Northeast Brookies Tenkara-Style: Where the Streams Have No Names, Leave the 12-Footer at Home

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This post first appeared, in slightly different form, as a feature article in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler Magazine. As spring 2017 has arrived and our thoughts turn to the season ahead, I thought you might like to read it, if you haven’t already.  My thanks to Mike Agneta, webmaster of Troutrageous!, for allowing me to publish it.

Photos by Brad Clark

My first tenkara rod was a 13-footer, which I used on the trout streams of North Georgia—the Chattahoochee and the Tallulah River among them. This purchase was quickly followed by that of an 11-foot rod. The 2-foot subtraction helped me stay out of the rhododendrons, but if a shorter rod had been available then, I would have bought that as well. Unfortunately, there wasn’t.

When I moved back to Massachusetts a couple of years later, I knew these rods would be unworkable on many of the small streams in northern New England that are home to wild native brook trout. These waters, heavily canopied, often unnamed, faint blue lines on the Gazetteer, do not allow for 9-foot rods, let alone 13-footers.

When my friend Chris Stewart, the Tenkara Bum, began touting the Daiwa Soyokaze as a micro rod that could be fished tenkara-style, some tenkara traditionalists (who’d been at the game for all of three years) balked. For those of us who fish for brookies in New England, however, the short sticks seemed tailor-made for the game. For me, whose initial attraction to tenkara was its minimalism, the Soyokaze further simplified things. Here was a fly rod stripped to its essence: a carbon stick and little else. The Soyokaze cast both furled and level lines well—and it caught fish. When Daiwa ceased production, I regretted not having bought a few more of them.

If you’re interested in playing the small-stream tenkara game, the rod is your primary consideration. There are several seiryu and micro rods on the market of less than 9 feet that will fit the bill, including the Nissin Air Stage 190 (which comes in several flex profiles) and the Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 24, 21, and 18 (just under 8 feet, 7 feet, and 6 feet, respectively). Although the Kiyotaki 18 has become my go-to rod for small-stream brookies (simply due to its length), it’s a bit stiffer than I would like.

Fast-forward 7 or 8 years after tenkara first hit the U.S. and we now have several homegrown companies producing rods for the American market, 3 of which offer a dedicated tenkara rod of less than 9 feet.

At 8’6” extended and 18 inches collapsed, Badger Tenkara’s U.N.C. (which stands for “unnamed creek”) is spartan, a matte drab olive blank (presumably for stealth). Writes Matt Sment: “We founded Badger with the goal of making tenkara accessible to the broadest possible audience … focusing on the angler’s preferred experience rather than trying to clone Japanese products and culture. The vast majority of our customers are Americans fishing American water and terrain, and our products are shaped by our experiences on the same.”

The company describes the rod as a 6:4 action with a medium flex. Frankly, I don’t pay too much attention to technical specifications. I fished the rod and it cast well and hooked fish. And at $90 retail you really can’t argue with the price. (I didn’t get a chance to take the U.N.C. down to the pond, but I’m sure it’s an awesome little bluegill rod.)

Zen Fly Fishing Gear’s Suzume (“sparrow”) is one of the neatest tenkara rods I’ve fished with yet—a downsized triple-zoom (10’8”, 9’3”, and 7’7”) that Zen owner Karin Miller designed specifically for Rocky Mountain National Park. “Those are our home waters,” she writes, “and what we fish every day. It’s small streams, tight places, lots of trees and overhanging canopy, and pools and pockets. We wanted something that could handle these places without a lot of acrobatics and maneuvering and could also reach the other side of that wider pool or beaver dam when you finally get to that place where you can see sky and the water opens up for a bit. The range that the Suzume has is something we’re pretty proud of. You can cover a lot of situations with a single rod—and still feel pretty balanced and not tip heavy in any of its three positions (which is very hard to do on a zoom rod and especially a tri-zoom). It’s a sweet rod that offers some really nice options.”

Zen describes the rod as a medium-fast action with a 6:4 flex. I was afraid the rod would feel a bit stiff at its shortest length—but it didn’t. At $229, the Suzume is more than twice the price of the U.N.C., but if you think of it as buying three rods the price gets a lot nicer. As an added bonus, Zen includes an extra tip with each of its rods. Says Miller, “It just makes life that much sweeter if you should experience a break.”

Figure NB01.jpg

A roster of short sticks. From the top, Zen Fly Fishing Gear’s Suzume; Badger Tenkara’s U.N.C.; Shimotsuki Kiyotaki 24; Shimotsuke Kosasa, 6’10”; Nissan Air Stage 190; Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 18.

Once you’ve procured your rod, your next consideration is line. Although most tenkara anglers today prefer to fish with level fluorocarbon lines, I still prefer furled lines, which feel and handle more like conventional fly lines. In the tightest spots, however, you’re bound to end up in the trees occasionally. Pulling on the line to break the tippet is almost sure to cause the line to tangle. Tangle a furled line and you could spend the next five minutes trying to untangle it. Furled lines for very short tenkara rods are not the norm. You may have to substitute a furled leader made for a Western-style fly line. Otherwise, Mike Moline at Streamside Furled Leaders is willing to do custom work at a small additional charge. Whatever line you choose, 3 or so feet of 5X or 6X tippet will suffice.

Life in the headwaters is a hardscrabble existence. Competition for food is keen, so the fish aren’t fussy. Forget about matching the hatch—just throw a few flies into a glass vial and go. I do most of my small-stream fishing with only two patterns—an Elk Hair Caddis and a Yellow Soft Hackle, size 14 or smaller. Plan to do a lot of walking when you play this game. If you don’t get a rise after a cast or two into the same water, move to the next likely-looking spot. If you rise a fish but don’t hook it, don’t spend a lot of time working over him, as it’s unlikely you’ll rise the same fish again.

Figure NB02

This stream actually does have a name–Needle Shop Brook in Hill, New Hampshire. One of my favorite spots for small-stream tenkara. I’ve yet to see another angler here. If you decide to visit, please release all fish and pack out your trash.

As I said previously, the thing that attracted me to tenkara initially was its minimalism. I like to travel light. I can fit everything I need for a day of fishing into a small fanny pack. If I can get away with wet-wading in a pair of shorts and Vibram FiveFingers, I leave the waders at home (I find the Vibrams made for trail running offer better grip on wet stones).

To enjoy this game requires a shift in attitude that some will never manage—which may be why I rarely see another soul. You have to accept there will be no rods doubled over, no singing reels, no trophies as such—none of the usual rewards of the five-star experience. (The first time I showed my wife a wild brook trout she said, “We came all the way up here for that…?”) If you’re after those things you’ll be elsewhere—wading the ranch’s private water, or standing at the bow of a flats boat.

But if you’re here, bare ankles numb, dancing your CDC Caddis across a pool no larger than your bathtub, you’re after something else.

Needle Shop Brookie

Trophies, but no bragging.

Resources

Badger Tenkara

www.badgertenkara.com

Streamside Furled Leaders

www.streamsideleaders.com

TenkaraBum

Chris Stewart stocks an impressive array of tenkara and other Japanese rods. For all of the specialty rods mentioned in this post, please refer to his Website.

www.tenkarabum.com

Zen Fly Fishing Gear

www.zenflyfishinggear.com

JJ’s Wood Fired Pizza and Tavern

If you make the trip to Needle Shop Brook be sure to stop by JJ’s. Nice people, excellent food, and an impressive beer selection. Piscator non solum piscatur.

False Albacore

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Josh Wrigley and I spent a great mid-September day off Cape Cod with Captain Artie Sawyer of Fin Fun Charters. The fish were playing a bit hard-to-get in the morning, but by noon things started to heat up.

You can see in the photo the size of the bait the albies were eating. Early in the morning I made a sarcastic comment about Artie’s tiny flies, referring to them as “anchovy emerger patterns.” Artie made me eat those words, however. Between us, Josh and I released about a dozen fish–this included two double hookups–and lost several others. With water temperatures in the 70s, Artie expects this action to continue well into October.

Worm Swarming–Finally

I recently got the chance to fish a worm swarming on Cape Cod. This is something I wrote about over 20 years ago in my book Saltwater Naturals. (The book is out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon.)

In short, worm swarmings occur when sexually mature annelid worms—here we’re talking about clamworms of the genera Nereis or Platynereis—leave their burrows to mate, sometimes in very large numbers. When enough spawning worms are present in an area, striped bass will tend to feed on them selectively, so the pattern you fish has to approximate the size, shape, and action of the natural. My friend Harry Graff spends his summers on the Bass River in South Dennis and has fished these swarmings for many years. Understanding the science behind the phenomenon doesn’t hurt, but it’s no match for experience, or for keeping your finger to the pulse of the river.

Harry dropped me an email to tell me the “hatch” was on. In Harry’s experience the swarmings tend to occur in the vicinity of Memorial Day weekend. They tend to begin at twilight—about 7:30 where we were—and end at dark. The bulk of it tends to take place over three consecutive evenings.

I pulled into Harry’s driveway at about seven. The tide was still coming in as we got to the water. The Bass River is a good early-season spot, as the fish tend to arrive here before we see them on the northern side of the Cape. Nearly 30 years ago, in my mid-20s, I caught my first striped bass in this river, in the piece of water below Wilbur Park in Yarmouth. I used a soggy glass Garcia bass rod (my father’s) to fling a 3-inch Lefty’s Deceiver into a subtle current seam. As if on cue, the fish pulled. As I recall, the fish wasn’t very big—certainly no more than 16 inches. I’ve caught a lot of striped bass since then—a few over 40 inches—but I don’t think I’ve ever caught one that thrilled me more than that first one.

There were huge schools of small fish in the river, Harry said; he’d taken one as small as 7 inches. Small fish are a promising sign; the fishery isn’t what it was back in the late ‘90s—no one seems to know why.

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Page Rogers’s Cinderworm

As we stepped into the water I saw my first worm. The spawning form of the worm—heteronereid or epitoke, in the scientific literature—is shorter and more stout than the non-spawning adult. This worm was about 2 inches long and maybe a quarter-inch in diameter, reddish in color. During the process of sexual maturation the rearward legs of the worm (parapodia) become modified into tiny scoop like oars–only slightly in some species, but radically in others. Swarming worms are amazingly adept swimmers. Their gyrations at the water’s surface call to mind skywriting airplanes. The flies used during the swarmings are fairly simple. Harry was using Page Rogers’s Cinderworm—a length of red velvet tubing fastened to the hook and sealed at the tail end. (Harry likes this fly, he says, because it’s very durable.) The fly I took from Harry was a 2-inch red bucktail with a body of small orange cactus chenille, well-worn from years of action. It was dressed on a carbon-plated hook about 1/0 in size.

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Harry Graff’s Cinderworm

I wanted to satisfy myself that the fish were indeed being selective, so I began by tying on one of my favorite flies, a white Tabory Snake Fly, which I’ve used to catch just about everything everywhere, including false albacore and tarpon. I quickly picked up a 12-inch schoolie with it, but only one. About five minutes later Harry had landed his second fish and had missed probably a half dozen due to short strikes. That was enough to convince me. I switched flies.

I worked the worm fly with a continuous hand-over-hand retrieve at a pace appropriate to the natural—quickly, but only 2 inches at a time. It wasn’t long before my first strike—short, as were many of the strikes Harry was getting. It felt as if the fish grabbed only the tail. Also, I think a 1/0 hook is a bit large for very small fish (my smallest of the evening was about 10 inches). In all, we landed a fair number of fish, but we missed many more than we hooked.

Ten minutes after we arrived, the swarming was in full swing. Up and down the river, as far as you could see, the surface was dimpled with the swirls of feeding striped bass. Harry’s house has been in his family since the 1950s. His father had done most of his fishing with a spinning rod and a Rapala. Harry recalls evenings like this as kid when the river came alive with activity but they couldn’t buy a strike. That’s how it was the first time I experienced a swarming. I knew almost nothing then about saltwater forage, selective feeding, or anything else. I just knew the fish weren’t interested in whatever I was showing them. This evening I only actually saw that single worm, so it’s easy to see how an angler can get stumped by a swarming.

If ever you face a situation like this—the fish are eating, but not what you’re showing them—you’ll do well to look around the water’s edge to see what might be available. I’ve experienced striped bass feeding selectively on grass shrimp just under the surface. In the twilight I could see their sides flash white as they took, and their action bulged the surface not unlike the rise of a nymphing trout. Had I not shined a flashlight along the the shallows I never would have noticed the thousands of grass shrimp flitting about. Only then, after I trimmed my black Deceiver to an inch and worked it in 2-inch strips, could I catch a fish (and I was surprised at how hard they took).

The rule of thumb in selective feeding is to first match the size of the prey and then the action. (One time I took 20 or more bass out of a school busting on silversides using a 6-inch Deceiver while the surfcaster throwing a 12-inch plug from the jetty finally left in frustration.) Some will argue with me, but I don’t consider color of much importance, generally (I’ll change retrieves before I change a fly in which I have confidence). And fish don’t see color at night, so I think black is as good a color as any (my father did well with black Jitterbugs and Hula Poppers at night for largemouth bass).

When night proper fell, the river turned off, as Harry said it would.

I first met Harry through Henry Weston Outfitters in Pembroke, Massachusetts, one of the many fly shops that popped up in the area when the striped bass fishery made a comeback in the early 1990s (and after The Movie caused the fly-fishing industry to explode). This was the first time we had ever fished together. I think I’m going to have to fish with him again (I still have a bit more to show him ;)).

I left Harry’s in time to make it to KKatie’s Burger Bar in Plymouth before the kitchen closed. This isn’t a restaurant review, but after an evening of fishing on the South Shore you could do worse than to sit down to a Hell Burger and an IPA. Piscator non solum piscatur.