Do weights and simplicity go together? A tenkara perspective

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Photo Daniel Galhardo

Photo Daniel Galhardo

By Daniel Galhardo

About four years ago I visited Cheeseman Canyon for my first time.

Cheeseman is a renowned fly-fishing destination in Colorado; it is well known for sizeable fish that think they are too good for our flies. The canyon features deep pools with relatively slow moving water. The water is typically crystal clear, which means you can see the fish down deep. Sometimes you can even see the white in their mouths, which means they are laughing at you as your fly goes by. You can probably sense some of my disdain for the behavior of those snooty trout, huh?

But the reality is that I love fishing those “3 miles of gold medal fishing,” as the sign by the parking lot announces. The fishing there is challenging. And, that is a good thing. It serves as a place to learn and grow as a fisherman. That first visit also gave me something I have been reflecting on for the last several years: do I really need weight to get my fly down deep?

Weights are used to get the fly down to fish holding deeper. They can be either wrapped around a fly in the form of a metallic wire, or connected to the line above the fly in the form of split-shot, putties, or in new forms of which I can no longer keep track. They are useful. I won’t deny it, and I will preface the rest of this article by saying I have absolutely nothing against the use of weights, although I do find it a shame that so much of it gets left behind due to tangles with branches and snags on river bottoms.

I personally approach fishing from a different angle. For the last 7 years I have been learning the tenkara method of fishing from different teachers in Japan. Tenkara, as you may have read in this blog and other places, is a simple Japanese method of fly-fishing that uses “only a rod, line and fly.” Perhaps I should rephrase that, tenkara can be a simple method of fly-fishing. The method can quickly get more complex by adding accessories to the rig and moving from “only a rod, line and fly”  to “a rod, line, fly, strike indicator, floatant, splitshot and the-latest-announced-fishing-gizmo”.

There is historical evidence of tenkara flies that were wrapped with copper thread to make them heavy. And, we also know of tenkara anglers in Japan using weights above the fly. I am not by any means shunning the use of weight for any purist or traditionalist reason. But, rather, I have decided to see what I could leave behind in order to hone technique.

As John Gierach put it in the tenkara chapter of his book, All Fisherman are Liars, “[tenkara is] a useful thought experiment in which you ask not, How much do I need? But, How little can I get away with?”

The interesting thing about this thought experiment is that you are forced to learn how to work with what you have and without what was left behind. It may take little while, but in turn you acquire new techniques.

Over the last few years of leaving weights behind, I have learned a few ways of sinking my flies. And, the only way I was able to learn this was by not using weights to begin with, but rather pay attention to currents that would take my fly down for me. The two main ways I usually teach are the following:

The first way to sink flies without weight, and mostly useful in mountain streams, is to cast the fly above small plunges or places where the water gets channeled and faster. You will cast upstream from the plunge or fast channel. When the fly gets carried into the plunge, just lower some of the line with it and let the currents take the fly deep for you. If you are doing this correctly the line will seem stuck for a second, then it will start spinning around, a sign the turbulence is taking it down for you. A couple of seconds later the line will start moving downstream. Just follow it while keeping the line tight.  You don’t have to be doing tenkara to try this, just remove the weight and start seeing what happens when you place your fly in different currents.

Now, why did I start this piece talking about Cheeseman Canyon?

It’s because of the experience I had when watching big fish holding deep and no weights to use in my fishing kit. The technique above was taught to me by one of my teachers. This second technique was something I taught myself that day and has been useful more than once. Cheeseman Canyon, as I mentioned, has some deep and slow-moving pools, not a whole lot of plunges. At a certain point my two friends, Jason and Karel, and I came across a large pool with a half dozen fish holding some 6 feet deep. I cast my unweighted fly as far upstream as I could and let it naturally sink. At the end of my 20ft drift the fly had naturally sunk about 2 feet. I figured I could pull the fly upstream slowly and let it sink a bit more. I kept the rod tip down, almost touching the water, and dragged the fly upstream very slowly. The fly went up slightly but I then followed it downstream and it sank some more, reaching about 3 or 4 feet deep. I repeated this once or twice again and literally got the fly to basically touch the fish on the nose. The fish grabbed the fly and I had it for an instant before the hook came out. This had been a slow day, not many catches between the 3 of us, so this was an exciting moment. Seeing the white in that trout’s mouth because of a grab rather than it laughing at me was well worth it.

I do accept one limitation created by leaving weights behind: I cannot sink my fly deep and fast. But I can sink it deep enough and fast enough to keep me content with the occasional tight line. I also accept the fact that I will not always get my fly in front of every fish in the stream, but even when my vest carried different weights I never got my fly in front of every fish anyways.


Daniel Galhardo
Gink & Gasoline
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8 thoughts on “Do weights and simplicity go together? A tenkara perspective

  1. Great piece. Those deep pools at Cheesman are certainly frustrating. I frequently go no weight or indicator when fishing flat in places like the Fryingpan or Cheesman. I will definitely have to try this technique. Do you think it’s somewhat of a product of the fish becoming split-shot savvy in slow/clear areas?

  2. Great piece. Those deep pools at Cheesman are certainly frustrating. I frequently go no weight or indicator when fishing flat in places like the Fryingpan or Cheesman. I will definitely have to try this technique. Do you think it’s somewhat of a product of the fish becoming split-shot savvy in slow/clear/deep areas?

  3. Good article, Daniel. I remember that outing well, I it was before you moved to Colorado. And looks like I don’t look half bad from that angle ;).

  4. Don, Cheesman sure is a frustrating fishery..but it is so good!
    I really don’t know if it is shot awareness there, or something else there, but I do have to think minimally weighted flies have a very natural presentation.
    Also, I should mention I wrote this shortly before I had an experience near home where most fish were holding deep, and back in the day I would have been using weights. But then I found the biggest fish of the day sipping on the surface; if I had weights I would have stopped to change to a light weight dry fly for that guy, but instead all I did was change my presentation.
    And, I should also say to those who will comment in favor of weight that I just wanted to share a different way of thinking about fishing deep – just in case someone forgets the box of weighted flies or pack of shot one day 😉

  5. Terrific post, Daniel. I enjoy posts that make me think, and this one certainly fits the bill. I fish conventional fly and Tenkara, and I am always trying to apply what I learn on one side of the equation to the other to see if it fits. One thing you learn from Tenkara is that having so many options with conventional gear is not always the best solution to being effective. Often we reach for the more complicated solution, letting the real reason for rejection or lack of interest escape us. Reaching more fish (through added weight) may not be the only or the best way to go as you artfully point out. This applies to conventional methods as well.

  6. I truely respect the decision of those that choose to limit their tackle to simplify or to limit it to respect tradition. I, however, do not ascribe to that school of thought even though I love tenkara tackle. I often use deep nymphing rigs on tenkara rods with plenty of weight. I look at tenkara rods and lines as tools to a means and love finding new ways to use those tools. An example: I guide the Provo River in Utah and a favorite technique is “bounce nymphing”. It’s uses a strike indicator, two or three droppers and weights. Enough weight on the very end of the tippet to get the flies down quickly keep the flies suspended just off the bottom in 1-8 feet of water for a significant length of drift. It’s generally not pretty to cast but it is very effective. I combined the terminal rig with my 13.5 foot long Tenkara USA Amago (Ayu before that) and level fluorocarbon line and it has proven itself to simplify a cumbersome fly rod/line technique on regular fly tackle and at the same time improve natural drift. It is a perfect way to teach anyone to get a natural drift with nymphs but is especially good for youngsters, the elderly and other challenged individuals enjoy catching trout in abundance, instead of getting frustrated with fly line length control, mending and casting. With this and other hybrid rigs I have been able to help introduce many anglers that have not fly fished before to the sport and given experienced anglers a productive reason to add a tenkara rod to their quiver of fly rods. The roots of fly fishing were long poles, braided horse hair lines and hand made flies (long before fly reels were invented). The Japanese kept up the tradition with long bamboo poles but modern graphites make for a truly effective tool for “advanced cane pole fly fishing”!
    I say enjoy fishing tenkara rods with as many kinds of flies and rigs as you want. These include: dry flies, emergers, pupae, nymphs, pseudo nymphs (eggs, crustaceans, anelids etc.), wet flies, small streamers, leeches, small poppers, dry/dropper rigs, Euro nymphing rigs, slack line nymph rigs, skating flies and of course kebari and other flies from the Japanese tradition……with and without weight as needed. Keep fly fishing wonderfully diverse!

  7. Pingback: Tippets: Simple Scuds, Getting Deep with Tenkara, Poison-Ivy-Free | MidCurrent

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