24 April 2011

Tenkara and the San Gabriel

Not all fly fishing was created equal.  More and more fly fishing is diversifying.  Its many styles, techniques gaining popularity and press.  Spey, switch, tenkara, European techniques have all but gone mainstream.  I had the chance to get my hands on a tenkara rod last week and try it out on some light water.

Tenkara was developed in Japan centuries ago but is recently seeing increasing popularity worldwide.  Tenkara translates approximately from Japanese as “heavenly.”  Older tenkara rods were known as Ke Ryo Sao, high mountain rod.  Tenkara rods are long, 11-15 feet is usual.  They telescope down to less than 24” – perfect for backpacking, travel, etc.  (If the rod is too long for a certain area it can be partially collapsed and is still effective. 

Tenkara rods are long and nimble - these rods nymph with the best.
 A braided or furled nylon line drops directly from the fine tip of the rod.  Strike detection and hook sets involve a bit of a learning curve, as does handling 13 feet of rod on tight streams, but once that’s down catching and landing fish comes quickly.  After hooking a fish, lifting the rod tip brings the fish closer to you.  The supple rod tip protects light tippet as the fish nears you.  Smaller fish can be lifted and swung.  I haven’t yet caught any fish over 12” and was skeptical as to how the rod set up would handle something with a little weight.  It is clear the rods can handle just about anything.  Long rods allow for vertical pressure on the fish, the gentle rod tip lets the fish fight and tires it out quickly.  I’m not about to replace all I own with tenkara rods, but they’ll stay on my mind.

Traditional tenkara flies are sparse dries with reversed furled hackle.
This foam beetle caught plenty however.
I took the tenkara up to San Antonio creek to try it out and was very impressed.  I fished both dries and nymphs and had success of both.  Saturday I was at the west fork of the San Gabriel with friends.  It’s an amazing stream above the town of Azusa.  Access is made a lot easier with a bike, as a gate prevents car access to the C&R section a few miles up from the main road.  The second bridge past the gate marks the C&R and from there to the dam above the fishing is superb.

Where the canopy drops the trees sport some jewelry.
The water is amazingly clear.  Deep pools hold fish of all sizes, fingerlings to teens.  If you can dodge the brush, upstream drifts to slower water and seams are often rewarded.

Fellow fisher with a 5m tenkara.
I stuck to this dandy 2wt.  Caddis dries and pupa produced all day.
I don't have much experience with light gear but this 2wt was a treat.  I was impressed with its accuracy and strike detection.

A doe and fawn didn't mind some company on the water. 

Cold, clear, oxygenated water is great for bugs... and fish. 

All in all it was a great day on the San Gabriel.  I heard one man say it's the the furthest you can get from LA in 45 minutes.

For more on tenkara:

18 April 2011

Project Healing Waters at Jess Ranch Lakes

If you haven't yet heard of Project Healing Waters or seen someone who's life fly fishing has changed, it's time to do some reading.  That power has been around for many hundreds of years but more recently it  has taken on a new form.  Project Healing Waters started in 2005 with the intent to help disabled veterans heal physically and emotionally through fly fishing and fly tying education and outings.  PHW now offers itself to veterans at over 70 medical centers and Veteran Affairs hospitals.

PHW rod tube holding the hopes and efforts of one of the veterans.
I have recently become involved with PHW functioning at the VA in Long Beach, CA through the Long Beach Casting Club.  As I entered the program the vets were half way through building their own fly rods.  The rods flaunted decorative ties, rod seats and handles, many paying tribute to war time and country.  Each veteran had a rod to build and keep as an introduction to the world of fly fishing.  Just two weeks ago the rods were finished and some of them sent to Maryland for a national PHW rod building competition in a bid for best rod and a guided trip to Montana.

One vet's rod is a marked tribute.
For the second time in two years volunteers and veterans made the trip  to Jess Ranch Lakes, a hatchery in the high desert of Southern California with associated trout ponds .  Hi-Desert Fly Fishers catered the outing with food and drink, and helped many of the vets test their new gear.  Though the fish were big, I mean really big, it was a challenge to really test the rods.

A rainbow takes a look but won't be fooled.

A HI-DESERT angler ties on a new fly.

Like all good fishers we had our excuses ready, punctuated by some very exciting hook-ups and a netted fish now and again.  The excitement of being on the water made the low numbers quickly forgotten.  The peace, the friends and the focus on the water reduces what’s important to what’s in front of you.  The water becomes the focus, the fish are the goal, and what is not immediately around you becomes far, far away.
The biggest hook-up of the day doubles over a 6wt. rod.
It is harder now for someone to find the outdoors, to get out of the urban, the workplace, the hospital and go fishing.  PHW makes fishers out of war veterans and out of heros.  
The possibility of a large fish gets everyone on their feet.
You don’t have to have seen the perils of a war to know the power of fly-fishing.  It treats all of us the same.

Long Beach Chapter Project Healing Waters is ready now to start fly tying.  In September the vets will be traveling to Montana self-made and ready for world class trout, precious time on the water, and a trip they more than deserve.  To learn more about Project Healing Waters and  PHW at Long Beach visit:

07 April 2011

San Antonio Dreams

Here, water rules.  The Inland Empire, southern California,  a vast valley of metropolitan growth.  From the Santa Monica beaches to San Bernardino an hour and a quarter east (without traffic) extends one of America's largest and most highly populated continuous developed areas.  About 15 million people are obliviously tied up in the battle for water consumption, but a few of us want to use whatever water is still between banks for something a bit different.  Despite diminutive fish and graffitied banks I still enjoy fishing around here, where #18 is a small fly and 10 inch fish are trophies.

It seems to me, though I'm no expert, that there are untold stories about the fish that used to inhabits mountain streams and valley rivers where there are now homes and highways.  Dormant myths involving pack mules and hardy souls searching the south west for answers and finding finned monsters can't possibly have been relegated to my dazed mind.  Somewhere in words written or unspoken exist trout and men and adventures now buried beneath dams and broad suburban roads.

Now, though the fishes may be as small as the water they live in, they remain eager, hardy, tested, and some of them caught.

The San Antonio Canyon is home to the San Antonio creeks and its undersized fishes.  Weekends are hopeless as the lower part of the creek becomes more of a bathtub to weekenders than a place to retreat to, but once past the crowds the noise of the white water reduces one's surroundings to oneself, thoughts, and the water.  Alertness becomes concentrated into sight and feel.  The hunt is not for fish, they are too small to see in white water.  The hunt is for water - water that feels of fish.  Deeper, slower, bluer, fishier.

Graffitied walls of a ruined bridge - this road was decommissioned in 1969. 
Be prepared to cover ground.  The hiking is either up or down, balancing on fallen trees, following log mazes above thorny nettles and impassable brush, and hopping rock to rock.  Moving away from the bank to skirt around some thick brush and then returning to examine the water.

The water roars as recent rain and snowmelt have swollen San Antonio.
There is something surprisingly endearing about small fish.  It could be the small water they live in, their eagerness to take a fly too big for their mouth, their disproportionately large eyes or their frantic vibrations on the end of the rod.  Weather they are arctic grayling, brookies or just diminutive rainbows, I like small fish.

This 6-incher catches its breath in shallow water.
San Antonio runs clear and fast, water pouring over ledges and through brush.  As is usually the case I try to cover a lot of ground.  Much of the water is too fast or uneven to get a decent drift but every so often there is a pool or riffle that deserves high attention.  I rarely cast for fish.  The thickest vegetation in the parched canyon is along the banks.   Drifts are achieved only by high-sticking directly above the hole or by under powering roll casts to gain a few extra feet.  Now and again I will remove the butt section of my rod and cast with the top few sections.  The strikes usually come quickly, if you can detect them.  Even small fish learn quickly that an insect with a hook attached isn't an insect at all.  Missing strikes happens, and with barbless hooks you don't land every fish you set on.  They'll often rise for a dry and fail to get their mouths around the dressing and hook, leaving it floating not quite as high as before.  One thing is for sure about these small trout, they are eager.  They do not deliberate over whether or not to eat, or critique the use of a silver bead instead of a gold one, or shy away from some of the more artful imitations of naturals.  They pounce and then vibrate, pause, and then vibrate some more until they are released back into hiding.  I was told once that when a fish is small enough to fit in just one hand and when it won't cease from squirming, to turn it belly-up.  Whether this calms the fish or simply disorients it, the hook does come out best when the fish is still.

Large eyes look back at me after realizing I'm on the other end of the Hare's Ear.

Another small trout shines in just a centimeter of water before finding the deep.
So I will continue to fish San Antonio, to hop its rocks and walk its shores, to acknowledge its urban setting and let the roar reduce my surroundings to myself and my intent, and to catch its fish and then release them again.  Each mini rainbow representing the hardships of a desert canyon and the persistence of each trout.  Each tiny fish  triggering the thought and the dream that somewhere in these mountain waters, motionless among the heavy creek-bed rocks, laughing at my silver bead head and the fish that fall for it, lays the grandaddy, the fish that requires and net and two hands to hold, silent with the adventures he has seen.

Except for a few black spots and a hint of red, this trout disappears in the mirage of grays and browns.