Recently, I was in Idaho for a press event hosted by Patagonia. The purpose was to go into deep detail about their 2016 line of waders. As a newly minted Patagonia ambassador, I was along to talk about Patagonia's approach to tenkara.
An added benefit was having Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia's owner and hardcore tenkara proponent, join us for the three days. Chouinard and two colleagues, Craig Mathews and Mauro Mazzo have written a book, entitled Simple Fly Fishing, on simple techniques for fly-fishing and tenkara and this was a chance to see some of Chouinard’s techniques in practice.
Chouinard and Patagonia are committed to using tenkara and the simple techniques it requires to get more people into fly-fishing and as a side benefit, become stewards of the natural world.
Tenkara, for me, has always shone as a dry fly technique, so I was intrigued when Chouinard talked about using tenkara to fish two soft hackles, downstream. He said it was his preferred way of teaching people how to use a tenkara set up because it was so effective.
Most of the people who participated in the event had never fished with a tenkara rod and some had never fly-fished at all. To his credit, Chouinard took these folks under his wing and using his technique, quickly had them catching fish after fish.
This is a downstream fishing technique that may fly in the face of some long held fly-fishing conventions. I saw it work with others time and time again, used it myself and now I’m a believer. The key is keeping the line tight so you can connect with the fly and the fish.
If you are fishing a 10-foot, six-inch or 11-foot rod use 20 feet of floating line line. 20 feet may seem long to those of us in the east but on the western rivers it was just the ticket. I have tried the technique on my local spring creeks and shortened the line to 14 feet.
A seven-foot, six-inch leader is attached to the line with a perfection or double surgeon's knot. I adapted this for our local water by cutting 2 feet off the butt end of the leader, making it 5 feet, 6 inches. I know this seems like a large knot and it would be for dry flies, but the goal is to keep tension on the line and the drag from the knot helps.
Floating lines are becoming more common and Patagonia offers 40 feet of 0.027-inch Cortland floating line made of a small-diameter, hard mono core and a supple PVC coating. Each package includes a seven-foot, six-inch, 3x leader. They retail for $24.95.
The dropper set up
A word of caution here; two fly rigs, if not cast well, can become a tangle very quickly, so casting fundamentals are key. The most fundamental of fundamentals is keep slack out of the system.
We were using soft hackles and I heartily recommend them. The point fly is tied to the end of the tippet and will be the larger, bushier or heavier of the two flies. The dropper will be smaller or lighter and tied in above the point fly. Two flies give the fish two food choices, help straighten the line as you fish and most importantly, the flies have two different actions in the water.
The easiest way to tie on the dropper was with a dropper loop, a separate piece of tippet attached to the leader above the point fly. Here is how you do it. Tie in a length of tippet for the point fly, say 3 feet. Now take six to nine inches of the same size tippet and tie a perfection loop or double surgeons knot on one end.
Hitch the section of tippet to the leader by taking the tag end through the loop and tightening it above the knot to the last section of tippet. Tie your fly to the tag end and you are set to go.
Chouinard shared a tip with me about this; use regular nylon tippet for the point fly, but stiffer fluorocarbon for the dropper. The stiffer fluoro helps keep the dropper away from the main leader/tippet reducing tangles.
Casting and fishing
Make a quartering (45-degree) downstream cast. As soon as the flies are in the water make an upstream mend. Yes, upstream. Upstream mends will get the slack out and not swing those soft hackles too fast, they are nymph imitations after all, not streamers. The two flies and the bulky knots will help keep the line tight so you can feel any hits. The key is to maintain direct control of the flies.
When the flies are downstream you can make subtle twitches to the two flies by putting your thumb on top of the rod and squeezing the cork with your fingers. You don’t want to make big moves, just a small twitch to make the soft hackle pulse. Time and again I saw fish hit at the end of the twitch, their predator instinct hard at work.
Dries and terrestrials
Those of you who like fishing dries like I do will also benefit from this technique. Substitute a caddis, stimulator or terrestrial for the dropper and with a bit of practice you will have that dropper hopping rather than skittering or swimming. In one run out west, using this hopping caddis technique, I brought a dozen rainbows to hand in less than half an hour.
While I’m still a devout member of the church of the dead drift, I saw firsthand how this simple technique had rank beginners catch fish in short order. It opened my eyes to another way of introducing new people to tenkara and helping them unlock the door to more enjoyable time on the water.