Peter learns a remarkable dry fly technique from a true expert, Naoto Shibuya.
One of the most effective ways you can get better at fishing, is simply to spend time fishing with people who are much better at it than you. I’m not talking about people who are just a tad better, I mean much better.
For many flyfishers, this could be as basic as time spent with a good guide. However for me, as a flyfisher with over 45 years’ experience (some at world championship level) and 29 years of professional guiding, it is difficult to find the sort of standard I’m talking about.
Many years ago, I heard of an exceptional Japanese river angler, Naoto Shibuya. He was a leader in his area of expertise: dry fly fishing on very swift streams with complex currents.
I’d heard that Shibuya-san could float a dry fly drag-free until you were bored watching it – even on high gradient, super-fast mountain streams. I found out enough about Shibuya-san and his Long Drift Leader (LDL) technique to hope to one day track him down, and learn how he did it. I kept this idea in the back of my mind for several years.
So, fast forward and about 5 years ago, I visited Japan with my son Lachie, as well as FlyStream contributor and cane rod maker Nick Taransky, and my head guide and great mate David Hemmings. All three are excellent casters and fishers in their own right, and they love a dry fly cast on a cane rod into running water. These are my kind of guys!
We booked Shibuya-san for a little over a week, and what an eye-opener of a week it was for us all.
It’s pretty rare these days for me to be impressed by anyone or anything in flyfishing. I’m not meaning to sound egotistical, but I’ve mostly seen it all before. But man, was I impressed by Shibuya-san! He made pin-point accurate deliveries with a constant 8 or 9 feet of slack line, mostly thrown upstream of the fly… and that was just the start of it. There was so much more going on.
Shibuya-san seemed like many of the Japanese people I already knew in flyfishing circles. He had no English, he was completely self-taught, and he had developed entirely on his own a technique which was impossible to refine further. It was perfect for catching the dry fly eating Iwana (a brook trout-like char native to Japan) on his high gradient mountain streams.
Shibuya-san turned out to be a perfectionist, a constant thinker and a solution finder, which endeared him even more to me. He was also humble, despite being regarded as quite the guru in Japanese flyfishing circles. Scientific Anglers made special fly-lines for Shibuya-san and his LDL method. These were 3 weights and 4 weights built on lighter cores so that the overall line was thinner. This made them faster in the air and easier to mend.
Tiemco made special hooks for Shibuya-san’s style of fishing – they were light, which was important. A leader company made special tapered leaders to his recipe, and that was vital for the ability to have long drag-free drifts.
Although Shibuya-san made his own exquisite Tonkin Cane fly rods, sought after by collectors from around the world, he also designed commercially-available glass and graphite rods that suited his LDL technique.
He was fastidious about the flies he tied and, as I was to learn, for good reason. The ability of the fly to act as a consistent parachute on the delivery was paramount in attaining the intended slack line result.
Shibuya-san also travelled and taught his technique extensively throughout Japan. He was often featured in the Japanese flyfishing magazines, and he produced a series of highly-regarded DVDs on river fishing techniques.
This guy was the real deal. I left Japan at the end of our week feeling he was probably the best dry fly river angler I had ever met. I felt very inadequate in his company.
During that fishing week with Shibuya-san, I had the occasional moment of brilliance, and perhaps once or twice a day I made a near-perfect cast. On the other hand, I could see Shibuya-san had it all down pat. Every cast to every fish was spot on. The fish literally didn’t have a chance if he was holding the rod. They were much safer with me!
LDL to Tasmania… eventually!
When I got back home and practiced the concept a little, I was certain it was the right approach for our Australian rivers. So, after thinking long and hard about what to do next, I bought two Tokyo/Tasmania return tickets. One for Shibuya-san and the other for his Master Casting Instructor mate and translator, Tomonori ‘Bill’ Higashi.
The idea was to get them to one of our annual Cressy Cane events, and then have them stay on and run workshops on the LDL technique. The date we set was the last week of March 2020.
As we all know, that didn’t end well. In fact, it didn’t even start so it couldn’t end well. It took 3 years to reorganise the event, get the airfare dollars back, and rebook the tickets.
Shibuya-san and Higashi-san arrived here at the end of March 2023 and we had just one afternoon to show them the rivers we would run the workshops on the following day. Despite horrendous weather (severe wind and a serious cold front) Shibuya-san’s first session on a local river yielded plenty of trout in just a short hour or two.
As we walked back to the car, I knew already that the airfare money had been well spent. We can learn so, so much from Shibuya-san, and for that matter, Higashi-san. They are a cut above anyone else I’ve ever fished with.
Over a G&T or three afterwards, I became determined to learn (and one day perfect) Shibuya-san’s technique. I could then set about teaching it to my clients. It is clearly the best way to fish dry flies on running water. Period.
After the cold front start, the weather thankfully calmed down for the actual fishing tuition day. Lighter winds and sunny, warm conditions made for a great exhibition. Shibuya demonstrated on the river for an hour or two before lunch, and perhaps fished a couple of hundred metres. To watch him catch over a dozen trout, many from tricky water, opened the eyes of all participants. It was clear that they finally understood why I had gone to the trouble I had to get these guys over here. They were as excited as I was about the concept, and they were busting to get on the water themselves that afternoon.
Sometimes you just need to see things for yourself to really get invested. This is exactly what happened during this wonderful and very successful demonstration.
Overall, the cane rod-making, casting and fishing workshops were just fantastic. A full house of participants had their expectations exceeded (as were mine!). There were classroom sessions on the LDL technique and our Japanese guests shared their cane rod making knowledge generously. Then, it was onto the casting pool for demonstrating and teaching.
For the following couple of weeks, we hosted the guys around the state. In the highlands, Shibuya-san and Bill wade polaroided the shallow lakes and tarns with me and they caught a bunch of 3lb browns on their dry flies. Although Shibuya-san had never fished in a lake before, he took to it instantly and easily.
One day, he cast to an 8-10 lb cruising brown that he messed up when his tippet slapped the water during a false cast. I think this was the only error I saw him make in a couple of weeks of varied fishing situations. We caught fish flat out wherever we fished. I learnt so much and I can’t think of another time where I have been so excited about getting stuck into being better at another aspect of my own flyfishing. I’m like a man possessed and I feel like I am reinventing myself. I want to be like Shibuya-san. I want to cast as well as him, or maybe even better. I want to be able to mend like him and I want to be able to tie flies like he does.
Why is Shibuya-san so successful?
I’ve learnt that Shibuya-san can catch a lot more trout than me or anyone else I’ve ever fished with. This is for a few reasons:
- He has developed a method of constantly achieving a perfect drag free drift with a dry fly. His drag-free drift results in more confident takes with deeper-in-the-mouth hook sets.
- I think the trout sees the fly as a more believable food source if it’s drifting exactly at the speed of the other bugs. Additionally, I think the trout judges its eat better if the speed is consistent with all the other food items it has eaten that day.
- There’s also an issue with better suction. I’ll talk about that later.
- Another reason that Shibuya-san is better than most other people at catching fish, is he has a better method of striking/ setting the hook. I don’t think I saw him miss a fish in two weeks of fishing.
- Shibuya-san also gets more casts at a particular fish, and, if needed, more fly changes. With a very long leader and a perfect drag-free drift, he rarely scares the trout or puts them off their feeding. This is unlike ‘regular’ flyfishers, where if the first shot doesn’t work, it’s usually downhill after that.
From what I can gather, Shibuya-san has developed a total system. I see it as having several components (each as important as the next) which Shibuya-san has perfected to an unbelievably high level. Let me try and explain it the way I see it.
Let’s start at the fly, and work back from there.
A standard, searching, general purpose, terrestrial pattern that Shibuya-san likes is called a Benjo Abu. I remember this fly from fishing with him in Japan. The translation of Benjo Abu is ‘Toilet Fly’.
The little details of the pattern (e.g., post colour) are not all that important, but the design and functionality are critical. Shibuya-san shuddered when I offered him one of my very successful bullet head hoppers. It turns out these are too heavy and dense, and carry too much momentum when cast. A fly like this will turn over the leader too far.
Flies for the LDL technique are tied on lightweight hooks, often carry a lot of CDC, and have soft, broad wings. All these components combine to make the fly act like a parachute being towed through the air by the leader. The fly’s very important job is to stall the leader turnover.
Maintenance of the fly is important. After every fish (one day I saw Shibuya-san catch 30+ fish on one fly), the fly is washed briskly, then dried with a Tiemco cloth, then puffed up again with the remarkably effective Shimazaki spray.
Shibuya-san has designed commercially-available 15 foot nylon tapered leaders. So, they’re relatively long straight out of the packet, and they’re cunningly tapered to dissipate the power properly. They have thinner butt ends than you would expect – much thinner than most commercially available leaders – and this helps further with power dissipation and floatation.
To the end of the leader, Shibuya-san attaches another 6 to 9 feet of fluorocarbon tippet material. He feels that fluorocarbon is much more durable than nylon, and of course he is right. He uses a double twist figure of eight knot which he believes is the strongest knot he can use. In Tasmania, he used 4X tippet almost exclusively for our bigger trout.
As often as required, Shibuya-san floated the entire leader. He does this for better mending and more effective striking (which I will talk more about in part 2). He wouldn’t tolerate any part of the leader being underwater – even for a second!
LDL Leaders available here at The Flyfisher
Attachment to fly-line
Shibuya-san uses the needle on the end of his Tiemco clippers to poke a 2-3 mm hole into the end of his fly-line before pushing the needle out sideways. He then clips the butt of the leader to a point, before threading it up into the hole and out the side of the fly-line. Then he ties a simple Granny Knot around the fly-line. He pulls the knot tightly into the fly-line casing. He then seals it off with a drop of superglue before trimming it very close to the knot.
I really like it. It’s simple. It never gets stuck in your rod rings. You only lose 2-3 mm of fly-line every time you change your leader. Keep in mind that the double tapered line (see below) has two ends, so you’re never going to run out of taper on the end of your fly-line.
In conjunction with Scientific Anglers, Shibuya-san has developed a fly-line that is best suited to his method of fishing. It’s called an LDL line and, as mentioned earlier, it comes in a 3 weight or 4 weight double taper only. This line is on a thinner than normal core, which makes the overall fly-line thinner. This in turn leads to better and more effective mending, as well as higher line speed while false casting.
Furthermore, these lines have a very short front taper, which allows a very long leader to soften the turnover. The line needs a long leader to make it work well.
It’s worth noting that, in general, most commercial fly-lines work the other way around. They use a long front taper on the fly-line so you can use a relatively short leader. Shibuya-san wants the opposite, and for dry fly fishing, particularly on running water, he is right. The lines come in a bright orange colour which will helps to perfect the cast when practicing. The long leader makes sure the bright colour is far enough away from the fish that it’s not a problem.
A particular loop shape is key to the success of the LDL method. The loop shape is partly dependent upon your casting stroke, and mostly dependent upon the rod design. If you’re a good caster and use a fast action graphite rod, you’ll typically cast with a parallel ‘candy cane’ loop.
Shibuya-san’s self-made Tonkin cane 7’8” rod for a 4 weight line, is a very deep flexing rod. When you know what you’re doing, this sort of rod throws a loop shape which is much wider. Shibuya-san’s loop might be 8 to 10 feet wider than what you might consider to be a good narrow parallel loop. But it can be just as accurate and, I could argue, more powerful than the ‘candy cane’ loop.
So, when this loop shape is cast with the rod tilted out or tilted in at, say, 45°, the leader butt end and line land 8 to 10 feet beside the feeding line of the fish. When Shibuya-san fishes upstream from the river true right bank, he casts with the rod tilted out. When he fishes upstream from the true left bank, he casts with the rod tilted in. This ensures that the leader break is always upstream of the fish, and on the angler’s side of it.
In the Spring issue, we’ll talk more about the detail of the LDL technique.