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Leader-only Techniques

Jeremy Lucas: Leader-only Techniques

Tenkara angler Jeremy Lucas
Tenkara, and the Italian pesca alla Valsesiana, both fixed line fly fishing approaches, have been responsible for extending the scope of the western-style.  In the United States anglers tend to be either tenkara enthusiasts (and there are probably more of these here than in any other country of the world other than Japan) or aficionados of the western-style.  In Europe, however, the situation is rather more homogeneous, with top fly fishers adopting the very best of both styles and marrying them in the so called leader-only or leader-to-hand approaches.  The latter, indeed, developed from the French or Euro leader, which was a method designed specifically for nymph presentation.  Like tenkara, however, contemporary leader-only allows optimum presentation for both dry fly and nymph, though excels in the former.
Eden grayling on the plume tip and tenkara
We should not be viewing conventional western-style and the fixed line as such polar opposites.  They certainly represent the extremes of the presentation spectrum, but they are utterly within the fold of fly fishing.  We should, rather, explore the mid-part of this spectrum, where we adopt the best that both approaches have to offer and marry them into what is the most elegant materialisation of the sport that exists.

In so doing, we have to recognise the faults, or weaknesses, associated with each style, as well as taking the strengths of each.  The great strength of tenkara is certainly afforded by the low mass of the leader which allows unbeatable presentation, particularly of dry fly and light weight sakasa kebari (reversed hackle) spiders.  At its best there is merely a small section of tippet lying on the water, or even none at all, with the fly poised at the surface on a tight leader.  Other than at very short range, this is simply not possible with western-style, at least where fly line is concerned, simply because of the comparatively high mass of the line itself, producing drape or sag between the rod tip and the water's surface.  At its worst; the problem of yielding and gathering line.  By default the range at which we fish tenkara is completely determined by the length of rod, leader and tippet.  Actually, this range limitation is not the most important issue here, because 6-10 metres is a perfectly acceptable range on the river, but the inability to retrieve and yield line is a serious limitation.  In the first instance it requires us to target small fish, because to hook large trout, for example, which are liable to move very quickly on long runs will result in the inevitable break of fine tippets, and this is wholly irresponsible and will give ammunition to the anti-fishing lobby.  Also, the fact that we cannot retrieve line, other than by hand-lining of the tippet, is crude, and fraught with problems while dealing with a fish of reasonable size.  Indeed, what is on one hand the most elegant form of fly presentation ever devised becomes completely the opposite as we struggle with a long tippet and a lively trout.

Eden wild brown trout on CDC plume tip, and tenkara
Western-style, however, enjoys the benefits of the fly reel, or rather rod guides, which allow us to retrieve line and, importantly, to yield it to a running fish.  Indeed, this is the overwhelming benefit of the whole approach, even though with fly line itself (because of its high mass) it is not possible to achieve fixed line quality of presentation.

One approach to circumventing these problems is to introduce some form of line gathering system within tenkara, such as passing the leader down through the interior of the telescopic blank so that it can be retrieved at the butt section.  The European western-style fly fishers have adopted the alternative of doing away with conventional fly line and using designed-for-purpose leaders.  These stemmed from the French leader which were designed for nymph fishing, but which are poor for delivering dry fly other than at very short range.  The modern 'presentation' leader has been designed first and foremost for dry fly delivery, or other flies with low mass (such as spiders).  In combination with very light weight rods such as 10' – 11' #2 and #3 weights, we have now arrived at the compromise situation in which we have taken the best from both spectral opposites and removed the deficiencies.  We now have sublime presentation potential, not quite up to the pinnacle of tenkara, though at greater range, with the line gathering and yielding capability afforded by the guided fly rod (and reel).

Tenkara purists will point to the other great virtue of the fixed line approach; its minimalism.  It requires, after all, simply rod, leader, tippet and flies, and very few items of peripheral tackle.  Actually, though, the leader-only approach in western-style is almost as minimalistic in that the only item beyond the above that is necessary is the fly reel.  No peripheral items beyond what we require in tenkara - Mucilin, line snips and forceps – are strictly necessary, so we are still tending towards an extreme in minimalism, while delighting in the supreme elegance of the style.

Make no mistake, the rate of development in fly fishing, with the single-handed fly rod is developing at a more rapid pace than ever before, and it is tremendously exciting.  There should be no division between the fixed line and running line sectors, because together we are pushing the boundaries of what is possible.  Lately, I have fished two large (by British standards) rivers; the Cumbrian Eden and the Welsh Dee.  I have used fly line and tenkara, along with the optimum of the leader-to-hand.  The huge shortcoming of the inability to yield line has been obvious with tenkara, because trout and grayling of up to 47cm have been encountered, while the crude presentation with fly line has certainly alarmed specimen grayling on both rivers.  The leader-only approach has dominated in terms of success.  It is the ideal compromise.  I am spending the next two weeks on the San, in Poland, an enormous tailwater, and I am fired by the prospects of further discovery as I use the spectrum of approaches, fine-tuning the ideas of 'presentation' fly fishing which is the marriage of the running line and fixed line approaches.

Daniel Svrcek, formerly of the Czech national team; one of the best nymph fishers in the world, with big Dee grayling on the leader-to-hand

Daniel Svrcek, formerly of the Czech national team; one of the best nymph fishers in the world, with big Dee grayling on the leader-to-hand

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