Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Trying Tenkara at Maramec Spring

It was the penultimate day of 2016. I was about a mile from the Maramec Spring park entrance when I realized the flies I had tied up for this trip were still sitting in a little plastic box on my desk at home, about 95 miles away. No fly-fishing trip ever goes off without a hitch in the plan, but this moment seemed to set the tone for the rest of the day, a trip fraught with little equipment problems. As with any trip, I would have to overcome the little hiccups to have a decent year-end day of fishing.

For Christmas this year "my wife" bought me a Tenkara Rod Co. Teton Rod on their Black Friday Sale. (Those quotes were sarcastic air quotes. "Emily" bought me the Tenkara rod just as much as "I" bought her the Macy's winter coat she picked out.) I'd been reading about Tenkara fishing a lot this past year, and salivating at the different packages available on Tenkara Rod Co.'s website. When their Black Friday deals arrived in my inbox, and I found out I could save 25% off their entire store, I just couldn't help myself.

As with many fly-fishermen, I am a sucker for gadgets. While admittedly, none of my gear is even close to being in the high-end range (i.e., cost) of fly-fishing gear, I have invested hundreds of dollars into this hobby and really love when I have a new toy to play with. For those of you reading this who are unfamiliar with Tenkara style rods (Hi Mom and Dad!), it is a style of fly-fishing rod that has its origins in Japan. A Tenkara rod is a very long and very flexible fly-rod without a reel. Rather, there is a set length of line that attached to a short lillian at the rod tip. The rod itself telescopes, and when compacted, measures only 20 inches in length. Extended, my rod, The Teton, is 12 feet in length - much longer than the 8-foot rods I am used to fishing. The line is a thin, braided fly fly, 13-feet in length. The line attached to the rod using a loop that grips the lillian, and at the opposite end has a small ring where you attach a length of tippet.

The rod seems to be extremely fragile, so I need to be careful walking around with it near the stream. It seems like a stray tree branch could easily break the tip. The rod came with a carrying case, the line, a few flies, and a line holder that fits on the rod handle when not in use. In addition to the Tenkara Rod Co. Teton Rod, Emily also bought me a Nice Pack Co. Midge Neck Pack. This actually was a surprise and I had not heard of this company or product before. It basically acts as a miniature fly-fishing vest, giving you a space to store flies, tippet spools, pliers, a nail-knot tool, and a phone in a small pack you hang from your neck. Between the Nice Pack and Tenkara Rod, I could potentially store everything I would need for a fly-fishing trip in a carry-on bag, and not have to worry about an airline destroying or losing any of my gear. Overnight I became a much more mobile fly-fisherman.

Christmas was on a Sunday, and by that Friday, I was already trying out my new gear on the stream.

Of Missouri's trout parks (the ones I have visited, anyway), Maramec Spring has three decisive traits. First, it's the smallest of the parks. Unlike Montauk or Bennett, there aren't many tributaries or branches to explore. It's fairly streamlined (ahem) and consists of one spring following one path dumping into one larger river. The water itself flows north from Maramec Spring into Meramec River (notice the different spellings). This can cause some confusion on the water. You'll be standing in the dark waiting for the opening bell, facing what you believe is north. However, when the sun peaks over the horizon and catches you in the eyes above your left shoulder, you're hit with an immense feeling of vertigo and confusion and the momentary thought that perhaps the Earth is spinning in the wrong direction, like at the end of Superman: The Motion Picture.

An ultra-rare western sunrise.
The second defining trait of Maramec Spring is its proximity to St. Louis, about a 95-mile one-way trip. Overall, it's about an hour closer than either Montauk or Bennett, which does, in many cases, offset the fact that it is smaller than both of those parks. This proximity is a double-edged sword, and leads to the park's third trait. Being only 90 minutes from a city of 300,000 people and the surrounding counties means that the park will often be surprisingly crowded with many fishermen, both fly-fishers and those jerks using ultra-light rods. I have found too that the park does have a fourth, bonus trait - it has some of the pickiest fish in Missouri and it's where historically I have had the worst luck fishing. Still, when you're outside of St. James at the intersection of Missouri Highways 8 and 68, you're still an hour away from Montauk, but only five minutes away from Maramec Spring. Even a crowded "technical" park seems very tempting and attractive.

I arrived at the park at about 7:15, and sat outside the gate for about 15 minutes because the website listed the wrong opening time. It gave me time to string up the new Teton Rod, and I was ready to cast at the opening bell. I began the morning below the "pond" and worked my way downstream throwing various nymphs. About halfway through the park, I was fishing in about two feet of water when a lens popped out of my prescription sunglasses and promptly sank to the bottom of the stream. Luckily the water was clear that day, so I could easily see the lens and reach it, but my entire right forearm was soaked thereafter. Try as I might, I couldn't repair my sunglasses at the stream. I need to remember to pack an eyeglass repair kit for the future. It turns out a fillet knife makes a terrible glasses screwdriver.

All morning, it was blistering cold. I had on several layers of clothing, but still was losing feeling in my fingertips. Honestly, I think the fingerless gloves I own do more harm than good. They seem to cut off circulation to my fingertips, causing that crazy needle-jabbing sensation whenever blood does start to flow back into them. The weather did begin to slowly warm as the sun rose, and by lunch, I could shed my heaviest layers. It was when I was eating lunch that I noticed one of my finger tourniquet gloves was missing. I wandered back downstream until I found it, right by where my lens had popped out in the stream. It was soaking wet so I left it on the windshield of the car to dry. I remembered I had put my glove on the windshield only after nature called and I drove to the restrooms at the entrance of the park. It was the second time that day that I had to hunt down the same glove, but sure enough, I found it laying in the gravel parking lot later that day.

It was also at lunch that I noticed that my Tenkara fly line had magically developed several wind knots. Between the braided line and the fact that my fingers were still half-frozen, I couldn't seem to get it untangled. In fact, I wouldn't be able to untangle it until the next night at home, where I used my fly-tying needle-nose pliers and magnifying lamp to finally work out the knot. I didn't want to damage my new line fishing with knots in it, so I switched back my traditional fly-fishing rod. I would have to wait until another day to land my first trout on a Tenkara rod. I'd be more upset, but it just gives me another excuse to go fishing.

The Teton Rod - Tenkara Rod Co.
With the sun shining and the temperature rising, so too did the trout. In the "pond" area of the spring, countless water rings began to appear on the surface. Rainbow trout were taking flies off the surface just 10-15 feet from the bank. Word soon got out, and it became a popular spot. Amazingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the fishermen that day seemed to be using fly-rods. I don't know what that says about ultra-light fishermen, but I do know that there were dozens of people using fly rods for catch and release fishing in the blistering cold. Other than a quick snapshot, there would be no trophies caught and kept that day, so it seemed that the people there who were willing to brave the weather were there simply for the love of fly-fishing.

Noticing the multiple surface water rings and the fact that I had been skunked all morning on all manner of nymphs, I tied on a dry - a store bought parachute Adams. It was probably a size 16 and sure enough, I had a trout in my net after only a few minutes. It was good that dries were hitting, as I couldn't see underwater due to my broken sunglasses and a heavy glare from the sun. I could however see my parachute be taken on the surface again and again. It's a shame that my Tenkara line was out of order for this, as it seemed the perfect type of fishing for that style of rod. The fish were taking flies from the surface, and not far from the bank. It was unnecessary to casting long, 30-some foot lengths of line. Fly placement and drift were far more important that afternoon. Upstream from the pond, the water was even more shallow and a bit faster, and the Rainbows there were just as eager to take a dry fly.

More like MossFish. Ammiright?
There was one heart-breaking moment when I released a trout back into the water, and he promptly swam a few feet deeper, turned belly up, and sank to the bottom like a stone. There's a real paradox that arises when a trout you release sinks like that. On one hand, you did your best to release him without harm, and it's out of your control that he sank. On the other hand, you're the jerk who pulled him out of the water in the first place, so you're going to have to get your sleeve wet again to get him off the bottom. I was able to wade over to him, and between my net and my arm length, I got him off the bottom without getting my entire torso drenched. After a few more attempts at reviving him, he did finally pep up and swim away on his own power.

That day was the first time I had been to Maramec Spring in over a year. Time and time again there, I had been skunked, so it felt good to finally have a decent day of fishing under my wading belt. I suppose maybe there was an element of fear associated with that park, and maybe that's why I only seemed to fish at Montauk last year. Regardless, I'm happy that even with the technical mishaps and screw-ups I had that day, I was able to land some nice looking fish, and that I was able to put them back in the water for someone else to catch in the future.

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