The Myth of The Bottom Dredger

Tenkara

In my recent post about a new tenkara nymph line, someone asked if I used weight to get my flies to sink.  I replied that I do use copper wire in some of my flies which helps them sink a little better but first and foremost, it’s ribbing to created a segmented look.  I’d hardly call a fly with 5 turns of copper wire “weighted”.  If I really wanted to make Titanic flies, I’d use a lead wire underbody or a tungsten bead.  I also stated that I never use split shot.  They said that all the books they’ve been reading about nymphing mention that you need to use weight to get the fly into the strike zone or you will not reach the fish.  That comment gave me great pause for thought because,  A: That was exactly what I was told when I was learning fly fishing, and, B: I know it’s not true (well, not 100% true anyway). 

My nymphing miseducation was founded on the assumption that your fly needs to be dead drifted right along the bottom to be effective.  The motto was, “if you’re not getting snagged, you’re not fishing deep enough.”  Basically, keep adding split shot until you start getting snagged on the bottom every few casts and then you’ll know you’re in “in the zone”.  Many referred to it as “dredging the bottom”.  A slightly less elegant way to describe it was “chuck & duck” since the obscene amounts of weight at the end of the line would produce horrible, out-of-control casts that made you look like a hapless amateur and wish you had a helmet and goggles.

For years, I thought that was what nymphing meant. And although I never enjoyed that type of fishing, it did produce consistently so the allure was hard to discount.

Fast forward to a better understanding of entomology, ichthyology, and another funny sounding word: tenkara. I realized that the narrative I’d been told wasn’t the full story.  After fishing a full year using traditional tenkara techniques (almost) exclusively, I was catching just as many fish–without split shot, stike indicators, and all the other stuff I thought was necessary to fish subsurface.  I proved to myself that technique, observation, and confidence outweighed terminal tackle and gear when it comes to catching fish.  That was a milestone for me and I think I can distill it down to a few simple observations…

 

5 Reasons Why You Don’t Need Split Shot

 

1.  Fish don’t always hold on the bottom.  I used to think that fish were either feeding right on the surface, or holding to the bottom.  But after a lot of observation in the field and watching a lot of underwater video, I learned that trout hold at all different depths in between—not just the two extremes.

2.  Aquatic insects drift through different levels of the water column.  Drifting insects can be hard to observe in the field but after watching the Bugs of the Underworld DVD, I was really surprised by how buoyant nymphs were.  They don’t always tumble right along the bottom.  They can be found at all depths in a stream depending on the dynamics of the current and stage of emergence.  This might be a partial explanation of #1.  The fish are going to hold where the food is.

3.  Fish move!  One narrative of nymphing says that you have to deliver the nymph right on a trout’s nose for them to take.  But all last season, I had fish enthusiastically move to my fly from as much as five feet away!  Of course not all fish will do this (especially if the water is 35 degrees, for example) but if you use an enticing enough presentation, you can get fish to come to your fly in many cases.  You don’t always have to spoon feed them.

4.  You can sink an unweighted fly other ways.  Tenkara anglers use technique rather than tackle to help sink their flies.  The most basic method is to simply cast further upstream from the fish than you normally would and extend the drift to give the fly more time to sink.  A more interesting technique is to cast uspstream of a waterfall or plunge pool and let the force of the current pull the fly under.  Here is a short video of Daniel Galhrado from Tenkara USA explaining this method:

You can also tie your flies on heavier gauge hooks or use more absorbent materials in their design to help your fly sink.  And, of course, you can always use a little copper or lead wire to get them down if you want.  But you still don’t need shot.

5.  Ancient Tenkara Anglers didn’t so neither do you.  Early tenkara anglers earned their livelihood by catching fish and they didn’t use any weight.  Obviously, they were able to feed their families without using split shot so it stands to reason that the recreational angler (i.e. us) should be able to do the same.

 

Split shot—the old ball and chain

 

I’ve just listed some reasons why you don’t need split shot.  But I think there’s one very important reason you might not want to use it.  It’s too limiting.  Consider #1 and #2 above.  If both the fish and the insects are at varying depths, does it make sense to limit yourself to fishing just the bottom?  Sure, you can add or remove split shot and adjust the position of your strike indicator to achieve different depths.  But personally, I’d rather fish more and fiddle around less.

I much prefer having one rig that can instantly fish at different depths.  I think this is one of the greatest advantages the tenkara method has to offer.  It allows you to spend more time with your fly in the water, and where the fish are in the water without having to re-rig or fine tune terminal tackle.  Of course, it helps if you’re using a fly that can wear many hats.  And that’s why I think a generic looking sakasa kebari is the most versatile subsurface pattern if you’re going weightless.

Like any maxim in fly fishing, “Split shot is unnecessary” isn’t 100% true in every situation (is anything?).  And it may not be true for you.  If you absolutely need to get to the bottom of an 8 ft. pool, you’re going to need some serious lead.  But for the tenkara friendly small streams I fish, I have never found the need for shot.  Not once.  If I can’t get the fly deep enough, I can usually coax fish up by mixing up my presentation.  And if I did ever come across a pool too deep, I’m content to let those fish be and more on to shallower water.

Lee Wulff once said, “trout deserve the sanctuary of deep water.”  I’d rather let them have it, and enjoy casting an elegant line unencumbered by lead (or goggles).

Author: Jason Klass

Jason is an avid fly angler and backpacker. As a former fly fishing guide originally from Western New York, he moved to Colorado and became an early adopter of tenkara which perfectly suited the small, high altitude streams and lakes there. He has not fished a Western-style fly rod for trout since.

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16 Comments

  1. Jason,
    I come from a similar western fly fishing background as yourself.
    As I started reading this post I kept thinking to myself “yeah but…what about deep…what about cold…what about fast water”. I was thinking that you were possibly forgetting some important techniques of your past years with a reel and guides and more to the point weight. Thinking that you might be coming a bit too overly smug about the tenkara way. I feel that your last few paragraphs were redeeming and made this post a legitimate post to me. Most of the time you really can get away without using weighted flies or shot. And I think on a piece of water that is tenkara perfect, with proper technique you can and should always get away from using split shot and that the fishing will actually excel without it. But I would also agree that deep or fast runs or cold conditions will sometimes need at least a heavier fly. Sometimes when facing these conditions, with the use of extra weight (fly or shot) comes more control of the drift and depth.

    JD

  2. Very well put JD. I tried to accommodate that in my post but I think you actually put it better than I did. All I was trying to say is that if you’re fishing the types of streams that tenkara was intended for, there is no need for split shot. If you want to go beyond that, then you’ll have to stretch the boundaries. I’m sure you “got it”, but perhaps I didn’t really do a good job of spelling that out for others. :(

  3. Estupendo post,Jason,gracias por los conceptos vertidos y los comentarios anteriores,muy esclarecedores….

  4. One must always remember that Tenkara is a mountain stream method and I personally have never seen a deep run in the streams I have visited, admittedly too few in number.

  5. I just don’t know. I think it depends on conditions. Eager mountain stream fish…vs. pressured fish. I’ve watched fish sit tight too many times to think that they’ll always move. I mean, yeah sometimes you can’t do any wrong, you toss a kebari, you catch a fish, but this is not always the case. As a matter of fact there is a story in the book River Keeper where the stocking of smaller more active fish completely wiped out the large wild fish within a season in an English Chalk stream. The reason was that the big fish did not move for food. They had lies that they maintained even to the point of starvation. While the smaller fish would zoom around and steal food as it drifted in front of the large resident fish. Also not all fish are the same. There were studies down about “bold” and “shy” rainbow trout. Turns out some fish are programmed to be more aggressive and others are more cautious, any population consists of a combination of these fish. So some fish will move further an more often for foods than others that play it safe. So I’d say that both viewpoints, can be correct at the same time,not only due to different conditions in different (or the same) stream(s) but also due to differences in the fish themselves. So in the end, by fishing without weight you are targeting those fish within your reach, and susceptible to your tactics – while leaving others unmolested. Which is perfectly fine. But to disregard the efficacy of weight(which I know you haven’t completely done), seems to be a bit of an overstatement. Plus how do explain the competitive anglers?

    With all that said – I do believe that tenkara techniques and fishing with unweighted flies is perhaps more effective than many would believe possible – and for the most part I use unweighted flies and no split shot.

  6. As always, well put Anthony. As I say in the post, nothing is true 100% and there are situations where you would need split shot. But for what I call “tenkara friendly” streams I think it’s unnecessary. If you need to add split shot, the. Your fishing tenkara beyond the boundaries of what it was originally intended for. Not saying there’s anything wrong with that. You can catch bonefish on tenkara too. But I’d rather have an 8 wt and a reel. So if I were fishing a place with deep pools and stubborn fish holding tight to the bottom, honestly, I’d probably bring my 5 wt western rod. I love tenkara but let’s be honest–it can’t do everything. I like to have the right tool for the right job. Thanks as always for your great comments!

  7. Agreed. I love fishing “pure tenkara” on tenkara perfect streams. That is when it is at its best – no doubt. Split shot are no fun. I have to admit that I like to use heavy wet fly hooks though…

  8. Jason, this is a great post. I don’t have a Western fly fishing background (I started with tenkara) but starting out I was heavily influenced by Tom Rosenbauer and spent a lot of time last winter lobbing heavy-ass two-nymph rigs (or hopper-droppers, or weighted nymphs with dry indicators, or weighted nymphs with foam or bubble indicators) into the cold, deep stocked water near my house. You know what? It sucked. The beautiful ease of a tenkara cast, which for me is half the pleasure, was gone, I had tons of tangles, hooked a ton of trees, and across the board spent way more time knotting or unknotting tippet than catching fish. Around February I gave up, swore off two-fly rigs, and stuck to a kebari for the remainder of the winter. And you know what, I caught a lot more fish (certainly overall, and probably on a per-good-cast basis) and had a much better time. A slowly pulsed, carefully watched kebari does pretty damn well in deep, cold water.

    So keep spreading the gospel, brother.

    Alex

    (By the way, I ended up favoring medium-weight TenkaraBum level line for subsurface fishing. I think it has a lot more punch than tapered line and I’m certainly not looking for delicacy if I want to get a fly six feet under the water. Would be interested to try the nymphing line you recently reviewed though.)

  9. Lol, amen Alex! I had a similar experience steelhead fishing. I used to lob sucker spawn or glo bugs with 3 or 4 split shot and hated it for all the reasons you describe. Then I switched to Spey flies and if was so much better to make a “real” cast and not freezing my fingers off by constantly having to readjust my strike indicator. It just made the overall experience so much more pleasant.

  10. I have been planning to make Spey casting the next stage of my fly fishing obsession! I have a friend who swears by it (for Atlantic salmon, not for mountain trout streams). Did you catch any steelhead with the Spey flies?

  11. Yep. Eventually (once I got the presentation) down I was catching all my steelhead on Spey flies. They’re gorgeous flies and fun to tie. I miss tying them but don’t have much use for them here in Colorado.

  12. Jason,

    Great post. I had a lot of questions today at the Fly Fishing Show about using lead and indicators in Tenkara. In fishing I have come to realize that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes in fishing.
    :)

  13. Jason,
    Thanks for this post! I’m relatively new to Tenkara, and do not have a western fly fishing background. I found myself after Christmas in a cold river, getting skunked, and thinking about what the guy at the Fly shop told me. (No Tenkara anglers there) He said “fish a few tiny nymphs, and keep adding weight till you catch fish” I shook my head “ok” but was really thinking, “I don’t have any split shot, and I don’t really want to mess with tying a complicated rig only to purposely snag it in the bottom!” lol.
    I did try a few nymphs, but no weight, just plunge pools. No luck, but I felt lucky just to be wading that river. This post & the comments have been very helpful to me. Thanks to all who took the time.

  14. Jason,

    Thanks for the ideas on how to effectively subsurface/nymph without split shot or horribly heavy flies. I’d been reading a couple of books on nymphing to get my feet wet and “chuck and duck” is the exact term they used to describe how to cast the proposed rigs. In fact, 3/4s of the book (in one of the two books) was spent describing and teaching how to cast and present these heavily weighted rigs. In hind sight, after reading your ideas, it’s interesting that the presentations suggested in these books – stripping, lifting and jigging the rigs, seem now like they are mostly necessary because the heavy weight won’t allow for natural fly presentation and movement.

    I fish a lot of spring creeks, with quite a few deeper, slower runs and pools, but even thinking about how to approach those streams, I can see that I could probably effectively cover 85 to 90% of that water with your approach. And frankly, if I’ve got to go to all the time and trouble of the heavily weighted rigs to fish the other 10 -15% of the water, I’m not sure I want to now.

    Or I may opt to work the surface of the deeper water and work on my presentation, enticing skills instead of “chucking and ducking”. After all, ultimately the idea is to have fun.

  15. Thanks Jeff. Glad it helped!

  16. I really liked this post as well! I have been fishing western style for nearly 7 years now and honestly, I have never been a fan of split shot for any reason. I tie a lot of nymphs for my dropper and nymphing rigs, and I have always preferred increasing the weight of the fly rather than resorting to shot. I often have many of the same patterns tied with varying weight levels that address this concern when I have found it necessary to do so. Less garbage on the line means better casting… After reading this, and meeting with you at the expo this weekend, I am really glad that you shared the plunge pool technique as this is something that should have been obvious, but certainly something that I had not considered before.

    I have not tried tenkara yet, but I became really interested in it after reading this blog and reviewing TenkaraUSA. Without realizing it, I have been using a very tenkara-like fishing method with my western rod by high-sticking wet flies and mini dropper rigs in RMNP. After becoming familiar with the gear of tenkara, the light bulb came on for me as I realized “Wow, I am using the wrong rod for this” 

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