Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Tenkara Epiphanies

  Tenkara Epiphanies

  For the last few years, I’ve been using a “new” method of fishing called tenkara.  The reason for the quotation marks around the word new is that tenkara has been around for hundreds of years, but only recently has the idea been imported to the US.  Tenkara is basically what your parents or grandparents might have called cane pole fishing, in that it involves using a very long rod with no reel, with the line, leader and fly attached to the end of the rod. A tenkara rod uses the same basic idea but uses modern technology, making the rod telescopic for easy transport and light enough to use all day without developing shoulders like Serena Williams.

 I first heard of tenkara a few years ago during the Fly Fishing Show in Denver. The person who brought the idea to the United States, Daniel Gallardo, was demonstrating it in one of the casting pools, and then I went to see his presentation in one of the conference rooms afterwards.  It was an intriguing idea, but I wasn’t quite ready to buy in yet. 

  Then one my fishing customers did a float with me using one, but being on a big river we didn’t use it much.  The next day, we four-wheeled up to Derby Creek where he used his tenkara for most of the day, and let me try it a little.  Using it first hand finally got me off the fence to actually purchase one, but for the first year or so I owned it the tenkara rod it was more of a novelty than anything else.  I would bring it with me when I went fishing, but almost always used my conventional gear instead. 

  But then one day, I was using the tenkara up on Gore Pass while fishing Big Rock Creek, and had the first of what I now call my Tenkara Epiphanies.  These are moments where I’d suddenly realize that although the tenkara approach had limitations, it also gave me abilities that “normal” fly gear didn’t.  On that day on Big Rock Creek, I was on my hands and knees in some tall grass sneaking up to a pool and flicking a dry fly into a foamy seam trying to induce a some small brown trout to eat it.  Due to the fact that you are limited how far you can cast a fly with a tenkara, on some small streams you have to get closer to the water’s edge to get your fly in there without spooking the fish.  As I was making my short casts and mending my line, I looked up and realized that I had been casting left-handed without even realizing it!  I don’t do anything left-handed, so seeing that rod held high in my left hand came as something of a shock.  It occurred to me that using a tenkara is so easy and intuitive to do, whether casting or mending, that it might be a great way to turn my beginner clients onto fly fishing.  That was what I think of now as my First Tenkara Epiphany, that it was so easy to do that you could do it with either hand.  

  I began to use the tenkara a little more after that, especially on smaller waters.  When I’d fish small streams I’d take the seven foot long three weight my best friend made for me, and also the tenkara which I’d have closed up and attached to the underside of my fanny pack. On day up on Derby Creek, there were some cutbows sipping bugs out of a small foam eddy just beyond some fast current, and I just couldn’t keep my flies in the foam long enough before the moving water would pull them out, even using reach casts with lots of mending, So I put the three weight aside, and brought out the tenkara.  With the tenkara’s extra reach, I was able to drop my fly into the foam, and keep it spinning around in there until a trout was able to see it and eat it.  I caught and landed three fish out of that hole!  I realized then that the tenkara’s length made it much easier to mend than with a shorter rod. I’ve since switched to a ten foot three weight as my conventional rig for small water, and the seven footer now lives in my backyard to fish off my dock with in the evening.  The fact that longer rods equals better line mending was Epiphany Number Two.

  The second epiphany came the following winter.  My friend Ryan and I went to the Frying Pan River one cold February day, when the air temperature topped out at twelve degrees.  We were fishing the Toilet Bowl Hole, where the water comes out of the bottom of Ruedi Reservoir.  There are some huge fish cruising in this hole, and its justifiably famous, but for most of the year, there are plenty of other fishermen around to share it with who also want a get crack at catching a big fish.  But a twelve degree day has a wonderful way of thinning out the crowds.  It was one of those days that it’s actually warmer to stand in the forty degree water than to stand on the bank.

  Ryan and I were working it, and every five casts or so we’d have to stop and clear the ice out our rod guides.  I’d also stop frequently to rotate out the gloves I was wearing, to keep a warmish pair on my hands while sticking the cold, wet ones under my coat. At one point, I was poking the ice out my guides with my thumbnail when Bing!, I broke off the top guide to my rod.  This really pissed me off, since I hadn’t brought another rod with me.  I was just about to break my rod off just above the next guide down so I could keep fishing, but I really didn’t want to do that since there was still two good inches left, and I knew that I could simply glue on another top guide on when I got home.  As I gripped the rod tip, about to snap it off but hesitating, it suddenly occurred to me that I had my tenkara rod up in my Landcruiser, and my conventional rod was spared from further shortening.  I waded back to my truck and got the tenkara, and very quickly realized that this was a much better way to fish the Pan than my conventional rig was anyway!  It was long enough to cover the whole water, my hands weren’t getting wet and cold from running the icy line through them, I could mend the twirling micro-currents better, but best of all, there were no guides to ice up!  The light bulb over my head lit up brightly that morning, and this was Epiphany Number Three.

  The next spring, Ryan and I again found ourselves in a cold tailwater, the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir.  It was April and they had just opened up the road to it, and not too many other anglers were there.  By now I was solidly into the tenkara camp, at least for my own personal fishing, though I wasn’t using it much on my commercial float trips.  I caught a couple of small fish on the tenkara, but as usual Ryan caught more, as he always does.  But then his line got tangled, and I asked him if he wanted to try the tenkara, while I re-rigged him.  He’d always been a tenkara skeptic, and still is to some degree, but he agreed to try it.  After just a couple of casts, he was soon into a fine fish, one bigger than I thought the tenkara might be able to handle.  But as I watch him play what turned out to be a twenty inch rainbow. I noticed how much that rod bent and flexed under the trout’s considerable pull.  I realized that once you’ve got a fish on, the line and leader don’t stretch very much, but the rod does.  Your rod in effect changes from being a fly delivery tool into a big shock absorber.  And a twelve foot rod is a much better shock absorber than a nine foot one! That was Epiphany Number Four. Ryan landed his fish, and though he’s not a complete tenkara convert yet he seemed to have gained a bit more respect for what they can do.

  Starting last year, I began to carry a tenkara rod of two in the hatch of my boat, in case my guests might wanted to try it.  Some days we’d be into rising trout in one of the Colorado River’s many back eddies, and for those up close fish the tenkara can be deadly.  Most of these back eddies have many spinning foam lines that the trout follow around sipping bugs out of.  Long casts are not only unnecessary here, but they can be detrimental.  People will see a splashy rise twenty feet away and cast towards it, putting down the fish five from the boat with their line.  Also, having that much line on the water can be impossible to mend, whereas keeping your casts shorter with a tenkara not only forces you to focus on your short game, but gives you much better control over your fly once its in the water.  This was more of a gradual appreciation, than an epiphany.  The other thing about tenkara rods that I only realized over time was what a direct connection you feel to the fish, versus a conventional rig.  With a normal rod, the fish is connected to the tippet, leader and line, which is then connected to the rod via the reel.  But with a tenkara, your hand is on the rod, and the rod is one with the line and leader and therefore the fish.  When a fish moves or shakes or begins to weaken, that life force of the fish is transmitted to you in a far more direct and personal way than it is with conventional equipment. 

  This summer, due to the high prolonged runoff we spent more time in those back eddies, since the fish were stacked up in them for most of the summer before the water finally came down.  I also seemed to have more beginners this year than in the past.  As a result, I’ve been using the tenkara rods more and putting minimally-skilled people onto fish more often.  One day in what I call Echo Hole, I had a nine year old girl hook a fish with the nymph on a hopper/dropper rig, which she lost when she dropped the rod tip and let the line go slack.  Her ten year old brother caught and landed one out of the same hole and she began pouting, but on her next cast she had a nice rainbow destroy her hopper and we landed that one.  Her demeanor changed radically after that, and I hope that she is as hooked on fishing as surely as that rainbow was on her hopper. The next day in the same hole, an eighty-five year old woman who had only done spin fishing caught a nice fish, using what she called her “cane pole”.  Another day, I two brothers from Chicago who had never fished before do well catching trout on dry flies, ten minutes after they got onto my boat in squirrelly water that that even experts have difficulty mending flies in.  Two weeks ago, I had three raw beginners learning how to cast in a stocked pond.  After exposing them all to conventional fly rods, I took the tenkara out of my rucksack and rigged a hopper/dropper on it.  On her second cast, one woman hooked a fly on the hopper, and before she could land the fish a second small bass took the hopper, and she landed both! 

The latest (but hopefully not final) epiphany I’ve had with tenkara came a week ago.  I had a very experienced fisherman was coming up to fish with me for the third time, but the day before our trip he had a bad fall and hurt his right arm.  He called the night before to tell me about it, and said that they were still coming but that he was going to just fish left-handed all day using his own tenkara rod.  I got thinking about that, and was glad that he was open to trying to compensate for his bad wing. But I doubted whether you could be successful fishing the long straight sections of the river given the distance limitations that a tenkara setup imposes.  But then another light bulb went on over my head.  The length of a total line and leader that rig with a tenkara is typically set by not making it any longer than you can land a fish yourself by.  So, if you’ve got a twelve foot rod, than you don’t want to make the total length of your line and leader more than fourteen or fifteen feet, otherwise you can’t hold your arm up high enough to net your fish.  However, if someone else is landing your fish, as we do from a boat when that person with the net is me, then suddenly that line and leader can be much longer.  And so the night before my client came, I rigged up a new tenkara rig that had about eighteen feet of line and leader.  The next day, he was willing try to new long-line rig, and he ended up using it all day long, left-handed, with his right arm almost literally tied behind his back. The results?  He caught and landed as many fish as his able-bodied partner did, who used conventional equipment (though his friend caught a twenty inch brown just above our take out, that might have tipped the balance a bit!).  A few days later, I floated with a couple consisting of a very experienced man and his less-experienced girlfriend, and she caught more and bigger fish that he did using the long-lined tenkara setup, while he used conventional gear. 

  The final thing that happened this summer which firmly placed the tenkara rod among my fishing tools to use first, and not just as an amusement, was an hour spent on the Bear River above Yampa.  The Colorado had blown out due to a thunderstorm, and so I cancelled a scheduled float trip and went fishing myself instead.  In an hour and a half, I caught my first Colorado Grand Slam, landing a brown, a brookie, a cutthroat, and a rainbow, all on the tenkara while my ten footer lay on the riverbank, unused and unneeded. 

  I haven’t even mentioned some of the other advantages to using tenkara rods that are already more widely acknowledged.  Among which are how light they are to pack if you are hiking or horse-packing into the high country.  Or how much easier they are to use if you’ve come back from Iraq with just one arm, or lost the use of one to a stroke.  Or, how quickly you can replace their delicate tip section with a new one if it does break off. 

  The bottom line is, tenkara is not a fad, and its not going away, and if you’re not using one now you probably will be someday.  Tenkara will never replace conventional gear, but it’s a really nice compliment to it.  I’m still more likely to use my old Fenwick or Loomis in most fishing situations, but the more I use the tenkara the more I enjoy doing so.  Try using one once, and you may never go back to the same old way of doing things!

                                                       Jack Bombardier
14503 Colorado River Road
Eagle County, CO 81637

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Eagle Feather

                                        The Eagle Feather

Spending most of my days on or along the Upper Colorado River, I get to see lots of wildlife. Deer and rabbits are too many to be counted, and in the winter elk are not only near the road, but sometimes bedded down in the middle of it.  On my river floats, we often see otters, bighorn sheep, ospreys, many types of waterfowl, bears, moose, beavers, and of course, brown and rainbow trout.  But of all the creatures who live on the river, none are quite as majestic as the bald eagle. They are more numerous during the winter, when the dark contrasting colors of their feathers blend in perfectly with the snow-covered hills above.  But there also are several mating pairs that live year-round on the river as well, and they’ve become a frequent and welcome sight on my river trips. 

  One bald eagle in particular has been around a lot this summer, and I’ve begun calling him Burt, mostly because “Burt the Bald Eagle” has good alliteration (I used to call the osprey that hung out here last year Oscar for the same reason). Burt was seen by us on the river pretty much every day in June and July, and for most of August.  He was usually in the canyon section that I run, below the Pinball boat ramp but above Jack Flats.  Sometimes we’d even see him twice – once in his favorite tree on the shuttle ride up, and again on the way down from the boat. 

  I’d never expected to have any other contact with Burt other than visual, and that’s always been enough for me.  Even though you can practically see a bald every day if you are on the river, and several if you drive the length of the Colorado River Road in the winter and have sharp eyes, I never get tired of seeing them.  Maybe because when I was growing up in western Massachusetts, they were still quite rare.  DDT use was finally outlawed in the Sixties in the wake of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, and their comeback was steady but slow.  I can still vividly remember the first bald eagle I saw, it was from a high viewpoint overlooking the Quabbin Reservoir. My girlfriend at the time and I had road-tripped there for the weekend, and while looking down at the huge body of water below we suddenly saw a bald eagle float by, hundreds of feet in the air but hardly moving a muscle. Years of hearing about bald eagles and seeing them on TV had not adequately prepared me for the sight of an actual living one, and I can remember it as if it were yesterday and not almost thirty years ago. 

 Early this July, I took a family of four on a fishing trip, and we saw Burt on his regular perch on the way up the road to our put in.  We paused for a moment on the road just opposite to look at him, Burt bright and backlit by the morning sun. Then we moved on, got the boat in the water, and began our trip.

  Later on, we were in the canyon section, and the dad hooked a nice brown trout.  I moved the raft over to the left bank, and as I did someone noticed a big bald eagle up in a tree watching us intently. As I netted and released the fish, Burt was looking down at us with an expression that seemed to say, “You guys going to eat that?”. Then, with a couple of swipes with his huge wings, he flew out of the tree and headed downstream. We all looked around at each other with big smiles, both for the close encounter with the eagle and the even closer one with a wild brown trout. 

  Soon thereafter we were out of the canyon, and began floating down the straight section of river above Jack Flats.  As we rounded the corner, one of my passengers noticed an eagle in a tree that leans out over the Colorado River.  I suggested that we keep our rods down, and try to stay as quiet as possible, and see how close we could come to Burt this time.  As it turned out, it was very close. My big raft hugged the left bank, and due to the high water we were able to float directly underneath Burt.  He looked down on us unperturbed, slowly rotating his head around as we passed.  Luckily he wasn’t due for a bowel movement, for if he had he would have pooped on our heads.  Once we were below him, I gently rotated the boat around so that we could look back up at him, with the bright red backdrop of Derby Mesa behind him. 

  Then something unusual happened.  The wind, which had been intermittently gusting all morning, suddenly kicked up a little extra, and we saw a white tail feather blow off of Burt’s bottom, and begin to swirl around in the air high above the river. Then, even more oddly, a swallow swooped in from nowhere, and began chasing the tail feather around as it made huge loops in mid-air high above the river.  It was quite a sight, bird and feather having what looked liked a dogfight, but then the wind blew the feather across to the other side of the river, and we thought the aerial display was over.  But then the wind shifted again, and then the feather was doing big circles over the water again, and when it momentarily stopped blowing, the feather dropped straight down into the river.  \

  The first thought that popped into my head was, “There’s an eagle feather in the river!”, and I immediately rowed hard for the left bank to see if perhaps we might see the feather floating downstream.  By now we were two hundred yards downstream from the tree in which Burt still sat, and the feather was out of sight.  I wasn’t sure whether the feather would float or for how long, but in short order there it was, coming down the middle of the river like a little white sailboat.  We were excited to see it, and when it was about fifty yards above us I began rowing out to the middle to intercept it.  When we got close, I handed my landing net to the mother of the group in front, and she deftly used the net to pluck the errant feather out of the water.  She took it out of the net and held it up for all to see.  We had an eagle feather on the boat! 

 She tried to give it to me, but I insisted that she keep it.  After all, this was their trip, not mine, I was just the operator of the boat getting them down the river.  I told her that she should keep it forever, and that it would bring her good luck.  Secretly, I really wanted that eagle for myself, but it seemed like they were the ones that should keep it.  Later, when they were getting ready to go home she offered it to me again, and again I reluctantly told her to keep it. 

  Once they were gone, I got on my bicycle to begin riding up to the put in to get my truck and trailer.  On the way, I saw a couple of my neighbors, and stopped to tell them about the eagle feather.  “Hey! You’ll never guess what happened today!  We were on the river, and saw this eagle, and its tail feather blew off, and we were able to pluck it out of the river!”  Before I could get much further, they said, “That’s really illegal! You better not tell anyone about that!”  That sounded crazy to me, but they didn’t know too much more about it, other than that Native Americans were the only people allowed to keep any eagle feathers.  I didn’t really believe them, for I didn’t see how there could be anything wrong with keeping an eagle feather, especially the way that we came about getting it, but figured I could just look into it later. 

  As I made my way up the road on my bike, I saw another neighbor, and stopped to relate the story of the feather to him.  Once I got to the park of snagging the feather out of the river, he said, “You better get rid of it!  Its illegal to have that!”.  Once more I was dumbfounded.  How could have an eagle feather be illegal, and why did everyone but me seemed to know about it?  Later that night, I went on-line and did a little research, and soon learned about the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940.  It turns that when eagle numbers were in serious decline, Congress passed the Act to help protect them. Perhaps they didn’t know that their dropping numbers were due in large part to DDT use, but in any case the law was still on the books and in 1962 the Act was expanded to included golden eagles as well. 

  I tried to get a hold of my customers to let them know about this, but was unable to reach them.  I wanted to let them know about it before they told the wrong person about it and ended up in some kind of trouble. The next day I finally did, and when I told them it also seemed like a crazy law to them as well, and that they would have to consider their options. Of course, the easy thing to do would be to simply go to the nearest trash receptacle, toss it in, and be done with it.  But somehow, that just didn’t seem right to them or me.  They were on their way out of town, and said that they would have to think about the best thing to do with it. 

  We kept in periodic email contact over the next month, and during that time I came up with the best idea I could about how to deal with our Feather Problem.  If she could get the feather to me, I could simply take it out on the river on my next float, and place it back into the water in the same spot we plucked it out.  She seemed to like that suggestion, and a few weeks later when they were back in Vail, I swung by their hotel and picked up a sealed envelope from the front desk clerk, feeling like I was consummating some kind of illicit drug or arms deal. 
  So now Burt’s discarded tail feather was back in my possession, and I had to get it back into the river where it belonged. The next day I had float with some folks that I hadn’t met before, and I wanted to wait to do it with someone I knew could appreciate the moment.  The following week I was going to take a regular client of mine out on the river with his brother, and was going to wait until that trip, but when that day came I forgot the feather in my shop, and so I had to be a felon a little bit longer. 
  Then coming up soon on my schedule was a trip taking out some filmmakers from CNN who were filming a feature about the Colorado River and its water issues.  That seemed like it would be a perfect moment, to make myself right with the law once more in front of plenty of witnesses.  That way, in case I ever found myself before the Supreme High Court Of Animal Parts, I could call them in as witnesses, or at least get their depositions.
  They came on a perfect day, and we had an almost perfect day on the river.  About the only thing that didn’t fall into place was that we didn’t get to see Burt while we were out that day, but the guys in the other boat did.  He was in one of his usual fishing holes (i.e., in a branch looking down on one) and he flew off, we were in the Whirlpool Canyon looking upstream at a bubble line while trying to put the show’s host onto a fish.  He did hook a nice trout on a hopper moments later, but by then Burt had flown away downstream to one of his other spots. 
  Later we were a mile further downstream, and about a half mile from Jack Flats. It was time to put that eagle feather back into the river.  As we approached the leaning tree, I pointed it out to those on my boat, and as we passed the tree, leaned over to place it gently back.  My boat kept wanting to float right along with the feather, for since there was no wind we were all floating along at the same speed.  I had to back row my boat to keep it away from the feather, and finally some distance began to grow.  The crew shot some video of this, and possibly a still image, but there were so many different cameras on both boats that day that I rarely used my own. But it occurred to me almost too late that I should get one of my own, and blindly shooting pictures downriver at the shrinking feather I managed to take one. 
 We did get to see Burt that day, but not from the river. Before we began our float, I took the crew up to the top of Derby Mesa, to see what I consider to be one of the best views in Colorado (and that’s a long, lengthy list). It’s only about a mile from the River Road, but about 900 feet higher after winding past some tight switchbacks.( I take most of my river clients to this overlook, and not just the national media). Sometimes I get pretty funny looks from people who see me taking my big green river raft up there, into country more suited for 4 X 4s.
   The crew was awed by the view, as am I even after having seen it a few hundred times.  While taking in the view, which included looking down at the first five miles of Colorado River we’d be floating, a big Golden Eagle drifted past, heading down valley, and we got to see it from just above, and not from below like you usually see them.  Then a couple minutes later, riding along the same thermal, came Burt.  I had been pretty sure that he lived in the canyon three miles above, in a nest the size of an upended Volkswagen Beetle.  We got to look down on Burt from above, and I was instantly transported back in time almost forty years, to being high on a hill in Massachusetts seeing my first bald. 
 Over the past month since then, I’ve continued to see Burt and always wave hello to him.  I’ve wondered if he recognizes me or my boat, and something happened last week that maybe he does.  There were two guys on my boat fishing, and as we approached Jack Flats I told them about the eagle feather. As I finished, I rotated the boat around and there was Burt, over in a dead tree river left.  He was watching us float by with his usual nonchalance.  We got below him and temporarily forgot him as we fished the big eddy next to the campsite, but one of them got a tangle and the current slowly brought us back up to Burt.  It was raining a little, and Burt held up his wings and began preening himself.  As he pecked and poked his chest, a small white breast feather came slowly drifting down, which we could all clearly see against the deep red backdrop of Derby Mesa.  Its seemed to take forever to fall, and it landed directly below him in a small willow.  I looked at my companions, and said, “Maybe we’ll just leave that feather alone this time!”

                                       Jack Bombardier