DULUTH, Minn. — The place where Eric Tofte is fishing is improbably beautiful. He’s a half-mile or so up a North Shore stream, well up the shore from Duluth. It’s a tiny stream, just a couple of feet wide in places, but with occasional deep pools.
Behind Tofte, a rock cliff rises perhaps 40 feet, and above that white pines reach for the clouds. Across the stream from him, the wall is not so high and gives way soon to overhanging maples and cedars. Spongy moss clings to the rock walls. Ferns grow out of bare stone.
Tofte, 28, casts his unorthodox fly rod now. It’s a Tenkara rod with no reel attached, just an 8-foot, telescoping fly rod with a small piece of line dangling from its tip. To that, Tofte has tied a few feet of fly line, and to that a short monofilament tippet and his fly — a worm nymph.
The Tenkara setup, Tofte says, is ideal for these intimate North Shore streams where there’s little room for back-casts with a conventional fly rod and fly line.
“I love traditional fly-fishing,” Tofte says. “But I only use that when I’m out on lakes. On the river, you don’t need to cast 50 feet.”
The Tenkara rod offers him two options for casting. One is an overhead cast, in which he flicks the line and fly in a more traditional fly-casting motion. The second option, which Tofte uses frequently, is a slingshot-style cast. He draws back the fly line and tippet with one hand, loading the tip of the rod with energy. When he lets go of the line, the fly zips to Tofte’s target.
Once the fly is on the water, Tofte lets it drift downstream naturally, moving the rod tip along directly above the fly.
“You can have these super-long drifts that are totally natural,” he says. “The line doesn’t drag.”
Now his supple rod forms a graceful arc over the pool he’s fishing, and he is rock-hopping his way downstream on shore. A brook trout has taken his worm nymph, a skinny worm imitation fished near the stream bottom. The fish is a classic North Shore brook trout, full of wild fight. All 9 inches of it.
Tofte lifts the rod high and reaches out to grab the line, drawing the fish nearer, slipping his net beneath it.
A 9-inch brookie from a small stream is a prize. A really big one is a foot long.
When Tofte acquired his Tenkara rod about a year ago, he headed for a North Shore stream not far from Grand Marais. (Streams must remain nameless to protect the fisheries.)
“My first cast, I got a 12-inch brookie,” says Tofte, a sawyer for Hedstrom Lumber north of Grand Marais. “I thought maybe that was just luck. Two more casts, and I got another 12-inch brookie.”
Tofte keeps a few fish to eat and releases many of those he catches.
On this day, he fishes a variety of flies — a couple sizes of Adams dry flies, a blue-winged olive, the worm nymph and a Copper John bead-head nymph. The worm nymph is the most effective, but the Adams flies fool a couple of brookies, too. Tofte catches seven or eight in all.
Tenkara fishing is said to have originated in Japan’s high mountains in the late 1800s. Learning the techniques — casting, making drifts — comes easily, Tofte says.
“Somebody could start fishing their first day,” he says.
One of the other advantages of Tenkara fishing, Tofte says, is how quickly one can put it away for hiking to another part of a stream. His 8-foot rod (he has a 12-footer, too) collapses into its handle, just 13 inches long.
“You can run through the woods and not worry about it,” he says.
Switching lines, from a dry-fly presentation to a nymphing rig, is also simple. Tofte just pulls a different fly line and leader from his waist pack and ties it to the simple loop that comes out of the rod tip.
Some fly anglers don’t consider Tenkara fishing to be true fly-fishing.
“The hard thing is calling it ‘fly-fishing’ because you’re not using a fly line,” said John Fehnel, who owns Great Lakes Fly Shop in Duluth.
His shop doesn’t carry Tenkara rods.
“My shop focuses on steelhead, bass and muskies,” Fehnel said. “You need ways to manage your line better when those fish take off. … I have customers who do like ’em, and some people don’t.”
Tofte typically parks near a stream mouth along Minnesota Highway 61 and begins working his way upstream, fishing pools and runs where trout live. He moves along quickly, dancing from rock to rock or wading through shallows between pools. He wears lightweight waders and wading shoes.
The water is the color of strong tea, tannin-stained from the bog where it originates. The streams may be 10 or 15 feet wide in places, yet narrow enough to hop across in others. Fallen timber or bedrock ledges create mini-dams that form deep holes.
Brook trout hold in these pools, waiting for natural insects — caddisflies, stoneflies and others — to come washing down in the current. Tofte says he has learned a lot about these hatches, and matching his artificial offerings to what’s happening naturally.
Watching Tofte fish is like watching a great blue heron that has had a little too much sugar. He flits rapidly from one pool to another, but when he arrives at the next one, he leans over the river, holding his rod high, watching his fly drift downstream. He is completely absorbed in the fly’s progress.
His line goes tight again now. The worm nymph has fooled another nice brookie. It muscles to the deep part of the pool momentarily.
“This is my favorite fish,” Tofte says of the species. “They fight like a champ.”
The 9-incher is no match for the Tenkara, and soon Tofte is cradling the fish in one hand.
A lot of fish are easy to look at, but few rival the brookie’s brilliant markings. Tiny red spots dot its flanks, each encircled by a halo the color of forget-me-nots. Its fins are tinged with orange.
Tofte lowers the fish into the river, still cradling it in his fingers. Now it senses its own buoyancy and without apparent transition, it is simply not in Tofte’s hand anymore.
There it goes, shooting across the amber shallows, and vanishing in the root-beer-hued depths.