Tenkara flies are an enigma. Wide variations in Japanese regional tenkara fly patterns exist, yet a few tenkara anglers in Japan use just one fly pattern. At first glance it makes no sense. Upon further reflection it actually makes perfect sense.
Tenkara flies do not attempt to match a specific insect so there is no
need to change flies as hatches change. Fish seem to be much less
selective when taking wet flies than they are when taking dries. It is important to note also that the high gradient mountain streams on which tenkara developed are not very fertile and do not have the prolific insect hatches. The fish that live there cannot afford to be overly selective.
Dr. Ishigaki settled on one pattern because he caught as many fish on it as on any other pattern - so why change patterns? Hundreds of years ago, as fishermen in isolated mountain villages tied their own flies, local patterns developed - and were used because they worked. Two villages perhaps only 30 miles apart developed different tenkara fly patterns, but both flies survived because they worked. That the patterns were different didn't matter. Apparently one was as good as another - so why change patterns?
As with the two villages, two Japanese tenkara anglers may each have their own pattern that they use exclusively. For whatever reasons, each angler will have a favorite that he fishes with most or maybe even all the time. That another angler fishes with a different pattern doesn't matter. They all seem to catch fish.
And if all tenkara flies catch fish, choose patterns you like or that are easy to tie. If you tie your own flies, I show the tying sequence for the a number of flies, and further detail is available in the Tying Tenkara Flies DVD.
When people in the US think of a tenkara fly, the fly they think of is a reverse hackle Sakasa Kebari (which basically means "backwards fly" in Japanese). Many people ask why the hackles are reversed. The reasons I have heard the most are that they are better in fast currents because the hackles don't fold back along the hook shank, or that they are easier to tie "in hand" (early tenkara fishermen didn't have vises). Personally, I don't think either one is the reason. Early European anglers also tied their swept back hackles without vises. What's more, the hackles collapsed back on the hook shank gives the fly a perfect nymph shape.
I believe the reason the flies have the hackle facing forward is that it creates more resistance to being pulled through the water. The fly acts like a parachute under water, which allows you to keep the line tighter - off the water's surface. I do not believe it is coincidence that pesca mosca Valsesiana anglers in Italy, who even now use horsehair lines and long cane rods, virtually identical to the gear used by early tenkara anglers, also use reverse hackled flies.
I am confident that the sakasa kebari style was promoted in the US as a "tenkara fly" primarily because it is different and exotic and makes tenkara seem exotic as well. Just to be clear - you don't have to use "tenkara flies" with a tenkara rod. You can use the flies you've used successfully for years. And of course, if you want to match the hatch you can. For some fly fishermen, that is one of the challenges that makes fly fishing interesting. There's no need to stop.
For a new angler, however, struggling or overwhelmed by the complexity, there's no need to start. Pick a fly or two and concentrate on the presentation rather than the imitation.
jd_smith's Tenkara Flies are the ones that got the ball rolling. He's the guy who got me started carrying other tenkara anglers' flies. Even though Kiwi's flies were the first to actually be available, it was jd_smith's idea.
He has a unique set of flies, including a Mino Gujo, which is an adaptation of a regional Japanese tenkara fly, a PMD Sakasa Kebari, which is a tenkara version of a popular American fly, and a CDC & Elk, which a variation on the classic Elk Hair Caddis.
I've made a deal with Kiwi (Chris Kuhlow) to offer his flies on the TenkaraBum site. Anyone who's participated in one of the fly swaps he's been in knows the quality of his flies. That quality was recognized when he won second prize at the fly tying contest held by the Montana Fly Company and the Outdoor Bloggers Network. I think he would have won first prize, but the first prize was a fly reel, and it would have been a bit of an insult to give it to a tenkara angler.
Kiwi's Tenkara Flies include his signature Royal Sakasa Kebari and the Killer Bug - both of which are extremely effective.
For people who would like to experiment with tenkara flies but who do not want to buy a lot of new materials just to try out a particular fly, I have put together a series of "One Fly" Tying Kits™ which contain all the materials required to tie 25 flies of one pattern. If you like the pattern, then you can buy the materials in bulk. If you don't, you can move on to another pattern without having accumulated a lot of stuff you'll never use.
Most of the following flies are ones that I once offered for sale but due to a lack of time I now offer only as step by step instructions to help you in tying your own. For some of the flies there are "One Fly" Tying Kits™. The hooks and materials needed for the others are on the Fly Tying Materials page. The Tying Tenkara Flies DVD will walk you through the steps for most of the flies that are shown below as well as some that aren't.
Most of the fish I catch are caught on a Killer Bug. I often wonder why I fish anything else. I have not adopted a "one fly" approach to tenkara and I doubt I ever will. If I did, though, it would almost have to be a Killer Bug (or the Killer Kebari, which is essentially a Killer Bug with hackle). It certainly meets the requirements that Dr. Ishigaki set when he chose to become a "one fly" fisherman: it is simple to tie and it catches fish.
The Killer Kebari is the fly I tied for the first tenkara fly swap held in the US. Although the sakasa kebari is the best known tenkara fly in the US, many of the tenkara flies used in Japan are not reverse hackled. One of the Hida Takayama tenkara flies is just a fairly thick wool body with a soft hackle of hen or hen pheasant. That is about the perfect description of the fly you would get if you added a soft hackle to a killer bug. I've fished hackled killer bugs and have done very well with them.
The Killer Bugger is a cross between a Killer Bug and a Woolly Bugger, basically just a Killer Bug with a marabou tail. The Woolly Bugger has proven itself everywhere, and the Killer Bug has proven itself everywhere people have tried it. I'm pretty confident the Killer Bugger will, too.
The simplicity of Dr. Ishigaki's sakasa kebari (reverse hackle) style tenkara flies is very attractive. They only require two materials, and are quick to tie. I don't know what he calls it, but I call the pattern an Ishigaki fly.
When you consider that most tenkara fishing in Japan is done in high-gradient mountain streams - not unlike many of our wild brookie streams - simple patterns make sense. In small mountain streams, fish do not have the luxury of closely examining their food. It goes by too fast. Fish in those conditions must eat quickly or not at all. If the pattern looks like it even might be food, and if the presentation is good, that's probably enough.
The Sakasa Kebari style of fly was developed with attention to presentation in mind. Tied with a reverse hackle, whether a soft hackle or a rooster neck, it pulses when the angler tightens and loosens his line. This gives the fly the impression of life, and can be the most effective presentation you can achieve (and you can achieve it better with a long rod and light line).
Many small streams in the US are similar to the streams tenkara anglers fish in Japan. In small streams, trout are not as selective as they are in larger, more fertile streams that support extensive hatches. They are still very particular with respect to presentation, though. You can't get away with unnatural drag or slapping a heavy line onto the water. The tenkara rod and line take care of the presentation, which is important, making the fly choice relatively unimportant.
Of course, if you fish water that is has prolific hatches and sees extensive fishing pressure your fly choice becomes more critical. You certainly don't need to fish "tenkara flies." Your tried and true local favorites should work.
Keep in mind, though, that the the greatest advantage of tenkara, at least with respect to presentation, comes from being able to fish a very light line. You cannot effectively fish big wind resistant flies with a very light line. Similarly, the extremely soft tip sections on tenkara rods limits their ability to set the hook with very heavy flies fished deep. Traditional tenkara fishing in Japan is with unweighted wet flies fished just below the surface. And for smaller mountain streams, you'd be surprised how effective that can be.
The Hen and Hound is a sakasa kebari style fly, but to me it is a special one. To some extent it is an outgrowth of Dr. Ishigaki's "one fly" approach, although my take was more of an "any fly" than THE ONE fly. I was in Colorado visiting my sister and decided to tie a few flies with the materials that were at hand: Ginger colored hackles from her hens and a bit of dubbing from her partner's yellow Labrador Retriever. Orange silk thread to hold it all together (that's what was already in the bobbin holder) and a barbless hook - required for Rocky Mountain National Park. I caught fish, and have tied more from time to time. Each time I tie it, the better I like it. I'll fish it a lot more this year.
The Little Dark Kebari is actually a closer adaptation of the Hida Takayama style than is the Killer Kebari, which has already proven to be an effective and popular fly. The Little Dark Kebari is a bit smaller and darker, and may be taken by the trout to be a little black stone fly or little black caddis, or any one of the small, dark mayfly nymphs that make up a good percentage of a trout's diet.
My second best fly, for the second (or maybe third) year running, was Hans Weilenmann's CDC & Elk which is an elk hair caddis variation. For where I fish, the CDC & Elk is the only dry fly I feel I need. Fished dead drift or skittered, this fly draws strikes!
Although the Stewart Black Spider is not a Japanese tenkara fly it is an unweighted wet fly, and a generic pattern that does not try to match a specific hatch - one that you could have on your line all the time, as did WC Stewart. The soft hackles also pulse just like those of a Sakasa Kebari. It may not be traditional, but to me it perfectly fits with the simplicity of tenkara.
The Keeper Kebari is a yarn bodied sakasa kebari tied on a size 6 Daiichi 1560 nymph hook. It is a modification of the Sakakibara Kebari I show on the Tying Tenkara Flies DVD, which itself was an adaptation of the huge flies Sakakibara san tied for me on my first visit to Japan. Although a larger fly than most tenkara anglers use, it's not too large for trout and not too small
for bass. Sunfish take them easily (and
readily). What was most surprising was how confidently the fish take the fly, with no hesitation. I've had trout in particular hit the fly as soon as it hit the water.
I'm a little surprised none of the "one fly" adherents have declared that their one fly is the woolly bugger. It has to be one of the most productive flies ever developed. Often tied large and heavily weighted, a "tenkara woolly bugger" should be relatively small and unweighted. The fly shown here is tied on a size 12 nymph hook, with black marabou, black ostrich herl and a starling feather.
The 60s Rocker Sakasa Kebari is an adaptation of Ashley Valentine's shocking (and shockingly effective) Punk Rock Sakasa Kebari. Named 60s Rocker because it looks a rock star from the 60s whose once luxuriant hair has gone wispy and gray, this is the fly to tie when I'm out of purple starling.
The Indicator Kebari is tied to use as a strike indicator. It is tied around the tippet as shown in the photo to the left or with a loop of mono (or silk bead cord) as a "tail" to which tippet to a second fly can be tied. It is a wet fly but it is kept at the surface by fishing with a relatively short, tight line. Bright and highly visible, it will clearly indicate strikes on the point fly while drawing a few strikes itself. And unlike most floating indicators, this one has a hook in it!
A Tenkara Rod with Western Flies works very well. Don't think for a minute that you have to give up what you have used successfully for years. If you are a hatch matcher from way back, you can still match the hatch with a tenkara rod.
Tenkara Flies for Bass? Sure!
In Japan, tenkara is used almost exclusively in mountain streams and almost exclusively for trout. In the US, more and more tenkara anglers are pushing the envelope and using tenkara rods in other waters and for other species. Bass and bluegills immediately come to mind.
Of all the tenkara flies for bass I have used, the best, by far, was a big kebari tied with a wool yarn body and large partridge or pheasant hackle. The fly shown is tied with Nymph Yarn and partridge, although I had equal success with Little Dark Kebari (Oxford) yarn and hen pheasant breast hackle.
Crane fly larvae get big - up to two or three inches long. The Utah Killer Crane Fly shown here is tied on a size 6 Daiichi 1560, which is a 1 xl hook. Compared to the real thing it is still a bit on the small side, at about an inch. Still, it is a meaty mouthfull meant to tempt a hungry trout.
A size 6 fly with a yarn body, which will absorb water, will get heavy. The one pictured will be even heavier, as it has 10 wraps of lead wire. It really is a bit much for traditional tenkara rods, which after all, were designed to fish unweighted wet flies. For a nontraditional rod, like the Daiwa Kiyose SF series, that isn't a problem.
The TenkaraBum Winter Challenge takes the "20-20 club" to a new level. Limited to flies size 20 and smaller, anglers get points for the length of the fish in inches plus the size of the hook. Thus, a 20" fish on a size 20 hook scores 40 points, but a 15" fish on a size 32 hook scores 47 points. The challenge is to catch big fish on small flies. It runs from 11/1/14 to 3/31/15.
The TenkaraBum Challenge 2014 stems from the comment "You can catch anything with a black woolly bugger."
The fly at the center of TenkaraBum Challenge 2014 is not a woolly bugger, but a Killer Bugger - which is a cross between a Killer Bug and a Woolly Bugger - basically a Killer Bug with a marabou tail.
So, what can YOU catch with a Black Killer Bugger?
The TenkaraBum Challenge 2014 is a species contest. The angler who catches the most species of fish using a Black Killer Bugger wins.
The Blue Fly Challenge was a fly tying contest judged by the fish. All that mattered was that the fly was predominantly blue, included at least some of the TenkaraBum Blue Fly Yarn, and most importantly, caught fish! Prizes were awarded for first fish, largest fish (a rainbow trout estimated at 6-7 lbs), smallest fish (an eastern mosquitofish that almost fit on a penny) and most fish.