Interview with Jeff Smith
Interview with Jeff Smith
by Adam Trahan
Quick! What are my first initial thoughts about Jeff?
Focused, experienced, serious, fishy… and this is going to be fun.
Every one of the interviews that I do, I take time, I don’t force the process and certainly I am not going to do that here, the problem is, I am having a little trouble starting Jeff’s Interview. I want it to be representative and good and reading it now, I think we did a great job.
Stories must have a beginning so I’ll start there.
I know Jeff is a fly fisher.
So am I, that is where it starts so that's where we start.
I’m excited to interview him because I have a feeling that we are very much the same way when it comes to fishing streams, passionate and intent on solving the problem and fishing Tenkara is a great solution but not the only choice.
I think that experienced anglers in fly-fishing that take Tenkara seriously make some of the best mountain stream anglers. For most of us, we already know how to read the water, where the fish are and how they behave in the flow; now the point is to get the fly to the fish and how to move on the stream to get the largest and most fish.
It’s as simple as that.
Adam: I want to begin by saying thank you for participating. I have this thing about writing, when the words are down on paper they start becoming old and are immediately in the past. You no longer have control over them so it is important for me to get it right.
I promise we are going to get this right.
I understand you enjoy fly-fishing and are pretty good at it. That’s cool in my book. Fly-fishing is a great way to spend time in the mountains. It is an extremely effective way to fish a stream, I know, I’ve done a lot of it myself and I still consider myself a small stream fly fisher, with Tenkara, I simply have another skill that has augmented my fly fishing small streams. My fly rods literally have dust on them and my Tenkara rod quiver is constantly evolving to a smaller collection of more efficient choices…
“Are you still using your fly rods?”
Jeff Smith: Hi Adam. Thank you for inviting me. I’m really honored to do this interview with you. We seem to share a similar passion of fly-fishing and tenkara fishing, though we’ve traveled different paths, we’ve both ended up at the same place, SMALL STREAMS! And, with reels or without reels, it’s all about the same to me in the end. I’m going to stray a little bit on this question, and reveal a little bit on how I came to fly fishing and tenkara.
Okay, so to answer the question. Yes, I do still use my fly rods. I use them just as much if not more than my tenkara rods.
Fly-fishing didn’t come first for me though. I was born and raised in the foothills of Northern California. I’m the youngest sibling of three boys. As a family, we have always loved the outdoors.
Growing up, I was the only person in my family that used a fly rod. We all have loved to fish at one time or another in our lives but I am by far the most passionate of us all. Nearly untainted of alternate pass times, I really do keep my life simple.
My first fishing experiences happened well before I have memories of them, and some of my first memories are of me fishing with family, so it’s safe to say that I’ve been fishing all of my life. I am a trout bum now, as I was back then.
Similar to many people that started fishing early in life, I got my start fishing a spincast setup. Soon after, realizing that my mom, pop and brothers were all using a spinning reel, and out-casting me, I instantly wanted more out of my gear. I learned to use a spinning reel quickly after that. This felt like a graduation to me, I was covering more water and catching more fish, and I was then hooked on fishing for life.
Fast-forward several years. My Auntie Elaine lived and owned a property and a small business located in Bridgeport California. Yeah, I know right, a fly-fishing heaven. The property was backed up to the famous East Walker River. My dad, brothers and myself spent many summers visiting her, and I also spent a few summers helping her with the chores of her business, always allowing plenty of time for fishing, camping and backpacking the area.
One day while fishing the Robinson Creek I saw a man caressing the water with a fly rod. Dude was good too. Tucked into the trees he was making these steeple casts and sending his line nearly straight up behind him, avoiding the grasp of the greedy trees, and then laying it down on the water in front of him. He wasn’t just a good caster, he was a good fly fisherman. I sat, and I watched him respectfully catch and release several fish that day. This style seemed a little overwhelming to me at the time and I don’t recall if I ever mentioned any interest of it to my dad.
A few years later when I was about 11, my dad, middle brother and I took a backpacking trip into the Toiyabe and Yosemite wildernesses. Pops, knowing the passion for fishing that my brother and I shared at that time, packed a compact spinning set up complete with tackle and a small selection of flies. This is my first recollection of fishing flies. They were wet flies, and I first learned that a spinning rod was not the best way to deliver them to the fish, however I made do by swinging them in the current with a splitshot about 10 inches up the line from it. Another thing that I realized was that by removing the shot and imparting action to the hackle in the slower pools, causing it to hover and undulate via the twitch, was sometimes the key to getting those spooky and finicky brookie and rainbow trout’s to take it. The twitch! Hmm go figure, way back then. Kids ARE quick intuitive learners.
Not long after that I bought my first fly rod, a crappy fiberglass rod made by Shakespeare. It was a combo kit, I do still have the rod but the reel is long gone. I even take it out to cast and fish it from time to time.
My passion for fly-fishing was now in motion and quickly gaining momentum. It was at this point that I also started to read books on how it’s done properly.
I first became a struggling caster, able to send line out some 20 then 30 then 60 feet. I quickly realized that, although casting fly line and fishing flies go together, they are separate skills. It’s one thing to make a beautiful cast onto a fishy run but controlling the line and fly throughout the drift is a separate skill that takes ample time to become proficient at. The books also taught me that I was using sub-par equipment and so started the humbling quest for something better. After a frustrating search through many rods that as a teen were mostly out of my price range, I found, only by chance at the local drug store, a $50 9ft 5wt Pflueger Medallist that was marked down to $9! Although that rod only cost me 9 bucks, it was a huge step up from the glass rod I was using. I later gave that rod away to a friend.
Now, I have multiple rods from 2wt through 9wt and every thing in between except for a 7wt. I had one, but I gave it away to a friend as well. Sorry for screwing you like that Shawn! Haha, you probably have as many rods as I do now.
There are a few rods in my closet that get very little use because they are specialty rods, and the 9 wt still hasn’t been fished, but nearly all of the rods from 2-6 are on the water every year and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s like visiting old friends, shaking hands with them, and enjoying a peaceful journey together for the day.
In addition to all of my fly rods, I also have a fine selection of tenkara rods. Tenkara has been a new avenue in my trout fishing and is occupying much of my attention at the small creeks and streams. I’ve really taken to it and sometimes feel a little guilty for not practicing with my fly rods as much as I used to.
Adam: I have a beautiful little small stream 4-weight that I made. It’s an exposed mortised handle rod. It took me probably 60 hours to make and it is damn near perfect. I was unable to completely finish it, we had to sell our home and I lost the rod shop. The rod only lacked varnish. The craftsman that I dedicated the rod build in his honor, Jeff Hatton, asked me to send it to him and he would finish it. He probably put 20 more hours in building the rod case and casting the reel seat components in bronze. It’s a fantastic rod but it has not been fished. I’m still deep into learning Tenkara, I’m afraid that little rod is going to have to be patient for just a while longer.
Jeff, I love fishing bamboo but there is so many good graphite (plastic) rods out there that I just have to talk about a few.
“You seem to like good equipment, what are a couple of your favorite fly rods?”
Jeff Smith: I do like good equipment, and I am a bit of a gear junky. However, good equipment, doesn’t necessarily translate into being expensive equipment. At least not for me it doesn’t. If the rod has redeeming qualities, I will find them, and if it happens to do well with what I want to accomplish, then I think it’s a good rod. It seems that there’s a compromise with most any rod, so if in a rod the good out weigh the bad, I buy and use it for the good in it and over look the bad.
When I’m considering a new rod, this is what works for me. First, I want to look it over. I look at how the reel seat the handle and winding check are aligned and finished off. Then I look my way up the rod to the tip. I rotate the rod looking at every thread and trim wrap. I check all of the guides to see if they are of a decent grade and if they were tuned and aligned appropriately to the relaxed curve of the blank. I check to see if the blank is straight and I check the fit-up at the ferrules. Utilizing the relaxed curve of the blank creates a dynamic fishing tool and without attention to it, the rod is just another run of the mill fishing pole unable to perform to it’s full potential. If the rod hasn’t been assembled well, and with attention to these details, I don’t even bother. If I like what I see, then I want to cast it. If it all checks out then I buy it. Specialty rods are a little different so I’m not going to get into that here. What I will say is this; I’ve found that if a rod is designed for specific purposes in mind, well then it’s probably going to do that purpose very well, so if it checks out with my visual test then it usually is a fairly good rod.
Currently, a few of my favorite rods are;
The Hardy Zenith 10’ 4wt. At this time, I use this rod more than any other fly rod in my collection. It has tremendous fighting power and can put the beans to some very large trout. You’ve probably seen some of them in my photos. The extra reach allows for outstanding drift control, and paired with a Euro nymphing setup and hybrid leader, I can hang my weighted nymphs out some 20’ or so, and with very little line sag. The rod is deadly with this setup. Or fished with a good quality floating line, I can make a delicate 20’ presentation with a small dry, or haul the sucker out to 80’ without hesitation and with little effort. I would never fish a dry that far out by the way, but the rod will sling it if I needed to. Although I don’t consider it a dry fly rod it works well in areas with plenty of space. With a quick snap off the tip the rod mends line with the best of them, and this makes it a fantastic indicator rod as well.
There’s another Hardy rod that’s at the top of my list. It’s a Hardy Glass rod “The Stream”. It’s measures 7 feet even and is a 3wt. This rod is a super soft full flex, and then some. It’s a real gem of a rod. This rod is a dry fly machine all the way. A modern rendition of the vintage rods from the 60’s and 70’s, it will flick a tiny dry out with a full 13’ leader and only a few inches of line just out side the tip, but can also lay down a flawless 40’ cast onto a glassy pool, so delicately, with little disturbance. It’s one of my newest additions but has already become a favorite. Maybe it’s the modern touch and the vintage character that Hardy has given it. It has so much tactile feedback that it just speaks to me. If I close my eyes while I’m casting it, I can still keep time. It’s like I can see the loops in my thoughts. I’m still getting to know it, and I haven’t decided which reel is going to be the perfect one for it, but I do have a few that fit it well.
I’ve built many rods over the years, so it should be no surprise to anyone that, some of them are on my list of favorites.
The very first rod that I built close to some 20 years ago holds a special place in my heart. It’s a G Loomis GL2. Not particularly an outstanding rod compared to some but it was the first build for me and it is kind of an all rounder. It’s a 2pc 9-foot 5wt in a beautiful deep blue mat finish. I got real lucky with this build, it came out so nice that the first time that I took it out on the water, another fisherman simply stated to me “Somebody must really love you!” He was right too; my wife had bought that entire kit for me to build and surprised me with it on my birthday. I took my time building it, this part of my character is something that you are now painfully aware of, and I made it as beautiful as I could at that time with my new and limited skills.
One last fly rod of mention is another 4 wt rod, and another that I built. This rod is an example of what I touched on earlier in that you don’t need top of the line equipment to have a great fishing tool. I picked up this blank on closeout from Cabelas and it’s one of the last of the USA made FT (fast taper) blanks that they discontinued several years ago. I’m a little unsure who was making these blanks for the big box. I’ve heard that Sage made them by more than a few people as well as G Loomis from others. I’ve even suspected that they were maybe an St Croix creation, but all I know is that they were freaking amazing blanks. It’s a 9 foot 4 wt powerhouse of a rod. I outfitted it with a cocobolo wood insert on the reel seat, and reverse half wells AAAA Portuguese cork handle and with black anodized aluminum hardware. I used the Hopkins & Holloway black single foot snake and stripper guides to keep down the weight, and then wrapped them to the blank with gold thread and copper trim. You just cant find a rod a like this on a shelf unless you plan on spending some serious coin. This rod out performs just about every 4 and 5 wt rods that I’ve ever owned or had in my hand! Dry fly or indicator fishing, this rod gets it done and gets it done well.
Can I tell you about one or two of my favorite tenkara rods as well? There are a few that really stand out to me.
I think my very favorite tenkara rod is the Daiwa LL36SF. Sublime is the first word that comes to mind about this rod, and it may very well be the best level line rod on the planet. I have owned and casted a hoard of tenkara rods over the last six seasons and this rod really stands out to me. The fit and finish is top notch. Every section seats to the next smoothly and precisely with zero hang-ups. The taper was simply nailed in the design process. The casting is very fluid and I hate to use the worn out descriptions that “the rod casts itself” or “the cast is intuitive” but it really makes precision work on the stream seam easy and effortless.
Probably no surprise to those who are lucky to own one but the original Oni Type I is also one of the stand out rods in my collection. I think enough has been written about it. Long, light level lines, and precise placement of the fly. I don’t like the fact that this rod just doesn’t excel at short tight work. But hey it’s about 13 feet long so it’s not supposed to, right? The Oni Type I simply overpowers a short line. It’s a long line rod all the way and it does that game very, very well. However, put a short level line on it and some of the magic is lost. It’s still at the top of the heap of tenkara rods for me because many rivers here in California are wide open and inviting to a long level line on a 13’ rod. I’m just being too critical of it about the short work simply because the Daiwa overshadows it. I tend to do that.
For tight choked in work, the Nissin Pro-Spec 360 in a 7:3 is another stand out rod. As well as the Oni Type III.
As you know I recently acquired the Sakura Kongo in the 390cm length. This rod so far is somewhat of a chameleon and I haven’t yet found one thing that it can’t do aside from being light and balanced. It’s still early but it may end up on my best of list.
Adam: I cut my teeth on the Orvis 1-weight very early on and became a member of the Orvis “One Club” with it but moved on as it seems Orvis may have initially brought the light lines to the masses yet Sage perfected them.
So I’m a fan of Jerry Siem’s tapers. Particularly the LL 389-3 B, LL 356 B, the 0-weights and a couple of other choices in those lines. Those types of rods sing to me on the stream. Those are my favorites.
And reels? For some it’s just a place to store line, me no.
“What are the important aspects of a reel for you?”
Jeff Smith: Well for the most part I find that statement to be quite comical too. If trout up to 10” to 12” are your main quarry, then yes, you’re pretty much just storing line there. However, if you’re getting into some feisty trout 15” or better on light tippet, you had better have a smooth reliable drag to tussle with them. Reels are a huge part of the package for me. The average size of trout in my home water is 15” and they run up to >30”. Yes you did read that right, thirty inches plus! Therefore, I put just as much thought into my reel choices that I put into my fly rod choices. Maybe even more.
It doesn’t have to be a disk drag reel. There are some fine click check reels out there, and one does have to be experienced enough to use them and handle a large charging fish. That’s another story though. I absolutely love my vintage Hardys’. The pay out is smooth and the way they scream is iconic to fly-fishing. That screaming sound just amplifies the rush for me of controlling a great fish.
It’s really all about the precision machining of the body and the spool, and how well they precisely marry to one another. Low start up inertia is a key for light technical fishing for better than average fish, and if there is any noticeable variance in the pay out, then the reel doesn’t make the cut. One small, and I mean minute hang up in the pay out on light tippet will cost an angler every single great fish. Those are the tail, tail signs of a very well made tool or just another reel.
It’s about how free the spool rotates on the body and all with very tight tolerances. Tight tolerances keep foreign debris out and keep the line in. If the spool and frame body have poor tolerances, the line can slip out between the two, it will jam, and you will lose. Fortunately in today’s market we have a myriad of great choices to satisfy everybody.
I don’t like reels that have any exposed moving parts other than the spool. I also don’t like stamped reels at all. A stamped reel is an entry-level reel. They usually have poor tolerances, lousy drag systems and are heavy. I wouldn’t put one into the hands of a beginner. They’re crap, end of that story.
A smooth center disk drag with very gradual adjustment is what I most prefer. A fully sealed disk drag is a great feature but it’s not something that I demand. I don’t feel it’s necessary for the trout fishing that I do. Flats fishing for bones in the salt and stirring white sand? gotta have it, but not for trout.
Obviously, most trout will never get into the drag. It’s only the one’s that do that really test our choice of equipment.
The brands that I mostly own are Galvan, Hardy, and Ross. I love my Galvan’s though. They’re made right here in California at a family owned business. My first Galvan was the OB 1 in anodized green. The drag is so smooth and with precise gradual adjustment. It can protect 8X tippet or lock down to stop a small Karmann Ghia. Well pretty much every Galvan can do that and that’s another reason why I love them so much. “Walk softly but carry a big stick” That’s what Galvan’s do.
Second place goes to my Hardy’s. I have several vintage British built click-check models as well as several of the modern Ultra Lightweight DD and CC models. There’s just something sexy about a Hardy. Their simple bulletproof designs, the distinctive sound on the pay out to a charging fish, and the history. Very few companies can say that they have spanned enough time to see the turn of two centuries.
My Ross Reels are kind of the day in day out workhorses, and although they are solid reels, and very well made, I rate them as average for a machined DD reel. There’s too much fragile plastic inside the drag systems to really stand out to me. But most are still made in America and they’re machined very well, with tight tolerances, and have superb drag systems on many of those models. One of my very first quality reels was a Ross Cimarron that I bought from the late Andy Puyans. I still have it, use it, and fully trust it. It has never failed me.
Adam: I really like Loop fly reels, particularly the standard “roller” design.
It’s necessary to tell a short story, Loop has now split into two factions, the machinist creator of the reels Kurt Danielsson and his two partners have split the company. Kurt retained the traditional Loop design and now the name of his company is Danielsson. Loop, the other two partners have retained the Loop name and direction of the company and have outsourced their progressive reels to include more Loop branding.
I like Loop reels but it is the Danielsson roller design that I think is the best fly reel for small streams available in my opinion. Here are my reasons; the lightweight of the spool decreases the start up inertia. For those that may not understand, a heavy spool takes longer to start moving than a lighter spool. 7x tippet has a breaking strength of around two pounds and a HOT RUNNING FISH can override the start up of the reel, shock loading the tippet and breaking it. With a light spool and no drag setting, the reel can start moving quickly and stay within the elasticity of 7x and continue to protect it. There are a lot of nice looking reels out there that look great but they do not have all the attributes of a traditional Danielsson reel.
As you can see, I think a reel is integral and important to fly-fishing, it isn’t simply a place to store a line for me.
“Jeff, you probably do a lot of technical fly fishing, can you describe one of your experiences?”
Jeff Smith: Well, it’s a great question Adam. After some odd many years of fly-fishing, pretty much every outing from here on out has a technical approach to it. I’ve honed some skills over the years and now those same challenges that we all face, I can look at them somewhat differently than before. I no longer have to obsess over proper approach and casting technique. I don’t overlook or these; it’s just something that I do with out having to give much thought to it. Its kinda like muscle memory. The approach, the positioning and the cast, it’s become a method rather than a mystery. It’s just another attempt to overcome a situation that admittedly I still do not fully understand, however, now I have a bigger bag of tricks to draw from.
Here’s a quick example…well, probably not quick. I tend to over think things.
My oldest son a good friend and myself, were fishing at one of my favorite locations on a local river. The river is a tailwater, and its also known as a trophy trout section that has some, not big, but enormous rainbow and cutbow trout in it. I spent some time, in the early hours that morning, lending advice to Josh and Scott. I really enjoy seeing other people get a crack at these remarkable fish, so watching and offering some advice is just as much fun for me. After some time, and sensing a little bit of information overload from Scotty, I decide to give him some time to process. So I move up to a section, that in recent years, I’ve realized it to have a good amount of fish holding in it. I don’t see many people fish this particular area, though I don’t know why, maybe it’s hard to reach or just not inviting because of the many conflicting currents. But it has many large rocks separating the runs and creating a few great holding lies.
Blind casting into every spot that offers a decent drift will catch fish. But that’s not always my approach on this particular stream. If my goal is to fool a great fish, well then, spending some time inspecting the area and then slowly making an approach to hit the most likely run is the best option to do that. Since this is a tailwater that is used for crops irrigation and water for the Budweiser plant downstream, the flows fluctuate through the seasons, and the runs do change and it is very important to take the time to look it over and think of the best plan for a presentation.
My setup is simple. I’m basically just using a running line that is .025” in the middle and tapers down to .020” at the end. To that I loop to loop a 7.5 foot or 9 foot 1x or 2x tapered leader with an 18” piece of hi vis sighter material like Jan Simons and then straight tippet down to the point fly. Sometimes to search the water quickly I’ll rig up a two fly Czech or boxcar style rig.
I fish here often and I know what it takes to fool the fish. Fish ‘em very small and on the bottom. Get the best drift possible and bump these fish on the nose, because although big fish will eat small flies all day long, they don’t move for them. Use fine, limp tippet and a powerful rod with a delicate tip. Enter Hardy Zenith and a fine, limp 5x or 6X tippet!
The river is running to our right and I’m casting to my left upstream. I make my first cast just 15’ up from one of those large rocks. I have to cast over one cross current over the intended run and into another faster current just past those conflicting waters. I have to do this because there is another large rock in the top center of the intended run, casting to the inside run will kick me to the wrong side of the lower rock. So the only way to get my flies into the drift that goes past the far side of the large rock that I’m aiming for is to make this funky cast and direct the flies into it. Almost immediately after they hit the fast current on the other side, and before I can accomplish this redirection of my flies, I hook into a nice 14” trout. This is not what I expected or wanted to happen. The fish of course makes a turn down stream and right past the holding lie next to the large rock below. As the fish races by, I see a flash from the side of a fish, a large flash. “Aw crap” I think out loud. At this point I feel the jig is up and my cover is blown. I quickly direct my current catch to my side of the stream, net it and send it on its way. I look up to see Scotty giving me the thumbs up. I shake my head and ask him “Did you see that other fish?” “No” he says. “I just spooked a nice fish”.
Ok so now I’ve got some time to process what just happened. I didn’t see the fish move away from the holding lie. It made a roll and went back down. I can’t see it. This is good. Maybe I didn’t spook it; maybe it was chasing the smaller fish out of its area? Maybe it felt my leader floss the water as the other hooked fish darted by? At this point I take the time to check my rig. I cut off my fly, run my fingers down my leader and tippet. I feel some abrasion on it so I replace the last three feet with new line and check the hook point of the fly. The point is good so I retie it on the end and test the integrity of my knots. I let another few minutes pass before I try this same drift again.
The minutes pass and I make the same cast over the run and pull the flies into the lane. Once in the lane I pause the tip to let the flies catch up and also achieve some depth. Just as they’re passing midway of the big rock where I saw that flash, the line slows to a pause, and I set the hook. Right away I feel the surging weight of an angry fish. I dip my rod tip down stream and hard to my right side to direct this fish away from the rock and into the faster run in hopes that it will follow my lead into the large pool below. It works and the fish hits the fast current in front of me and is heading down river away from the rocks. I clear my line and put the fish onto the drag of my Hardy. This fish goes bananas and rips line across the surface to the right across the pool that Scotty is fishing. It then makes a 180 and does the same to the left, jumping 2 feet out of the water in the middle stage. It hits the water and comes out again to show off its tail-walking trick. Trying to stay one step ahead, I’m changing directions with my rod tip as fast as the fish changes direction in the water, all the while gently touching the bottom of my spool with only my four fingertips. I do this because using my palm applies too much and an inconsistent drag to the spool, especially dangerous with the 6x I’m connected to this fish with.
I rarely use much more drag then it takes to prevent overrun of my line and using a palm as added drag is far less sensitive than using fingertips. Fingertips are much more sensitive than a palm and they just give me so much feedback and more control during the pay out.
I often don’t recall all of the details of a fish fight, and the technical part is over, so I will simply just add that about 6 to 7 minutes later Josh was able to help me in netting this great fish. Scotty snapped up a few nice photos for the memories and to suggest that this event really did happen.
Adam: Awesome, I really enjoy reading this kind of story. It’s my passion too.
I’ll tell one.
I love fishing small streams. If there are fish, I’m catching them. I was on a multi-day fish camp and two days into it, I had come back to our shore camp by a stream in the White Mountain Apache Reservation. The camp was on the bank of a slick section; a foot deep run about the width of a residential street. Sitting in my favorite camp chair dreaming of the streams I had been fishing and I was staring at the stream in front of me while drinking a beer when I noticed little bumps on the water that were messing up the mirror slick, they were appearing, making rings and disappearing.
“What the heck is that?”
I got my monocular out and started seeing tiny flashes right at the bulges. Looking more and imagining what was going on, it was juvenal Apache Trout taking rising nymphs, emergers in the last inch or so below the meniscus or surface of the stream. Bulging rises and I started to figure out how to take them.
My equipment choice was a Sage SPL 080-3B (I built it from my favorite components) with a Loop “Midge” reel. The line was a Sage Quiet Taper with a 9’ leader terminated in 7x. I chose a size #18 soft hackle and greased (floatant) the leader so that just the last 6” would just break the meniscus. Shooting line along the edge of the stream, I hooked the last couple of feet away from the edge, tiny finger weave retrieve, nothing. Again, nothing. And again, nothing.
Reel in and re-group.
Not losing the day, I could hear the thunderstorm over the massif above me; Holly Lake was getting pounded with lighting thunder and hail but just a few miles away where I was, sunlight and safe.
Out comes the 10x, super thin, invisible and 1.1lb breaking strength.
This time a long first cast right in the middle of the slick and the line started jerking leaving a zipper pattern on the water. I couldn’t see the fly so that was my indicator to lift the rod to set and tight! Just the tip of the rod bending and stripping in, I scoop a little 5” Apache Trout. Gently releasing him, I repeat the recipe with success catching a few over the next half hour.
It was one of my favorite “figured it out” moments where a Tenkara rod would have just been easy pickens.
“Ok, your turn.”
Jeff Smith: Well Adam, you certainly know what you’re looking for. That was an important lesson of how to tell the difference of a full rise as opposed to a bulging rise. Bulges tell us emerger and rings tell us dry fly. You know as well as I do that it’s not always se easy to make the call while you’re on the water. You did the right thing to pause and take a better look. The monocular! Brilliant!!!
The one that means the most to me Adam, was actually the very first trout that I caught on a fly rod. Not my first trout but the first on a fly rod and a fly.
I was fishing alone just outside of Bridgeport on a very small creek that I shall leave unnamed here. I remembered it from my early childhood and when it was recommended to me by a friend and owner of the local sporting goods store it was where I had to go.
Being a the noobie that I was back then I started in the lower section that was this beautiful meadow with the creek meandering through it like a blue vein. I figured that it would be good because it was open and I would be able to easily cast to all of the little wild trout that I could easily see. The problem was that they could see me too. Cast after cast I just kept putting these little guys down. Sometimes I could get some interest but after further inspection they wouldn’t take my flies. I kept working my way through the meadow further and further upstream. Switching from dry to nymph and back again. At this time in my life I had very little patience and I was getting really frustrated. I knew that I was new to this style but damn give a kid a break. Just one is all I ask.
I kept at it hard too, until at one point I just had to stop for a minute. “Think Jeff, think” I recalled the book that “Rick” that same gentleman at the shop had recommended and sold to me the day before. “The Curtis Creek Manifesto” was the name of that book. What a little gem that book is!
I’m sure you know of it. It’s that short read of a book, almost like a comic book. It tells you everything you need to know and nothing extra. It’s a perfect primer for the beginner. I recalled the section about stalking your quarry. Use every thing to my advantage. The sun and shadows, keep your rod behind you until you’re ready to cast. Use every possible rock tree and bush to hide your presence and always, always fish upstream.
Right about this time I was making my way out of the meadow and heading into the gradient part of the creek. Now I’m fishing in the riffles and pools. I have some trees and some bushes to mask my presence. The sun is casting my shadow down stream and behind me. Every thing was starting to make sense to me now, and all I have to do is execute a plan based on what I had read the night before. I creep up-stream hiding behind the trees but I’m still twenty five feet from the edge of the water. I see a trout rising on the edge of a riffle just above me about 30 feet away. No more trees to hide me while getting into position but there is one lone bush and a large rock just above that. I’m crouching low and I’m moving very slowly now. I make my way up to the bush and then the rock. I figured at this point, after getting skunked in the meadow, I have nothing to loose and everything to gain by just following the advice of the author Sheridan Anderson.
In position now, I remove my fly from my second guide and from around my reel seat. Strip out some line. “Should be enough” I thought. I flip my Yellow Humpy out in front of me just down stream and start my back cast. One, two, three casts to measure my distance. Not casting over the fish but slightly up and across. Now the fourth back cast down stream and then 18’ upstream about 3 feet in front of where I saw that fish rising. I see an immediate splash and I set the hook on the most beautiful little 8” brown trout of the day. It was also the only trout of that day too. But that little trout was the best one ever! It meant so much to me putting it all together successfully. It was my first trout on a fly rod and fly. It was so perfect the way it all unfolded for me that day, that there is just no way I could ever forget the experience, it’s burned into my memory of time. I still have that very same Yellow Humpy fly too. I keep it in a box at my fly tying desk to remember that day and that first trout.
Tenkara is an excellent choice for small streams. I find it to be an advanced way to fish, not backwards as in a cane pole experience, nothing like that.
Many people are new to fishing and quickly learn with a Tenkara rod. Reading their experiences, you can tell how experienced at fishing they are by what they say about it.
I’ll get to the point.
Here in America, we are re-learning Tenkara. Not us, but the masses that use fly line cut to length or rope like twisted lines.
That’s simple fly fishing, can’t shoot line, the reel is lost… I would rather have the attributes of a fly rod instead of fishing a Tenkara rod this way.
Tenkara in Japan is many decades old. There are old and advanced anglers, even masters that use backing or a fly line but that does not mean they are advancing Tenkara. It’s their version and its Tenkara, but as I said, they are doing simple fly-fishing and that’s ok with me however, it’s not my choice.
Master’s like Hisao Ishigaki and Masami Sakakibara are advancing Tenkara by their usage of LEVEL LINE. Professor Ishigaki is a proponent of fishing a lite level line suspending it off the water with just the kebari in the water for ultimate stealth. He uses “one fly” because it is not necessary for him to pattern match. He entices fish to take HIS fly; it’s an advanced technique that is so far removed from the masters of fly-fishing in America and beyond. Ishigaki and Sakakibara can go anywhere with their idea of Tenkara and catch. This is advanced Tenkara and utilizes the attributes of a light high modulus nesting rod that can cast and suspend a very light line at distance.
I’m definitely in the LEVEL LINE and one fly camp. I think that is the future and advancement of Tenkara. I think that is where we will see the greatest Tenkara movement. Not the masses but anglers that go down this road will be the leaders. It is the way in Japan and it will be the way here.
“Jeff, can you give us your thoughts on this?”
Jeff Smith: Yes, I absolutely love to fish the Tenkara style. Some of my favorite rods that I mentioned in detail earlier are tenkara rods. I’ve been into the tenkara scene since our American beginnings and in early 2010 not long after Daniel Galhardo introduced it to us, I bought my first rod.
I have so much respect for our Brazilian-American mentor Daniel as well as the Japanese teachers that we learn from. I know that 6 seasons is not a long time with tenkara but the added advantage of drawing from many years of fly-fishing, reading water, positioning and presentation, have shortened the learning curve for me. Unlike in 2010, I now feel very confident with a tenkara rod on the water. The system works.
Right out of the gate I ordered an Iwana 360cm, a spool or two of level line, a 10.5-foot traditional line and a few vials of Daniels kebari. The Takayama, Cad/May Variant, Ishigaki, and the Fujioka if I remember it all correctly. The Fujioka was my favorite and by far the best producer for me.
I fished the Traditional line first. It was hard for me to determine at that early time what the benefits of the tenkara system were at that outing. I struggled with fooling any fish so I switched back to my comfort zone and busted out the 4wt and proceeded to catch a fare number of fish that day.
The next time out, and determined to learn more about tenkara, I purposely left my fly rods at home so I couldn’t sabotage my tenkara experience. This time I also used a level line instead of the traditional line. I instantly noticed the difference in presentation and drift, and I never fished that particular traditional line again.
I think the real advancements in modern tenkara will come from advanced composites in rod construction and also in advanced level line formulas. In addition to those, the most important advancements will come from within. The more we fish this style, the better we’ll know our equipment and the better our knowledge and techniques will become. We will learn more as individuals and as a group.
I’ve thought about the one fly thing many time’s but I’m just not a “one fly” guy, and I don’t share the same feeling that a One Fly Style will advance tenkara in any way. I can certainly see it advancing one person’s understanding of how to fish and control that particular fly in every situation.
I see folks proclaim “I use only one fly” and then they show there “one fly” in 3 to 5 different sizes or in all the same size and design but in 3 to 5 different colors. Some use various hook for their one fly, or use a wire rib for added weight on one but not another. This is just a primitive form of match the hatch. I do understand the “one fly” concept though and what the goal of using just one fly is. I just don’t feel it has any bearing on the advancement of modern tenkara.
I’m a huge level line fan. I admire the advantages of the level line method for all of the same reasons that you have mentioned. The stealth, reach, and minimal drag are all key. One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned about using level lines is that with a level line we can get better manipulation of the kebari.
LL Tenkara is the ultimate way to fly-fish high gradient pocket water. The only other fly-fishing method, in my opinion, that comes close is with very long Euro Nymphing rods and long leaders. Both are deadly effective but tenkara is WAY MORE FUN. In addition, level lines are without question, and I don’t care who questions this, the best choice for doing this. I will tell them the same as I’m saying it now. A light level line tied on the end of a tenkara rod is unparalleled on a technical stretch of pocket water by any other rod and line setup. To each their own though. I know that there are many folks that are huge fans of furled lines and I can see why. A furled line can deliver a fly through the AIR better than a level line can. The added mass and taper of the furled line is very reminiscent of a modern fly line. They are smooth, they carry a very nice aerodynamic loop and turnover very predictably, but those advantages end as soon as the fly has been delivered. It’s at that point that all lines start to sag. Lines with more mass sag more and furled lines obviously have more mass and surface space. Sag is a drag on pocket water. Literally.
I do most of my learning on the water. I am a doer and not much of a follower. I call my style "More Colors". This has been my stance from the beginning. I don't follow crowds. I don't fish one fly, and I don't subscribe to strict techniques or rules. My style is progressive; it's eclectic, and manic at times. A montage spawned by first hand experience and adoption. I make my own rules and make them up as I go. Freedom!
I‘m not doing anything that somebody hasn’t already done; at least I don’t think so. I just seem to stumble on many things in my own time. This is not to say that I don’t follow the lead of others because I do, but I am more into comparing my notes with the teachers and my peers rather than doing every thing that they say to do. Learning what to do from someone else but not having the first hand knowledge and experience to know why you’re doing it, is not a good way to learn. They are the source and very good at what they do, but so are I, and I think that shows on the water. I pick and choose what I want to accept and know and I add my own experiences and techniques to just simply have fun and get it done.
I wish that I could have the same drive as you, to dig into the Japanese tutelage. Whether it is books, searching the Internet, or befriending the many unique and wonderfully helpful people that have the first hand knowledge of tenkara and its history that you have been able to do, I truly admire what you do. We all owe a huge thanks to you and them for what you dig up and share with the tenkara community. I Thank You, My Brother Adam.
Adam: After my own visit to Japan, I’ve realized that it is not necessary to go there to have a high level of knowledge of Tenkara. A trip to Japan is like a trip to the Tenkara homeland. For anglers that want to take it a step farther, it’s fun to fish for the indigenous trout in the region with a relatively new (to the angler) style of fishing.
I like catching different species of trout and char and the fish I caught in Japan were a really cool addition to the list.
“Do you have a interest in that? Collecting badges so to speak?”
Jeff Smith: I do. Here in California we have 11 Heritage Trout that have survived here, isolated in their historic drainages for millenniums. It is my goal to catch all of them, however there is just one that will be next to impossible to attain. The Paiute Cutthroat trout is possibly the rarest of all trout in the world, and as of now, it’s off limits for fishing in its native historic drainage. All others will make it to my hand for a quick photo and back for another lucky fisherman to enjoy. I will bet on this and you can count on that. As of now I have only two, the Costal Rainbow (steelhead) and the Lahontan cutthroat. I’ve made some great friends recently that are just as motivated as I am, if not more, to accomplish our goals.
I think it would also be really cool to finally travel to other states with a sole purpose to catch some of the other historic and beautiful trout that reside there, and traveling to foreign lands for rare trouts would be a moving experience for me. Another badge I want is to catch a grayling. I’ve waited too long to fulfill these dreams and I’m getting very close to being able to cut out for some of these trips. The pictures from friends all over the states and all over the world are calling me in. And although the last 15 years I have been unable to pause my life for such getaways, it is only now that I am finding more freedom to allow such trips.
Adam: My favorite species is the one I’m trying to catch at the time.
“What is yours?”
Jeff Smith: That’s an easy one for me. Since I’m born and live here in California along the left coast, it’s the Costal Rainbow. These fish are out right crazy. So fast and powerful. The anadromous ones are better known as a steelhead. Wild Rainbows fight WAY harder than browns or brooks. The bigger fish can get down right violent thrashing about in the water and will often jump repeatedly when hooked. Who can’t love that?
Adam: I want you to know that I really admire the group of anglers that you guys are. I follow along in Facebook and here I want to say I think that contributes to a fuller fishing experience. The companionship is great and the logistics are much easier to get a high level variety of experiences and choices. You all elevate together.
“Can you tell us about your group?”
Jeff Smith: I’m not sure if you realize this Adam, but you actually play an instrumental role in all of us Nor Cal boys hanging out. It was about a year and a half ago in October of 2013 when I had posted a trip report on your web site Tenkara-Fisher. The report was about a day I had spent at Putah Creek.
Club founder Mike Willis, who is also a member at the Tenkara-Fisher forum, had checked out my trip report, and then contacted me by personal message. Mike mentioned his excitement to fish at Putah Creek and wondered if he could pick my brain and ask me a few questions about setups for tenkara rods and access points and what not. I’m always open to meeting new friends and learning and sharing about fishing, so Mike and I decided, what the heck why don’t we just plan a day of fishing the creek.
At that time Mike had already been hanging out, and fishing with Trevor, David and TJ, I think for a season already. They all met previously and had worked the TenkaraUSA booth at the Fly Fishing Show here in Northern California. I’ve always made it a point to visit the TenkaraUSA booth ever since Daniel decided to join the shows, and so I’ve already met the whole gang briefly at the shows. With Mike being the super nice dude that he is, he wanted to make it a group outing where we could all spend a day getting to know the water and make some new friends.
So that was it, we all got together at the creek and had a great day of fishing, fish fighting, laughing, and just having a lot of fun. We all landed fish that day with a few of them being nice catches. We ended the day at this neat little local market, with a great deli. We picked up some sandwiches and beers and sat outside on the pick-nick bench to tell some stories of the day and make some future plans for spring.
A few weeks later, Mike mentioned that I should join Tenkara Anglers of Northern California and Nevada on Face book so that I could keep up with current posts and events. I wanted to join in and be a part of the group so I did. Now we all keep in touch by phone, email and facebook, so we can make plans to fish, camp and tie as often as life allows us.
You know, it seams only natural that we would all start hanging out though and planning fishing days, camping trips and our now popular whiskey sippin and fly tying marathons. Getting to know every body a little better, I realized that we were all about the same age, we all really like tenkara and fly fishing, we enjoy camping and prefer fishing wild trout waters. Every body ties their own flies, and we’ve all mentioned an interest in doing a backpacking trip or two some time. I think we all agree that it won’t be some crazy trip along the Pacific Crest Trail for two long weeks, or any thing like that, either. Just something that’s simple and accommodating for our goals.
As of now there’s about 70 members in the group but there’s a core group of only about 10 of us that actually make plans with one another to camp, fish, and fly tying. We’ve had many great times in just the past year and a half. Sometimes we can all get out and other times it’s just two or three of us that get out, but it’s always a good time. To date I have visited more than 20 different locations with one or more people in the group and that’s basically in just one fishing season. We get out and fish often, not just talk about it.
One of the greatest things about hanging out with a group like this is getting to share about locations and setups and experiences and also the plethora of rods and equipment that we all have. It’s a knowledgeable group. Everybody has their own style too and their own preference in equipment for that style. Some people are a fan of level lines and others furled. Some like the one fly approach and others fish many flies. Some fish only kebari others will fish dry fly all day, while still some will fish what ever is hatching or moving in the water, or what ever they created at their vice the night before. It’s just a great melting pot of diverse knowledge to draw from and to add to as well.
Adam: I want you to know that your group is number one on my list to visit.
I want to thank you for sitting for this Interview. I really hoped you would say yes. You are somewhat reserved and I appreciate your opening up and answering my prying questions.
As with all the Interviews that I do, I would like to offer you free reign to say anything you want.
Know this, I admire your skill and knowledge, thanks dude.
Jeff Smith: Adam, you’re very welcome. And thank you for putting this together. This wasn’t easy for me. I often struggle to put my thought onto paper but I think that I learned a little bit about myself during the course of this.
I really hope that we all can find the opportunity to fish together. You have a wealth of knowledge and experience, some mad skills bro. I think that I can speak for everybody here in our group that you are one of us. We all value your input and are happy to have you in our group.
This interview was originally published on May 24th, 2015