November 24, 2013

The Challenges of Skinny Water

As we all know, different water conditions pose different challenges to the fly fisher. Spring has is blown out run off, summer its warm water temps, and winter its cold water, slow fish metabolism. But one of the most challenging situations I find is the very low, clear water of autumn.

Sure, summer water levels can be pretty low in places, but most stream flows reach their nadir in autumn. The rains of winter haven't yet started and the thunder storms from the summer monsoon have ended. It is autumn when the water gets really low and gin clear -- it's what I call "skinny water".

Skinny water -- low (we're talking inches) and very clear

Nice fish can be taken, if you follow some simple rules.

Skinny water was always a problem for me when I used western fly fishing techniques. Because the water is so low and clear, the fish are beyond skittish. Any disturbance of the water by the line, any false move or cast, any bright colors send the fish scurrying for cover. While fish generally look for lies with oxygenation, food and protection, so called prime lies have all three, they will hold in amazingly shallow water as long as they feel safe. Some of this water is just deep enough to cover their backs!

Now that I fish tenkara, I have found that I no longer dread skinny water. Tenkara is perfect for the challenges that skinny water throws at you. But this said, there are a some changes in technique and tackle that I have found help me to be more successful. Here I'll list a few:

#1 Rod.  When I target skinny water I try to use a rod that has a slower, more mid-flex action. A rod with a Rod Flex Index of 3.1-4.5 works best for me. This puts the rod in the 5:5 flex range. Slow action rods allow me to do two important things. First, they slow down my casting stroke. A slow stroke is less flashy or disturbing than a fast or abrupt stroke. Second, rods in this action range allow me to use a very light weight line. When I fish skinny water I try to use a #2.5 - 3 level line. I'll talk more about that in a minute.

Also, as far as rods go, in skinny water situations I prefer a rod that has a flat or dull matte finish over a rod with a glossy finish. I'm not sure if its been proven, but it seems more intuitive that glossy rods reflect more light than dull rods. However, when it comes to rods it may not be the type of finish that scares the fish -- it may just be the rod itself! One problem with tenkara is that to keep the line off the water the rod generally has to be held high. With western gear the rod can be dropped to the level after the cast is made, thus getting the rod out of the trout's visual window. Also, the western rod can be cast side-arm very easily, but of course with both of these the line is then laying on the water. With tenkara neither of these can be done effectively and keep the line off the water at the same time. Therefore, the rod itself is always in the trout's visual window. Minimal movement of the rod is best -- limit false casting and other movements to the bare minimum.

Glossy vs Flat finish -- be careful with the glossy!

#2 Line.  As mentioned above, I try to use a light weight level line. This allows me to keep the line off the water more effectively as well as minimizing line splash. "Lining" the fish is a "no no" in skinny water. It is one sure way to scare the fish -- every time!

I also try to use as long of line as reasonably possible for the water being fished. This allows me to stand further away from the fish and minimize the effects of the rod in the fish's visual window.

Use a long, light level line and stay well back!

Your reward, a wild native cutthroat.

#3 Fly.  For skinny water I prefer thin bodied flies. These are tied on a light wire hook and thus are less heavy than my usual fly offerings. These light weight flies splash much less and tend to spook the trout less. Also, I fish with a fly one size smaller than I usually use in normal water conditions. Since I almost always fish a #10 kebari I'll go with a #12 when fishing skinny water.

Although not traditional tenkara, I love beadhead flies. These, however, don't work for low water situations since they sink so fast and hook the bottom readily. But I do tie some of my favorite beadhead patterns with glass beads, instead of metal, specifically for low water situations. They give me the attraction of a beadhead but not the weight.

A thin bodied wool kebari on a #12 light wire hook.

#4 Tippet.  For skinny water I use lighter tippet than in normal water. Since I generally use 5X, for low water I use 6X. I still use fluorocarbon, as I haven't seen any improvement with nylon. Nylon has the potential advantage of floating and keeping the fly from sinking too fast, but I haven't personally seen any difference between it and fluorocarbon in skinny water.

#5 Camo and Body Position.  Keeping with the theme of trying not to spook fish I wear dull colors or camo. I look like a redneck but I am convinced that I scare fewer fish. The camo probably doesn't matter, but dull, natural colors are good. Also, stay as low as you can. Wearing knee pads helps; if you wear them you are more likely to assume a lower body position than if you don't. If something is going to be in the trout's visual window let it only be the rod, not your body!

Stay low and wear dull colors.

Hook up success!

A nice brown taken in mere inches of water. 

#6 Don't Wade through Water you Haven't Already Fished.   I can't tell you how many times I've taken trout in shallow water that normally I would have just waded through. Sure, trout love a nice safe deep water lie, but if there isn't one they will hold just in front of a rock if there is enough water. When I approach skinny water I look, at least for 30 seconds, before casting. Then I cast and work the water before I get in. It is amazing how many fish are taken from just doing this little ritual. BTW, when you wade, go S--L--O--W. Move about 4 inches per second, no faster. Slower movements spook fewer fish.

So, in my opinion, tenkara is perfectly suited for skinny water. Stay low and go slow. Cast a non-flashy rod that has a slow, full flex action. Use a very light level line and cast smaller, lighter flies. Keep the line off the water. Wear dull, natural colors -- I prefer camo but you may not.

Most importantly -- don't let skinny water deter you, just follow the rules. You are a tenkara fisher; you can handle skinny water with ease!!


  1. Very nice post! Thanks for posting. Time to get out on the water for some skinny fishing. Curious if you find a better time of day in the almost winter fishing? Or stream dependent?

    1. Yes, I find that the fish are most active from Noon to 3 pm. So most all winter this is the time slot I fish.


  2. Tom ...a nice post and the result of much time on the water. You left out one stealthy thing that makes a big difference back east here and it looks like it would work on your skinny water.......Stay out of the water !
    It takes more planning, scoping of casting sites and back tracking to cross the river, but after you get in the habit, it makes a huge difference. A long rod/short line and the dull clothing work best from the banks and bushes.

    1. Steve, yes, very true. Don't get in the water unless you have to -- good point.

  3. Perfect! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  4. Very good article Tom!