Skip’s Loose Threads

Skip’s Loose Threads, May 1, 2023

It’s been a brutal Winter! Too much snow, too much cold, too much inside. About all you can do is organize fly tying stuff, put parafin on already lubricated ferrules, and think about prior years when Winter fishing was fun and possible. I remember a Winter day on the South Branch of the Root when I found out that felt soles are a magnet for snow. Every step I took, I gained an inch in height! At least until my added length made it impossible to stand.

A few days past, I was looking at my fly rods, wishing I had the Sage 4711LL which now belongs to my younger son who lives in Colorado. At that time, I also owned an ultra light weight Sage 279LL which had a ring and hood reel seat, instead of the screw-locking one installed on the 4711LL, and that memory caused me to recall an incident where it failed.

Several years ago, I was in Aspen, Colorado to play the harpsichord in performances of all six of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. I had been asked by my violinist friend Jaime Laredo to join him in this project. I had been to Aspen before, and was aware of the free trolley that made a round trip through town every half hour or so. At the end of the trolley line was Slaughterhouse Road, where a stone foot-bridge spanned the Roaring Fork. One bright, sunny afternoon, when rehearsing was done, I gathered my fishing gear, stepped onto the trolley, and was driven to the bridge. The trolley man asked me when I would be done, and I asked him when his last trip to the bridge would be. He said 9pm, and I told him I would be at his turn-around spot at that hour.

When I arrived, PMD spinners were laying eggs in the shadows that the bridge cast on the water, little yellow mayflies dancing vertically under the stone arch. I had brought two rods in my case: the Sage 4711LL and an almost eight-foot two weight, a Sage 279LL. Pretty soon I was thigh-deep in the Roaring Fork, casting to rising Rainbows under the bridge. I had an audience, too…hikers on the footpath parallelling the river stopped to watch. I’d tied on a long 6X tippet, and had turned the two pawls in my reel to provide the least possible resistance to a hooked fish. The reel was a Hardy-built Orvis CFO123. I had just hooked my third trout, when the hooded butt cap fell off the rod into the water, followed in quick succession by my reel and the little knurled ring that secured the front reel foot. I reached for the line, and with the rod tucked under my arm, managed to net and release the fish. I could see the reel in the clear water, but every time I moved my feet, the water clouded up. The audience was getting larger, with a few scantily-clad teenage nymphs just downstream of me. I started to pull on the fly line, but the reel on the bottom just revolved and let out more without moving. I hoped my fly line to backing knot was good. I wondered how much backing was on the reel. I tried to spot the butt cap and ring in the water to no avail. Eventually, after ten minutes or so of frustration, I just reached down with my right arm and picked up the reel off the bottom, retreated to shore thoroughly soaked, thankful for the warm sun, even though all the bugs were in the deep shadow. Still wet, I made it back to town on the next trolley. The trolley man laughed when I told him my story. When I got back to the Twin Cities, I sent the little rod to Sage on Bainbridge Island to be refitted with a new butt cap and knurled ring. Cost me eighty bucks. To this day, I don’t know why the glue under the butt cap decided to dry out. Was it the altitude? By the way, the Bach Brandenburgs went very well, thankyou. 

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.”



By Mike Alwin

Candor moves me to admit that I don’t always follow the advice offered in these brief paragraphs. Most years I follow my own advice but some times I forget. And after reading these suggestions you might decide that it isn’t necessary to pay attention to these rather obscure details. However, if you follow the advice I offer you will be rewarded; your expensive equipment will last longer and perform better.

Some years ago Dick Schwartz offered this advice to a young person new to the sport of fly fishing. Dick said, “Spend your money on the rod and the line because they’re the things that do the work.” True that, and that’s why we want to take good care of them.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a $70 Cortland rod or a $700 Sage rod, we put them through unimaginable stresses. We bang them against brush and trees and rocks. Sometimes we step on them, We reef on them whether on a big fish or a hook up in the weeds. We bang bead head nymphs and heavy shot against them. And we strip dirty lines through their guides while casting. Now that the season is over, go to your quiet spot, assemble your rod, put the tip on the floor and flex the rod with a gentle but firm downward grip on the cork. Don’t bend it between your hands, Dummy! If you hear or feel a soft click it’s likely that you didn’t fully seat the ferrule. Or, perhaps the ferrule is cracked. Check it out. 

Next, take the rod apart and with a damp soft cloth wipe down each section. Dry it with a dry soft cloth and then if you feel like it spray a little Pledge on a paper towel or put a couple of drops of lemon oil on the paper towel and polish your rod. Don’t do this this with a vengeance, just make it look nice. Now use a magnifying glass or a hand lens to examine your guides. (They’re lines guides, not eyelets. Jeez.) You’re looking for cracks and flat places on the guides.   Find a nylon sock or a piece of acrylic yarn and run it through the guides. If it gets hung up or leaves a little fuzz on the guides that’s an indication of a crack or sharp edge. The flat spot and consequent sharp edge is caused by a dirty line sliding through the guides, effectively sanding the inside of the guide. If you find a cracked ferrule or a guide that is cracked or has the sharp edge, pack up the rod and send it back to the manufacturer for repair because these are warranty issues. There will be a charge for shipping and handling. If your rod is in good shape, put it in its bag and slip it back into its tube. Next season you’ll want to wax the male end of the ferrule with a little candle wax or paraffin.

Moving on to the line, let’s assume that you fish quite a bit. If so, your line is dirty. Strip the business end of your line (30 or 40 feet) off the reel and put it in the kitchen sink. Examine the line for cracks. You can use the magnifying glass or the hand lens but cracks are usually pretty obvious. Think about the past season. Was your line sinking? That could be caused by a dirty line or a cracked line that’s allowing water to soak the core. Now dampen a paper towel and put two drops of dish washing liquid on it. Squeeze it around the line and pull the line through it. When you open the paper towel you’ll see two dark lines (that’s the dirt) and a pale color that matches your line. Give the paper towel a quarter turn and repeat the process. Rinse the line in the sink, dry it and put it back on your reel. If your line is cracked you’ll need to replace it before the next season. Even a cheap line is better than a line that’s damaged and sinking.

Now we get to your reel, your line storage device. Pop the spool off the frame and look at the inside of the frame and the back side of the spool. How much dried mud and sand do you see? Rinse the frame in a stream of water under the tap. Use a tooth brush on the back side of the spool. Dry the frame. Do not spray it with WD-40! A modern reel doesn’t really need lubrication, but if there’s a moving part you think needs a little help (like the release mechanism on the spool) here’s a safe method of doing it. Put one drop of reel oil or “3 in 1 Oil” on a piece of wax paper. Dip one end of a toothpick in the oil and apply it to the piece. Don’t overdo it. Pack your beauty away in a safe place and put your feet up.

Skip’s Loose Threads

Floppy Flies

Back when most fly fishers had never heard of nymphs, or Mr. Skues, before WWII, a forward-looking Orvis catalog listed what was described as “All Purpose Nymphs” in three basic colors and a variety of sizes. They were all based on the profile we now associate with a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear.

The sizes ranged from #10 to #16. They were tied with the same materials. But the way those materials worked in the water was very different. The larger flies moved a bit in the currents, simulating life. The smaller ones were much stiffer, and therefore more resistant to being animated by water. The “floppier” flies caught more fish. Our fly tying materials vary a great deal in softness. We pick Marabou for its ability to wave around and give the impression of a leech. We use Grouse and Hen neck feathers for soft hackles. We try to find the stiffest, most web-free hackles for dry flies, and the softest deer or elk hair for Caddis imitations. We often forget that our beautifully tied flies are meant to appear alive, in and on the water.

I remember a young, talented fly tier who delighted in exacting imitations of insects that had bent legs, gossamer wings, properly uplifting tails, and even the correct number of abdominal segments. At the fly shop, we’d “ooh” and “aah.” As impressive as those flies were, they were designed for human wonderment, not the hungry eyes of trout. So what is a “Floppy Fly?” An insect imitation that appears alive when set in motion by river currents. This means that as the size of an imitation decreases, the mobility and softness of the materials used increases.

Some years ago, I was tested by a dual-hatch situation that occured on the Lamar River in Yellowstone Park. It was October, and the first snowflakes of the year fell gently on my nose and on the water. When the sun shone, tiny Baetis, #20, suddenly covered the riffle and trout fed avidly. When the sun was obscured by clouds, the small insects ceased hatching, and I was treated to large Gray Drakes, Siphlonurus in size #8. In addition to having to modify my leader and tippet to fish the two different hatches, the day was alternating between clouds and sun about every twenty minutes. But the selective fish fed only on the predominant insect, ignoring the other species that had been hatching only minutes before.
My solution in both cases was a soft hackle in the right colors, fished in the film to those rising Cutthroats. Both were dark gray. Both were tied on dry fly hooks, and had a collar of soft hackle from a Sage Grouse — I used two large hackles on the bigger fly. The smaller fly was dubbed with wispy Muskrat underfur; the larger one, #10 had much stiffer dark Hare’s Ear. And the fish ate them both.

When we tie streamers and bucktails, it is important to use feathers in smaller sizes, and hair in larger ones, because the feathers are floppier, and work in the water to imitate a living minnow. When you tie underwater flies, the “floppy quotient” of your materials should increase as the size of the fly decreases.