Zenmai is a traditional tying material commonly used in tenkara flies (kebari), you might hear Americans (including myself) referring to it as "fern fuzz," since that's really all it is. In spring, when fiddle-head ferns sprout they are covered in a light cottony fuzz that makes a great natural fly-tying material.
I collected a small supply of zenmai this spring to experiment with, but found it quite difficult to work with. The stuff just wouldn't behave and twist nicely around the thread like the wool dubbing I'd gotten used too. My results weren't bad, but the material wasn't easy to work with. I'd also been puzzled by the look of traditional tenkara flies with zenmai bodies, since mine just didn't come out quite the same. My efforts to use zenmai as a dubbing generally created fatter, fuzzier bodies, while most traditional tenkara flies have smooth bodies without many stray fibers. I was curious about this since Japanese tiers were obviously doing something different with the material, however I didn't really investigate it since between tying my own flies, and sending samples of zenmai to a few other tiers, I quickly ran out.
|Zenmai I collected in Massachusetts this spring|
However, back in July I was fortunate to recieve a small sample of zenmai gathered in Japan at high altitude late in the season. It's a bit different than the New England zenmai I collected in the spring; for one, it's a bit more fragile (the fibers crumble easily), and it's much rustier in color.
For a long time I've been hesitant to try it out, and with all the other things going on in my life it's been on the back burner. That is, until yesterday, when I had an idea. I remembered that while the fibers won't readily twist around a thread as a dubbing, they will twist around themselves, making a loose little piece of yarn. To get the yarn twisted a bit more tightly I decided to try wetting the fibers, which worked amazingly well, resulting in a relatively strong and more tightly twisted yarn which can be wrapped around the hook shank. The result is still very loose since zenmai is just not as strong as wool or synthetic yarn, so an overwrap is neccessary to hold it together. I've used wire and thread, and found that since the zenmai is so compressible, a thread overwrap is really invisible. Wire sets in deeply as well, but is still visible enough to give a bit of flash to a fly.
I might be reinventing the wheel here, since I really don't know what techniques are traditionally used in crafting zenmai-bodied flies. However, this was a neat discovery that allows me to more easily tie flies with zenmai. If anyone has any further thoughts or experiences with this, I welcome your comments!
I'm still working out some kinks, but here are my results so far:
Nikko Kebari - modelled after flies featured on My Best Streams
Hook: Mustad S82-3906B (a shorter wet-fly hook would work better)
Body: zenmai, overwrapped with thread and gold wire
Hackle: hen pheasant
Another kebari - tied after one by Yoshikazu Fujioka featured on TenkaraUSA's blog
Hook: Mustad S82-3906B snipped a bit shorter
Eye: loop of 3x tippet whipped to the hook shank
Body: zenmai, over-wrapped with thread
Thorax: peacock herl
Hackle: hen pheasant