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.

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