Tag Archives: Fly-tying

How I Learned to Relax and Love Tenkara Flies

I admit it: As much as I like the whole tenkara thing, I’ve never had much confidence in the flies. But that is starting to change.

Embracing tenkara fishing – Japanese-style, fixed-line, 12-foot telescoping rod fly-fishing – requires accepting things that strike American anglers as odd.

The lack of a reel is the strangest thing, and it does take some getting used to. Your left hand keeps reaching for line that’s not there. Your whole line, all 15 feet of it, tippet included, is attached to the rod tip.

But I’ve gotten used to using my left hand to hold my wading staff, or a cigar, while snapping crisp, tight-looped casts with my right. I no longer mind collapsing the rod and winding up the line when moving from spot to spot. I’ve gotten pretty good at playing and landing fish despite the lack of a reel, and I strive with Zen-like focus to make my casts land fly-first – or, for true enlightenment (and superb presentation), fly-only.

Tenkara flies, however, have always struck me as odd. I’ve been fishing with wet flies whose hackles lean back toward the tail of the fly for nearly 30 years. These tenkara flies – sakasa kebari, they are called – with the hackles leaning forward, over the eye of the hook, never looked right to me.

It may be because when a natural mayfly or caddis fly is drifting or swimming underwater, its legs and antennae tend to hang rearward. But the more likely explanation is that western wet flies have always been made this way and I’m just used to it.

Of course, the advantage of forward-leaning hackles is that when the fly is given a little pull, or when it is swinging below the angler against the current, the hackle fibers will move and wiggle but will not fold down over the body and practically disappear, the way they do on western-style soft hackle wets. The fly’s helpless, frantic limb-waving remains plainly visible and, presumably, signals “easy meal” to trout.

I’ve given sakasa kebari the occasional try, but have usually given up quickly and gone back to my western flies. Then I saw one tied by a Scotsman, Davie McPhail, that gave me the confidence to tie it on and leave it on all day. And leaving your fly on, instead of compulsively changing to other patterns, is the difference between tenkara fishing and western-style fishing with a tenkara rod.

McPhail’s fly has a body of turkey biot, which gives a beautifully segmented look, and a small thorax of dubbing just aft of the forward-leaning hackle. I think he used furnace hackle for his fly, but I use grizzly hackles from a low-grade cape, which are stiff enough to stick out but still soft enough to wiggle. The grizzly feather looks good with the grey biots I use.

I write this a few hours after fishing the whole day with this fly on my tippet. I caught four trout, which isn’t bad for me, especially when the fishing is slow, as it was today. And today was not the first time I’ve caught fish on this pattern. It’s earned a spot in my starting rotation.

First published in The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y., May 19 2011.


Robbing a Museum for Fly-Tying Feathers?

A strange story is unfolding in England. Edwin Rist, a 22-year-old New Yorker and acclaimed full-dress salmon fly tyer, has been accused by police of breaking into the Natural History Museum in Tring and stealing 299 “brightly colored” bird skins in June 2009.
Edwin and his younger brother, Anton, are widely admired in the world of fancy-fly tyers for their stunning flies. Edwin is in London as a student at the Royal Academy of Music.
Here’s the news release from the Hertfordshire Constabulary:

DETECTIVES investigating the theft of 299 rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum in Tring have charged a man in connection with the incident.

On June 24 last year (2009) it is alleged there was a break-in at the museum, which is on Akeman Street in Tring. It was subsequently discovered that 299 brightly-coloured bird skins were missing, believed stolen, from a collections’ area.

Edwin Rist, aged 22, from the USA, has been charged with burglary and money laundering offences. He is due to appear at Hemel Hempstead Magistrates court on November 26.

Police have recovered the majority of the bird skins.

Jack Gartside, 1942-2009

Jack Gartside has died. He was a brilliantly innovative fly designer and great writer who may end up being best remembered for being photographed using a big inflatable giraffe as a float tube on a striper flat. Gartside was dead serious about fishing and fly-tying, but went about his life with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He was intellectual and irreverent but also kind and gentlemanly. And he invented some dynamite flies: the Gurgler, the Sparrow, the Soft-Hackle Streamer, to name a few of the most famous.

I met Jack a couple of times and thought the world of him. He gave a talk at the Albany, N.Y. Trout Unlimited chapter a few years back and introduced a new pattern, made with the soft feathers from a hen’s backside. Chain-smoking all through his slide show in a hotel meeting room, he called his fly the  Chicken Poop and told us how effective it was and why. There was no reason not to believe every word.

Remembering Fran Betters, Sage of the Ausable

Fran Betters, champion of the West Branch of the Ausable in the Adirondack Mountains and inventor of some of the most popular and effective fishing flies, died Sunday.

Betters had been in poor health, and had acknowledged on his Web site that he hoped to “hang on a bit longer in hopes of finding the right person to buy my shop.”

It was Betters who in the 1950s came up with the idea of using one propped-up clump of deer hair as both the wings and legs of a dry fly – a simple, sturdy pattern known as the Haystack that suggested an Isonychia mayfly bobbing on the Ausable’s brawling currents. The same construction using snowshoe hare’s foot fur instead of deer hair became the Usual, a generalist emerger/dun that has caught trout from coast to coast, while the basic structure of the Haystack was tidied up to become the Comparadun and Sparkle Dun – slim, flush-floating flies that catch trout where traditional hackled dry flies won’t.

Betters pretty much considered the West Branch of the Ausable the best trout stream in the world. Advancing age and old injuries from a car accident kept him off the water in recent years, but he could still be found from morning until night cranking out Picket Fins, Ausable Wulffs and other signature patterns at a messy tying station in the middle of his shop.

betters 2

Fran Betters and Bob Mead at Betters' shop, the Evening Hatch, in 2007.

“No self-respecting fly rodder, on a pilgrimage to the West Branch of the Ausable River, would even think of putting a wadered foot in its storied waters without first stopping in at the Evening Hatch to pay homage to the High Peaks gatekeeper,” said longtime friend and renowned tier of ultra-realistic flies Bob Mead.