Running steeply off the Julian Alps in northern Slovenia, close to the border with Austria, is the jewel of the river Kokra. Fishable way above the thousand metre altitude, and all the way down to its confluence with the magnificent Sava, near Kranj, the Kokra affords ideal opportunity to fish with either leader-only western-style (or low mass fly line) or tenkara. The water is utterly clear and cold from snow-melt and summer rains while the river consists mostly of pockets and dashing rapids, with some short glides, particularly in the lower reaches. Heavily treed banks intersperse with pale gravel beaches. Idyllic villages and mills seamlessly interrupt alpine meadows and forested sections. Nowhere is the river broader than about 10 metres, in summer conditions, and in most places in the upper section above the hamlet of Kokra it is little over half this width. Even in low water, however, there are occasional surprising depths where fish are poised, while in the very shallow glides, fish are invisibly translucent. In a country full of incredible fly fishing potential, the little Kokra is magnificent, and one of my and my friends’ favourites.
With so many trees along the banks, as well as the small scale of the pocket water on this river, tenkara might even have the advantage in places over western-style. The size of the fish are also ideal for tenkara, ranging from 20 - 40cm, though with an average of around 26cm. Rainbow and brown trout are present in roughly even numbers, while grayling populate the lower reaches. My friend Paul Fear and I decided to alternate between approaches while fishing the lower section together over a river range of potentially some 20 kilometres (though we restricted this to about six kilometres on this visit). I fished tenkara in the morning, while Paul fished western-style (with an 11’ two weight), and we swapped in the afternoon. I also used the occasion to test the Tenkara Times Motive 390 married to a copolymer ‘presentation’ leader of 3.5m, and a 1m 6X Fulling Mill copolymer tippet. I fished exclusively dry fly, starting with a 19 CDC plume tip shuttlecock (the ideal tenkara fly), but switched later to championship caddis and Oppo patterns (which require less drying and maintenance after fish capture). Rather than describe these flies here, you might like to see pictures of them on my website: www.presentationflyfishing.com.
Paul and I started mid-way along the very long lower section. I was about 100m upstream of Paul. Second cast and a lithe rainbow snatched the plume tip away, so precipitating the process of casting, hooking, hand-lining the fish and fly maintenance for the rest of the morning. It was nothing short of remarkable that in the first hour, as Paul worked his way upstream towards me, while I moved no more than 50 metres, also upstream - a period of perhaps an hour - I had caught 20 fish, roughly equally balanced between brown trout, rainbow trout and grayling, while the best fish was a 32cm grayling. In one small pool alone I caught two of each species. It was mesmerising; in these utterly clear waters the fish were almost always completely invisible until the moment they rose to the fly. A part of the river bed seemed to detach itself and lift in an instant to the drifting fly!
The Motive 390 was, indeed, the perfect tool for the job; made so by the scale of fishing (size of river and fish) as much as the delightful stiffness, accompanying the low weight, of this rod. The length allowed the use of a 4.5m leader/tippet which yielded a casting stance at a reasonable range downstream or across of most of the fish-holding pockets. I fished, as always on the river, without a landing net, preferring to bring fish to hand, because it is usually much easier to deal with the unhooking and releasing process when a net is not involved.
There are exceptions, and usually these involve grayling, which often refuse to lie calmly to be unhooked. In any case, even with anything other than an impractically long handled landing net, hand-lining of the tippet is inevitable with tenkara when using leader/tippets greater than rod length. This has always been a huge concern of mine with tenkara, because it is an ungainly process, fraught with the threat of tippet breakage, particularly with fast-moving trout. I believe this to be a fundamental failing of the fixed-line approach, every bit as much as is the inability to yield and gather line.
The above issue is not, of course, a particular problem of the Motive 390. Indeed, I now believe this rod to be an outstanding design. It has a hollow carbon fibre tip section, and while one might suspect this will render the tip subject to breakage, it does afford a stiffness without significant increase in mass. This is significant: where one needs low mass is at the tip of a fly rod (much less important in the butt because of leverage), so the hollow tip provides this, while also being stiffer than thin solid sections. Tenkara rods usually conform to the flexing ratios of 5:5 (soft), 6:4 and 7:3 (stiff). My previous regular tenkara companion has been a 3.6m Iwana designated as a 6:4. This rod is certainly softer than the Motive 390, though I am reluctant to designate the latter as a 7:3. Simply put, it ‘feels’ like a stiff rod, but with hardly greater mass (and therefore tiring leverage) than the Iwana, and that extra 30cm really does give a presentation advantage, particularly in allowing one to keep almost all the tippet off the water.
This particular point is one of tenkara’s great advantages over western-style, and some will argue that it is its greatest asset. I am not so sure, though the 390 does give a noticeably improved presentation in this regard.
The rest of the morning passed to yield me over fifty fish to the tenkara, including a rainbow of 35cm and a grayling of 34cm. The rate determining factor was the length of time in dealing with a hooked fish, which is always longer with tenkara than western-style, because of that inherent inability to gather line through the rod and the necessity of hand-lining the thin tippet. (Note: perhaps the answer to this persistent issue is, after all, a long handled landing net, but the cumbersome nature of this seems to destroy the gorgeous simplicity of tenkara)
Paul had interchanged between nymph and dry fly on his western rig, and came back to the meeting point at lunch time similarly awed by the Kokra, though perhaps with fewer fish than I had caught, simply because the nymph will almost always be slower than dry fly in a river such as this in normal summer conditions. In the afternoon session, Paul fished tenkara, again with both nymph and dry, while I switched to a two weight fly line on a 10' Streamflex.
I also headed off downstream, where the river opens out a little, with longer glide sections and rather more casting space. I immediately felt the advantage of the longer range casting ability of the western rig, because on the broader river, with fewer overhanging trees, I was able to 'stand-off' at greater range, typically at between six and 10 metres, to the target areas. In many places I was even able to stand on the bank, which would have been ineffective with the tenkara, which by definition of the fixed line limits one's range. I should also mention that the above notwithstanding, I missed the pragmatic simplicity of the Motive, and the enhanced stalking nature of the fishing that tenkara necessitates.
By the end of the afternoon we had caught a huge number of fish from this astonishingly prolific river. The Motive 390 had been both a delight and perfectly suited to the alpine river, which after all is not so dissimilar to the mountain rivers of Japan. I was able to deal more expediently with the larger stream of the afternoon's section, and its generally larger fish, with the western-style, although the tenkara would have managed comfortably enough here, as it did for Paul. All in all, the day had been exemplar in several ways: it had reaffirmed that tenkara is at its best on a small mountain river, particularly where stalking is necessary and where casting space is restricted. It had also shown me that the Motive is among a new class of high-performance rods for the fixed line approach. And beyond it all, was the discovery of one of the most astonishing alpine rivers I have ever fished, teeming with trout and grayling, of high average size. Oh, and beautiful, did I mention that?