

Back-wind a day and  I'm fishing the river Wye with brother of the angle Geoff Hadley. There are the most beautiful golden coloured wild brown trout here - including some real horses, and only in the Wye, unicorns play amongst them.  Some will know and others will not, the Wye holds the only wild, breeding population of rainbow trout in the British Isles. So exquisitely marked, they are a wonder to behold and I'm hoping to put right the loss of last autumn and touch my first Wye 'bow.

We're fishing around Bakewell and there are rules. Dry fly only, no wading. It's easy to understand the reasoning. As a result, for the most part the river here suffers but a light touch from anglers. This regime has made the beat something of a place of pilgrimage for dry fly enthusiasts and therein lies my dilemma. Tenkara is not primarily a dry fly technique and neither to any great degree is 'matching the hatch'. 

In fact, since the fixed line fly bug bit me, I've done very little pure dry fly fishing. Sure, my lightest kebari start off on the surface but often I'm looking to fish them in the film or downright wet. There are times when I hold a fly on top of the surface film but even then not with high-riding floatant on any long drift. And my fly patterns are definitely only loosely suggestive, not imitative - designed for the method they will be fished rather than coded to any fly hatch. Planning this road trip north I almost give in and leave the tenkara gear aside - it would be easy to go native and join the locals with a DT line, 3 weight wand and a Richard Wheatley fly box crammed with seasonal confections. In the end the tenkara rods stay but I don't want to transgress any local rules (even emergers like Klinkhammers are banned) so I put together a few classic English dry flies - iron blue duns, olives, hawthorn flies and my own take on sedges, but a little box too of small and light stiff hackle kebari..

So I'm on the water, an hour or so before Geoff, giving me time get my eye and my cast in. I soon find that I'm struggling to turn over the wind-resistant dry flies with my level nylon line. The need to constantly dry my fly and apply floatant I'm finding frustrating after the simple fluidity of casting kebari. But I persevere and soon Geoff arrives and generously shares some expert knowledge on patterns and holding spots. We're looking for feeding lanes and slacks near to the current seams and here often the better fish hold station. Geoff points out an almost indiscernible shadow under the far bank, too far away for my current set up, but possible with his western gear. A big rainbow, and he puts out a lovely cast that unrolls and settles just above the trout's window. The fly drifts a short while and just before drag snatches it away, it's nailed. But a brief commotion and the hook pings free and I share Geoff's pain - on inspection the hook has partly straightened out - these 'bows have bony mouths. I swap up from my beloved Karasu to my Hellbender - a beefier rod with a bit more reach, and on goes a furled casting line, ginked-up to make the front section float. Now I'm fishing dry fly pretty effectively, although it's going against my instincts to have casting line laying on the water.       

As the morning flows past we are both surprised by the absence of any real hatch and the sparsity of rise forms. We see plenty of fish but pulling them up to take a dry fly is a challenge today. I ring the changes and swap this fly with that, but only succeed in reminding myself how much I prefer my simple box of kebari and the may ways I can normally fish them. We are both struggling and a skunk's rear end will begin to resolve itself in the near distance if I don't switch my game. I'm looking at my kebari box, but even ginked-up these patterns will fish like an emerger, and so strictly speaking they are not permitted on this water. But then I see a little size 16 kebari, grey and with very sparse, stiff hackle.  I can hold this on the surface film, fly only, and better still I can manipulate this fly to groove the surface film. I experiment with allowing the fly to drift down stream, holding it in the flow on the surface and pulsing it  with regular movements of about half a fish in length. Now I'm stalking visible fish under the near bank or using back eddies to take my presentation out further.

It's a game changer today. My first fish - a baby 'bow, takes the fly in a little pocket of opposing flow and skips across the water. Perfection in miniature and my first little unicorn!

Mummy 'bow is holding deep but hurtles up to take my fly off the top as its drifts and grooves above - I can't believe the hook stays put through the ensuing trout ballet.  This is a good fish and strong, and leaps two feet clear of the water several times, before streaking off downstream. I turn her and she's coming back towards me when a final leap takes her up and over a willow branch. She's now tethered in the water with my line tangled interestingly in the low branches. Geoff slips the net under and she's quickly photographed and safely released.

Daddy 'bow is amazing looking fish holding in the highly oxygenated water beneath a weir sill. He's in a group of rainbows of similar size, with one fish larger still - which hits my fly, hoops the rod over but only sticks for a couple of seconds. For a few moments the group are competing for the fly and I'm struck by how quickly this aggressive feeding behaviour seems to be triggered by my presentation. The rainbow I do catch from this group hits the fly and falls off three times before I set the hook properly. He runs upstream against my pressure and looks for all the world like a salmon, tail thrashing against the flow, but I pull him downstream to the net. A proper unicorn says Geoff, and we rest him in the slack because my hands are shaking too much to take a photo and I'm grinning like a village idiot. Such wonderful markings, like the ink spatters from a fountain pen splashed from head to tail.

We push on expecting a hatch to start at any moment, but as the afternoon draws on it never materialises, at least not before we have to leave. We arrive at the same spot that Geoff lost his big rainbow this morning and it's still here, on station. Another deft long range cast from Geoff, another take and another hook adrift - this time a fish is just not meant to be. I know Geoff will be back to put it right though. Time to head back to the vehicles and along the way we spot a group of lovely brownies, not on the fin but holding near the river bed.

Wondering if the dry fly manipulation will work here too I make a few casts, looking for a line that will let me groove the surface within the trout's cone of vision. I'm struck by how much presence the tiny fly has, moved in this way. Caught in the surface mirror this manipulation must be greatly amplified, and today it continues to prove irresistible. A lovely brown rises from the bed and takes aggressively. Another powerful fish but competently handled by the Hellbender. I think Geoff is surprised how effectively Tenkara techniques have winkled out some good fish today in challenging conditions. And now I've found a fine horse among the unicorns.






Tuesday, 3 October 2017

the crow has landed - fishing with the Karasu 360

Rainy Saturdays don't get any better than this.

I love this photo taken by brother of the angle Geoff Hadley. It captures perfectly the essence of the day. We're taking wild rainbows, grayling and browns on dry fly in the late afternoon from a wet and breezy Derbyshire Wye. The photo also captures my capture of a fine wildie to christen my new rod with its first Salmo. 

I'm fishing with the Crow, or in its native tongue, the 'Karasu' from Discover Tenkara. My Karasu is the 360 iteration (it's also available as a 4m model). It is true to say there has been a fair amount of hoo-ha on social media around the launch of this rod. Largely around its (perceived) high price point, and also from the reactions of some competitors to Discover Tenkara's claims for its performance. 

Regarding the first, you pays your money and you takes your choice. If you find pleasure in catching fish with the most inexpensive tackle or even, hell, a willow switch you have just cut down, then fair play, that's cool with me. If on the other hand, you seek to define my fishing with your values, you may go forth and multiply. I like quality and I'm prepared to pay a little more for it.

Regarding the second, this is to me far more interesting. What are those competitors so provoked by? Fear of losing a little more of their market share of course, in a niche sector that is already a bit more crowded than it was a few years ago. So a new product needs a strong USP. Enter Karasu, a small production run, made-in-Japan rod from a small English company that looks good, feels good and can do some funky things with über-light casting lines in tight spaces. All of which suits my kind of fishing well enough to engage my interest. So I invest some trust in the guys bringing the rod to market and place my order from the first production run.

I'll leave talk of penny ratings to others. I just want to share how it feels to me to fish with this rod. So let's rewind a week or so and we will find ourselves standing amongst the late season's nettles on the bank of the Wendover Arm. No trout water this but I'm not here for trout. The evening is warm and still and I'm here for the rise of roach that I hope will soon develop. Perfect conditions to test cast the Karasu 360, rigged with 4m of #3 nylon casting line and 5x tippet. 

I'm looking forward to casting the light nylon line. One of the fine qualities of this rod is its competence here. My first cast is a noodle on the water, my second and third unroll nicely but with a definite bump down the blank as the rod recovers. I'm overpowering the forward cast I think, and coming to too much of an abrupt stop at the end. So I smooth out and dampen my forward stroke and then this rod and line really start to sing. Before long my new casting stroke becomes second nature and it's almost like I'm thinking the fly into place. Now the roach are rising freely and I'm blissfully using the rise forms as ever changing targets to sharpen my accuracy. I'm really liking casting with this rod. 

A little size 16 bead head kebari has some pulling power for roach and a few plump
little beauties soon come to hand. And here is my next test for the Karasu which is all about the trade off between sensitivity and hook set. I am keen to try this out on the roach which, in comparison to trout, have small soft mouths and can at times be very delicate feeders, sucking in and blowing out a fly faster than thought itself. A few roach in and I'm happily finding what I hoped for in this rod - positive take detection and control but with just enough forgiveness offered as I set the hook. I think these qualities will stand me in good stead next week when I join Geoff and Glen Pointon for some Derwent grayling.    

So the days are ticked off on my cell wall, the jail door springs open and with one bound I am free and bowling up country to  the banks of the Derwent - the starting point of adventure for many past, present and future anglers.  

The trout season will soon close and we're hoping today for the holy trinity of wild rainbow, browns and grayling all on dry fly. Glen, our local guide and friend of Geoff's, has a phenomenal knowledge of this river catchment, of fish ways and days, and soon puts me on some grayling feeding in a current seam. 

The sun is low and bright and the water has a tinge of whisky about it. Still with the #3 nylon I can float my kebari down onto the surface like a dandelion clock, with no line or tippet getting wet. Such is the fine balance of the Karasu in hand that I can hold the kebari on the surface film, with perfect control, as dry as dry can be, to make that lovely hackle imprint in the watery mirror. I'm enjoying using the light upstream breeze to put a soft little cushion into my casting line which just lets me slow the fly slightly as I drift it down the feeding line. 

Such a delight, when fly, line, wind and rod work together to present the fly just as the fish would like. I am soon blessed with some Autumn grayling rising to my kebari, and when they take on the downstream part of my drift I find they are easy to hit as they turn with the fly, feeling little resistance from the cushioning line. 

Geoff is fishing with fly rod and reel and is having a great time too. He's doing well with the browns at the tail of his pool, while Glen is always busy offering sage advice, flies and side splitting humour as he shuttles between the two of us taking photo's. That's my memory of the Derwent - autumn colours, beautiful fish and great company. And something of a break through in my tenkara with the degree of control and finesse offered by the Karasu and nylon line.

The start of a wet and blustery weather front moves in and we push on, now fishing the Wye in search of our trinity. Geoff has his brown and I have my grayling so we hope for continued success. The mark I am fishing now is wooded and technical and a great test of  side casts and changes of direction. This is easy with the Karasu, and I'm into a wild brownie on my second cast when a side flick lets me drift past an overhanging branch. Now comes the next test for the rod as I need to gain control of my fish straight away. I really have to hand it to Paul Gaskell and John Pearson here for the way a rod with such finesse can show the required authority in a tight spot. 

A scrappy little trout and no mistake, but control is direct and without fuss and he's soon in the net. Glen points to a tiny pocket water behind a rock at the tale of a weir. He tells me a good rainbow holds there. Almost as if it's scripted, a side cast under the trees converts to a forward cast  and lands my kebari fly first, fly only. I hold it in in the pocket for just a second and it's taken by a solid rainbow. A stronger fish this one, and I can't move much under these branches. So Glen brings the net, but a plunge and lunge and my fish rolls off the hook, but not before we see a flash of cosmic colour. So not quite the trinity this year, but I am blessed with an embarrassment of riches nonetheless.

So I've tested the Karasu 360 over a range of real life fishing scenarios. I've used some classic tenkara approaches for trout and grayling in rocky streams and also adapted these for a non trout quarry - the roach, in a near still-water setting. For me the Karasu is a rod that, while not for novice casters, will surely allow your casting abilities to grow. On-stream the rod has grace and finesse but authority too. I put this down to the speed of the carbon and its degree of recovery. The tip is not going to bounce about and distort your delivery, so with practice the greatest of accuracy will be possible with this rod. But there is also just enough softness in the tip to stop you bouncing off fish, particularly important for those softer mouthed species.

I did rattle the point fly of a team of weighted nymphs across the gravel and the feedback down the blank was excellent, so although this is not currently my area,  I think this will be a fine nymphing rod too. Again I put this great tactile feedback down to high quality carbon.

Yes it delivers lovely side casts, and with the small small scrubby rivers I fish, this is important. But apart from all of the above, one characteristic I really dig, and one I think the boys could make more of, is the balance of this rod when fishing. The EVA handle is quite heavy and dense. Not only does this transmit feedback down the rod very crisply but it counterbalances the rod when it's held in the classic tenkara position. 

For me this allows three huge benefits compared to all my other rods. I can fish over long periods with no fatigue and I can hold my rod with a much lighter and better grip. But best of all, I can accurately make the most miniscule adjustments to rod tip position. So I can track flies more precisely and more easily, I can hold my fly in or on the surface film to change its imprint and I can manipulate a wet kebari by tiny fractions. This is great for slower flow species like roach and rudd when I'm looking to induce a take.

Build quality is of the highest order. Oh, and the rod does look pretty dam cool.