“THE THING ABOUT IT IS. . .” SAYS JIM TEENY, TEETERING ON A boulder 11 feet above Washington’s Kalama River. He’s scanning the pool below through a pair of amber polarized glasses, watching a few dozen salmon hugging the bottom in the slow current.
He leans sharply forward: “Did you see that? An absolute chromer! You understand what I’m saying, is he bright or what? Hey, Tim!” He calls downstream to a partner. “Did you see that steelhead? Thirty feet up and left.” Tim casts. Teeny edges forward on his tiptoes over the end of the rock, looking like he might go farther, and points with his rod, doing a pretty bad imitation of a man trying to contain his excitement. “There!” he shouts.
I, of course, can’t see a thing and wait a little anxiously. Jim Teeny, the man who takes more big salmon and steelhead in a year than most fly fishermen catch in a lifetime, is about to tell me the “thing,” the key, the Ultimate Truth–if he doesn’t run out of rock first.
Tim begins covering the fish. Teeny settles down, and I remind him about “the thing.” He takes off his sunglasses, smiling. “Right. The thing about it is,” he says, poking the flat of his palm with his index finger, “you got to get deep, right down to the fish. You know what I’m saying?” I know. It is one of the simple, unglamorous facts of fishing, and one that lies at the core of Teeny’s enormous success as an angler.
He’s the “submarine man,” a term equally descriptive of his subsurface techniques and the fish they produce. His pioneering efforts in both tackle design and fishing methods are legendary among who pursue salmon and steelhead with a fly–in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the Great Lakes. In the 1960s, Teeny was among a handful of anglers who systematically addressed one of fly fishings toughest situations-presenting a fly to big anadromous fish in water that is deep, or swift, or both. Since then, it has become his speciality.
If his first passion is catching large fish, his second is teaching others how to do it. On the Kalama, I ask for instruction, and he eagerly demonstrates the use of the high-density sink-tip lines of his own design. Quartering upstream, he casts on a calculated line of distance, drift, and depth that swings a fly within inches of a salmon. It is humbling. Encouraging, explaining, advising, Teeny schools me in the technique. Satisfied that I have the idea, he moves downriver, leaving the pool to me and to fishing partner Bruce Holt.
Moments later, we hear Teeny shouting. With his rod deeply bowed, he scrambles excitedly along the bank, like a man who just caught the best fish of his life, or just caught fire–it’s difficult to say at this distance. At once, the rod goes limp, and Teeny hurries back to give a blow-by-blow of the episode. “Did you see that fish? Was he hot or what!” It turns out to have a been a small steelhead, about 5 pounds, but Teeny is fully wired and hustles down to the riffle again.
Bruce shakes his head slowly. “That’s the one problem with Jim,” he says, “lack of enthusiasm.”
SOMEWHERE AMONG THE OFFICIAL documents in Portland, Oregon, a certificate records that Jim Teeny was born in 1945. Those who know him believe that he was actually shot from a cannon, refitted with a new technology as he passed through the 1950s, and now runs on enriched plutonium. Raised in a circle of fishermen and hunters–father, uncles, and cousins–Teeny was a fervent outdoorsman from the beginning.
Two events in particular, though shaped his angling life. The first was a fly–“the Abduli”–a pattern he first tied at the age of sixteen to entice the enormous double-digit browns and rainbows that cruised Oregon’s East Lake. Its effectiveness on a variety of waters astonished even Teeny, and for years, he said, it was his “secret weapon.” Eleven years later the pattern would be renamed “the Teeny Nymph” and launch its inventor into the fly-fishing business.
The second event stemmed from Teenys initial exposure to fishing for steelhead on a fly. It happened one day on the Deschutes River, where, with some misgivings, he left his spinning tackle at home and spent the day fly fishing. Hooking four fish made an instant believer of him and he jumped into fly fishing the way he seems to take on most things–head first, at the speed of sound. He went home, collected his spinning gear–rods, reels, and “more lures than you could carry,” he laughs–and sold them all to his father for $50. On the spot he became, exclusively, a fly fisherman.
These two passions–steelhead fishing and the Teeny Nymph–collided in the 1960s, and for the next twenty-five years Teeny devoted his energy to taking anadromous fish on flies. He certainly didn’t invent the sport, but he did give it a new dimension–down. Only a few devotees seriously pursued steelhead with fly tackle, and the vast majority of those swung flies just beneath the surface on floating lines–the “greased-line method.” But Teeny made a science of going deep, where most of the fish are, modifying his tackle to get there and eventually engineering a set of sink-tip lines to match his needs. “A lot of people grease-lined the top; I was grease-lining the bottom,” he laughs. A whole new world, literally, opened to fly anglers.
The “T-series” lines are at the heart of Teeny’s approach, a custom-designed set of lines that originated in his dissatisfaction with commercially available alternatives Full-sinking lines lacked the weight to get down quickly and were difficult to control Shooting-head systems cast miserably. Fishing salmon and steelhead on the big rivers of the Northwest–particularly in the high, fast waters of late fall and winter–required a fast-sinking, user-friendly line. It didn’t exist, so he invented one.
In 1978, he approached Scientific Anglers with his idea: a hybrid line with a 24-foot high-density tip, for quick sinking, backed by a 58-foot floating running line for easier line control. The trick was, the line bad to be made as one seamless piece. It took five year to overcome the technological obstacles of manufacturing, and in 1983 the first Teeny lines were produced.
Both the weight of the tip and the change in density from sinking to floating portions make this line a little tricky to cast at first, especially for anglers accustomed to floating lines. But, Teeny says, there are only a couple of key points in mastering its use. First, the actual cast, either conventional overhead or roll cast, is performed using only the 24-foot tip of the line, since the light running line lacks the mass to turn over the heavy tip. Try to aerialize the tip using the running line and things get out of control pretty quickly. Similarly, in roll-casting, the light floating line can’t transmit enough energy to roll the heavier tip over. Thus you must prepare to cast by stripping in line so that only the sinking section extends beyond the tip of the rod–a simple matter, since the floating and sinking portions of the line are different colors.
The second key is in line control. If you wish to mend the tip portion–throwing slack upstream, for instance, for quicker sinking–the mend must be made just as the line touches the water. Once it sinks even a few inches, mending is impossible.
The lines may be his greatest contribution, but you get the unmistakable impression from Teeny that his fly, the Teeny Nymph, is still the favorite child. It is an almost laughably simple creation that strikes you mainly with what it doesn’t have–dubbing, hackle, ribbing, or wings. The ones he gives me are just pheasant tail on a hook. When I first saw one, some years ago, my first response was deep and pervasive doubt. The fish, however, have a very different reaction, and in the past two decades, the fly has, by Teenys count, taken twenty-six different species in fresh- and saltwater.
Back on the Kalama, I get a look inside his fly boxes–the surest index there is to the soul of a fisherman–and find nothing but Teeny Nymphs, several hundreds of them in different sizes and colors. He fishes virtually nothing else, though this appears less a business policy than an extension of the personal qualities that make him an extraordinary effective angler. He is patient and persistent, almost to the point of stubbornness. His faith in what he does, and in himself, are nearly absolute–which is a much different thing than thinking you’re always right. Above all, he is inexhaustibly optimistic, approaching every piece of water and every presentation with the unequivocal certainty that this spot, this cast, is the one that will ring the bell. He works the water as though he could hook a fish on pure belief. Add to this an almost supernatural pair of eyes for locating fish and a relentless energy, and you have a pretty formidable package.
Teenys’s fishing life, however, has not been without controversy. At the age of twenty, casting about for a start in life, he bought a movie theater from a family friend. He refurbished the building, rejuvenated the business, and six years later, sold it for $35,000–seed money for the Teeny Nymph Company. The first, and almost unprecedented step, was to patent the Teeny Nymph–a move that drew criticism, and in a few cases, outright hostility from the fly-fishing world. Up to that time, fly patterns were by unspoken agreement considered public property. Teeny disagreed: “It was my pattern my design. I copied no one with it. [Patenting the fly] was a way of taking it and treating it like a lure.” The allegations of secretiveness and selfishness took him completely by surprise. “I was a little upset,” he recalls, “especially since the pattern was always available to the average tyer. We always sold hooks and feathers, with instructions for trying the fly. Tyers were welcome to tie the pattern if they wanted to. We had no secrets.”
As Jim Teeny gained visibility in fishing circles, his methods too came under scrutiny–and more criticism. In a fly-fishing world dominated by dry flies and floating lines, the heavy sink-tips and the occasional use of split shot on the leader were denounced as somehow “not fly fishing.” To those outside of the sport, such controversies seem absurd; inside fly fishing, they are vigorously contested, though in this case, it turned out to be an argument about the emperor’s new clothes–“I mean,” says Teeny, “everybody’s shooting at me over this, and I come to discover that people all over the country are using split shot for trout.
“I think I was a little ahead of my time,” he observes, without a hint of arrogance. Sinking lines are routinely used now, and the exclusive licensing of fly patterns is commonplace in the industry. More than that, Teeny’s innovations have proven themselves. The Teeny Nymph has held twenty world records through the years, a dozen of which belong to Teeny and his wife, Donna, herself an accomplished angler. Between them, he says, they’ve released another dozen record fish: “I’d rather not kill the fish now. [Record-book fish] are not a real priority.”
A far more serious controversy that forced Teeny to defend himself occurred a few years ago in Washington. Teeny had been a vocal critic of what he saw as a selective enforcement of salmon-fishing regulations on the Wind River. In retaliation, Teeny says, federal authorities issued him a citation for “molesting salmon” when he incidentally hooked a few chinooks, and released them without harm, while steelhead fishing. Salmon season was closed, but the water was open to steelhead.)
“It was very much clear harassment,” Teeny says, and he forced the matter to court. The judge agreed with him and dismissed the case. A few years later, Teeny notes, a representative of the federal hatchery system conceded that the accusations “weren’t worth the paper they were written on.”
For Teeny, three things were at stake: his reputation as angler, the whole notion of catch-and-release–“If a water’s open to one species and closed to another [a common situation in the Northwest], you can’t draw a technical line that assumes you’ll know what you’re going to hook on every cast”; and the preservation of outdoor sport by generation enthusiasm from one generation to the next, something overly zealous laws and law enforcement can seriously harm. Keeping the flame alive by passing along what he has learned to newcomers to fishing and turning them on to the challenge and excitement of catching fish is Teeny’s greatest priority–and greatest reward.
Another priority is challenge. “But fishing is a noncompetitive sport,” Teeny adds quickly. “I shy away from competition. A few times, I’ve been out with people ad they want to outfish me. If I sense that, I really drop back. I’m not in a contest. I’d rather have a good time, be relaxed.”
The “good time” part is easy to observe in Teeny’s fishing, the “relaxed” part takes a little more imagination. He doesn’t fish the water–he attacks it. When we arrive on the Kalama, Teeny surveys the water. There are six of us in the party, and he begins pointing out stream positions that will allow everyone to cover fish, deploying us like troops in the field. I take up a post next to Teeny, watching. What stands out, even more than his technical ability, is his whole disposition, a stream presence shaped by ass s and aggressiveness–not rudeness to other anglers, but an intensity brought to the fishing itself From the first cast, Teeny is cocked like the hammer on a rifle.
I point this out, and Teeny laughs: “I fish like a predator.” You have to be aggressive. If a guy wants to be a really good angler, you have to have some of that in you. If the fish move, you move. If what you’re doing isn’t working, change. Whatever it takes, do it.” And for Teeny, the big “it” is hooking fish. Though hardly insensitive to the poetry of angling, he fishes for results. That’s his motor, the engine that drives him: “the thrill of the hookset,” he tells me, “and feeling the fish. I love to catch fish.” In this, he is tireless. By late afternoon, the six of us are fishing a small headwater stream of the Kalama. Hiking down into the little canyon, five of us are visibly dragging. Teeny is steaming down the hillside like he just woke up, swallowed a gallon of coffee and a country breakfast. We arrive at a small, still pool, and from a small overlook, spot a pod of steelhead in the tailout, one dearly larger than rest.
“Oh, man! Do you see that?” shouts Teeny. “He must go 15 or 20 pounds, you know what I’m saying? Is this great or what? Let’s catch some fish.”
THE T-SERIES LINES
* The T-Series lines are essentially one-piece shooting heads, composed of a 24-foot sinking tip backed by a 58-foot floating running line. THe tip is made by incorporating a heavy material into the fly-line coating to make it sink. Scientific Anglers uses environmentally safe tungsten, rather than lead, for this purpose. By varying the density of the tungsten and the fly-line diameter, different weights, and hence sink rates, can be achieved.
The original T-Series has five sizes: T-130, T-200, T-300, T-400, and T-500. The numeric designations indicate the weight of the tip in grains. In addition, Teeny now offers the Mini-tip, a weight-forward line with a 5-foot sink-tip. The tip sinks quickly, but because it is short, the fly rides up from the bottom to prevent snagging in slower or shallower waters. This range of lines allows an angler to fish water from 3 to 20 feet in depth.
Originally designed for anadromous fishing in the deep, often swift, waters of the Pacific Northwest, the T-series lines have gained favor wherever depth and line control are required. Steelhead and salmon fishermen in the Great Lakes area have discovered their virtues, and the line has become enormously popular in British Columbia and Alaska. It is becoming a common sight as well on lakes, since detecting strikes on a sink-tip line is somewhat more reliable than with the full-sinking types.
Most recently, anglers have been using the line in saltwater, for striped bass in tidal rips, tarpon in deep holes, and even for reed fish in offshore waters. In fact, Teeny has recently added a series of six saltwater models: 250, 350, 450, 550, 650, and 750 grains.