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My First Alpine Lake Tenkara Golden Trout Fly FishExperience

A place to discuss techniques and rigging options for use in "non-mountain stream" areas such as lakes and warm-water areas, as well as non-traditional tenkara techniques such as nymphing.

My First Alpine Lake Tenkara Golden Trout Fly FishExperience

Postby Karl Klavon » Mon Mar 26, 2012 10:16 am

This post is to be my Christmas Gift to the forum. It was a letter that I wrote, printed out and snail-mailed to Daniel before I had become a member of this board. The purpose of the letter was to inform Daniel of my belief that Tenkara fly fishing has important and highly efficient applications for alpine lake trout fishing, in addition to being "The Method" we all know and love for fishing mountain running waters. The golden trout lake this little drama played out on was a lake that I had in mind when I researched and decided which Tenkara rod to buy - the 12 foot Iwana rod. Little did I know that this little adventure was to work out so much better than my wildest fishing fantasies and dreams could have ever predicted that it would be. Here is the tail of my first Tenkara golden trout fly fishing experience:

An Alpine Lake Golden Trout Tenkara Fly Fishing Experience

Getting There:

I left the house at 4:30 in the morning; it takes about 3 hours to drive up to the trail head from where I live, 300 feet above sea level. The trailhead that I drove to is at an elevation of 7,665 feet above the sea. The early start allowed me to get above the first big rise before the sunlight hit me, making that strenuous climb up there much easier to do in the cool of the early morning hours. The hike into the lake I was to fish was about 8 miles long, as the crow flies. On the ground, in real life, it is actually somewhat longer than that. The first part of the hike is on a well maintained trail, but the last part of the hike was to be over a little used, never built or maintained, unmarked, infrequently used horse packer ‘s trail. The lake I was to fish sits at an elevation of 10,780 feet above the sea; I arrived at the lake a little before noon.

This Drainage’s Previously Visited Lake’s Descriptions:

The lake I am going to fish is the third in a string of three lakes. The highest lake sits in a hole above timberline, below the nearly vertical face of a nearly 13,000 foot high peak. It is one of those sterile wall lakes, quite remote, a real bear to get to, with little in the way of any aquatic insect life in it to support a trout population.

The second lake down in the chain was the lake that originally received the Department of Fish and Game's aerial planting of golden trout fry. This lake looks much more hospitable for fish life than the lake above it does, there being a smattering of stunted evergreen trees growing in places around the lake shore on three sides, with green tundra interspaced between the trees and granite shelving. A rock buttress ridge rises behind the lake, with various talus piles descend down and into the water on the lake’s southern shore. There are flats and a lot of nice looking rock structure located within the lake itself, and there is at least one inlet stream and an outlet stream to boot, but there are no fish presently living in what appears to be a pretty fertile little golden trout lake.

The third lake, which recruited its fish from the lake above, is set in a shallow meadow and a wet, marshy basin. I have never seen any indication that anyone else has ever fished this lake before, with good reason: In total the lake’s surface area is about 3 acres, with most of the margins made up of sedges growing out of the water and into the lake to a distance of 20 to 30 feet out from the shore line in most places, to as much as 30 to 50 yards out into the water on the south side of the lake. There are no trees to snag your back casts around this little lake. In order to fish the lake you must to wade out into the water, through sedges, to gain access to the open water on the lake's interior. This lake would be a real nightmare to fish with bait or spinning lures, and it is something of a headache to fish even with western fly fishing tackle.

The area where the lake is located is adjacent to the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. Many of the lakes in the area are pounded to death all summer long by backpackers and anglers, but not this little lake. The tough angling conditions will provide the perfect setting for me to try out my Tenkara fishing tackle on a golden trout lake, which I believe will offer an efficient delivery system to a fly-fishing Tenkara angler’s great advantage. But first, a little knowledge of high lake ecology is in order to be able to take full advantage of what the Tenkara fly fishing tackle has to offer.

Some Knowledge of High Lake Ecology Can Really Help You In Catching A Lot More Trout:

Alpine lakes are, for the most part, poverty stricken bodies of water. Mayflies, damselflies, dragonflies and scuds are usually absent from most alpine Sierra lakes. The water is generally gin clear with no hint of an algae bloom. Water comes into these lakes by running off of the bare granite mountains that surround such lakes, with the snowmelt commencing in the early spring at these altitudes, which is not at the same time as spring is springing up at the lower elevations. The runoff flows so fast that there is little, if any, time for the running water to absorb what few minerals that are there to be absorbed. The lakes sit under the snow and ice for 6 to 9 months out of the year, through long, cold winters. The water never gets warm enough in the summer to stratify, as it will in the richer lower elevation lakes, and the trout's growing season is unbelievably short at these altitudes. There is little in the way of any significant amounts of biomass to support the trout populations living in these lakes.

The Misunderstood And Under Appreciated Midges:

The primary food species available for trout to eat in lakes at these elevations are the various species of midge, which in lakes are not all that small as is commonly believed by most anglers. I have seen midge pupa shucks that were a good size 8 in lakes above 11,400 feet in elevation, and many of the lake midges living in alpine lakes have life cycles that are 2 years or more in length. My most successful lake midge pupa patterns are tied on hooks that range in size from 10s through size 16s, TMC 2488 hooks, which amounts to a pretty big sized range of midge pupa flies compared to what most anglers consider appropriate size midge pupa patterns to use in running waters. Most anglers fly boxes lack midge pupa patterns entirely, or contain midge pupa patterns that are too small to be as effective as they could or should be on the high mountain lakes.


Caddisflies are also prolific and present in most high lake waters, and are eaten by the fish in abundance in their seasons. But being sedentary in their habits as larva, and primarily nocturnal in their habits and availability as pupa and adult caddis, the caddisflies are not always around during the daylight hours when you and I will be out there, fishing. Consequently, caddis patterns are not always as effective as we would like them to be with the fish.

The Under Appreciated And Under Utilized Terrestrial Fly Patterns:

The other major food source available to fish in the high mountain lakes is terrestrial insects, which are deposited into the lakes by up-slope-blow-in thermal afternoon winds that develop on an almost daily basis. Terrestrials, land based insects, make up 95 percent of all the insects to be found on earth. And yet, anglers continue to fill their fly boxes with aquatic insect fly patterns more than 95 percent of the time, which only make up 5 percent of the total insects to be found on earth. This is a situation that needs to change if you want to become the most successful angler that you can possibly be.

Why The Wind Is Almost Always Your Friend On These Sky Waters:

Most fly fishermen do not like fishing in the wind because it makes casting difficult and because wind reduces fish visibility for the angler. When I got to the lake, I set up my camp before setting up my Tenkara fly-fishing tackle. I was hoping that the wind would deposit a lot of terrestrial insects on the lake and drift them up against the windward shore for me while I was making my camp, pushing the bugs into the splash zone where the waves bounce back out into the lake from the land, or sedges in this case. This is a good news and bad news proposition for the angler. The bad news is that you are going to have to cast into the wind in order to fish. The good news is that your fly will get good natural drifts and that you will not have to cast it very far to reach the fish because the trout will be patrolling the splash zone, where all the terrestrials stack up and get caught in the washout, a short distance out from the bank or the sedge edges.

The Overwhelming Importance Of Terrestrial Insects In Alpine Lake Angling:

The first time I became aware of the importance of terrestrial insects to alpine lake angling was not on a fishing trip, but on a spring skiing trip. It was Easter Break and we had skied in to snow camp and do some ski assents for the thrilling skiing done back down to our base camp. On my way up the mountain the next morning, I saw countless termites, bees, spiders, beetles, ants and other forms of bug life, to numerous to recount or total here, that were deposited on the clean, white snow, clearly visible to anyone who cared to look. Where had all of these bugs come from this early in the year? It would be at least another two months before the lakes at this altitude would begin to thaw, let alone be ice-free. These could not have been last year’s bugs, frozen in the melting spring snow. As the day warmed, the bugs began to hop, crawl and move about, with increasing vigor as the temperature rose. Unless insects and spiders have the ability to hibernate, these insects had to be part of the current bug population.

As the sun ascends in the sky each day, it heats up the snow and rock on the highest peaks first. The warmed rock radiates heats back out into the surrounding air, and the warmed air rises because warm air is lighter in weight than cold air is. Cold air, from lower elevations, rushes in to fill the void created by the rising warm air, taking the unlucky bugs that happen to be in the wind’s path along for the ride up the hill, depositing tons of bugs into the high lakes all along the wind’s path up through the mountains. This is where all the bugs I had seen on the snow had came from, the bugs are just not nearly as easy to see on the ground as they are on the clean, white snow. But they are there all the time whether you can see them or not when the ground is snow free. If it were not for the daily fall of terrestrial insects into most of our high mountain lakes, most of these waters could not support the fish populations that they do, that’s how important terrestrial insects are to the trout living in high mountain lakes.

Which Fly Patterns Should We Use When It Is Windy In The Afternoons?

In FLY FISHING THE MOUNTAIN LAKES, Gary LaFontaine tells how he and Bernie Samuelson made 6 trips into the high mountains to sample terrestrial insect falls on alpine lakes, packing in two extra float tubes and a white bed sheet to catch the falling insects on and count them on a daily basis, over the duration of each trip. In each sampling they did, ants were always the most frequent item by count, while beetles were always in second place behind the ants, among the various bugs available for the trout to eat in the lakes they sampled. So I put a size 12 ant pattern on my Tenkara line to go to work on the fish near the outlet creek, starting to fish my way on up the lake on the windward side of its shore first. I was wading out through the water and sedges but staying well back from the edge, which my long 12-foot Iwana rod easily allowed me to do, so I would not spook the cruising golden trout who were looking for the wind fallen terrestrial insects collecting along the washout in the lake, as the trout would be slowly patrol towards me.

This Is Spot And Stalk Fishing, Not Just Randomly Fishing The Water:

On these high mountain lakes, just fishing the water is usually not very productive. Stealth is everything up here, just as it is on our small streams. The most valuable tools you can have with you for this kind of fishing is a pair of polarized sunglasses and a fully brimmed hat, to keep the sun light and glare from shinning in from the sides and getting behind your fishing glasses, so you can properly see the fish coming in advance to effectively cast your fly patterns into their paths. You will do the best by casting to spotted and targeted fish in the high lakes, just as you would also do in small stream fishing.

The Two-Tone-Foam (a light tan on top for me to easily see on the water, and black foam on the bottom of the pattern for maximum visibility for the fish against the sky) ant and beetle patterns I fish do not land on the water like a feather, but with a resounding PLOP! So you do not have to cast these flies very close to the fish you are targeting to get the trout’s attention, 8 to 10 feet out in front of a fish is usually plenty close enough to get their attention, which is an advantage because it forces you to cast far enough ahead that you will seldom spook a cruising fish. The trout can feel the impact of the fly hitting the water with their lateral lines, and they will usually respond accordingly and appropriately when presented with a drag free drifted terrestrial fly pattern, on either a lake or in a stream.

The Trout's Reactions To Terrestrial Presentations Is Usually Just What You Would Want It To Be:

If the fish are on the lookout for terrestrial insects in the afternoons, and they usually will be if it is windy on the high lakes. Fish high up in the water will often move toward the surface slightly when they feel the impact of the fly landing on the water. When the fish makes visual contact with the fly, it will usually accelerate into a charge, coming over the top of the fly pattern and heading down with the fly in the fish’s mouth.

Fish cruising deep along the bottom will also often take, but in a different and equally thrilling way: The deep cruising fish will often slowly swim straight up from the bottom as they see the fly floating above them on the surface, in a more vertical line than the shallower fish will use, and the fish will slowly and confidently suck the fly in when they reach the fly. Then the fish will turn back down with the terrestrial insect pattern in their mouths.

Either way in which the fly is taken, it is best to wait until the fish turns down with the fly in its mouth before you set the hook, that is something that is not as easily accomplished as it may sound. If you are having trouble in hooking your fish, say to yourself, out loud, “He-Has-Got-It!” after the trout heads down with your fly in its mouth, before you set the hook. Things do not always work out as well as I have described them to work for you here. Certainly, not all the time, that’s for sure. But things will usually work out well enough for you if it is windy in the afternoons that it will always worth a try to fish terrestrial fly patterns on the high lakes in the wind. Terrestrial patterns are also quite useful on small streams, as well in the afternoons if it is windy. More than Fifty-percent of what the trout feed on in small streams is made up of terrestrial insects, on a daily basis through out the summer months.

Some of Tenkara’s Inherent Advantages For High Lake Fishing:

The last time that I fished this particular lake was with my western fly fishing tackle, which required that I wade out through the sedges to the edge of the open water to cast and retrieve my flies to keep them from getting hung up in the sedges, constantly. On that occasion I was fishing with subsurface patterns, which made the hang up problems much worse than it would have been if I had been using dry flies, because I could not easily tell where my fly was in the water. Golden trout are usually very wary and quite leader shy fish. Rod flash and rod movement is also a big problem in fishing for golden trout in lakes. A long with the problem of line flash, you also have the problems of line movement in the air and line impact on the water. The long Tenkara rod allowed me to stay well back from the water’s edge, back in the sedges a good distance, so I could use the grass sticking up out of the water as partial screen to hide my body from the fish. That way, I did not stand out like an obelisk on the edge of the deeper water, scaring every shore cruising golden trout in sight as they swam towards me, the way I had done with my western fly fishing tackle.

The hand tied line I was using, including the tippet and fly, was about 2 feet shorter than my Tenkara rod was long, allowing me to make quick, easy, and accurate bow-and-arrow type casts toward approaching fish, with out having to raise or even move my rod, improving my chances of catching even more fish by not spooking them with any rod motion. On lakes that are timbered right up to the water line, the same type of cast can be used to great advantage there as well. With out needing a lot of back-casting room to make casts, a side arm or an overhead Tenkara cast can put your fly on a fish a lot more quickly than western fly fishing tackle can, because you do not have to work out the necessary heavy fly line in order to make casts in these same kinds of situations, which would involve the risk of hanging your fly or line up in the trees a long the water’s edge. Also, with no heavy fly line falling on the water or having to be lifted up off of the water to make a cast, the fish spooking is considerably reduced even more with Tenkara tackle over using the western fly fishing tackle. And then there is the added ability to hold almost all of your fishing line up and off of the water with the Tenkara tackle, which reduces the fish scaring business even more. When the fish are shore patrolling and willing to take near surface or are taking dry flies, the Tenkara tackle is very hard to beat with any kind of western fly fishing tackle for speed and stealth.

Compared to western fly fishing tackle, your distance casting range is going to be much shorter with the Tenkara gear. But this is not as big of a handy cap as you might think. The ability to make long casts does not necessarily mean that you will automatically catch more and bigger fish. In the high lakes, most of the working fish are located in the shallow water near the shore, because that is where most of their food is found, is produced, and where it accumulates in the wind on the high lakes. Strangely, it seems that the biggest fish in most lakes hold the tightest to the banks of those lakes. The limited casting range you have to work within with the Tenkara tackle forces you to make stealthy approaches to your casting positions, giving you a much better chance at getting some of those better fish to strike instead of frightening them off into deeper water. Because of the great distances you can cast with western gear, most anglers using western tackle make no attempt at all to make stealthy approaches to their casting positions.

Am I Really Ready To Go Cold Turkey With My Tenkara Tackle On The Alpine Lakes?

No, not yet. But I sure am leaning in that direction. The weight savings alone would make it well worth my while to leave all of my western fly fishing tackle at home. At present I am still packing all of my usual western fly-fishing gear for the high lakes with me, in addition to my Tenkara rod and lines. For subsurface lake fly fishing, fishing midge pupa patterns, streamers, wet flies and nymphs, with sinking lines when I need to avoid wind drift problems on the surface of lakes in windy conditions, or to fish deeper in the water column as the conditions may require to catch deep fish from time to time, I feel I can still do a better job of imitating subsurface aquatic life forms with various sinking fly lines, and the line retrieves I need to use to imitate subsurface insect life forms than I can imitate effectively with my Tenkara tackle. However, I will keep on experimenting with my Tenkara gear in fishing midge pupa and my Sheeps Creek patterns, to see if I can come up with new ways to increase my subsurface Tenkara angling effectiveness in the future. And I am sure that I will eventually make progress in a more positive direction down those lines, as time and additional experience will allow.

How Did I do On That Little Golden Trout Lake With My Tenkara Gear That Day?

Well, by the time I had fished completely around that lake, I had released 70 golden trout on my foam ant patterns. After loosing 3 of my size 12 foam ant patterns and a tippet to the fish, I only had 3 more of the big ones left to try. So I put on an identical pattern in a size 16, foam ant pattern, which I usually reserve for my small stream fishing, to see how it would do on this lake. And I believe the smaller ant pattern worked a little better than the larger ones had. I usually do a lot better on the lakes with the bigger ant patterns.

I also caught another 6 fish on a black and white, size 14, Sheeps Creek pattern, fished subsurface. Then I got a final 2 fish on a size 15 Blond Midge Emerger, which I fished back up on top, before quitting for the day. That is 78 fish total on golden trout, out of an alpine lake, caught on a 10 foot Tenkara line with a 12-foot Tenkara rod. Not bad, not bad at all considering the limited casting range I had under the windy conditions. And that’s not counting all the fish that I rose but but failed to hook, or the fish that I hooked and failed to land. Obviously, I had a lot of action on this fall fishing trip I would not have gotten nearly as easily with my western fly-fishing tackle, because I would have spooked many, many more of the fish I was fishing for with the western fly tackle.

And I Found That There Is A Lot Less Fish Loss Than You Would Think There Would Be With The Tenkara Gear:

Golden trout pull a lot harder than the other species of trout do in the high mountain lakes. These were not especially big fish as the fish go, but nice ones to be sure, and in very good condition. The golden trout I landed were fish that any angler would have been proud to catch. Many times, my 12-foot Iwana rod was bent clear down and into its cork grip by a running, hard fighting, fish. The lost flies were more a result of tippet fatigue and abrasion due to the trout's very sharp teeth over time than they were a result of the bruit strength of the trout I was catching, and releasing. I should have retied my fly after every 10th or 15th fish, but the excitement of catching so many golden trout, and laziness on my part, conspired against me. With no reel to let the fish run, the stress placed on the tippet is considerably greater than it would be with a reel, and also a lot more thrilling than using a reel and flowing out line would been with my western fly fishing tackle. And when a fish heads for deep water in a lake, you cannot follow it out into the water for very far to take the stress off of your line and rod. But the shorter line also made the landing of these fish a lot quicker and easier to accomplish, because I did not have to go hand-over-hand up the line, holding the rod awkwardly between my knees to get the line in to the fish, or into a net like you would have to do with a longer Tenkara line. The rate of loss with the fish was comparable in number to what I typically experience when fishing with my western fly fishing tackle.


I really believe an advantageous case can be made for fishing with Tenkara fly fishing tackle on the high lakes over using western fly fishing tackle when the conditions are right for Tenkara tackle use; Clearly, Tenkara is not just for fishing in small streams for little fish as is commonly proclaimed by many of its advocates and critics, alike. And I am so convinced of the utility and practicality of this way of fly fishing that there is going to be a longer, more stealthy, Tenkara model rod in my future next year, to be used on the high lakes to even better advantage, I hope.
Karl Klavon
Posts: 664
Joined: Wed Mar 02, 2011 10:01 am

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