Tenkara Grasshopper Central

An Introduction to Tenkara Fly Fishing: Tenkara and the Spring Runoff

An Introduction to Tenkara Fly Fishing: Tenkara and the Spring Runoff

by June 6, 2014 0 comments

There is one time of year that every angler in Colorado looks forward to and dreads all at the same time. We are in the thick of it right now… Spring Runoff!!!

With spring runoff we get very high flowing rivers and streams. Some streams are smaller yet are running at almost 200 cfs (cubic feet per second) which increases the amount of dirt and other detritus being flushed down river at high velocity. All of the dirt and other stuff floating downstream the water gets murky and unfathomable to the naked eye let alone the polarized lens eye making fishing difficult.

There are also reports coming from around the state where the rivers are running at 1000-5000 cfs. Flows of this magnitude don’t just make fishing very difficult, these flows make it dangerous for an angler to be anywhere near the water.

But, there is still fishing that can done even with high water flows as they are currently going. Luckily, for those of us who live here in Colorado at least we know that the waters will not stay high indefinitely.

Because the waters are higher right now we may not be able to fish all of our favorite water yet we still fish. That is what I am here to discuss today: Can I fish rivers and streams with a Tenkara rod when the rivers and streams are running high and dirty? If the answer is yes, then what do I need to do to catch fish or at least increase my chances of catching fish?

First off, lets review the basic equipment requirements of tenkara for those who are learning. We will keep it brief for now and if you want to learn more about the equipment there are other posts on this site as well as on other Tenkara sites around the web. I will include some of then most relevant links at the bottom of this post for your perusal when you are done reading.

A tenkara rod: A rod that extends in a range from 8’6″ up to 14’7″ and collapses down to 20″ at the most, at least with the Tenkara USA rod line.

Tenkara USA 12' Iwana Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA
Tenkara USA 12′ Iwana
Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA

A Tenkara Line: The lines of choice these days include a furled line or a level line. For heavy water I prefer a level line due to its smaller surface area which equates to less drag. Also, this time of year we have stronger winds than the rest of the year and I have personally found that I am able to cast a level line a bit easier in windy conditions. I typically start with a #3.5 level line but have been known to go to a #4.5 line if the wind is heavier.

tenkara usa furled line
Tenkara USA Furled Line
Tenkara USA Level Lines Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA
Tenkara USA Level Lines
Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA

A Tenkara Kebari Fly: A kebari, which means the hackle is reversed on the fly, is the traditional fly of choice of the tenkara purist. In my opinion, a tenkara kebari looks like nothing and everything all at the same time. Because of the look of the kebari fly the angler must learn how to present the fly to the fish in such a way to make the fish believe that this is good food to eat. There is some technique involved in proper presentation yet that is another post entirely.

Amano Kebari Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA
Amano Kebari
Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA

Follow the links below for my Beginning Tenkara Series which covers the equipment used in tenkara in a little more detail.

An Introduction to Tenkara Fly Fishing
An Introduction to Tenkara Part 1
An Introduction to Tenkara Part 2

Now that our basic equipment review is complete it is time to get into the meat and potatoes of how to fish high water using tenkara. The techniques we will cover here almost every fly fishing guide I know uses at some point during this time of year.

A word of caution is in order before we go any further: When the rivers are running high and are stained wading can be a very dangerous thing to do. The current is moving at a very high velocity stirring up the bottom of the river. The more stained the river the more difficult it is to see the bottom and thus there is a higher likelihood of an angler stepping into a deep hole and potentially drowning. Another thing to be aware of is that with higher water velocity equaling more power in the water the more likely that branches and logs can be dislodged from the edges of the river and get washed down river becoming virtual battering rams that can sweep an angler off of his feet. In my opinion, I would suggest that you try to stay above the water line or very close to shore while fishing in this water or have a guide take you out in a drift boat. The less time your body is in the water the better.

Every river and stream that a tenkara angler will fish has areas of slow water and extremely fast water. The slower water is typically right up against the shore on either side of the river. The faster water will be found down the middle of the river and where the river or stream narrows. There are also spots behind many rocks and other obstructions in the river where the current is slower as well due to friction.

A key feature of most any fish, and particular fish in rivers and streams is that they are lazy. Because fish are so damn lazy they like that quiet slower water either right along the shore or under undercuts in the bank. They can also be found on the hydraulic pillow on the front of a boulder or in the small eddy immediately behind a rock in the middle of the river. Fish use the spots of slow water as a rest stop from the faster water and wait for food to get washed down to them from upriver. In these locations when a particle of food floats past them a fish will dart out into the faster current inhaling the food item before making a run for the slower water.

Since fish behave in this manner, every guide and experienced angler I have spoken with has told me the same thing, fish the bubble line or seam between the slow water and fast water. The fish will be holding in the slower water and if your fly looks even remotely like food the fish will jump out and inhale it since the current is running so fast. With the faster current there is less time for the fish to study your fly before it is too late.

You can do the same with any other obstruction in the river or stream like a log or in some cases, and I have seen this before, old, abandoned engine block! In no way am I suggesting that anyone use an engine block to create structure in any moving body of water let alone a lake or pond!! It is just something I have seen. The back side of a bridge piling can also be a great place to cast to in hopes of catching a fish because of the friction caused by this structure along with the fact that bridges are great protection for fish from predators especially the avian predators.

Look for those slow water pockets and seams and cast to them repeatedly and you will likely catch fish. You may get skunked even though you are fishing all the right water and putting the fly right in the correct seams. Who knows maybe a fly change is in order, if so try that and your luck might just change.

Let’s cover flies briefly here so that you can look into that magical little foam lined container in your pocket, aka Your Fly Box! Hopefully, your fly box will have a number of different patterns for just such a situation like high water. If not, well then there are some techniques that we will have to learn so that we can at least get a chance at a fish or two or five. We will cover specific presentation techniques in another segment of this series so stay tuned.

If an angler is going to adhere to the strictest form of tenkara he or she will only use one fly pattern like the Ishigaki Kebari solely. Kebari patterns that seem to produce well in heavy water like we are experiencing right now are the Utah Killer Bug created by the boys from Tenkara Guides, LLC based in Utah. The Killer Bug is also a very productive pattern. Any kebari pattern that an angler might use during runoff needs to have some bulk for the fish to see in my opinion.

But for those who are still in the learning stages or those who do not have a single pattern that they are confident in then there are a number of options that can represent food items on a trout’s menu. Most of these are western patterns or based off of a western fly pattern.

Worms, i.e. midge larvae, night crawlers, earth worms, are commonly found in stomach samples of fish during these high water times. With high flow rates the bottom and sides of a river or stream can get scoured clean, thus many invertebrate organisms get dislodged from the structure found throughout the river making them drifting helplessly down river on the fish gravy train.

When it comes to worm patterns the old standby at least here in Colorado, and from what I understand on many other rivers is the San Juan Worm. This is a pattern tied using either chenille or rubber for the body of the worm. For the muddied waters that are common during runoff the most popular colors are chartreuse, red, black, and even some yellows. I personally have caught fish during this time using a white bodied worm, strange but true. These worm patterns are best “dead drifted” down river to a fish as this is the most natural drift that a worm will take, helplessly tumbling down river at the same speed as the water.

An angler might even consider using a small nymph pattern, i.e, a Gold-Ribbed Hairs Ear, or a Bead-head RS2. Again these are not traditional kebari patterns but they just might be the magic bullet that gets a fish to eat. Dead drifting these flies is a great way to present them to the fish but maybe adding a bit of fight to the fly will get a fish to take simply out of curiosity. Darker colors seem to work best for me and many other anglers even though the water is very dark and dirty. The theory behind dark colored flies is that the fish see something dark and chunky floating past them and will simply strike based on shape recognition.

And last but not least, the productive streamer patterns, i.e. the Woolly Bugger, and bait fish patterns like a Baby Rainbow, or shad pattern. Darker colors seem to be more productive than lighter colors in muddied water, although, if you want to try a lighter colored pattern don’t let anyone stop you. Experimentation is the spice of life in angling.

Play around with the patterns listed here and see what happens!!!

In conclusion, just remember that you can still fish during spring runoff periods. The fish are still there and they are always hungry. Keep in mind that you want to be casting to the slower water along the shore our around and behind structure in the river. By far, the most important thing to remember is your safety and that of the anglers around you. If you still want to get out and fish these high water times but are still not comfortable after read this then by all means hire a qualified guide to take you out and show you some of their trick.

Great Tenkara Links Besides TenkaraGrasshopper
Tenkara USA
A great resource for all things tenkara especially the forum.

An excellent resource for tenkara information and gear.

Tenkara Guides LLC, Creators of The Utah Killer Bug
Another great resource. Especially their Trips and Tricks.

Tenkara On The Fly
An awesome tenkara specific blog by a prolific tenkara angler, Karel Lansky

Tenkara Talk
Tenkara through and through from Jason Klass. Lots of amazing information to digest here. This is not a site that will give you heartburn!

Tenkara from the point of view of a true Japanese tenkara master.

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