February 15, 2015

The Short Game -- separating the men from the boys

I enjoy fishing small and technically challenging streams. Actually, I think you might call them creeks, brooks, rivulets, or the like. Some people's creeks are other people's rivers, but here in the west a river is large, a stream is smaller, a creek is smaller yet, and a brook or rivulet is tiny. Well, it's these tiny running waters that I seek out and flail around in.

Are there trout in there? You bet!

I fish these little waters for three main reasons: 1) there are no other people on them, 2) I am curious if they contain fish, and if they do, what kind and how large, 3) they are very technically challenging (or, more like, frustrating!).

These are the waters that are less than 5 feet wide at their widest and shallowest spots. They typically run about 3 feet wide. They are often so over grown with tree branches that you have to select your spots carefully, often walking past long sections of water, as there is no place to cast. Casting is frequently accomplished with a sling-shot cast. These waters require really short rods; 270 cm is often times too long! That's what I'm taking about -- small, tight, fun, and yet frustrating.

Let's talk about the sling-shot cast for a minute. If you've seen any of my videos when I've fished these little waters you'll seen me use this cast frequently. It is a mainstay for waters in which two situations occur. First, when you have low hanging branches right over head or to the side and you can't cast your rod in the traditional manner. If you are standing, and you have low hanging branches, you can just drop to your knees and cast normally. What I am taking about are low hanging branches when you're on your knees! The sling-shot cast will allow you to deliver the fly without whacking your rod into the branches.

The second situation is when despite having plenty of room to cast normally the target area is too concealed (like deep under overhanging branches) to effectively get a fly into -- even with a really tightly controlled casting loop. We all know that fish prefer lies where they have opportunity for easy food, get plenty of oxygen and they feel protected. These are called prime lies. Many of these lies are tucked back under branches where it is impossible to deliver to fly using a traditional overhead cast. This is because the angle of descent is just too steep. To combat this problem you could switch to a side arm cast and try to get the fly in under the branches, but there are frequent issues here too. On these small waters there is often too much vegetation to side arm cast, even when you are tight against one bank and the rod swings out over the water to the other. In these situations, consider using the sling-shot cast.

The Sling-shot, or Bow-and-arrow cast.

Caught with a Kiyotaki 180 cm rod.

The sling-shot cast allows you to deliver the fly parallel to the water surface. This in turn allows you to get that fly way up under the branches and right into that hidden prime lie. I guarantee you this: if you can execute this cast perfectly, allowing the fly to land softly, without it splashing down hard, you will have a fish in seconds! Trout feel so comfortable in these types of prime lies that they will take any fly placed there. Trust me, it's a beautiful thing, casting this way.

When setting the hook, you have to be spot on. Any misjudging and the line will sail over your head and get hopelessly tangled in the branches. It's amazing how fast you can knit a sweater with just one errant hook set!!

Does the sling-shot cast have any downsides? Sure. For one, it's not as fast working water with this cast as with a traditional overhead cast. Another is that despite being able to cast a fly pretty much anywhere, you may not be able to set the hook and fight the trout because of all those branches that kept you from casting in the first place! I've had many instances where I've said to myself, "I wonder if there's a trout in there", only to shoot the fly in, watch the line go tight, and not be able to set the hook. Still, I find that pretty fun. You know that no one else would ever try to reach that trout -- they'd just walk by -- but you said hello to mister trout with a quick prick to his lip -- even if it is for just an instant.

As for rods, in these unusual situations I prefer a short and relatively stiff rod. I like my Tenkara USA Rhodo for small streams (it casts so beautifully at the 270 cm position), but it is just too long on these waters. I prefer a 240 cm rod (but I've been forced to fish with 180 cm rods on occasion). 240 cm is short enough to be able to handle really tight quarters, but long enough to still be able to actually cast. Yes, that 30 cm (1 foot) really does make a difference here. It may not on open waters, but in these tight situations it makes all the difference in the world. However, if the creek is a little more open I like using the Rhodo.

As far as rod stiffness, for really tight waters I prefer a rod that is somewhat stiff, say around a RFI of 6.5-7.5. This means that the rod is stiff enough to react instantly to the trout, like when setting the hook, but not be so stiff that it can't be cast effectively. A rod with a flexible tip section but what stiffens up in the 3rd section seems to work best for me (BTW, the tip section is the 1st section). The stiffness also means that you don't have to move the rod much to keep the fish from darting into snags and breaking off. Remember, you are in tight quarters to begin with. You don't have the luxury of open space in which to fight the fish! I like using the Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 240 cm, but lately I've been experimenting with the Nissin Yuyuzan 2-Way 290ZX.  This is a short keiryu zoom rod that fishes in both 240 and 290 cm lengths, thus giving a tight quarters guy like me some choices. It has quite a flexible tip but it stiffens up pretty fast -- maybe too fast for some. I'm still experimenting with it.

A section of short rods from my Rod Flex Index Chart.
Nissin Yuyuzan 2-Way 290ZX

Zooms between 240 cm and 290 cm lengths.

As for lines, I tend to use a 6.5-7 foot fluorocarbon level line. I like #3-3.5 weight best. I use 5X tippet that is 18-20 inches long. This combination keeps the line short, thus allowing very precise control. Because the rod is short and the line is short the overall fishing length is short! This type of fishing is full contact yet demands stealth. You are literally within feet of your quarry. You must keep low, go slow and blend into your surroundings. This is hunting; like a chameleon. Remember, since you can't use a longer rod or line, you will be right next to the fish. They don't like that! Any sudden movement and they are gone!! Fortunately, if the water has a brisk current gradient you can get pretty close and set up your shot.

Flies? Pretty much any pattern will work. But plan on losing a lot of them! For this very reason, I tend to use the venerable Utah Killer Bug mostly, in size 10-12. Nowadays, on a "normal" tenkara trip I won't loose any flies -- OK, maybe one. But on these tight creek adventures I'll loose half a dozen or more. If I overshoot my target hooking a branch, yet didn't scare the trout, I'll just break off the line, tie on a new fly and shoot again. After I've caught the trout I'll move up into the lie and retrieve my snagged fly. If you don't like losing flies then this is not your type of fishing.

Utah Killer Bug

Kiyotaki 240 cm

So that's it, the Short Game. This type of fishing separates the men from the boys. Be prepared for the most frustrating fishing experience you'll ever have. But also be ready for some fun. Stalking lies, setting up your next shot, executing that shot and taking a wild native trout (that didn't know what hit him) is very exhilarating. Well, at least I think so!!!

So if you meet a guy in camo, crawling around in a mountain rivulet (with a camera on his head) that just might be me -- or maybe it's some other insane and eccentric tenkara fisher!

Coming up.... A POV video of this style of fishing.


  1. Very interesting article about small stream tenkara. Something, in my opinion, that makes the difference between passionate tenkara anglers and fly fishermen is that the first like challenging their skills and check by themselves underrated or overlooked waters. Your blog is the perfect example of that in my opinion and that is probably why I like reading it.

  2. Thank you Tom for exploring and writing about your tiny stream adventures. I share your passion for these fine blue line kind of waters, as well. The photos and videos are all top tear and much appreciated, at least by some of us. And you are right - these kinds of streams can be very frustrating but also be extremely rewarding. And every now and then they throw in a big fish as well. Please keep up the great work you are doing....Karl.