As a beginning fly tier, one concept was thoroughly drilled into my brain by the cronies at the local fly shop: match the hatch. The “goal” of fly tying was to imitate specific species of insects and the more realistic the fly was, the better it was. It made perfect sense. The trout are eating something that is this particular color, is this certain size, and has this many tails. Why wouldn’t I want to imitate it if that’s what they’re taking?
I spent the formative years of my fly tying trying to be true to this principle. I studied some basic aquatic entomology and experimented with all kinds of materials to make flies that were the pinnacle of realism. I counted tails, measured proportions, blended dubbing to get the colors exactly right–I even used pre-fabricated wings, legs, and tails. I measured the quality of my flies by how realistic they were and rejected any that we’re “off”. And, they worked. And when something works, why would you question it?
For many years, imitation remained my tying philosophy. Then, in 2009, I discovered tenkara. The rods made perfect sense, but the first time I saw a sakasa kebari, I thought, “no way! That is huge and doesn’t look like anything.” So for the first year, I continued using my tried-and-true imitators with a tenkara rod. But I became increasingly curious about sakasa kebari. Do they really catch fish? I figured if there were anglers in Japan who were catching fish by using only one pattern in one size, there must be something to it. So, I finally decided to give them a try.
Feeling some trepidation, I decided my strategy would be to ease into it. For the first part of the day, I’d fish my confidence patterns. Then, after I had a few fish under my belt, I’d switch to a sakasa kebari. The first few times, I didn’t catch anything with the Japanese fly. But I didn’t give up. I stuck to my plan and kept trying different presentations until one day, it finally happened–I caught a fish! It was while I was pulsing the fly. While I caught more and bigger fish that day on my standard patterns, that one fish was 100 times more meaningful than all the others combined and I felt an intense sense of accomplishment.
But why? After all, I really had no idea why the fly worked or what I finally did right. Yet that experience was like a gateway drug and from then on out, I found myself making the switch to a sakasa kebari earlier and earlier in the day until, one day, it was the first fly I tied on. My confidence had finally overcome my suspicion.
Since then, I’ve been successfully using sakasa kebari for 99% of my tenkara fishing and here’s one thing I’ve learned: confidence trumps imitation. I wasn’t catching fish with sakasa kebari because in the back of my mind, I didn’t really believe they worked. But as I caught more and more fish on them, my confidence level went up. That was the only difference. Same spots. Same fish. Same conditions. The only thing that changed was that I converted from a sakasa kebari agnostic to a sakasa kebari believer.
OK, so, realism works. Impressionism works. Why choose one over the other? This question was recently clarified for me in a Facebook post by Anthony Naples of Casting Around. I realized that I get more of a sense of accomplishment when I catch a fish on a pattern that I imagined in my mind than one that exists in reality. I can tie a fly that looks like what I know the fish are feeding on and the chances are pretty high that they’ll take it. But giving them something that isn’t a direct imitation is a risk. I have to work harder to convince them to take. I have to “sell” it. And when the deal closes, that’s when I feel that I’ve really achieved something.
For many anglers, matching the hatch is part of the fun. Figuring out what the fish are feeding on and then dialing in the right pattern is the challenge that keeps them coming back to the water. And I get that. For years, that was my captivation. But I think since getting into tenkara, my motivation has changed. My new, self-imposed challenge is to forsake imitation and try to cajole the fish to take whatever fly I choose rather than what I know they’re eating. It makes me feel more like I’m actually the one catching the fish rather than the fly.
That’s not to say I think there’s anything wrong with matching the hatch. It’s just a different challenge. And different challenges appeal to different people at different stages in their lives. Whichever one chooses doesn’t bolster or diminish the artistry of their streamcraft. It’s just different.
I think of it this way. Some artists paint whatever they want and then try to sell it to the public. Others take commissioned work and paint whatever their client tells them to. Both are still skilled artists. But they gravitate toward different challenges in their work. I just happen to no longer be accepting commissions.
Well said Jason! I really like the analogy of the painters also. It goes with the simplicity of tenkara. Y worry about what flies u need to bring from a collection of 30,40,50 different styles and shapes to “match the hatch”. When all u have to worry about is presentation with one style of kebari. For those of us who suffer from indecision and second guessing, tenkara is a god sent!
Well said Andy. I’d rather fish for fish than fish for flies.
I enjoyed everything up until the end when I felt you kind of undermined everything you’d stated previously by injecting sarcasm with your painter anology eluding to an idea that those who tie their own flies using known patterns are comparitive to artists who don’t follow their own path by painting “original” ideas. You can apply as much creativity into a chum fry pattern or clouser minnow as you can a kebari. Just because your following a guideline for a certain pattern doesn’t mean you can’t imagine something of your own. If you were the first to tie a kebari it’d be a different story but as it is your tying somebody else’s pattern as much as any other fly tyer tying whatever it is they may be tying and we can all put in as much individual creativity in to each fly as we are capable of.
Hi Andrew, fair enough. But I don’t see where the divergence is. I was trying to say there’s just as much creativity in tying a whim as there is in a directive. The skill still lies with the artist, not the muse. I guess I didn’t really express that very well. Sorry. Oh, and to be clear, there was no sarcasm in my post at all.
Well we all read with our own lenses on so maybe I read too much in to the anology. As long as we agree that the skill lies in the artist and not the muse then all is well.
just in my opinion,Tenkara is a method and technics what remind the fishes that Kebari is match the hatch(also only an appetite doesn’t move the fishes).so,it’s a kind of match the hatch see from other points of view.
I think what you’re saying is that it’s not technically “match the hatch” in terms of directly imitating the insect, but matching what appeals to the predatory instinct in the fish. Is that correct?
A few thoughts about kebari I’ve come to believe is true over the last year and in particular things I have learned recently from the guys at Discover Tenkara.
I think there is an over fascination with the sakasa keberi by Tenkara anglers in America, the fish may be indifferent to them. If you look at Tenkara kebari on the Yoshikazu Fujioka web page, the majority are not reverse hackle flies. If you look at the polar graph on the right side of page 2 of his kebari pattern notebook the majority of traditional tenkara kebari have hackle of the short/stiff/normal hackle class.
If you look at the video of Dr. Ishgaki’s presentation to Discover Tenkara group in England last summer he points out that the Japanese Tenkara flies developed on fast flowing Japanese streams where the fly flows past the fish very quickly. The fly must be seen by the fish and the fish has to decide very quickly whether to take it or it may miss a meal. Of first importance on fast flowing streams is that the fly be seen, looking realistic is of lesser importance.
Then he points out that western fly patterns developed in generally slower flowing waters of western streams where the fish is more selective in what it takes. The flies have to look more like food before the fish will move to and take the fly. iow – flies in slower flowing water must be more realistic looking to the fish or the fish wont take the fly. Dr Ishigaki also stated if you put a fish from a Japanese stream into a slower flowing western stream it would automatically become more selective in what fly it takes. It might not take the kebari that caught it in the fast flowing Japanese stream.
Next, I just watched the Discover Tenkara Introduction to Tenkara DVD and at least 3x it was mentioned that to many people tie their Japanese Tenkara type flies to neatly without adding a deliberate haphazard chaos look in how the hackle is tied in.
Dr Ishigaki ties his fly at the end of the DVD and again it is mentioned that too many people tie the Ishigaki kebari to neatly. Tie it well, but make the hackle look a little messy.
You can also see this sort of chaotic look to the hackle on many of the Fujioka flies. In at least one of the videos of Masami Sakakibara tying one of his flies, you can see him wind the tying thread back and forth through the hackle a couple of times to give it a disheveled look before tying off the thread. He also states he thinks that makes the fly more appealing to the fish.
There may not be a need to match the hatch. But I think there is more emphasis from the Japanese kebari tiers on making the flies look a bit ugly, and they believe that this makes the fly more appealing to the fish because a disheveled looking fly looks more like a struggling distressed injured insect to the fish, it looks more like food. You can also read of the appeal of ugly disheveled looking flies in some western fly pattern books.
Lastly – For invitation fishing, where you pulse the fly,use a larger hackle. Unless it spooks the fish more than attracts them. For spooky fish, use smaller flies.
The point is the iconic Tenkara fly may be more about making a fly that looks like an injured bug than the direction the hackle slants. Try tying your flies well – but add a bit of deliberate messiness to how you tie in the hackle. Because in slower flowing water it is more important that the fly look like an injured bug. Whether the hackle points in the normal or reverse direction is of less importance just as not matching the hatch may not be important.
Great points. But I have to wonder…not every stretch of every stream in Japan is fast flowing and people still use sakasa kebari to catch fish. I have caught a lot of fish in slow water or still water with a sakasa kebari so I wonder how much it has to do with how the fly looks vs. presentation.
Also, I agree about “messiness” being an attractor. Years before I ever even heard of tenkara, I remember a few old timers commenting on how their flies catch more fish once they get beat up a little. No doubt that sloppy flies look buggier. And after all, the stream is a bad neighborhood for a delicate insect. Trout probably see plenty of examples of bugs beat up by the current, rocks, or other fish coming their way so it’s not unreasonable to think that they look like easy meals.
yes,it sounds Tenkara for me.
that’s obvious what Kebari is important,but I think that
shooting point,how to shoot and drift,drifting time are more
important for Tenkara(case by case though).
great article…. personally i’m 1/2 way there. i now take patterns that worked in the past and tie them “Tenkara style”. in fact while planning a trip to Ireland, i’ve researched flies popular there and tied those patterns Tenkara style. no reason they shouldn’t work. sylvester nemes would approve i’m sure…..
Well, in my case, as one young man commented: “It’s called fishing, not catching.” 😉
great article! i am split between both worlds (about 60/40). I very much agree though when i fish a kebari over a matched hatch pattern- more accomplishment! it really is helping me hone in one simplicity and my own skill. i needed a good whack in the head from this article!
Even when I tie to match the hatch my flies don’t look anything like a real bug. I’ve looked for years and I’ve never seen an insect with a long, curved sharp metal thing coming out its butt. All of my flies are impressionism; not one is reality. Kebari are no different. To me they are just string and feather, just like my #20 BWO fly.
A friend of mine had a book that contained 10,500 trout paterns
maybe size and presentation is more important. I fished a basic black wet fly for years and caught a lot of fish.
I wonder if you came across a piece of water you know held fish, but you caught no fish would you go back with a different fly or just move on?
I tend to move around a lot so if I come across a piece of water like that, I just move on. I might hit it again on the way back. I prefer to cover more water that sit on a particular spot for a while.
David, a great summation of what makes a fly attractive to trout and the influence of the type of water they inhabit. I’m not sure why tenkara in the US has developed this obsession with the sakasa kebari. One thing tenkara has done for me is demonstrated the effectiveness of traditional Western flies that I had tied early in my flytying days and had rejected as not being good enough, not having been tied to conform perfectly with the examples in the flytying books. Fortunately, I had saved these “rejects” and have begun fishing them with tenkara. Guess what? They work!
Tom Davis, hit the nail on the head. All the talk about exact imitations and matching the hatch, then add in forward hackle kebabi and in the end none of us will ever really know what makes a trout take a fly. We all experiment and try to learn and we succeed and fail with different methods. That makes us all improve differently.
“I’ve looked for years and I’ve never seen an insect with a long, curved sharp metal thing coming out its butt. “
Thanks, I am a tinkerer and have a tendency, sometimes, to sit on a spot and figure it out. Especially when I know there are fish there. If it is a good day with plenty of hits I would move on, but if not I would work a good spot. Therefore I carry a 2 or 3 of 5 or 6 different styles of fly, but that is just me.
My learning experiences coming up through the fly fishing ranks were pretty similar to Jason’s, except that I found myself seemingly living under a curse: There were no hatches to match on the infertile high mountain lakes and steep mountain streams that I was fishing.
Eventually I traveled to many of the more fabled waters of the West to fish, places where there were reliable Hatch Charts telling you which insects hatched during the fishing season for almost any day you would need to know. But I always found fishing the famous waters to be something of an angling zoo, with too many people getting in each others way most of the time, all trying to out do the fisherman on his right or left. So tired of the angling circuses pretty quickly and went back to fishing my home waters, with their smaller fish, lack of fishing pressure, and no hatches to match or hatch charts to consult.
Eventually I learned that attractor fly patterns were all that I needed on the streams I was fishing to catch fish most of the time. My angling successes took a exponential leap in effectiveness after reading TYING & FISHING TERRESTRIALS, by Gerald Almy (which is not currently in print), which told me that small stream trout get 60 percent or more of their food from terrestrial insects in stead of from the in-stream aquatic insect populations.
Reading Ralph Cutter’s, SIERRA TROUT GUIDE, informed me that many of the high lake trout I love to fish so much for could not survive in those waters if it were not for the almost daily deposition of terrestrial insects into the high lakes that the thermal up-slope winds make available to the fish almost daily through the spring, summer and fall.
In both the streams and lakes of the High Sierra, the fish primarily feed opportunistically. So while some fly patterns will definitely work better than others do at times, any fly pattern that more or less resembles a bug of some kind will usually catch some fish most of the time on these impoverished waters. So when I took up Tenkara fly fishing I felt no need to try the traditional Japanese fly patterns, because I already knew that they would work and work very well on the waters that I am fishing, and my Sheeps Creek series of fly patterns (which are a kind of reverse-hackle, hackle-ed Sakasa Kebari fly pattern with a very skinny wing or breathing tube added) are so close to being a Kebari style fly pattern that I saw no reason to change anything. I already had all the confidence that I needed to catch fish using the fly patterns that I was already fishing very successfully for my Tenkara-style fly fishing.
I pulse my fly patterns at times when fishing in stillwaters, but almost never pulse my fly patterns in fishing streams, primarily because our streams are too steep to fish effectively while fishing down stream. Trying to fish down stream usually spooks every trout in sight on the streams that I fish, so it is upstream, dry fly fishing that is the most effective technique to use once the spring runoff has subsided here. But I do agree with Jason that having confidence in the fly patterns that you are using is one of the most important factors in being able to catch fish effectively.
Attractor dry flies are about as far from exact imitation as it is possible to get as they have no natural insect counter parts. But I took their use a couple of steps even farther than that in my fishing: I chose my fly pattern of the day totally according to the lighting conditions at the time the choice was being made. In other words, I always fished the fly that I could see the best and easiest on the water. These included a light, a medium and a dark winged fly pattern respectively, and an additional pattern designed to be fished in the green light coming from sunshine being filtered through a cover of green leaved trees above the stream, where those conditions occur.
The next step was adding a butt to these down-wing style hackle-less patterns of a Fluorescent material, which has a tendency to hurry the rise of the trout to take the fly before drag can set in and spoil your drift.
The use of ultraviolet reflective and/or absorbing materials has also been added to these patterns to also enhance their fish catching abilities even more. But, admittedly, that is more along the lines of imitation than it is purely an attraction atribute.
Terrestrial (or land based) insects come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors, so there is no need to have very many or overly specific fly pattern imitations to imitate them. A big and a small beetle and ant patterns will do quite nicely, as well as a smaller high country hopper pattern, and possibly a spider pattern as well is all that’s required more than 90 percent of the time.
While none of these are wet flies, dry flies are used in Japan by Tenkara anglers a lot more than we have been lead to believe in this country, by the sellers of most Tenkara tackle. If you have never fished a dry fly with your Tenkara gear, you owe it to yourself to give Tenkara dry fly fishing an honest try. It beats fishing a dry fly on Western fly fishing tackle by a long, long ways. After all, its the presentation rather than the fly pattern that you are using that accounts for 85 percent or more of the fish that we catch. And fixed line fly fishing gives the ultimate dry fly drifts and presentations. And seeing the fish take your fly right on top of the water in a stream or on a lake that you are fishing is the most fun you can have standing up. Give Tenkara dry fly fishing a try and see what you think of it. If you try it, I think you will like it a lot more than you enjoy wet fly Tenkara fishing.
Jason, here’s one you might like.
I found a website where the last part of the URL is kebaritaidan.html.
Oh, what is taidan? 対談, Taidan (Talk)
毛鉤対談, Kebari taidan, ( Kebari Talk)
You are now, テンカラ対談, Tenkara Taidan. Tenkara Talk. 😉
Or more literally – Pair Team.
Other acceptable translations are: dialogue, conversation.
Hey, David. Thanks for that. That’s pretty cool!
The stream trout season where I fish runs from the last Saturday in April through the 15th of November. Most of the places where I fish require a 2 to a 3 hour or longer drive, so I normally fish only once a week, except when I go on on multiple-day backpacking trips. During the high of the backpacking season last year, I had some potentially life threatening health issues to deal with that cause me to loose 6-weeks of last year’s angling season. But even with that loss of fishing time, I still managed to release over 1,300 fish during the 2013 fishing season. And more than half of those trout, fishing dry flies exclusively in streams and also a lot of the time on stillwaters, were caught on dry flies while Tenkara style fly fishing. So I know for a fact that Tenkara style dry fly fishing works, and works especially well on high gradient mountain streams. What, if anything, you choose to do with this information is purely up to you.
Somewhere a trout is laughing at us.
the trout ambassador, and somewhere, a trout is being eaten by a tenkara fisherman.
What colors do you lean towards when you are making your sakasa kebari flies?
Hi Brooks, I usually lean towards natural earth-tone colors: brown, black, grey, olive, tan, etc.