Tenkara Colors Profile: Dave Southall

I have always been more interested in looking at the unique styles and variations among tenkara anglers rather than dwelling on similarities. I love to see what techniques and strategies different anglers have adapted, developed and modified for their own water and their particular needs and preferences. Tenkara is, at its basic material level, so uncomplicated that it can be easily adapted by individuals – it’s simple at a gear level, I reckon, but infinitely variable in its application.

The word “tenkara” is similar to the english phrase “10 colors” and so in Japan the phrase “10 colors” has emerged to describe the concept that each tenkara angler will practice tenkara in a slightly different, and personally characteristic way. This is The Ten Colors of Tenkara.

I’ve been meaning to get around to doing some “Tenkara Colors Profiles” and I’ve finally got the first one done!

The first subject that I’m profiling is the UK Tenkara Angler David Southall. First I’ll present his profile and then a Q&A that I did with David. Before that though ,I just want to say thanks! to David for participating.

David Southall Profile:

I started fishing 56 years ago (aged 10) with a fixed line on an old 12 feet long greenheart rod. Five years later I started fly fishing (as well as bait fishing) but aged 23 I gave up fishing for rock climbing, ice climbing & then mountain-biking & only came back to fishing in 1999 when a back injury (mountain-biking) curtailed my other activities. Over the last 15 years I have fly fished regularly (4 to 5 days a week now that I am retired).
Over the years I gradually changed my ideas about the ideal fly rod & line, steadily moving on to longer rods, lighter lines & longer leaders to improve both presentation & line control. I November 2010 I came across Tenkara via the Tenkara USA web site (as a result of a friend asking me what I knew about Tenkara). Watching the videos made me realize that Tenkara gear was the logical extension to the ‘high sticking’ I’d been doing on pocket waters using my 11 foot 3 weight rod & just a 14 foot leader plus a couple of feet of fly line outside the tip.
My practical first experience of Tenkara was on an icy, snowy, December 5th with my local river high with icy melt water, fishing Czech nymphing scuds for grayling. It was a cathartic moment since the line control I had was so much superior to anything I’d achieved before & I caught several grayling despite the adverse conditions. Furthermore, a few days later despite a temperature of -13 degrees C (8.6 degrees F) I had no problems with iced up rings or cold wet hands (I wore mittens).


Come the trout season Tenkara gave me near perfect drifts with my dry flies & allowed me to fish far-bank pockets that were virtually impossible to fish with Western gear. I was hooked! I introduced many friends to the gear & most became immediate converts, including several professional fishing guides.

Over the last 4 years I have come to realize that, as well as dead-drifts, there are vast range of subtle manipulations that can be applied to both dry flies & wet flies with a Tenkara rod & a light level line (2 or 3 weight) & all the line, & (plus with dry flies virtually all the tippet) held off the water.

Most of my local rivers are not classical Tenkara waters & usually I fish with my normal Western flies, everything from big Mayflies to size 30 CdC Midges & Size 8 Scuds to size 26 Midge Pupae. However there are a number of places I go to that are ideal for Tenkara, in particular the alpine streams of Austria. On a trip there a couple of years back with a friend who was the England Rivers Fly Fishing Team captain for several years we caught fish from the most amazing places & Stuart commented at the end of the trip that 95% of the fish we caught could not have been caught on Western gear.

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Now for the Q&A
You mention that started fishing with greenheart rod and fixed line – can you tell us a bit about that rod? Were you fishing bait with it? Was this trout fishing or rough fishing?

The rod was bought from a junk shop & was made of 3 pieces joined with brass ferrules. Only the tip section was made of greenheart wood (I’m not sure what wood the lower sections were made of). I fished it with a line the same length as the rod tied to the tip ring, using a float (bobber) to indicate bites & with bread as bait. The target species were roach & rudd (similar to the shiners of the USA) found in the small ponds near to my home in north-west England.

You say “Over the last 15 years I have fly fished regularly (4 to 5 days a week now that I am retired).” 

That’s a lot of fishing. For many folks that amount of fishing is more than they’ll do in a lifetime. I wonder what that feels like. I don’t get on trout streams as much as I’d like and as a result I sometimes have an urgency or impatience when I make it to the water. It can take a while to settle down and get into the flow of the natural world again. On the rare occasions that I get three or four days of fishing in a row I am finally able to get into the groove and relax and feel totally immersed, and slow down and really observe.

Being out there so much I wonder if you spend a lot of time in observation and and contemplation or is it still mostly intense fishing time? Do you find yourself experimenting a lot?

Although I fish so often, I rarely fish long sessions, 3 hours is my average session length. When I’m fishing I fish hard, with my full concentration but I do have spells when I have a break to watch the wild life (otters & kingfishers etc.). I also spend a lot of time just walking by my local rivers observing the insect life & studying the fish. Being observant & having a questioning mind is essential if one wants to be a successful angler. I also spend a significant amount of time doing monthly invertebrate studies at a number of locations for our UK Anglers Monitoring Initiative which is aimed at detecting any pollution problems.

Now for some Tenkara specifics. You talk about fishing a wide range of flies and nymphs with tenkara gear. I wonder if you could talk about your tenkara rigging preferences a little more. 

Are you fishing all level line – or do you also use tapered (furled or otherwise) lines? Any changes or adjustments made for different flies or different stream situations (i.e. midges vs. big dry flies or small brushy streams vs. open water). 

I’m curious because one of the situations where level line tenkara seems to fail me is technical dry fly fishing. I’m fairly happy with a level line for nymphs and wet flies and even with dry flies on tumbling streams with a decent current and lots of surface disturbance – where I’m using a fairly short tippet. But when I’m on those streams with long smooth pools and I want to toss a dry fly I often find myself wanting a floating line and a longer tippet than the light tenkara level line allows me to cast easily.

When I first started using a Tenkara rod I tried furled lines but although I found them to be great for casting with I found 2 major disadvantages. Firstly they are hard to hold off the water & in my opinion the biggest advantage of Tenkara is the ability to avoid drag induced by the action of rogue currents on any line that is on the river’s surface. Secondly, in winter, furled lines ice up quickly as water droplets hold onto the furles. The only time I ever use a furled line now is when fishing very tight, wooded streams with an 8’ Tenkara rod, as a furled line allows me to roll & switch cast more easily than a level line. Then I use a 7 feet furled line plus 3 feet of tippet.
For a couple of years I went on to using level bright yellow or red copolymer lines, 0.35mm diameter (14 lb breaking strain), about equivalent to a 2.5 weight fluorocarbon level line. I found them to be fine in all but windy conditions. They had several advantage over fluorocarbon. Firstly very low cost & more importantly they were easy to keep afloat on heavily tree covered waters where I couldn’t ‘high stick’ & so had to lay line on the water.
Recently I’ve moved on to using a 3 weight level fluorocarbon line for most of my fishing (since John Pearson put me on to Payette paste which will keep fluorocarbon lines afloat). However, I also use 1.5, 2 & 4 weight lines if conditions are appropriate (1.5 & 2 for very calm days, small flies & spooky fish; 4 weight for casting into the wind on breezy days or when fishing heavy bead-head nymphs).
As for line length, I’m an advocate of short lines so that I can hold all the line (& with dry fly most of the tippet) off the water to reduce drag. Also landing & controlling fish is much easier with a short line.
My usual dry fly/Sakasa Kebari/small nymph set up is a level line 2 to 3 feet shorter than the rod with 3 feet of tippet (usually 6x). I will sometimes taper my tippet, using 1 foot of 3 or 4x copolymer then 2 feet of 5 or 6x to aid turn over into the wind. On the slow smooth pools that you mention I will fish a longer line, up to 6 feet longer than my rod & I carry 3 feet & 6 feet long 2 & 3 weight extension lines which I attach loop to loop to my mainline (I end my lines in a very small perfection loop).
For Czech style nymphing/bugging I use a level line 5 feet shorter than the rod with a 6 inch length of bright braid as an indicator & approximately 5 feet of tippet. With this set up I hold the braid indicator just above the river surface whilst tracking the rod. This ensures that no thick line is on the surface to be affected by the faster surface water. This is my chosen method during much of the winter whilst targeting grayling.

I imagine that many of those UK streams that you fish are fairly rich environments with lots of bugs and crustaceans. Does this affect your tenkara? I guess what I’m wondering is what are your thoughts on tenkara “one-fly” vs. match the hatch, etc. I find that even on rich limestone streams, in the absence of an active hatch, I can do pretty well on generic nymphs or things like a takayama sakasa kebari – with this caveat – the fish don’t move much to a fly so I need to get the fly down to the fish. When a nice hatch is going on I’ve seen fish get pretty picky. 

With all of your on stream time you must have had plenty of opportunities to investigate these issues – what does your experience bear out?

As I qualified at university as an ecologist I have always been into imitative fly fishing, furthermore many of my home rivers are not typical Tenkara waters. They have good numbers of invertebrates (in one case up to 20 000 per meter squared/10 square feet) & there are times when the fish can get very focused, particularly on the size of food they’ll take (I often fish size 24 to 30 midges & nymphs). I also prefer fishing dry flies because I like to see the surface take & also find it far easier to see if there is any unwanted drag or when manipulating a fly it is easier to see the exact movements that I am imparting to the fly. When fishing tumbling, pocket water streams I find fly choice is much less important & I’ll fish a big dry fly (Elk Hair Caddis, Black Klinkhamer, Foam Beetle, Chernobyl Ant) or Black Sakasa Kebari (either unweighted or with a small black tungsten bead) with confidence.
In winter, when targeting grayling, I generally fish with an orange or pink Scud, a Silver Bead-head Partridge & Hare’s Ear Spider (tied conventionally or with a reversed hackle) or a Peeping Caddis. The size & weight will depend upon the depth & flow rate of the water being fished.

As an American angler that has never fished in the UK I don’t have a real good handle on what your streams are like. What area of the UK are you fishing most often? What are the streams like? Chalk streams, freestone? Do you generally have tight cover or are they open? Or all different variations?

I fish a wide range of waters, mainly in the north of England (Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Cumbria & Durham).

My nearest river is a chalk stream, the Driffield Beck. It is very rich, with vast numbers of Scuds & Caddis. It is too deep to wade, smooth flowing & It also holds some very big fish: so it is not the ideal Tenkara water. I have fished it with Tenkara, particularly in the winter for grayling which rarely weigh over 3 pounds. I have landed grayling to 3 pounds 4 ounces & trout to 3 pounds 8 ounces there but not being able to easily follow the trout caused major palpitations of the heart!

My other local waters are small, wooded streams flowing off the North Yorkshire Moors where a 15 inch fish is a big one. When water levels are normal they provide some good Tenkara fishing with plenty of broken water. Unfortunately this summer they have been desperately low with virtually no flow & I have had to resort to Italian Style Casting with a 1 weight line & 18 feet leader as it has been impossible to get near to the fish without spooking them.

My favorite UK Tenkara waters are some of the tumbling hill streams that are a 3 to 4 hour drive north from my home. They are what Tenkara was designed for, as are the small moorland streams in Derbyshire which are controlled by the Tenkara Syndicate run by Paul Gaskell & John Pearson.

Related to the above question – could you explain a little about the system of clubs and private water in the UK. How does all that work? Is there any open trout water or is it all tied up with clubs? If I want to come to England and fish a good trout stream what can I expect to pay? Would I need to make reservations far in advance?

Most UK fishing is controlled by clubs, hotels & syndicates. In some cases day tickets & season tickets are readily available to visitors but many are very exclusive. Costs can vary dramatically, from £5 a day to £250 (£20 per year to £1000). In some towns & particularly some of our northern cities there is some excellent free trout & grayling fishing thanks to the decline of industry & the hard work of many anglers & Rivers Trusts in fighting pollution. There is also an increasing amount of low cost fishing available through the local Rivers Trusts, many of which run Passport Schemes whereby one buys vouchers that can be used to fish on a wide range of waters in the area (there are schemes in the following areas, Dartmoor, Peak District, River Wye & Usk, River Eden, River Annan).
In some cases day tickets must be booked well in advance (e.g. some of the southern chalk streams) but in many others tickets can be bought on the day of fishing. This web site is worth checking should you wish to fish in the UK, www.fishpal.com/

Lastly – I just want to open it up to you to discuss anything that you’d like to about tenkara; Advice to folks, tips for beginners, etc.

In my opinion Tenkara in all its forms is here to stay. In the right places it will outfish western gear 5 to 1. It is elegant & simple yet versatile. It is the perfect way for beginners to start fly fishing as the basics can be learned in minutes (unlike say Italian Style Casting which took me 5 full days to get the basics learned). However to perfect the subtleties of casting & presentation will provide a lifetime of interest.

For a beginner I’d suggest starting with a decent 12 feet long 6:4 rod (such as the Tenkara USA Iwana, Esoteric 360 6:4, Tenkara Times First Step), coupled with a 4 weight level fluorocarbon line 10 feet long & 3 feet of 5 or 6x tippet, teamed up with a size 14 Elk Hair Caddis (a fly that will work for trout anywhere in the world if the fish are rising).

For anyone who hasn’t tried Tenkara I’d say “Give it a go”. It’s revolutionized & revitalized my fishing & that of many of my friends.

2 Comments on Tenkara Colors Profile: Dave Southall

  1. Great Interview – thanks for sharing your techniques and tips. I’d love to see a video of Dave fishing some of these different types of streams to get a better idea of what he is dealing with in the UK.

    • Thanks. And yes that would be nice to see a video. I don’t know about you – but I always find it difficult to wrap my brain around a place until I see it in person – or at least in live action.

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