Friday, December 31, 2010

3 Months in Ukraine (& Happy New Year!)

Wow... It sure has been a long time. Well, after not having posted for 3 months I'm sure not too many people will be reading this! Internet access at my training site was spotty at best, but now I am blessed with dial-up!

I guess this will be a generall "all's well" sort of announcement post. So, with that said, all is well! I've successfully finished training and moved to my permanent site where I'll be teaching English for the next two years. I'm in a beautiful little town in far western Ukraine, and I think I'm going to be pretty happy here. I probably won't be able to fish whenever I want, but I am within reasonable distance of the Carpathian Mountains for weekend trips.

I'm really excited about teaching in the New Year. I'm lucky to have some very enthusiastic students, so it should be a lot of fun. I suppose my New Years resolution is to work hard and enjoy everything Ukraine has to offer!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tying With Zenmai

Zenmai is a traditional tying material commonly used in tenkara flies (kebari), you might hear Americans (including myself) referring to it as "fern fuzz," since that's really all it is. In spring, when fiddle-head ferns sprout they are covered in a light cottony fuzz that makes a great natural fly-tying material. 

I collected a small supply of zenmai this spring to experiment with, but found it quite difficult to work with. The stuff just wouldn't behave and twist nicely around the thread like the wool dubbing I'd gotten used too. My results weren't bad, but the material wasn't easy to work with. I'd also been puzzled by the look of traditional tenkara flies with zenmai bodies, since mine just didn't come out quite the same. My efforts to use zenmai as a dubbing generally created fatter, fuzzier bodies, while most traditional tenkara flies have smooth bodies without many stray fibers. I was curious about this since Japanese tiers were obviously doing something different with the material, however I didn't really investigate it since between tying my own flies, and sending samples of zenmai to a few other tiers, I quickly ran out.

Zenmai I collected in Massachusetts this spring

However, back in July I was fortunate to recieve a small sample of zenmai gathered in Japan at high altitude late in the season. It's a bit different than the New England zenmai I collected in the spring; for one, it's a bit more fragile (the fibers crumble easily), and it's much rustier in color.

Japanese zenmai

For a long time I've been hesitant to try it out, and with all the other things going on in my life it's been on the back burner. That is, until yesterday, when I had an idea. I remembered that while the fibers won't readily twist around a thread as a dubbing, they will twist around themselves, making a loose little piece of yarn. To get the yarn twisted a bit more tightly I decided to try wetting the fibers, which worked amazingly well, resulting in a relatively strong and more tightly twisted yarn which can be wrapped around the hook shank. The result is still very loose since zenmai is just not as strong as wool or synthetic yarn, so an overwrap is neccessary to hold it together. I've used wire and thread, and found that since the zenmai is so compressible, a thread overwrap is really invisible. Wire sets in deeply as well, but is still  visible enough to give a bit of flash to a fly. 

I might be reinventing the wheel here, since I really don't know what techniques are traditionally used in crafting zenmai-bodied flies. However, this was a neat discovery that allows me to more easily tie flies with zenmai. If anyone has any further thoughts or experiences with this, I welcome your comments!

I'm still working out some kinks, but here are my results so far: 

Nikko Kebari - modelled after flies featured on My Best Streams
Hook: Mustad S82-3906B (a shorter wet-fly hook would work better)
Body: zenmai, overwrapped with thread and gold wire
Hackle: hen pheasant

Another kebari -  tied after one by Yoshikazu Fujioka featured on TenkaraUSA's blog
Hook: Mustad S82-3906B snipped a bit shorter
Eye: loop of 3x tippet whipped to the hook shank
Body: zenmai,  over-wrapped with thread
Thorax: peacock herl
Hackle: hen pheasant

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Road Trip Photos

Here are a few highlights from all the photos I took on the trip:

Early Morning in Montana

Mount Shuksan

Looking over the edge at Grand Coulee Dam

Reef-netting for salmon

Sunset over the Salish Sea

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Little Fishing in the North Cascades

Mount Shuksan, North Cascades National Park

Last Friday my dad, my grandparents, and I took a drive into the North Cascades to check out Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan from Artist's Ridge. On the way down the valley we stopped at Nooksack Falls, where the North Fork of the Nooksack River plunges 88 feet into a narrow slot. I found out later from the interns staffing the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association table at the ranger station that trout are present above the falls, although they didn't know much about the population since their organization is dedicated to restoring threatened salmon runs. That piece of information, coupled with the tenkara-perfect water I'd spotted above the falls was enough to tempt me back for a fishing trip.

Nooksack Falls

North Fork of the Nooksack River above the falls - fast, pocketed, and clear

Sunday morning my cousin Sam and I headed back up the Mount Baker Highway to see if we could find any fish in the Nooksack. This was Sam's first time out fishing in a long time, and his first experience fishing with flies (and tenkara too!), so I was pretty happy when we got into fish fairly quick. We found the little stream bread rainbows to be quite ready and willing to take a sakasa kebari once we got a little farther upstream from the crowds at the falls. As it worked out Sam got the first fish - incidentally his first on a fly, and his first with tenkara! 

We had a blast of an afternoon boulder hopping, fishing, and soaking in the scenery. The river was absolutely fantastic for tenkara, with an ideal mix of plunge pools, shallow bouldery runs, deep slots, and pocket water. As mountain streams go, this was probably one of the most beautiful that I've had the good fortune to fish. It was great to have the chance to teach Sam a little fishing, and having some plain old fun in the outdoors with my cousin.

Sam fishing the tail of a long pool

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Western Road Trip, 2010

Greetings from Wenatchee, WA! I've taken off on a cross-country road trip with my Dad to visit family out West before leaving for Ukraine. It's been a great drive, and I'm looking forward to the doing this trip again someday when I can really take my time and explore the sights. So far we've followed US 2 fairly closely across the Upper Peninsula of MI, MN, ND, MT, and ID with detours for Glacier National Park (Logan Pass is just surreal...), Grand Coulee Dam, and Dry Falls. Tomorrow we'll be going up to Highway 20 and heading west over the Cascades to Puget Sound.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tenkara & Smallmouth

This Sunday a friend and I headed out to a local smallmouth bass hot-spot, and this being the first time I've fished for smallies in years (and the first time ever with flies), I just had to give tenkara a shot with them. We arrived at the river around 8am to find it running low, and relatively cool:

Little bit different scenery than what I've gotten used to on the small streams...

Lot's of stoneflies had recently hatched

After going fishless in the first riffle I spotted a big boulder with a deep pool behind it. In the tail of the pool I landed probably the largest, hardest fighting fallfish I've yet to encounter. Then, on maybe my third cast to the right of the boulder something hit the fly hard, and immediately lept clear of the water. A few more leaps later and I landed my first tenkara smallmouth (incidentally the first on a fly as well). I'd forgotten how much fun these guys are!

The fishing slowed down over the rest of the morning. I did manage one more smallmouth, and maybe 5-6 more little fallfish, but unfortunately my freind was skunked.

Overall I have to say tenkara seemed to work great for the smallmouth - I'll be giving it another go. These hard fighting river-bred smallies are really a blast to catch with tenkara tackle and technique. Next time I may try a larger more colorful fly, and see if my catch rate improves, although the one I fished did seem to work ok:

The fly for the day - a sakasa kebari
Hook: Mustad C67S, size 12
Hackle: dyed black male pheasant
Body & collar: black 6/0 uni thread & peacock herl

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Typical Tenkara" & Okumino Itoshiro Kebari

I've taken a lot of inspiration from Yoshikazu Fujioka's tenkara site, especially his fly tying pages. These pages are invaluable for anyone interested in tenkara flies as they really demonstrate the diversity of regional patterns. For the fly tyer, Fujioka-san's site is a great source of information, and a good place for anyone looking to get started tying tenkara flies. His simple directions for the sakasa kebari (kebari = fly) and "typical tenkara" kebari provide a solid foundation upon which you can build your own variations.

In appreciation of Fujioka-san's work, here are a few of my recent efforts:

"Typical Tenkara"
Hook: Mustad S82-3906B, size 12
Body: yellow Lureflash Superbug Yarn & gold wire
Hackle: pheasant downy feather

This is my interpretation of what Fujioka-san calls a "typical tenkara" kebari. Traditionally one would use zenmai (aka "fern fuzz," and something I really should get around to devoting an entire post too!), but to conserve my supply I've used a synthetic yellow yarn which makes for a decent stand in. I've substituted a few other materials as well. From what I can tell the ones on Fujioka-san's site are lightly dubbed over gold tinsel, I used an over-wrap of gold wire instead. I also substituted a downy under feather for the "pheasant's alula" he calls for, only because I haven't been able to figure out exactly which feathers those are on the bird just yet. It still makes for a very nice nymph-like fly though.

Okumino Itoshiro Kebari
Hook: Mustad C49S, size 14
Body: peacock herl
Hackle: pheasant downy feather

This is another regional pattern, and uses a rare material - those annoying under feathers you're constantly throwing in the trash! The use of which inspired my take on Fujioka-san's "typical tenkara" kebari described above. This is a really interesting and unique fly, hence why I wanted to give it a shot. To tie it, I found that wrapping the under feather around the thread, then wrapping the two together around the hook works best. The stems of the under feathers are extremely fragile, and initially very frustrating to work with. Once you get the hang of them they aren't too bad though.

I'm excited to fish these flies, I'll let you know how they work! I'm curious how the hackle will behave in the water...

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Since receiving my medical clearance, things have happened pretty quick. Tuesday morning I checked my application status online, discovered that my placement review was complete, and that an invitation packet was in the mail, awesome! It arrived Thursday afternoon, and I have 7 calendar days to accept. So come Monday morning, I'll officially be bound for Ukraine on September 24th!

I hadn't initially thought of Ukraine as a place I'd like to go, but after doing more research, and reading about the experiences of other volunteers, I have to admit I'm getting excited. Ukraine is a big country, and I won't find out where I'll be assigned until after the three-month pre-service training; there are lot of possibilities with a country the size of Texas. In any case, I think the Ukraine will offer exactly the kind of experience I'm looking for. I'll likely have some wild experiences, challenges, frustrations, and hopefully a lot of fun too. I'll doubtlessly learn a lot.

I'm pretty amazed that this whole thing has finally come to fruition. I'm still amazed I made it through the application and interview for that matter. After 6 months this is no longer hypothetical, I've been accepted to the Peace Corps, and I am going to Ukraine.

Now I have about two months to start learning Russian, get my financial affairs in order, pack, and say good-bye to my friends and family.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Peace Corps Medical Clearance

As many of you probably know from reading my profile I graduated from college this spring, and am currently applying to serve as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. This has been a long process. Way back in March I submitted my initial application, interviewed in Boston, and secured a nomination for a position teaching English in Eastern Europe, for which I'd depart in September, 2010. Little did I know at the time that that was really only the beginning of the application process. Since April I've been working toward my medical clearance. And today, after over two months of doctors visits, paperwork, and waiting, I found out that the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services has finally granted my clearance!

I'm a healthy 23 year old, so there was never much doubt that I would eventually be cleared. Yet, I have to say that I've never been through such a thorough evaluation of my health. All the paper work, and nerve wracking snafus (especially over the last two weeks), have really kept me on the edge of my seat. Gotta say I'm very relieved. Now I'm on to the final step - placement, which, like the initial application and interview, is also a competitive process.

So hopefully within the next few weeks I'll be able to tell you all whether or not I'll be serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and where I'm going!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Little Fishing & Some More Time at the Vise

Unfortunately I haven't had many opportunities to fish lately. I did get a chance to go fishing on the Swift today, as always, the river was beautiful, but crowded. But unfortunately, I remembered the camera, but not the battery that I'd left charging on the wall the night before. I was kicking myself for that since I missed some dramatic shots of a foggy, steaming river in the early morning sun. It really was a beautiful morning on the water.

I didn't fish all that hard, and spent a lot of time watching fish from the bank. I observed some very active sub-surface feeding by the big rainbows, it was fun just watching them flicking around in the current snatching tiny morsels. As far as fishing went, I didn't get any interest on the sakasa kebari, but had a few strikes that should have hooked up on a size 18 CDC biot comparadun when I borrowed my friends 3-weight fly rod for some casting practice. I was happy to find that my form is still there! Although I do have to consciously think about mending and line control.

Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I've been experimenting with some different hackles this past week. Mostly I've been tying with partridge, which I'm finding is great stuff. Here are a few examples of what I've been tying lately:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Morning on the Swift

With all the heat we've been having these last few weeks, a Saturday morning trip to the ice-cold Swift River in Belchertown, MA was in order. The Swift is a nicely maintained tail-water fishery; big, healthy rainbows and browns are usually easy to find, but not always easy to catch.

A discharge rate of 38fps was a good sign, but my friend and I only managed one fish between the two of us. Although that one fish could certainly be "fish of the year;" my friend had his work cut out bringing in what turned out to be a heavily muscled, hard fighting rainbow of around 16-18 inches on his 3-weight.

As far as catching more fish, the fly-fishing-only (FFO) section upstream might have been a better bet. Problem was there were at least 10 cars parked at the trailhead, quite a crowd for less than a mile of river! I can imagine the famous Y-Pool was getting fished pretty hard. As it turned out we had this little section of the river to ourselves, which was just fine by me, it's prettier than the FFO section anyway:

The remains of a timber dam built on a stone foundation

Slack water above the old dam

Some company streamside

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pheasant Tail Sakasa Kebari

Here's another "just for the heck of it" variation on the sakasa kebari blending some elements of Frank Sawyer's Pheasant Tail Nymph with the Japanese reverse hackle tradition. The idea of using pheasant tail fibers for the body of a sakasa kebari struck me the other day when I found my long unused pheasant tail in my drawer of tying stuff - why not give it a shot? As a fly pattern Frank Sawyer's original PT nymph has seen so many variations already, I can't imagine mine is too much of a corruption! I think I've even seen a western soft-hackle version tied with partridge at the local fly shop, come to think of it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

TenkaraBum Horsehair Line

Horsehair has a long history as a material for fishing line in the West, and I presume in Japan as well. I think I might have first heard about horsehair tenkara lines when I read Yvon Chouinard's article in Fly Rod & Reel titled "Simple Gifts" in which he describes fishing with a tenkara rod and horsehair line, or maybe it was when I found Michael Hackney's blog, In any case, there has been a fair bit of quiet hype around horsehair in American tenkara since the sport was introduced to the US on a large scale by TenkaraUSA last spring.

There were a few reasons why I wanted to try a horsehair line, for one thing, I wanted to try it out for myself and see why some folks like it so much. I also saw it as a way to get closer to fly fishing's origins, both in the West and in Japan, since I'm somewhat of a history buff. So when Chris Stewart began offering horsehair lines through, I jumped at the chance. For $25 plus shipping, Chris made me an 11' 2" furled and tapered horsehair line customized for my rod.

Chris has been working with horsehair for quite sometime, I don't know for exactly how long, but at least since he got into tenkara, and likely before then given his interest in western angling history, and British loop-rod fishing in particular. He knows what he's doing; I've tried to replicate his results furling my own snoods (the furled segments which are knotted together to build the line), but Chris' line has a consistent furl that I haven't yet been able to match.

Overall the line is very nicely put together, and the taper is well designed -- the line turns over like a rocket without being too heavy. Besides the tapered design, this is because horsehair is dense. It is denser than nylon mono, and even fluorocarbon. Thus for the same weight of line horsehair has a narrower cross section, and so experiences much less aerodynamic drag. I really noticed this when I switched back to my furled nylon-mono line from TenkaraUSA (this is not a bad line either!). The two lines are of roughly the same weight, but one can really feel the extra drag with the furled mono line, the turnover is slower, and the line loses impetus in the cast much faster and one has to load the rod more heavily. Chris' horsehair line on the other hand only needs a gentle flick to completely unroll all the way to the fly. I found roll-casting in tight spaces to be fantastically easy, and normal tenkara casting to be a real pleasure.

However, there are a couple things you should know before you fish horsehair. Like many materials, horsehair is fantastic within it's limits. If you exceed those limits, it will break. It's not that horsehair isn't tough or durable, it just doesn't have as much tensile strength as modern line materials. This is made problematic by another property of horsehair, namely that individual horsehair strands will stretch at different rates. So, if you try to yank your fly out of the bushes, you could break your line, or break a strand in one of the segments. If you hook a really big fish, you could also break something. I'd recommend using a light tippet (at least 6x) to protect your line. Lucky for us, Chris will repair broken lines for a reasonable price ($5 per broken or missing segment, $1 shipping). I'd recommend taking advantage of this offer. I was fortunate that I live less than an hour from Michael Hackney, who makes furled western fly-lines out of horsehair. So thanks to Michael, when I broke my TenkaraBum line I was able to get it fixed, and learn a furling method just in time for my backpacking trip in the Pemigewasset. Based on my experience furling so far, the reason I'd recommend having Chris repair your line (at least the first time) is that furling horsehair snoods takes practice and a little skill to get really good results, so wait till you know what you're doing!

The whole line coiled up.

Chris' attachment of the loop

The tippet ring is a nice touch. This is the section Michael Hackney and I replaced, Chris' original furl was a bit tighter.

The line is composed of furled snoods neatly knotted together.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tenkara Flies Analyzed

Yesterday I posted about my experiences with soft-hackled sakasa kebari, and what should I see this morning on TenkaraUSA's blog but a post on Fujioka-san's study of traditional tenkara flies!

Take a look, there's not a whole lot of information, but it will give you a general idea of the different sorts of flies commonly used in Japan:

I'm particularly intrigued by the stiff hackled flies. Soft-hackles are just so logical to me for wet flies! As I find with a lot of new knowledge, this little study makes for more questions than answers. 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts on Flies

Lately, a lot of discussion has been stirred up revolving around simplicity and minimalism in tenkara. Much of the talk concerns the "one fly" approach that is so characteristic of traditional tenkara practised in Japan. The extent of this practice wasn't fully understood in the US until recently, when Daniel Galhardo (TenkaraUSA founder) had the opportunity to spend two weeks fishing in Japan with a few of the most respected tenkara anglers alive today. Daniel's reports on his experiences are proving to be an invaluable resource for American tenkara anglers who want to know more about what he calls "pure tenkara" - tenkara as it is traditionally practiced in Japan. So in order to explore the "one fly" approach I've only been fishing variations on one fly, the sakasa kebari:

My bread-and-butter sakasa kebari: black thread and pheasant hackle on a curved shank hook

The sakasa kebari from what I gather, is one of the most common types of flies used in Japan. I'd hesitate to call it a "pattern," since there are so many variations, it's more a broad style of wet fly tied with a distinctive forward sloping "reversed" hackle. In it's simplest incarnation all you need for a sakasa kebari is a hook, thread, and soft-hackle, making it a very quick and enjoyable fly to tie (great for beginners). It's also a blast to fish!

My addiction to sakasa kebari started small, I tied a few when I was learning how to tie since they looked easy, and they were interesting. I didn't fish them much until May of this year, and I haven't missed my dries and nymphs yet.

I've found that using one fly pattern changes the experience of fishing. It forces you to focus on presentation, and with tenkara wet flies that means achieving the right "swimming" action. I also find that not having to think too much about fly choice can be a big relief, especially if you're one to worry about it - and once you start catching fish you'll forget about all that, believe me. After having spent about a month fishing only sakasa kebari flies, I have to say that "one fly" hasn't affected the amount of fish I catch, if anything I've actually caught more fish. I haven't found it limiting in the least.

Hopefully with this post I can illuminate the "one fly" approach by offering my current interpretation of it. To me, "one fly" means fishing one fly pattern, or one style of fly. That doesn't mean I'm limiting myself in terms of sizes, colors, or hackle materials (only to keep the fly tying interesting!), but each fly will be tied by the same method.  With the sakasa kebari the general idea is to build a fly with a forward sweeping hackle that will have a lot of action in the water when pulsed or twitched past a likely spot.

This weekend I fished four different sakasa kebari in two streams for wild brook and brown trout. I started off fishing a new stream on saturday with a size 12 fly tied with red thread and pheasant hackle:

I drew a few strikes from a good sized brookie, but failed to hook up before landing a small trout in the next pool. After fishing a little while I came to this deep pool below a dam:

Here I decided to switch flies and try something else I'd tied in the past week just for kicks:

Again, this fly uses pheasant hackle, this time with black thread and copper wire for the body. I wanted something with a little flash for stained or cloudy water, just to make the fly a little bit more visible. It did the trick here, I proceeded to hook and land maybe 8-10 little brookies from that pool! But really, who's to say the first fly wouldn't have worked either?

I had a little time on Monday afternoon to fish, so I headed to another of my favourite streams. Here I decided to use my starling hackled sakasa kebari:

I caught three brookies in a few different pools using this fly before I found a good sized brown that just wouldn't get hooked after several lackadasical strikes. Maybe something a little meatier would help:

Fresh from fishing: "takayama sakasa kebari," size 12, black thread, pheasant hackle, peaccock herl and thread body

The second cast drew a violent strike, and I landed this guy after a hard fight on the Iwana:

To close out this post, here are a few more simple sakasa kebari variations:

When it comes to these flies, one has a lot of freedom as a fly tier. Try out different body materials, threads, dubbings, peacock herl, etc. Experiment with different hackles, personally I like soft hackles for their liveliness in the water. Pheasant, starling, partridge, snipe, and so forth should all work well. Just don't forget that it doesn't take anything fancy to catch fish with these flies.