Skip’s Loose Threads

“Passing it On” 

Skip James

I’m pretty sure that those of us who are blessed with children have attempted to share the joys of our sport with our children. If you’re like me, the results are definitely a mixed bag. My eldest son loved the ‘time with dad’ that we spent together on trout streams, and even though he was given plenty of tackle and opportunities to pursue trout on his own, it never ‘took.’ My younger son had the same attitude, with the same result, until one day, in his early forties, he sent me an email. 

Now Matthew loved hiking, snowboarding, climbing mountains, and had chosen to live in Denver, pursuing his career as a videographer, where he was close to all those things. It seemed he had hiked into a secluded mountain lake, and while setting up his camp noticed that there were fish rising near the shore. When he returned home, he sent me the propitious email that asked: “Could I catch those rising fish if I had the right equipment?” Needless to say, a complete pack-rod outfit was sent to him by me the next day, and a few days later he sent back photos of several nice Rainbow trout. Since then, he has been fly fishing almost everywhere he travels. 

Here comes the best part! I had fished in the West quite a bit, and Matthew and I arranged to spend a week or two together every Fall, fishing in Yellowstone Park, the Paradise Valley spring creeks, the mountain lakes, and living very cheaply at Chico Hot Springs resort just across the river from Emigrant, MT. Matt has an old Toyota Forerunner that he has put at least two new engines into. I would fly to Bozeman, he would meet me there, load up my stuff in the truck, and after a brief stop at The River’s Edge Fly Shop for licenses and banter, we would drive over the mountain to the Livingston side, and then south on 89 to Emigrant, the only ‘blinker light’ on the road, turn left at the general store/gas station/laundromat/liquor emporium, cross the Yellowstone river and proceed to East River Rd., turning left to Pray, then turning right at the dumpsters. The road to Chico Hot Springs Resort, although straight as an arrow, was occasionally closed to car traffic, while it was being used as a runway for small planes to land. 

We used to stay in a double room on the second floor of the Main Lodge for $60/night, with a bathroom down the hall. It was handy to the pools as well. I just checked and the price per night is now $85. The food at Chico is outstanding. We particularly liked the breakfast buffet. In certain years we forsook the Yellowstone area and Chico for the Bighorn, where we stayed at Cottonwood Camp. Here are photos of Matthew and his proud dad on the lawn at Chico, and of Matt watching his strike indicator intently as he pursues the Browns and Rainbows of Armstrong’s Spring Creek. 

Saturday mornings at Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop

At the original Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop in Lake Elmo, across the street from the second iteration, you could smell the coffee on your way down the stairs. There was a wooden desk just to the left, where, more often than not, Jean Mitchell was knitting, reminding me of Madame LaFarge during the ‘terror’ in 18th century France. Bob might be tying flies at the vise that was always ready for customers to use, and a group of people, mostly male, was gathered around a table with mugs that had their names on them, telling lies about encounters with big local trout. Dr. Patrick Daly, with those twinkling Irish eyes and turned up black eyebrows, was a Saturday morning regular, as was Dick Schwartz, who loved to tout his Orvis ‘Far and Fine’ as a more than worthy competitor to Sage’s 479LL, an assessment I vigorously opposed. Jonathan Jacobs was usually there too, sometimes with his little daughter, a former board member of our TU chapter. He insisted on calling me Layton instead of Skip like everybody else did, so I will always refer to him by his full name rather than Jon. Legendary guide and caster Bob Nasby showed up to.

Dry Fly Dick Frantes was seen often on the Kinni, but rarely in the fly shop. You could always tell Dick from others on the stream because he wore a white pith helmet when he fished. Dan Bruski was a regular, as were Don Ausemus, Kevin Becker, Denny McGinn, Bill Stieger and Dean Hansen. Dennis Hook and Jan Jancourt brought in bamboo rods for our inspection. A few bamboo rod builders brought in their wares to show off. The names of some of those guys escape me now, but the recent Kiap-TU-Wish ‘Hot Dog Boil’ at the Ellsworth Rod and Gun Club reacquainted me with some of them, whose faces I remembered, but whose names escape me still. In order not to display my ignorance, I conversed with these guys without letting on that I didn’t remember their last names. 

In the 70’s and 80’s, I was privileged to be as much an employee as a customer. My pay for helping out was a 10% discount, which, my wife would tell you, I used way, way too much. I could sell rods, reels, materials, supplies, and make change from the cash register, even though there was no cash register. Money was kept in a small gray metal box on the desk. In those days, the latest Graphite III offering from Sage sold for a bit over $200. As I write this, I’m bidding at Ebay on a used, two-piece, 389LL for much more than twice what It cost to buy brand new. 

On the other side of the parking lot was a field of grass, where a few of us taught fly casting to beginners, and tried to work out the kinks in the technique of old timers. You could try out a new rod, mounted with a reel and line from the upper dresser drawer in the fly shop, each of which was carefully labeled with line weight and type, then come back inside and buy the rod…or not. When we sold reels, we filled them with backing from a spool that was suspended from the ceiling, and used the right knots to tie the backing both to the reel spool and the new fly line. There were only two manufacturers of lines that we sold at the shop in those days, Scientific Anglers and Cortland, and there were heated arguments about the superiority of one over the other. There were fly tying classes offered, and I taught a few of them. Often, the class focussed on a single skill, like tying parachute dry flies, or soft hackles, or bead heads. Most of the materials in those days were actual feathers and fur, metallic tinsel being the most common inorganic material. Of course, as fellows learned to tie, and to have confidence in their creations, they bought rods, lines and reels, tippet material, hooks, hackle necks and fur patches. I was lucky enough to be part of a happy, successful business. Bob and Jean enjoyed their fishing as much as anyone. They lived in a house overlooking Lake Mallalieu in Hudson, and Bob could be found early summer mornings fishing the Trico hatch just upstream of the bridge on the main branch of the Willow. Jean said that one of her favorite things was to float the Bighorn River with famous guide, Ron Granneman, and stay at the Bighorn Angler in Ft. Smith. The year after the Sage 389LL was introduced, Bob took one on a float trip and returned to the fly shop to say, incredulously, that it was the only rod he fished with. 

I just bought one at the Ebay auction. Lucky me!!

Angler’s Conceits, Part II


There are two species of Ephemerella mayflies in these parts, one of which is kind of a big deal on the lower Kinni. Or at least it was until the City released all that sand into the river. Anyway, because of its rather light color, people got into the habit of referring to it as the Light Hendrickson. Traditionally the Light Hendrickson was an angler’s term for E. Invaria but there were at least two other species that were lumped together under that angler’s term. It wasn’t until about 2005 when Clarke Garry, Ph.D, correctly identified it as E. Excrucians that we knew what it was. Now you’d think that anglers would welcome that news, but you’d be wrong. At least one of my customers was visibly upset by the news and shouted, “No! It’s the Light Hendrickson!” He got over it but it’s a clear illustration of another angler’s conceit. Is hanging on to an inaccurate term really more important than a positive ID from a scientist? 

I used to go to the Fly Shop when Bob and Jean owned it to find out what was hatching on the Kinni. Bob always said the same thing, “Blue Wing Olives.” I was always kind of disappointed by that because I kept expecting to find something else to fish over. However, Bob was right because so many Baetis species are bivoltine means that they’re almost always available to the trout. But they are not all olive. The vast majority of the samples I’ve collected have been tan. Don’t believe it? Get yourself a little insect net and try it yourself. Baetis could be olive, but they’re more likely to be tan, brown or even grey. It’s hard to break a habit. And the one I hear most often is, “Are the Olives hatching?” 

OK, one more and then I’ll stop. For decades people who tie imitations of the Trico spinner have tied them with three, widely separated tails. Back in the ‘70’s I watched Tom Andersen tie some of these flies for Bob and he artfully positioned his dubbing needle underneath the tail filaments, spread them apart and held them for a second or two until they stayed in that position. Look at the selection in any fly shop and you’ll see many examples of this style. Gary Borger once opined that a trout’s IQ was 6. Six. Do you really believe a trout would reject your Trico imitation if it only had two tails? With that robust thorax and spent wings why would the fish focus on the tails? They probably don’t, and to bolster my opinion there’s this; Perry Palin is one of the better tiers around here and he’s been tying a very effective Trico pattern for years using a few grizzly barbs for the tail. They’re not long, they’re not spread and they’re definitely more than three. And it works fine.

Angler’s Conceits, part I

One of the definitions of conceit is a fanciful idea. Now let’s substitute flawed and apply it to our beloved preoccupation of fly fishing for trout. Has this ever happened to you?

Two anglers approach a pool on one of their favorite trout streams. They met in the parking lot and agreed that one angler would fish the upper half of the pool and the other angler would fish the lower half. Before entering the water they quietly observe the scene before them. While there are one or two desultory rises there are no Cedar Waxwings or Rough Wing Swallows feeding over the stream. They wade into casting position and begin to cast. After a while one angler catches a trout. The second angler, speaking just loud enough for the first angler to hear him says, “What did it take?” The first angler replies, “CDC Sulphur Emerger.” The second angler switches flies and resumes casting, fruitlessly it turns out, while the first angler catches another trout and then another and another. Finally, desperately, the second angler hollers, “What are they taking?”

Do we assume, because half a dozen trout grabbed that emerger, that all the trout are seeking an emerger? Really? An electrofishing project has indicated that there might be 100 fish in that pool. There might be three invertebrates emerging at the same time; sulphurs, Baetis, caddis or midges. Maybe the second angler is fishing over trout that have a preference for down wings? Or, maybe the second angler’s tippet is too short? To ascribe group thought to a pool of a hundred trout is what we can call a conceit, a fanciful or false idea.

Here’s another. Most of us old guys grew up practicing our blood knots under bright lights at the kitchen table. For you young people, a blood knot was the historical knot for joining tippet materials. Then about thirty years ago somebody published an article in a fly-fishing magazine about an easier knot for joining tippets. It was called the surgeon’s knot. It wasn’t long before everybody forgot about the blood knot because the new knot was so much easier to execute. A few years into my tenure at Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop I had a conversation with a hand surgeon who was getting started in our sport and wanted to learn how to tie tippet onto leader. So I sez to the guy, I sez, “You’ll like this one; it’s called the surgeon’s knot.” After demonstrating the knot to him he said, “Huh. I’ve never seen that.”

I’ve had a few surgeries since that fateful day. And after observing several different surgeons I realized that the reason the aforementioned hand surgeon had never seen that knot was because that’s not what they’re taught in med school. What they learn to use in med school is a half hitch. I’m pretty confident that no surgeon has ever closed a wound with a “surgeon’s knot.” So what the heck is it? Practically speaking, it’s a multiple overhand knot, either a double overhand or a triple overhand. If the knot you’ve been using is a “surgeon’s knot,” call it a double overhand and you’ll at least be accurate.



Now that you’ve got your rods inspected, your reels cleaned, and your lines cleaned and dressed, it’s time to move on to your terminal equipment, your flies and leaders. Compared to rods, reels and lines, this stuff is a pleasant evening’s work at your tying bench or kitchen table. Let’s take a look at your leaders first.

There are two kinds of leaders, those you used and those you didn’t. Your examination of the leaders you didn’t use consists of stretching sections of the leader in an attempt to straighten it. Because leaders are made of nylon, they can easily develop memory. A leader that’s been on the reel too long or coiled in its package too long will retain its coiled shape. If it doesn’t straighten out it can’t be fished. Throw it out. If it straightens easily put it back on the reel or coil it loosely and slip it back into its package.

Next, your examination of leaders you used has one extra step, checking for nicks and cuts. After straightening the leaders run your thumb and index finger (if you’ve got one) down its length. If you feel a nick, cut, abrasion or knot examine the area closely. This is where a magnifier comes in handy. If you find any of these weaknesses, you have two choices: cut the leader and retie it or throw it away.

On to your flies. Just like leaders, there are flies your fished and flies you didn’t. The only ones you need to be concerned with are the ones you fished, identified by their straggly appearance. Let’s start with the nymphs and wet flies. Isolate the used flies by tossing them in a shoe box or bowl. Take a close look at each one. Are the hooks rusty? Are the points broken or dulled beyond repair? Wastebasket. Are the thread heads coming apart? If you tie, put a few turns of 8/0 thread on the, trim the tags and lacquer the heads. You don’t tie? Wastebasket. Put the remaining flies back in their fly box, promise yourself you’ll reorganize the box, then make a list of what you need to replace.

You can repeat the same process with your dry flies and then there’s one extra step. Dry flies get more mangled than nymphs; the hackle gets smashed and the wing gets crushed. Take the salvageable flies to the kitchen. Start some water in the tea kettle and then go get your hemostat or needle nose pliers. Once the steam is rolling, pick up each fly individually and hold it in the column of steam for just a second. The steam will return the hackle and wing to their original shape and make the fly look like new. You’ll be amazed. Drop these flies in the shoe box or bowl until they’re dry. Put these flies back in their fly box – promise to reorganize the box and make a list of replacements. Now pour yourself a cup of tea and pat yourself on the back, Put your feet up.

Tenkara Fishing in Midwest Streams 2.0

“A rod, a line, and a fly, that’s all you need.” “Something is perfect not when you can add anything more to it, but when you can’t take anything away.” Yvon Chounaird, Founder of Patagonia

Back in January 2022, Rip Rap featured the article: Tenkara or Euro Nymphing – Worth A Try? For those that had their interest piqued from that article about fixed line fishing, here is a bit more in-depth look at Tenkara fishing.

A short history

Several years ago, I received a Patagonia catalogue featuring an article about traditional Japanese fishing methods that had been modernized and brought to the rest of the world. I recognized that Tenkara appealed to me for its apparent simplicity, apparent intuitiveness, and apparent effectiveness. “A rod, a line, and a fly, that’s all you need.”

Tenkara originated a number of centuries ago in the mountain streams of Japan for fisherman to catch fish for market. It is an effective method fishing that evolved through time not just for sport, but to feed the family. Interestingly, similar fixed line fishing evolved in a number of other regions in the world (for example Italy, Russia) for the same reasons.

The word “Tenkara” is short for “tenkara-tsuri” – a phrase that literally means “Fly Fishing” in the traditional mountain-dwelling communities of Japan. Tenkara can also be translated to “fishing from heaven”, “sky fishing”, or “empty sky fishing”. For me, the last definition is most accurate when I first started this method.

Original Tenkara equipment was made from material on hand; a long piece of bamboo that became the rod, a fixed line made of woven horsehair, and simple flies made from various feathers and thread of colored silk. Bamboo rod building became refined with rod made in multiple sections, which would fit inside of each other for portability. The flies consisted of 2-3 components, using hackle that would open facing forward, straight up, or backwards. The flies could either be fished on the water surface or below.

Modern Tenkara composite rods are long – typically 10.5 to 14.5 feet. They are supple and very light, ranging from under 2 ounces up to perhaps 4 ounces. They are also telescopic, and most collapse to between 15″ and 24″, depending on the model. The lines (either mono nylon or traditional braided) are usually about the length of the rod up to perhaps 1.5 times the length of the rod (to which anglers add from 3 to perhaps 5 feet of tippet), but they are very light – lighter than the lightest fly line.

I like Tenkara fishing because it is so simple for me to go fishing – everything needed goes in two containers. One tub has waders, boots, and net, and a small daypack has rod, line, flies and miscellaneous tackle. Throw them in the car and go.

Another benefit of the simplicity of Tenkara fishing – it makes winter fishing so much easier. No line guides to freeze, no reel components to freeze. Nice.

Another draw for me is the intuitiveness of Tenkara fishing. A lot of the challenge in fishing local water is avoiding brush and other hazards. Spending time learning to cast great distances is not as important to me as is effectively presenting the fly, allowing for an effective drift, and avoiding getting snagged. Tenkara more easily allow for precise fly placement in tight areas.

Even though one is not casting great distances as compared to rod and reel fishing, casting technique is important in Tenkara. For most people, learning the basic casting techniques for Tenkara is simple. However, as one becomes more experienced, a number of subtle advanced casting techniques can be learned to dramatically increase the number of fish caught. Tenkara fishing emphasizes the nuanced presentation of a fly over the selection of the fly.

Getting started with Tenkara

For those interested in getting started in Tenkara fishing, there are several providers that offer equipment and online videos teaching technique. The most well known of these providers is Tenkara USA, founded by Daniel Galhardo and based in Boulder, Colorado. Galhardo is credited with introducing modern Tenkara fishing to the US in 2009. Other well-known on-line Tenkara shops include Dragontail Tenkara and Tenkara Rods, both located in in Idaho, as well as Tenkara Bum (New York), and Zen Tenkara (Colorado). There are also several Japanese-based Tenkara equipment providers as well.

Not only does Tenkara USA offer a wide selection of rods, lines, and accessories, but it also an extensive instructional video library. When I first started Tenkara fishing, I used this instruction to teach myself how to rig my rod and cast. Now there are a number of on-line and in person instructional resources available to help one get started.


Tenkara Rod: $150 to $300

As with Western fly rods, Tenkara rods come in a variety of lengths, flex, and build quality. Most Tenkara rod manufacturers offer some sort of ‘standard’ or ‘starter’ rod.

Lines and Tippet: $15 to $20

Traditional line is a furled nylon. The more commonly used line is a nylon level or taped line.

Flies: $12 to $20

Just about any fly that is used in Western fly fishing can be used with a Tenkara rod. The most common type of traditional Japanese fly is called a sakasa kebari. This fly is usually tied as a reverse hackle onto a size 10-12 hook. It can be made in a variety of colors, but generally does not match any hatch. A kebari can be cast as a dry fly, and drifted as an emerger. The action of the hackle on and in the water serves as a very effective attractor. Depending upon conditions, a variety of nymphs can also be used.

From my experience Tenkara fishing in the Driftless region, I now only carry 5 or 6 different types of flies and nymphs. Warmer months, 95% of the time I only fish with kebari style flies. As the weather turns cold, I’ll switch to nymphs such as the famous pink squirrel. Leach patterns are also really effective with a fixed line.

Basic Technique

There is a fair amount of content available online that provides instruction on rigging and casting Tenkara equipment. The casting action has been described as a 12 and 2 motion as opposed to the 10 and 2 motion found with Western fly fishing. I’ve also heard Tenkara casting described as being similar to the action of pounding a nail into the wall to hang a picture. To get the job done, you don’t want to pound too hard or too soft – same as with your cast.

Chris Stewart of Tenkara Bum has on his site a great description of why Tenkara is so effective: “The long rod and light line allow you to keep almost all your line off the water, greatly reducing drag. Reduced drag yields better presentation, and better presentations yield more fish. And as good as the drifts are with the traditional wet flies, using a tenkara rod with a dry fly and relatively short line will give you better drifts than you have ever had.”