Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts on Flies

Lately, a lot of discussion has been stirred up revolving around simplicity and minimalism in tenkara. Much of the talk concerns the "one fly" approach that is so characteristic of traditional tenkara practised in Japan. The extent of this practice wasn't fully understood in the US until recently, when Daniel Galhardo (TenkaraUSA founder) had the opportunity to spend two weeks fishing in Japan with a few of the most respected tenkara anglers alive today. Daniel's reports on his experiences are proving to be an invaluable resource for American tenkara anglers who want to know more about what he calls "pure tenkara" - tenkara as it is traditionally practiced in Japan. So in order to explore the "one fly" approach I've only been fishing variations on one fly, the sakasa kebari:

My bread-and-butter sakasa kebari: black thread and pheasant hackle on a curved shank hook

The sakasa kebari from what I gather, is one of the most common types of flies used in Japan. I'd hesitate to call it a "pattern," since there are so many variations, it's more a broad style of wet fly tied with a distinctive forward sloping "reversed" hackle. In it's simplest incarnation all you need for a sakasa kebari is a hook, thread, and soft-hackle, making it a very quick and enjoyable fly to tie (great for beginners). It's also a blast to fish!

My addiction to sakasa kebari started small, I tied a few when I was learning how to tie since they looked easy, and they were interesting. I didn't fish them much until May of this year, and I haven't missed my dries and nymphs yet.

I've found that using one fly pattern changes the experience of fishing. It forces you to focus on presentation, and with tenkara wet flies that means achieving the right "swimming" action. I also find that not having to think too much about fly choice can be a big relief, especially if you're one to worry about it - and once you start catching fish you'll forget about all that, believe me. After having spent about a month fishing only sakasa kebari flies, I have to say that "one fly" hasn't affected the amount of fish I catch, if anything I've actually caught more fish. I haven't found it limiting in the least.

Hopefully with this post I can illuminate the "one fly" approach by offering my current interpretation of it. To me, "one fly" means fishing one fly pattern, or one style of fly. That doesn't mean I'm limiting myself in terms of sizes, colors, or hackle materials (only to keep the fly tying interesting!), but each fly will be tied by the same method.  With the sakasa kebari the general idea is to build a fly with a forward sweeping hackle that will have a lot of action in the water when pulsed or twitched past a likely spot.

This weekend I fished four different sakasa kebari in two streams for wild brook and brown trout. I started off fishing a new stream on saturday with a size 12 fly tied with red thread and pheasant hackle:

I drew a few strikes from a good sized brookie, but failed to hook up before landing a small trout in the next pool. After fishing a little while I came to this deep pool below a dam:

Here I decided to switch flies and try something else I'd tied in the past week just for kicks:

Again, this fly uses pheasant hackle, this time with black thread and copper wire for the body. I wanted something with a little flash for stained or cloudy water, just to make the fly a little bit more visible. It did the trick here, I proceeded to hook and land maybe 8-10 little brookies from that pool! But really, who's to say the first fly wouldn't have worked either?

I had a little time on Monday afternoon to fish, so I headed to another of my favourite streams. Here I decided to use my starling hackled sakasa kebari:

I caught three brookies in a few different pools using this fly before I found a good sized brown that just wouldn't get hooked after several lackadasical strikes. Maybe something a little meatier would help:

Fresh from fishing: "takayama sakasa kebari," size 12, black thread, pheasant hackle, peaccock herl and thread body

The second cast drew a violent strike, and I landed this guy after a hard fight on the Iwana:

To close out this post, here are a few more simple sakasa kebari variations:

When it comes to these flies, one has a lot of freedom as a fly tier. Try out different body materials, threads, dubbings, peacock herl, etc. Experiment with different hackles, personally I like soft hackles for their liveliness in the water. Pheasant, starling, partridge, snipe, and so forth should all work well. Just don't forget that it doesn't take anything fancy to catch fish with these flies.


  1. I commend you guys with your one fly approach, I do like your personal spin on it. I'm definitely not there yet, not sure if I'll ever be. There's always a variety in my box or tin. Some wets, some dries, some nymphs, maybe even a streamer. Then again, I'm a gear junkie to start off with, so baby steps...

  2. Great blog! I started fishing tenkara a month ago when I bought the 12' Iwana, and using the sakasa kebari have caught more trout than I have in my previous 1.5 years of fly fishing (when I started) combined. I do tie them in different colors, with various hackle, but only for some variety while tying. I haven't noticed that the fish care which fly I choose. Also I loved your post about the paracord lanyard and altoids fly box. I went yesterday to buy some paracord and washed an old altoids box, and am ready to leave the Fishpond chest pack at home. Tenkara is great...not so much minimalist for me as it is simplified. Using just one fly style has helped me concentrate on technique, instead of just changing flies all the time and hoping something will work. So far I have caught browns and rainbows, wild and stockers, in slow pools and fast water, and the sakasa kebari has worked in all situations. Keep up the great blog!

  3. Troutrageous1; you'll get there, it just takes a certain force of will :) before I switched from the fishing bag I really had to pinch myself not to tie on one of the old stand-bys from my big fly box. I've been a gear junkie with other pursuits at different times, so I understand where you're coming from.

    Brandon; it's great to here tenkara is working out for you so well! I agree, the fish don't seem to care what variation of sakasa kebari I tie on, they all work. Although sometimes I feel like it helps to switch to a larger or more visible fly in certain situations. Glad you enjoy the blog!

  4. Great write up. All fly anglers, tenkara or traditional can learn a lot from fishing just one fly. Thanks!

  5. Great post! Interesting twist with the sakasa copperbari.

  6. I like that, the "sakasa copperbari" :)

    Not sure why, but there is something a little humorous to me about that fly.