Tenkara Where; Tenkara Now.

by Jeremy Lucas, UK

Those of you who perhaps might follow the Facebook tenkara posts, know we are at a particularly exciting place in our sport. Western-style for trout and grayling, at least on rivers, has tended towards a new finesse, with ever-lighter fly lines, and ultimately the leader-only approach, while the boundary condition of what we had recently regarded as a limit in tenkara is evaporating. Best of all, I think, the two approaches, once seen as so polar, are converging.

I fish rivers throughout the scale of possibilities; from minute upland trickles down to the lower reaches of broad rivers. So long as there are fish that will come to the fly, ideally trout and grayling, I find a contentment, borne of both an empathy with these beautiful places we visit and a sense of exploration and adventure. Whereas in the past I limited my tenkara exploits to those upper reaches where the quarry was mostly, if not entirely, small wild trout, where a big fish is 30cm, I find myself looking at ever larger sections of river, and much bigger fish, and still not dismissing the possibilities of the fixed line.

This last winter, right up to the end of the British grayling season on 15th March, I fished exclusively tenkara, mostly on the middle Eden in Cumbria. I fine tuned the set up, from the starting point of the outstanding Motive 390 (6:4), until I had what I consider to be the optimum leader construction for a double nymph rig. This consisted of a rod length section of #3.5 fluorocarbon, with a short section of either Sunline #2.5 or fluorescent copolymer 2.0mm as an indicator, with a tippet of a little over a metre of 5X or 6X Fulling Mill copolymer, the latter of which is probably the best material I have ever used for river tippets. For winter grayling I place the two nymphs very close together – about 30cm separation – and latterly these usually consist of either Euro-jig variants and/or PTNs.

winter tenkara, Eden river, UK
The entire set-up has been a revelation, allowing me a level of control (including in terms of presentation) that the shorter western rods have lacked. Without a doubt, also, the grayling, in any size of river, is the ideal target species for the fixed leader approach. Even big grayling do not run anything like as fast as trout and are much easier to bring under control and ease to hand (or net if you are so inclined).

The long rod allows the ideal range of presentation from the wading angler such that correctly ballasted nymphs will quickly reach the river bed or close to it, where both of them need to be, and the angler can have almost straight line contact with them throughout the drift, even manipulating their motion a little from the dead-drift situation, while the indicator section is cutting almost vertically through the water's surface. Jigs are particularly useful for this method, because they fish point upwards and any fouling of the stones on the river bed is usually the bead becoming lodged, rather than the hook point, and these nearly always come away cleanly.

Eden. Grayling by Jeremy Lucas
During the last mild winter, several specimen grayling have come to this rig, and no end of OOS trout, and I found myself in wonder at the level of control, once the fundamental of the leader and tippet had been optimised. Grayling of 44cm, 45cm and 47cm - between two and three pounds in weight - came off the Appleby waters of the Eden, all from fairly fast flow. While not running fast, big grayling like this are strong, dogged fighters and they present a large surface area to the current. That puts a lot of strain on hook-hold, tippet and rod. If they get downstream of the angler it is inevitable that one has to go with them, or if western-style fishing, then line must be yielded. With all three of these fish I found the flex in the rod absorbed the downstream lunges of the fish while I needed to take no more than a step or two to cushion any further shock. Had I been fishing western, I would more likely have yielded too much line, rather than taking numerous steps, which is always hazardous in the winter river, and the grayling would have been too far from me; a situation which frequently ends in the hook pulling free. The latter, in any case, is inelegant; quite unlike the beautiful, arched tenkara rod gently absorbing the grayling's weight against the flow. In each case the fish came sedately to hand after a couple of downstream excursions.

Now, after what has seemed a long wait through the foul winter just passed, we are into a new trout season and for the first year ever, I am oddly not thinking of any material change, from tenkara back to tried and tested western. The fish are changing, of course, already focused for long periods of each day on the surface, for midges and dark olives, but I do not feel the need to be able to present at particularly greater range than tenkara will allow on the big river.

I did have one fascinating experience a few days ago, however, which I want to convey. I was wading up a section of the middle Eden, fishing a kebari on a dropper with a small PTN on point, on the Motive 390; picking pockets in search mode. There was no hatch and consequently no fish showing, until about 30m upstream, at the tail of an island channel, I noticed a fish dimple the surface. As I approached I nipped off the flies and increased the tippet length for a dry fly (it takes only one fish showing to make me change to dry).

Heron hearl dry flies: Jeremy Lucas

On went a 19 heron herl plume tip to what was now a combined line and tippet of about 7m. There was an upstream wind, so no problem with delivery on the target area from my downstream approach. I needed this sort of range, however, because of the shallow, clear water in which the trout was feeding. As I eased quietly into range the fish showed again, though I could not see any fly on the surface.

I rose the fish with perhaps my third cast, on a narrow foam lane, but striking felt nothing at all – a 'fresh air rise'. Several casts later it came again, with the same lack of contact. At least it was not spooked, but it is odd to have a fish miss the plume tip. I changed the fly for the yellow quill version, and smaller; a 21. Twice more the fish rose and again with fresh air rises! I was surprised, because it is extremely rare for a 21 plume tip to suffer what was effectively rejection. The signals were there however, in the form of a lack of an upwing hatch. I studied the drifting line of foam more closely and was probably quite fortunate to notice that one of the bubbles was actually not a bubble but a pair of mating midges. Then, I could pick out a few more of this minute species. I changed the plume tip for a much smaller version and within two casts rose the fish yet again, this time setting the hook.

WBT. Eden, UK: by Jeremy Lucas
It was a magnificent, leaping wild trout, for which the Eden is so famed, and even better it was followed by other similar fish farther up the drift line, all coming to the midge version of the plume tip on the long leader.

It was a wonderfully salutary experience; from failure and rejection, though analysis and a tactical adjustment, to final, even dramatic, success. I was, however, reminded quite starkly of one crucial aspect of the entire process, common to fishing the fixed line. Once that hook is set the acrobatics and fast moving nature of a sizeable wild brown trout almost immediately puts the angler at a severe disadvantage in terms of control and this is hugely exacerbated by an over-length leader and tippet. One of the trout I hooked that afternoon dashed into the overhanging branches on the far bank and I was utterly powerless to prevent this. Fortunately, everything held and the fish withdrew back out into the open water and I was able to bring it to hand; though this was more by luck than any aspect of control, and probably more thanks to the excellent tippet I use nowadays (Fulling Mill copolymer in 6X – 0.12mm).

And then there is that awful moment of having to grasp the tippet... I think this is one of the biggest 'issues' in tenkara fishing and we are some way off a solution. And yet we must strive for such, because, really guys, this is not cool. It looks exactly as it is: clumsy and out of control, fraught with hazard. It is frankly inelegant, and this, for the most delightfully delicate and elegant means of fly presentation ever, is plainly wrong. I know that several tenkara anglers are concerned with this, while others might be in denial, but I am utterly convinced that we need to find a solution to this one or western-style - particularly with leader-only – will always be seen as the prime option for trout on the larger river. The experience of a big Eden trout going ballistic, among the tangle in fast flow, left me both thrilled to the point of shaking, but also feeling slightly guilty in the sense that I know how I would have felt if the fish had broken away – one of the great sins in our sport.

A word about the upcoming 2nd European Tenkara Convention in early June: the event will be in southern Bohemia in Czech this year, where the rivers are simply perfect for tenkara. I am very sorry not to be able to attend because of my son having to sit important public exams at that time, and I have explained this to Oleg. I just want to wish all the attendees every success in this beautiful region and hope that the Convention consolidates the entire tenkara movement in Europe, and beyond.

Lesly Janssen: Fishing Marble Trout with Tenkara. >>