Saturday, January 24, 2015

Thin Blue Lines, Tenkara-style part 1: the streams, and fishing them.

I realized today that I haven't posted anything specifically "about" Tenkara fishing yet. I decided to put together a few of my small-stream adventures in one post to remedy the situation. I was playing around at Urban Angler the other day, and Ron rigged this baby up for me...

JUST KIDDING! Obviously this is the opposite of everything "tenkara" in one photo, couldn't resist a good joke, pardon me... With so many people buying these crazy huge reels and all, it just looked so funny that I had to snap a photo.

What is a thin blue line? The above photo is an example of a particularly small stream... do you think any fish are there? Most people would say no. In fact, I think they'd laugh. But there were at least 2 brookies hiding in the leaf litter of this run, that scattered as I approached to fish the pool above it. Streams like this harbor native fish, mostly the revered brook trout.

This is the "pool" above the run. Don't be fooled, this pool held fish. I got some hits from fish that were either too small to hook, or I failed to set the hook. In higher water situations I might have scored a decent fish here, but the low and slow water made the fish particularly spook-worthy this day.

This beautiful thin blue line is on the less-thin side. Often these streams provide larger fish, but there aren't as many native fish. Also, the higher the flow, often the harder it is to spook the trout as you approach the water's edge. The key is to move slowly, stay low, and wear clothing that may help camouflage you better. 

Although it often means catching smaller fish, there is so much reward in the native trout you'll encounter... their beauty is unmatched! As is the beauty of the surrounding environment. You're likely to see many animals and birds... they make the area surrounding the rivers their home. Often you'll hear the owls start to hoot as it gets dark... that tends to be a prime time for catching fish if you're in the right places.

Fishing thin blue lines with a tenkara rod offers its own unique set of challenges. After walking up a small feeder stream, I came upon this beautiful pool. But before I was close enough to even snap this photo, the fish were aware of my presence... I saw a fin break the surface as a couple of trout bolted for the cover of the "waterfall" and the rocks below. Sure, you might succeed with a 20 foot line, but that's not really what Tenkara is all about. Sometimes its nice to also your traditional rod and reel along for these moments - which I usually don't.

This "typical" thin blue line represents all the things a prime small-stream has to offer... lots of cover and hiding spots for the fish, picturesque surroundings, and no other fishermen in sight. Bonus points if you catch the trout resting under these fallen trees... And here's where the BENEFITS of tenkara come into play. First off, with a fixed line, you get very used to your casting range. Without needing to worry about or deal with the extra line and reel, the long leader or the tree cover behind, you can get very good at casting your fly into extremely tight spots between branches and under logs. And even better, your back-cast can be adjusted vertically, so you just need clear sky above, not space behind.

Here's a textbook plunge-pool, the kind that gets me excited. I spent some time fishing from behind where this photo was taken, casting into the pool I'm standing in now. After fishing for a few minutes and getting nothing, I moved up to where the photo was taken and cast into the pool ahead. Sure enough, there were many brookies hiding in front of the rock in the far pool. I watched a few chase my streamer but none took it. After a few missed fish, the rest of the the pool's residents were spooked. Frustrating, but so much fun just the same.

Coming onto this scene, above, most anglers would focus on the lower pool, which likely holds the largest fish. But again, here's an advantage to tenkara on small streams. Most of those little pools above the main pool also held fish. A long leader and short rod make it much harder to fish small pools like this. However, with a 7'8" Tenkara-style rod, a 6 foot furled leader, and 2 feet of tippet, you are going to reach all the pools before the fish see you, and you're going to get a perfect drift every time. There's something so satisfying about fishing every pool.

Another important aspect of small stream fishing is movement. Not just how you move, but how often and where. I am a huge proponent of fishing up-stream. The fish have a harder time seeing you coming. This is particularly important in smaller streams where your presence is more obvious to the fish. Unlike larger streams and rivers, where anglers are often rewarded with large fish for "sticking it out" at a well-known pool, there is no such reward in a small stream. Once you've walked in the water or caught a fish in an area, the fish know you are there. Move on. Same goes for if you haven't caught anything after maybe 12-15 GOOD casts. Maybe the fish are in a different pool... covering more ground pays off when it comes to thin blue lines.

Using the above photo as an example, another of tenkara fishing's small-stream strengths comes into play here - reach. There are a number of fishable spots in this photo. However, there's no room behind to cast enough line out here. The extra-long tenkara rods allow for you to stand on one side of an obstacle and fish the other side without the fish knowing you are even there. Sure, a traditional 8-9 foot fly rod could do this too, but it sure won't contribute to the fun in landing these smaller native fish. Standing on the left side of the rock in the center, you can fish the right side of that rock. You're hidden from view and from creating disturbances in the water that would send the fish scattering.

So spend some time fishing the "thin blue lines," just don't share your secrets when you discover one that's really good! And please, practice catch and release fishing on these streams, help the native trout populations thrive... a fish properly handled and released is one that can be caught again!
In the next post, I'll cover the small-stream tenkara rods that I like to use, and the different options for line, leader, tippet and fly.


  1. Thin blue lines are my favorite type of fishing. Time spent exploring these gems and overcoming the challenges associated with them are worth every second. I would rather pull a 6 inch wild brook trout from a place like these than any 12" stocked brown from anywhere. Nice post.

    1. Thanks Kiwi, they're my favorite too! I sure am thinking about some of these trips now during the snowstorm!