Brookie Joe’s Quick Pics

Brookie Joe Fontinalis fished the headwaters of Marsh Creek/Cryder Creek near home and caught a few small friends with a nymph.

Rock Creek (NY)

The Mays were hatching down on Slate Run (PA).

Slate Run Dale makes a nice cast with a feathered hook.

Brookie Joe’s SR brownie.

The run was looking fine a week ago…

Brookie Joe met the family gang down at Catoctin Nat’l Park in MD where, alas, he plans to fish Big Hunting Creek before the week is out…

The bloodroot flower (short-lived but beautiful) starred the park grounds.

The black rat snake posed amicably for a few photos…

Arrived in central VA to find the trout streams blown-out by heavy rain… Beautiful weather looms, and hopefully Brookie Joe will re-connect….

The blue hepatica (Catoctin Mtns.) is a favorite spring wildflower…

Brookie Joe’s Slate Run brownie took a nymph then said farewell…

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Allegheny Spring

I was situated comfortably on the stream again. I was casting streamers with the new split-cane rod until the stonefly hatch informed me that a nymph or dry fly might be interesting. To be out in the warm spring air was joyful, following a long and arduous winter. Nature seemed more accommodating now, its name allied closely with the Latin word natura, meaning “to be born.”

winter’s final grip, Zoar Valley

Casting an artificial fly while trying to acknowledge the emergent life around me was a fascinating experiment, stimulating but only a partial success. The sun was brighter but the passing clouds reminded me of the wind plus an urgency expressed by the season’s first frogs, the first insects and the first songs of arriving birds. I tried to absorb them through my meditation with design– reflections that I might attempt to share through writing.

old South Bend steelhead rod w/ Cattaraugus shell…

Standing in the stream at wood’s edge, I was interrupted by a quiet “Hello” from someone approaching through the alders. A uniformed official, a game warden, apologized for the breach of silence, saying, “I didn’t want to scare you and make you fall in the river. How’s it going?” I looked up at the warden and explained that it was good to be fishing once again despite the rising wind that made the effort challenging. I told him that I hooked and lost a nice trout on a streamer, and now, with stoneflies hatching and a couple of rise forms at the surface, I was ready to begin my dry fly season.

Catt watershed, saw no fish, third week of March…

Oh, and by the way, would you care to inspect my fishing license? “Sure, just turn a bit so I can see your tag. Thanks.” The big license on my back, with 2019 printed boldly on yellow plastic, did the trick.  I thanked the man for doing his job out here in Penn’s Woods and, before long, the honey-colored bamboo was bending admirably, pulsing with a heavy rainbow that had taken a drifting Black Stonefly on the surface.

I guess I’ve never been a warden’s worry. In fact, I’ve always been thankful that, in these days of environmental deregulation and diminishing custodial manpower, folks are out occasionally observing our behavior with the wildlife. Speaking with the warden, I was pulled in from my springtime reveries to an edge-land as firm as the riverbed. There was a balance there, of sorts, a fortification between our own kind and the natural environment.

willow buds galore…

Standing in the river at the forest’s edge, I was glad to be removed from modern life, if only for several hours. The Machine World was another Moloch, devouring individuality and personal freedom, sacrifice in the name of pure efficiency. But to fish alone, or with a kindred spirit, in the warm winds of the Allegheny foothills was to sense a true resistance to society’s dominion. A simple act, this fishing, and yet…

first fish of the season on a dry fly…

The strength and marrow that is Nature can be found in any earthen framework for the viewing and expenditure of time. Here, the hills and river valley, the cold flowing water in natura, bring the joy and comfort of renewal.

Chester2’s first ‘bow…

Allegheny, 3/30/19…

 

 

 

 

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A Small Stream Fantasy

At last the upstate temperature had risen into the 50s, and snow-melt rushed down from the hills. In this topsy-turvy world of climate change, the New York weather might now be warmer (again) than the winds of Barrow, Alaska. Oh, cold weather would return in a night or two, but I couldn’t complain (too much). 23 Canada geese battled northward underneath the rushing clouds; a few robins and sparrows flitted from grove to grove; the signs of spring were slow to arrive.

Winter still ice-bound in our little waterfall…

My impatience for the change of season was an indication of my own advancing years, no doubt, and its vehicle seemed to come here in the form of small stream fantasies, that itch to be near the water once again, with fly rod in hand, and with new dreams as a highway to spring.

Spring fantasy in an old discarded bottle…

Recently I’d been thwarted from a mountain stream in Pennsylvania because of deep snow on the long walk to the water; I was turned down from an outing up at Spring Creek in New York by sudden winds and an apparent lack of trout; my sense of freedom felt the pang of discontent and the presence of a barrier that would not dissolve or break away. Sure, I could fight the “shack nasties” by staying home and reading books, tying flies and taking weekend hikes, as I had done since early January, but man, I had to stop complaining and get a grip on seasonal progress.

Thwarted from a PA mountain stream…

I knew the Green was out there, just beyond my grasp. The fantasy might corral it– the belief that the season will arrive as it always has, in due time, without the cold and snow, the grayness and the bodily afflictions. The beauty of the dream is this: when it’s actualized it won’t look the way that I imagined it. The range between reality and dream exceeds our expectations. That’s not a bad thing, when you think about it– without the range there’d be little to define our individuality. Patience and humility are difficult subjects to grasp and assimilate.

Caledonia (Seth Green) fish hatchery, oldest in the land…

The fantasy is generic and doesn’t name the streams and rivers to be fished, or the trails to be walked in getting there. The land and waters might belong to non-human realms, to the birds and fishes and forests of our dreams, but they’re extremely vital and are linked directly to the Quest. We’re rooted in a larger sphere of beings, and to acknowledge that world and appreciate its beauty, all we need to do is get immersed, to seek the slightly different angle in the track of the familiar. As Thoreau said, move yourself a hair’s breath from the path of usual routine and you’ll find yourself with a fresh enchanted view, the small stream fantasy actualized.

Looking down on Spring Creek where I saw two large brown trout, very mobile & uninterested in a fisherman’s pursuit…

“Beauty and music are not mere traits and exceptions,” he said. “They are the rule and character…” We get a sense of our place in the universe, the larger community of life. The voices from the land and water merge with human voices when their speakers capture our imaginations. We listen as if from a timeless space because the sounds are ancient and mysterious, present and alive.

Pinus strobus, favorite evergreen leaf & cone…

A recent comment at this blog expressed a reader’s wish that the phoebe would soon return to his haunts on Fall Creek in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. I responded by saying that it won’t be long; the flycatcher would soon arrive. The reader’s comment reminded me of a poem included in my chapbook called Rootwork & Other Poems. Here’s the first of four sections in the poem called “From the High Hills to the Bay”:

“We’re awakened in a late March dawn/ By the phoebe flown in from the South,/ Rasping from walnut boughs above the shed./ Phoebes, feathered spirits of the place,/ Have nested here even in the empty/ Interim years between former inhabitants/ And our own arrival years ago./ Already they’ve begun to reconstruct the/ Fraying nest still glued beneath the eaves./ They teach us how to live here, how to know/ A place as they might know it homing in blood/ Through a northward passage in cold night./ Although each autumn’s silence wings them south,/ Phoebes hold to knowledge of return….”

Franklynisa fungi, growing on a fallen birch limb in the backyard…

A small stream fantasy helps to reinforce my sense of place, of where I live, and what I hope to achieve. The lands and waters will be opened once again, despite my current qualms and pessimism. I will feel like I belong there once again. I’ll add my voice to the province of the wild, to its plants and animals and their foothill homes. A new season can’t be far away.

Genesee River, waiting for the ice to move…

Flowers in the cavity shout to my skunk cabbage fixation– Happy Spring!

Waterfall break-up, east-bound & down, heading for the Equinox, at last!

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An Old-Fashioned Hike

I spent several hours hiking from the house to the forestland of brooks, the big hill calling me despite its foot-deep snow, my feet complaining for the lack of skis or snowshoes, the chill of March protesting winter’s age and still no sign of spring. I bushwhacked into silence and a maze of animal tracks– the two-legged neighbors and the four-legged friends unseen, except for deer and a small band of sparrows. I heard no sounds other than my labored breath, my boots crunching through ice, the brook babbling under whiteness, the muted call of a distant nuthatch and a raven.

Dryden Hill calling…

a woodland dance…

Old man in a forest of the young…

My bushwhack tour held no significance, no reason to be told, no question to be answered. It was just too cold for fishing in the brook or river, yet I needed to be out. I loved it when the sun appeared briefly from the bruised world and the cloudy dome above. Life was simplified for a moment or two, made sweet and stupid like a memory of youth, the hope for a brighter day ahead. I walked off the trail, among the twist and mess of winter changes, and indeed it seemed that the power of the world still works in circles (as Black Elk said), and that everything labors to be round.

the student of natural history plays his hand…

a pine tree veteran at rest…

Lyman Run, PA

I believe there are spirits in each place that we inhabit. I can feel them in the streams and foothills where I fish and hike. These spirits are unlike small-winged humanoids (please!) living under bridges or flying around in Halloween garments.  Instead, they seem to be natural energies, forms of life– a storied villager, a native trout, a tree sparrow, a raven, or a first spring wildflower. These particular lives inhabit our souls, forgotten maybe, but always there. Such lives will attract me forever, and for no great reason I go wandering and find them where I can.

Time waits for no one…

what was the sculptor thinking…

Baby it’s cold outside… skunk cabbage flowers peeking from a very warm den….

Genesee River flowing north across the PA/NY border…

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Spring Creek Preview

The long cold winter had been wearing me down, so it was nice to spend a few days in the slightly warmer climate of Pennsylvania’s spring creek territory. Thanks to a gift from my son, Leighanne and I stayed at the Inn at Ragged Edge near Chambersburg, an historic B&B conveniently located near several of this country’s most celebrated (and challenging) limestone trout streams, viz., Big Springs, Falling Springs, and Letort Spring Run. We had a good time of it, with friends and pleasant company.

Winter had made me feel like an old pileated woodpecker’s tree

What made the visit sweeter was the fact that, on departure from New York, I had stopped at our local post office on the slight chance that my long-awaited fly rod would be there, available to be christened on the southerly waters. By god, there it was– after a nearly two-year wait from time of ordering. If you invest in a split-cane rod that’s built entirely by the hand of an established craftsman, you expect to wait a while, but when it’s finally ready for the stream, the pleasure you derive is special.

my shavings all over the ground…

I immersed Chester2 (my second fly rod built by Brian Kleinchester) in the rainy atmosphere of Big Springs Creek near  Newville, PA and broke him in a little. No catch was made, but I sure enjoyed the casting stroke across the clear, placid, cress-filled waters of The Ditch, renowned brook trout haven, rich in nutrients and well-fed trout, notorious for their finicky habits and the challenge they create for the obsessive fisherman. I saw one wild brookie, maybe 14-inches long, that eventually made a close inspection of a drifting artificial.

the view down from The Inn improved my spirits…

In the afternoon the rain grew stronger. The air felt cold and miserable as I visited Falling Springs, one of the few PA streams with natural rainbow trout production. A flock of bluebirds lent a dash of color, song, and hope to the dreary landscape but, ultimately, the anglers’ “skunk” approached me with its tail held high. Dinner in town, plus some late-night wine and bourbon, eased this transitory business of the die-hard angler.

I like big butts (on rods), just above the cork… Chester at bottom, Chester2 on top… The new rod is an 8-ft. 3-piece, for a 5…

The second day of fishing was much more pleasant. Arriving at the headwaters of Letort Spring Run, I saw a guy fishing whom I’d met years ago when first visiting this famous stream. I immediately felt comfortable: with clear, cress-filled water, flocks of songbirds absent all too long (ah, ye white-throated sparrows, Carolina wrens, robins, cardinals, and mourning doves!) and with this angler who introduced himself (again) as Rocky… a Letort Spring regular, for 40 years, who lives close to the stream.

Big Springs, one of several sources…

Any suspicions I may have had about Rocky’s fishing tackle were absolved as we spoke about experiences on water near and far. His fishing rod for many years (ever since he gave up casting with classic bamboo rods, perhaps due to their problematic upkeep) reminded me of nothing less than a black steel pole that needs no reel, that’s beaten up severely and patched together with duct tape. Rocky calls this practical (and legal) instrument “the original American tenkara rod,” a telescoping (or collapsible) 16-footer that’s become shorter through breakage, but still capable of reaching difficult brown trout hiding in the deep, grassy currents of the run.

Falling Springs in the rain…

I had first met Rocky in the summertime. Attached to his tenkara line was a large unwieldy wet fly, a “Black Ant,” fashioned on a barbless hook– the same big fly that he was casting now in February. Rocky took note of Chester2, the new fly rod that still had some plastic wrap on its grip. He seemed appreciative, stating how the swelled butt reminded him of work done by a famous rod builder. I said, yeah, I was loving it, even while thinking I would slowly simplify my rod collection and narrow down the numbers– if not to the extant of a master like Rocky, at least by the standard I was used to.

Here was a guy who knew many Letort Spring “Regulars,” the famous spring creek fishermen and conservationists like Vince Marinaro, Charlie Fox, Ed Shenk, and Lefty Kreh. He had fished with those guys and been mentored well. Rocky was a weathered gentleman, himself, a fellow with a friendly voice and helping hand who shared his stories with a stranger. He gave me a large wet fly, the great Black Ant, and told me that although it’s still early in the season for good fly-fishing, an Ant could work. Feeling humbled, I thanked this man who helped to usher in a bright day on the water.

on the Letort…

I walked downstream with a new fly rod and a looping sense of wonder, looking for spring, and seeing first signs– plus a wild brown trout that had taken a Pheasant-tail nymph beside a mossy grotto.

with Rocky’s superlative Ant…

a Letort brownie, too….

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Pictorial, Hikes in Shadow Land

Winter hikes in Shadowland often begin near home. I don’t live in a barn but I have friends who do.

Winter winds have blown down the old phoebe nest.

The dark Greenwood vales. I actually saw my shadow here on Groundhog Day.

This deer stand has eyes like Old Man Winter’s.

No one said it was gonna be easy.

From an earlier walk along the Genesee…

Porcupine sleeping it off along the Allegheny.

A popular Allegheny roadhouse for the four-legged ramblers.

The highest trout pool on the Allegheny-Ohio-Mississippi watershed…

Allegheny headwaters…

Pine Creek Gorge, the Shadowland…

Owassee Rapids, Pine Creek…

from Pine Creek meditations…

Skunk cabbage cranking out olfactory dreams…

Pine Creek’s Mt. Tom, a popular hiking destination…

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Over the Brow of Winter’s Hill

Tim and I got out on New Year’s Day, resuming our tradition of hitting the brow of winter right between the eyes. Eighteen Mile Creek was new to both of us. We’d known about it, and were thankful that our intro wasn’t in autumn during the invasion of trout and salmon hunters. With all the rain we’d been having of late, there were only a couple of New York options available to us– Oak Orchard and Eighteen Mile creeks, releases out of reservoirs near Lake Ontario.

T.D. at work

Fly-fishing was slow but enjoyable below the dam and through a short stretch of gorge. Tim caught a steelhead and I caught nothing as the new year rolled in gently past our waders. Later, for my next two occasions on the water, I was ready for the Pennsylvania mountain streams but had trouble locating an outlet for renewal of my out-of-state license, so I settled on the upper Genesee near home.

Any time the sun comes out in January and the temperature climbs slowly above the freezing mark, I can only be thankful for another casting opportunity. Although angling was fruitless at home, I met some interesting characters on stream, including my old friend, John B., who I wrote about in “Genesee, the Rabbit Hole,” (RR, 7/1/16).

Above the Genny’s brow…

John is a dedicated small stream fly-fisher, a madman with a jolly constitution, and an artist/musician who could be the subject of another entire post. For now, I’m just thankful for his words and for another batch of albums he produced and gave me out of friendship. He and his merry prankster wit create some wild music that’ll keep me heated through the cold winter weeks.

Speaking of heat, I found a patch of skunk cabbage already growing in the springs beside the Genesee. A year in the life of skunk cabbage starts in mid-winter as the plant begins to rise from the leafy muck. This unique plant has a thickly mottled leaf (spathe) that lifts to form a flower shield. Inside it is a floral engine, of sorts, that generates heat (60-70 degrees Fahrenheit!) for the purpose of attracting flies and bees as early as January in New York.

As I stood by the springs observing tiny minnows swimming through the greenery, I thought of the warm blue hoody that I wore. The name “Hamilton” blazes  whitely on the chest; the hood itself looks like a pointed dunce cap. The denizens of the floral kingdom probably chuckled at the way I tried to fit in with the cabbage plants– my hood like a spathe, my redolence like a skunky summer leaf.

The journaling H.D. Thoreau once said, “If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place… They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Yeah, encouragement from the skunk cabbage. From the writer of natural history or, if we’re lucky, from the likes of a John B. saunterer who shares his interests for the lending of an ear….

More recently, Tim and I went out on Oak Orchard Creek to search for browns and steelhead. It was cold and partly cloudy, classic “steelhead weather,” with Canada geese and tundra swans swirling through the air like oversized snowflakes, and we worked the muddy river hard for most of the day. Tim caught the first fish, a modest brown, and hours later it appeared that I was going to subside (again) without a first trout of the season.

But a change of strategy brought some luck. Instead of changing nymphs and streamers, experimenting as I had done, I fixed on a small ugly streamer, a white lure with a pinkish underbelly like bloodwork,  and decided to stay with that come hell or higher water.

I fished the slow, deep water down below the Archery Hole, and felt the small ugly streamer ticking repeatedly along the bottom. Finally, I hooked a beautiful steelhead and was thankful that Tim came to the rescue with a net as big as a microwave oven. My camera got a cheap shot of the fish while in the net, but then I read the evil “Battery Exhausted” message on the monitor.

Christ, it wasn’t as if the camera had been working overly hard. Maybe it had taken frostbite and simply refused to work. Maybe it needed a self-generating mini-furnace like the skunk cabbage has.

Anyway, Tim prepared for a photo with his own instrument, but the steely fumbled from my numbing digits and shot away before the real evidence could appear.

For a moment, at least, I could stand with my first good fish of 2019, and look over the brow of winter’s hill.

before the all-too-quick release…

Tater sez, I thought you had a book about kats!

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Gone Feral

The joy of a holiday gathering for our family was clouded by the rapidly fading health of a long-time pet. Alfalfa, a loveable old housecat that resided at the Franklin residence for a dozen years, succumbed to an illness that required one last visit to the veterinarian– on December 24th.

Nine Mile Run

Alf’s burial out on Sand Hill (on Franklin property) was a sad affair for all who said farewell beneath the snowy evergreens and poplar trees. But the Sand Hill ground, where the pets have been interred through the many years that we’ve inhabited this place, was originally the home of woodchucks and, more recently, of red foxes. The canine pups have been a pleasure to observe, especially in spring when they romp around their dens beneath the poplar trees.

red fox den

Anyhow, the old cat got buried with our human rites applied, and snowfall added an appropriate touch to the holiday atmosphere. Next day, when I walked up to the site, I saw the usual fox tracks in the mud and snow, plus something new. I’ve had bobcat on the mind ever since Leighanne observed a wild cat in our backyard last September.

Pawprint of a bobcat. Cats will sometimes appropriate used dens.

I had no idea that a bob might also include our sandy site for a home while making its rounds through hill and hollow. I discovered paw prints of a wild cat that had obviously been using a couple of dens appropriated by the red fox family. And the primary bob location was only 10 to 15 feet away from the undisturbed burial site of our domestic friend, Alfalfa.

Sand Hill, Bobcat Motel…

I could write the whole thing off as frivolous Winter Solstice/New Year sentiment, but there might be more to this than meets the eye initially. We’ve got a Sand Hill burial site where the dog and felines go in their last hours, a place where rabbits, ‘chucks and deer have laid their heads, and where the foxes and a bobcat currently reside. There we laid an old cat to his rest, and soon a vigorous bob came out for a night of hunting. Pretty cool, me thought…

Fox print… Note the toe-nail marks… Bobcats/housecats walk with nails retracted….

Gone feral. Cat to cat, and dog to fox/coyote/wolf. The transformations never stop, of course. I feel them when I take my social self to the woods and waters of the trout. The world of nature steps inside my solitude, and the spirit of a bobcat stalks the winter hills.

a Nine Mile brown…

a winter tail, a quick return…

Tater, the new homestead kitty, peeps out from the “bobcat den”…

Rocky Raccoon observes the Nine Mile angler…

Nine Mile Run

Celtic salmon made the Christmas run…

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Old Woodenhead’s Wish

[In this rapidly changing world of ours, I’m glad that some things are relatively stable and unchanging. For example, it’s December and the winter snow and ice are here again, and Old Woodenhead (my alter-ego of December’s Holi-Daze) has made another visit to this small stream world. Last December he went skating on the thin ice of reality (the special regulations water of the Allegheny River) and caught a few trout and even got featured once again on Rivertop Rambles. This December, he sampled the headwaters of the Allegheny, as well as a new section of Nine Mile Run, a Pine Creek tributary. I decided to run a slightly modified version of last year’s post (below) because it felt right, and because it’s also an excerpt from my recently finished book of creative non-fiction, entitled Wings Over Water, which I’m hoping to publish in 2019.

the return of Old Woodenhead…

Given our weather conditions of late, I feel lucky to have fished at all these past couple of weeks. I do hope you enjoy this narrative re-run that’s accompanied by recent photos from the headwaters region, and if Old Woodenhead doesn’t wish you all a Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas as well as he should, allow me to make it clear: Have a Happy & Merry Everything as a new winter season opens its door.]

Nine Mile Run

*

Old Woodenhead (my alter ego on cold December streams) was on the Allegheny River by noon. The weather had warmed a bit, became more seasonal, with an air temperature peaking at the freezing mark. Old Woodenhead had decided that winter fly-fishing was certainly an exercise in patience and layered clothing. Fingers freeze while attending to snags and tangles. Every action, whether short line casting or reeling in a stubborn fish, is accomplished as if with wooden hands.

on the banks of the old Allegheny…

He was not alone there by the river. An army of eleven orange-clad deer hunters advanced across a forested slope nearby. For safety’s sake, Old Woodenhead had added a fluorescent-orange vest over his usual Orvis tans. He may have grumbled, wondering why he bothered with this masochistic behavior but, when all was cursed and settled, he would have it no other way. To fish in winter was to feel alive.

He was on a river pool with depth and more than a few large trout. The one side of the pool from which he could cast had 10 to 15-feet of thin ice on the surface. He watched the shadowy forms of trout shift on the river bottom out beyond the ice. Casting an Egg fly to the open water, he allowed the lure to sink and slowly drift. Eventually, a trout grabbed the fly and rose toward the edge of the ice. Fish on!

Merry FishMas to All!

Old Woodenhead kept the line tight while scrambling downstream to the tail-end of the pool. He didn’t want the ice to sever his connection. Gaining the proper position, he worked the fish into the net and removed the hook. The brown trout measured 17 inches long. He took two photos and quickly returned the catch, adding holiday wishes to all with fin or fur or feather (and to all who appreciate the beauty of their domicile!).

Each December, Old Woodenhead skates fearlessly on the thin ice of reality, resuming his quest for fun and knowledge in unusual ways. A traditionalist, he fly-fishes, hikes and makes a nuisance of himself to those he loves and cherishes, but much of what he does in winter occurs on the snow and ice. No one will accuse him of being graceful or particularly wise, but he means well and, by god, he even catches a trout now and then.

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A Tenkara Treatise (or Something Like It)

[Many readers of Rivertop Rambles will recognize the name, Bob Stanton. Bob has been a follower and supporter of this blog from its early years on down to the present. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him, first on RR and then in person several times, including a couple of fishing jaunts in northern Pennsylvania. Bob understands the world of small stream angling and the natural realm of rivertop environments. I invited him to write up his experiences with tenkara, a subject of increasing popularity in American fly-fishing and recreational pursuits. He responded with the following “treatise” (with photographs) from his personal engagements, a work which I’m proud to share, and one which I think you will enjoy, whether you fish tenkara or have, as yet, no knowledge of this ancient form of angling other than an interest in our natural world. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts with Bob, or with myself, by commenting. It’s appreciated.]

by Bob Stanton, Guest Writer

It was already hot at 10 o’clock on a mid-June morning when I stepped onto the North Country Trail. I pulled the trail register out of its box and perused the entries of the last few months. There it was– “Going for a short walk on the longest trail. Bob S.”– scribbled from my last visit a few weeks before. I’d appropriated the phrase from the proprietor of this blog from a post of several years ago– it’s become my standard tagline when on the NCT.

As I walked downhill to the small stream that flows into the Allegheny Reservoir, an ovenbird scolded me, upset at my intrusion. Tenkara rod in hand, I cautiously approached the little pool with a downed log spanning its width. I tied on one of my BOB (Black on the Bottom) beetles and cast it upstream of the log. The fly’s plop was quickly followed by a miniature explosion, and moments later a plump wild brookie was in my hand. As I slid him back into the water, the rollicking song of a winter wren tumbled down to me. I’m not sure if he approved of my piscatorial pursuits or not, but his beautiful trill was sweet punctuation to the trout’s momentary capture.

First, I should explain how I came to own a tenkara kit. I’d known of tenkara for several years and it seemed like an interesting, if unnecessary, method of fishing. I’d been searching for the ideal small-stream, minimalist system for a while. I wanted to get back to my roots of bushwhacking small, sometimes tiny, trout streams that require simplicity and the ability to move fast and light. When I found a complete kit on a popular retailer’s website for next to nothing, I bought it, figuring I could sell the thing if I didn’t like it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

For those unfamiliar with tenkara, it’s a form of traditional fly-fishing practiced in the mountains of Japan utilizing a long, reel-less rod (sometimes in the 11-15 foot range) usually of bamboo, along with a fixed length of furled horsehair line. The fly line is attached to a short piece of line called a lillian that’s bonded permanently to the rod tip. The lillian resembles modern fly line backing and has a knot tied at its terminal end. To this, the angler attaches the fly line using a simple girth hitch. The customary flies are called kebari and resemble a standard soft-hackle or spider, with the exception of the hackle being tied in reverse so that the feather tips extend over the hook eye. Apparently, the word tenkara translates to “from Heaven.”

lillian

Tenkara fishing was relatively unknown in the western world until about a decade ago, when several U.S. companies like Tenkara USA and TenkaraBum started manufacturing and marketing rods, lines, and relevant accessories. Unlike traditional bamboo rods, modern tenkara rods are made of graphite. They are light, telescopic instruments that can be reduced to a fraction of their extended length. Mine collapses to about 18 inches. Modern lines are generally available in a few different configurations. My set-up came with a 12-foot level floating line with the standard PVC coating that regular fly-lines feature. Level fluorocarbon lines, often in bright colors serving as indicators, are popular too, and are reputed to be easy to cast. Also available are furled mono lines that mimic the delicacy of the old horsehair line, albeit in material that requires less care.

Tenkara rods are not rated in the standard weight system that most fly-fishers are familiar with. Instead, they incorporate a somewhat esoteric, fractional method that determines the flex of the rod. My rod is rated as a 6:4, meaning that the butt flexes at a 6 while the tip flexes at a 4. Admittedly, I don’t fully understand the system and don’t really care, for now. It’s at least as subjective as the usual fly-rod weighting system. Perhaps if I fish someone else’s tenkara rod with a different rating and like it better than mine, the light bulb will go on– “Jeez, I should have got a 7:3”– which, of course, would be another excuse to spend more money on fly-fishing gear.

brook trout water, Allegheny Nat’l Forest

As tenkara evolved in the Japanese hills, the prevalent method of fishing was to cast the unweighted kebari flies into likely holding water as one worked upstream, a technique similar to the modern small-stream practice. A small long-handled net can be employed to help land the fish, since there’s no way for the angler to take in line except by holding up the rod behind one’s head. Standard tenkara practice seems pretty set in its way. The kebari fly tends to float until saturated, then sinks just under the surface– a deadly method regardless of fishing style.

I tend to eschew traditional kebari, and fish a range of standard flies instead: parachutes, terrestrials, the occasional weighted nymph, and even small streamers. Not that I feel kebari are inferior to the more common flies, but some of the Western patterns seem more versatile, given differing water conditions. I’d begun to experiment with various line configurations as well. I quickly discovered that the 12-foot line that came with the kit, plus two feet of tippet, was overkill for the small streams I intended to fish with the tenkara rod.

Given that my rod is relatively short at eight feet, I first attempted to remedy the problem using a standard 9-foot leader attached to the lilian. This worked a little better, but I soon made a 4-foot section of level 50-pound test mono into a line and attached a short leader to it. The result improved my casting range and accuracy as the level line transmitted more energy to the terminal end. For next season, I’m thinking about making a furled leader out of mono, as I’ve read that it could give both delicacy and ease of casting.

Pennsylvania wild rainbow, caught with tenkara

My initial experiences with tenkara were a little disappointing until I spent a full season of fishing it. In truth, I’ve become enamored of tenkara as a small stream method. In a catch-22, of sorts, tenkara’s disadvantages are the same aspects that make it fun and easy to fish. The lack of a reel, which makes it streamlined, can be problematic when trying to land a fish, especially larger ones over a foot long. It can take a lot of rod manipulation to get yourself into position for the fish. In this case, a long-handled net would be useful. Also, without a reel, the storage of line when moving from spot to spot can be a pain.

Ingenious solutions to the problem can be found on the internet, though, and a quick search will provide several options. I just wrap the line and leader around my hand, but I’ll explore some alternate methods for storage. Casting the rod is essentially the same as with any other fly rod, but there is a bit of a learning curve. Because you can’t shoot line, it takes some practice to land the fly on target– a tight loop helps greatly with accuracy, of course, and it can be tricky to master on a static length of line. Other standard casts for the small stream still apply: the bow-and-arrow cast, roll cast, even some elemental switch and spey casts, if you’re so inclined.

I’ve met only one other tenkara fisherman on stream and just a few others who seem to know about it. Some folks deride tenkara as an inferior method, calling it “dabbing,” or worse. The late, great Lefty Kreh himself once said, “Tenkara is a fad, and won’t last long,” though I understand he later came around. On the other hand, fly-fishing notables Craig Matthews and Yvon Chounaird have embraced and promoted the techniques through their respective businesses.

BOB beetle, dorsal view…

To me, tenkara resembles the kind of fishing that Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton describe in The Compleat Angler, and it might just be the ultimate small stream method. It’s light-weight, packable, requires a minimum of equipment and, most importantly, is fun to fish. I’m planning on doing a solo hike this spring along the hundred miles of Allegheny National Forest on the North Country Trail, and my tenkara rod will be making the trip with me (you don’t go into the woods on a trail that crosses several dozen trout streams and fail to bring a fly rod, do you?). I’m looking forward to trying out some different gear  and rigging operations to make it even more pleasurable and easy to fish.

On one of the last fall days with t-shirt warmth, I spotted a trout rising and cruising where the little brook ran into the lake. Sneaking into casting position, I saw the trout spook and shoot into deep water of the lake. “Blew that,” I thought, but what the heck… I placed an upstream cast where a riffle traced its way across a small submerged brush pile. The parachute landed where I wanted it, and Bam! A 9.5-inch Salvelinus fontinalis rewarded my efforts.

My biggest wild brookie of the year was admired and released. Chalk up another one for tenkara!

BOB beetle, ventral view…

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