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Tenkara Reflections: Saco, Sawyer, and Dry Rivers

Higher up on the Sawyer River
Tenkara Fly Fishing on the Sawyer River

Whenever I start to learn a new outdoor activity, I like to keep track of my experiences and what I learn when I’m a beginner (see Beginner’s Mind.) Such is the case with my new hobby, Tenkara fly fishing along mountain streams which is an ideal complement for someone who likes hiking and backpacking into remote wilderness areas. While I had a guided lesson a few weeks ago, there’s still a lot to learn, perhaps a lifetimes worth – so I’m trying to catch up!

If you know what you are doing or you’re in the same boat, I’d love to hear from you.

Saco River at Fourth Iron

I spent a few hours fishing on Thursday at the confluence of the Saco River and the Sawyer River next to the Fourth Iron Campsite in Crawford Notch. This is a great walk-in campsite to remember, with eight designated campsites that only cost $8/night. The campsites are right at the confluence of the two rivers along with a huge swimming hole. If you do swim here, I’d advise wearing water shoes in the water because bait fisherman fish the pool and undercut.

Swimming hole at Fourth Iron Campsite - Good Riffles Upstream
Swimming hole at Fourth Iron Campsite – Good Riffles Upstream

I fished the riffles above the undercut rock for a while but didn’t get any action, so I moved up the the confluence of the Saco and the Sawyer and fished the riffles there. The water was warm enough that I could wade without gaiters. The stream bed is mostly rocks, with some sand along the shores. Maximum depth was probably 3 feet.

I wanted to try fishing the confluence of these two rivers because I figured they’d a high concentration of bugs, coming from two different streams. I was drifting my line through this section but didn’t detect any bites.

I figured I needed to find better trout habitat, so I moved up the Sawyer, which is much smaller than the Saco, and started fishing the undercut rocks along the side of the river. Pow! I immediately caught a nice 8″ Rainbow trout. He put up a good fight for about a minute until he got tired and I could net him along the bank. I released him back into the stream.

The confluence of the Saco and Sawyer Rivers
The confluence of the Saco and Sawyer Rivers

I moved up the Sawyer a bit more to fish some more riffles and pools that were in shade, partially covered by trees. My fly got caught a few times overhead, but I was able to release it without breaking the tippet. No bites. Sawyer Pond is stocked 5 miles upstream, so I bet there are more trout in it. The riverbed is easily wade-able/walk-able and worth coming back to.

Saco River – Harts Location

Harts Location is the smallest town in America and the second to vote in the New Hampshire Presidential Primary Election. It’s just north of Bartlett on Rt 302. I stopped at a pull-off next to a big rock with a deep pool that I saw from the road. I don’t have a photo of it, but it is under the Hart’s Location sign heading north. No bites. The water here might have been too deep, but it was late in the afternoon on an overcast day, so I was hopeful I’d get some nibbles.

Dry River – Suspension Bridge to Dry River Shelter

I backpacked up the Dry River Trail in the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness at the foot of Mt Washington in New Hampshire. I didn’t see anyone for two days.

Riffles and pools south of Dry River Shelter stream crossing
Riffles and pools south of Dry River Shelter stream crossing

The Dry River is a small stream near the base of Mt Washington but grows into a huge river by the time it flows into the Saco, 10 miles downstream. I only had time to fish four spots along the river on my second day and lost a lot of flies in the process. I was nymphing from the side of the river- letting my fly float downstream with the most of the leader out of the water – and my flies kept getting stuck between rocks in the riffles.

I spent an hour fishing here and lost four flies between the rocks
I spent an hour fishing here and lost four flies between the rocks

I think the solution is to do more wading and walk up the river instead of casting from the side. That’s difficult to do on the Dry River until you get lower in the stream and the gradient flattens out. If I cast more frequently and do shorter drifts with my rod held up or literally cast and then lift with as short a tippet as possible, I think I’ll probably lose less flies.

The section just above the suspension bridge has a lot of big pools with undercut rocks.
The section just above the suspension bridge has a lot of big pools with undercut rocks.

The section just above the suspension bridge over the Dry River has a lot of big pools with undercut rocks and the bridge makes it easy to access both sides of the river without the need for a hairy ford. When I come back, I’ll start working from this point and head downstream in a big section of flat shallow water.

The floodwaters from Hurricane Irene completely reshaped the Dry River causing huge landslides and wiping out the old Dry River Trail
The floodwaters from Hurricane Irene completely reshaped the Dry River causing huge landslides and wiping out the old Dry River Trail

Fishing Gear

I burned through 8 flies on the Dry River trip and only had one left in my fly box when I hiked out. Luckily, I had a package with 3 dozen flies waiting for me when I arrived home, so I’m restocked. I found a good supplier of cheap western style and Tenkara flies (Tenkara Fly Shop) that prices them at $0.55-0.75 each, which is a lot less expensive that the ones I bought at Tenkara USA. Even then, I have to cut down on my fly loss rate or this hobby is going to get expensive fast. The inexpensive Tenkara Fly Shop flies are tied in Kenya. I plan to test them out on the Zealand River and another section of the Saco River next weekend but they look fine to my untrained eye.

Woolly Bugger
Woolly Bugger

After this trip, I have  a much bigger appreciation of the importance of trout habitat and overcast skies when fishing. Polarized sunglasses are also invaluable for seeing my line and into the stream. I just have to remember to bring them with me.

A fishing buddy of Ken Elmer, the Western Massachusetts fishing guide who gave me my first Tenkara lesson, has been coaching me a bit via email this week and it’s been really helpful, if not expensive. He turned me on to the website TenkaraBum which has a lot of useful Tenkara beginner information and gear for sale.

The TenkaraBum recommends that beginners use a hi-visibility fluorocarbon line instead of a traditional tapered braided line because a line you can see better will help you detect strikes better and catch more fish. I’m using a traditional braided and tapered Tenkara line, which I like, but I’m going to try a high visibility fluorocarbon level line instead and see what happens.

The TenkaraBum also sells all-in-one tie flying kits that walk you through the process of making one western or Tenkara fly. Each kit comes with the ingredients to tie 25 flies, so I ordered one (Killer Bugger) and hope to use them to fill out my fly box as I inevitably lose more flies.

This sport is addictive….


  1. Philip, I am ALWAYS learning. Everything gets tried, except some really outlandish ideas. (Can fishing, wrap your line around a can. “Balloon” fishing, etc.) Trout are not only a fish, they are a wary and smart fish.

    Stay fairly low to the water on a sunny day. Wade somewhere, then wait in fairly calm water. It can take a long time for fish to settle down from wading noises. When water temps hit 35- 40F they are more sluggish with not a lot of ambition, easily fooled. Almost anything works, as long as it is smaller (<#14.) When the water is warm, at 50F, the fish might bite fairly well. At 60F it starts getting a bit too warm and fish are wary, alert and mobile. At 70F they want to leave, it is too warm. Look for deep water and shadowed areas. For people, this is ALL fairly cold water. It is difficult to wade wet at 35 degrees.

    Here in the North East, western style flies have a much harder time. Fly fishing is an outgrowth of this new age fad labeled "Tenkara" fishing. Lines cost a lot, back in the 1800's, people made their own out of Linseed Oiled Horse hair. There is a lot of similarity, but modern silk, poly or nylon line (and thread) can let you save a LOT. &2 for a spool as opposed to 10-20 for purchasing one. You can do the same with silk or poly thread, a hand drill and some eye hooks.
    And so on. There are several methods from level, tapered and using plain manufactured fly line. All DIY stuff with fishing is far less expensive than purchasing it.

    Check out a surgeons knot for making end loops.

    • “Trout are not only a fish, they are a wary and smart fish.”

      I went fly fishing with my brother in Glacier National Park. There was a type of fish described in the guide as “a really stupid fish that will strike anything”. My brother said, “I like stupid fish. The stupider… the better!” That was the only time I ever caught my limit. I also like stupid fish. Stupid fish might not be as good for brain food, but they taste great!

    • Lots of knowledge to catch up on…I’m a bit overwhelmed. Just trying to get out a lot and fail quickly…to learn from my mistakes.

  2. what brand rod set-up do you have? I want to get into this as well; Tenkara USA’s rods are pretty expensive compared to those I see elsewhere, especially on Ebay. Any recommended brands, or brands to avoid?

    • I tried DragonTail Tenkara after a lot of online research. They have a lot of low-priced options (sub $100). I figured, if I find out that it’s not for me, I’m not out a lot of money. If I decide to upgrade, one of my daughters gets it. The quality of my rod seems quite good, though on the stiff side, and a very lightweight package.

    • I’m using a Tenkata Iwana, but I don’t think they make it anymore. I bought it a few years ago, but I’m no authority on what to buy.

  3. Ah, time to fish. Such a luxury you have my friend. :)


  4. Nice to see you getting after it with tenkara. It’s a lot of fun, even if you do lose a good number of flies! I think you’ll enjoy the fishing with the killer bugger. I used the killer bug (a very similar fly) just the other weekend in a deep pool coming off a bend that had just enough current to move the bug slowly through the pool. I caught a few nice rainbows just letting it drift to get down deep and giving the rod a little tug every few seconds. I also enjoyed this DVD, Discovering Tenkara, to help learn a few techniques ( Enjoy!

  5. That’s good stuff. I started fly fishing a few years ago, and while I’m still a beginner, I’m getting better.

    Why Tenkara though? I get there’s a romantic appeal, but a 6 ft, 3 weight 4 piece rod, like a pocket water from Beans, would be a lot easier to maneuver than a 10 ft rod.

    I think a conventional set up would do you better.

    • Most Tenkara rods are telescoping and collapsible. My 11′ rod weighs 2 ounces and collapses down into 5 or 6 sections (down to the length of my forearm)

      • Yes, but I’m referring to casting maneuverability. There’s a big difference in casting an 11 foot rod v a 6’6″ 3 weight rod, particularly when you deal with overhang on stream banks. I have other rods, but I like shorter, smaller ones unless I have lots of casting space.

        • Ah, I see where you’re going. To tell you the truth, I had no idea what I was doing when I bought this rod two years ago or the other options available. I was inspired by a Tenkara book I read. But trout fishing is trout fishing no matter what rod of type or fly you use and I will use any type reel-less rod and fly type that works. This is just the rod I have now. Perhaps I will change it later when I have a better idea what I’m doing. Thanks for alerting me that other options exist!

  6. How do you ensure LNT when losing so many flies, leaving hooks and line in the water?

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