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Interview with Dave Hughes, PART 1

Interview with Dave Hughes, PART 1

by Adam Trahan

This is a two-part interview conducted as a conversation by Adam Trahan of Both parts in our blog have been abridged.
For complete conversation please visit this page.
Part 2 will run on November 21, 2014

It has been 20 years that I’ve been fly fishing with light fly rods in small streams. During that time, I have searched out as much information as I could; I have an insatiable desire for it. Dave Hughes is always at the forefront when referencing books on small stream fly-fishing. I was pleasantly surprised to see Daniel had met Mr. Hughes and had done some tenkara fishing with him. I was equally delighted in understanding that Dave Hughes has been into tenkara longer than the American introduction that Daniel brought to us.

Adam: Mr. Hughes, thank you for taking my Interview, may I call you Dave?

Dave Hughes: In my youth I commanded 35 men on a communications site on the Mekong River…it’s not a small stream; I didn’t fish it. One day one of my men–Carter, I remember–came up and said, “Sir, you know what we call you behind your back?”

“No,” I told him. It caught me by surprise. I’d been working them pretty hard, and expected the worst.

“Dave,” Carter said.

I laughed. “That’s what my friends call me,” I told him. If we’re friends, you can call me Dave.

Adam: I would first like to tell you that I have been impressed early on with your book on small streams, Trout From Small Streams. I have a collection of fly fishing books on small streams and yours is one of the best.

“Can you tell us a little bit about your interest in small stream fly fishing?”

Dave Hughes: Let me mention that it’s the second edition of Trout From Small Streams that has a chapter on tenkara, and also is loaded up with color photos. When I first wrote the book, more than a decade ago, the publisher at Stackpole read the manuscript, said, “The pictures are in the words. This book doesn’t need photos.” It was quite a compliment, but the book, without photos, landed flat…didn’t sell. When I sent in the second, published just recently, it included about 150 photos, plus the new long chapter on tenkara. It’ been faring much better.

Finally, stabbing at answering your question: I grew up fishing small stream on the north Oregon coast. It’s steelhead and salmon country, but pursuit of those more famous fish was always done in crowds. My dad, who took me and my brothers fishing, was not much on crowds, and I inherited my love of small streams, and lack of favor for being surrounded by people when fishing, to him.

We fished for native cutthroat that had become isolated for thousands of trout generations above waterfalls, which blocked upstream migration of anadromous fish, and therefore caused a lack of interest by most fishermen. We had those pretty streams, and those beautiful little cutts, pretty much to ourselves. It’s what inspired my love of small streams, and I’ve never lost it.

Adam: Daniel told me that you have been into tenkara for quite some time. I did not catch that detail in any of your books that I remember. The early adopters here are into it for five years.

“How long have you been fishing tenkara?”

Dave Hughes: My long history with tenkara is in the chapter on tenkara in Trout From Small Streams. The short answer is that I was on a fishing trip on Honshu, the main island of Japan, with my wife and a friend, in June, 1992…I just looked at the date on the old slides from the trip. The friend got out a short stick, telescoped it out to about 14 feet, went fishing down the stream we were on for half an hour or so. He didn’t catch anything. He telescoped that thing back into itself, put it away, never said a word about it. But that moment of watching what he did ignited a curiosity in me.

I tried it later on the trip, didn’t catch anything, either, but soon after had a similar rod sent to me in the states, began using it on those same small streams I’d fished with my dad…it was a tenkara rod, of course, so I began fishing tenkara close to 25 years ago now.

Let me add that I didn’t fish tenkara all the time, so my experience is long but not deep…the great Daniel has compacted much more tenkara fishing time and experience into the years he’s done it than I have over the longer period that I’ve been doing it.

Adam: Here in Arizona, small streams are small, I don’t mean small, and I mean micro. My favorite stream, the Little Colorado which starts near the peak of Mt. Baldy at nearly 11,000’, it is a step-across stream. There are so many versions of what a small stream is. As far as classifying streams go, the best way that I have found is the Rosgen method of classification.

“Can you describe to us, what is your version of a small stream? Say, the stream you would call your favorite near your home?”

Dave Hughes: First, I once fished Peralta Creek in New Mexico with Craig Martin, author of a guidebook on fishing NM, a book everybody in your area needs to track down and buy. That stream was tiny by any standards. We had to mountain bike to it, and it was timbered in where we fished it, so I’d not recommend anything but the shortest tenkara rod on it. We did catch fish. They weren’t big, but they were jewels alongside the drab native cutts on my native Oregon coast.

I refer in my book to small streams in terms of those you might be able to jump across, but I’m no broad jumper, or those a short fly cast across, but I’m not a distance caster…so ended up with a definition in terms of how you feel when you’re wading them: A stream, to me, is small if you can wade up it easily, fish it from side to side with short casts, and perhaps most important, feel dominant over it when you’re inserted into it.

I think folks have to, or get to, define small streams for themselves. We don’t need to agree.

Adam: My interest in the different types of trout could be described by a book by Robert Smith, “Native Trout in North America”. In the early days, I was so excited to catch fish that often I would not certainly know what type of fish that it was. Some browns looked like Apache trout. Brown trout sometimes were yellow and there were all kinds of Rainbow. It was tough for me but I learned through my photography to identify these trout later.

“Will you tell us a little bit about your identification of fish? What did you use in the beginning? Is it that important to you when you catch fish to know exactly the strain?”

Dave Hughes: I’m innocent on this one. I’ve never studied trout, as such. I know enough to separate out the major brands, but not the sub-species and races.

When I was just getting into writing about fly fishing, and had begun the long and difficult process of learning to parse out the aquatic insects, I took my dad on a fishing trip to the Deschutes River. We were camped alongside that big, brutal, beast. I sat at a camp table and sorted out some adult caddis, gazing at them through a magnifying glass prior to pickling them in vials of alcohol, so I could peer at them much more closely though a microscope back at home, with fat books full of scientific keys open alongside me.

Dad said, “Why are you studying those insects? You could be learning to identify birds?” I pondered that for awhile. My dad’s passion was the birds. He could visit the Deschutes, in an arid environment, opposite to our native rainforest on the coast, and identify birds by their calls, without even seeing them. But a lot of people were looking at, and listening to, the birds. Only professional aquatic entomologist Rick Hafele and I were paying much attention to the western aquatic insect hatches important to trout fishermen at the time…our research eventually became the book Western Hatches.

I told dad, “Trout don’t eat birds.”

That was the end of the subject.

There are a lot of sub-divisions in the world of fly fishing. Each would require a lot of study. I chose aquatic insects…or they chose me. I didn’t study trout identification. I don’t think many people understand the amount of time it takes to pursue these things. Only a few folks–Robert Benkhe, Robert Smith–would have the background and study and time to research and write Native Trout of North America. We’re blessed that we have it to refer to when we catch something we can’t identify.

But don’t go pickling trout in alcohol so you can take them back to the microscope…learn from Adam here; preserve them with photography.

Adam: “Please tell us, what kind of equipment  you choose for small streams?”

Dave Hughes: [parts ommited for brevity, read entire conversation here] I don’t like noodle rods on small streams, because the brushed-in streams I typically fish demand tight, brisk loops, and soft rods don’t provide them.

This reflects the sort of water I fish. I’ve tried soft rods on rainforest streams, where I’m surrounded by vegetation crowding in to see what I’m up to. If I fished open waters, where I could hit tiny pockets with wide open loops, I’d probably use lighter, softer rods.

I own at least a dozen tenkara rods. When I’m on a small stream, fishing tenkara, I’ll usually be armed with Daniel’s new Rhodo. It has a special ferrule that lets it fish at three lengths: +/- 9 feet, 10 feet, and 11 feet. I can’t explain entirely how great an idea this is, but will mention that I recently wrote the Rhodo up for a Fly Rod & Reel Kudo Award, very well deserved. The rod is excellent at all lengths, and at the shortest length is Daniel’s shortest rod, to date, perfect for small water.

I fish the Rhodo with a 9- or 10-foot Cutthroat Leaders furled dry fly leader. At 9-feet I tip it with 2-3 feet of 5X, and add a couple of feet for each extension of the rod, if I have time when on the stream. Most of the time I stick with one tippet length, and just lengthen or shorten the rod as I fish my way up a stream and pools get longer or shorter.

If I’m on bigger water, I’ll usually be using either my wife’s 11-foot Iwana or my 12-foot Iwana. If she’s with me, and we’re both fishing tenkara, those are the two rods that will be put into play…I have to mention that my Japanese wife very often fishes western gear when I’m fishing tenkara…I’ve caught the tenkara bug far more seriously than has she.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2, on November 22nd.