How I Learned to Relax and Love Tenkara Flies

I admit it: As much as I like the whole tenkara thing, I’ve never had much confidence in the flies. But that is starting to change.

Embracing tenkara fishing – Japanese-style, fixed-line, 12-foot telescoping rod fly-fishing – requires accepting things that strike American anglers as odd.

The lack of a reel is the strangest thing, and it does take some getting used to. Your left hand keeps reaching for line that’s not there. Your whole line, all 15 feet of it, tippet included, is attached to the rod tip.

But I’ve gotten used to using my left hand to hold my wading staff, or a cigar, while snapping crisp, tight-looped casts with my right. I no longer mind collapsing the rod and winding up the line when moving from spot to spot. I’ve gotten pretty good at playing and landing fish despite the lack of a reel, and I strive with Zen-like focus to make my casts land fly-first – or, for true enlightenment (and superb presentation), fly-only.

Tenkara flies, however, have always struck me as odd. I’ve been fishing with wet flies whose hackles lean back toward the tail of the fly for nearly 30 years. These tenkara flies – sakasa kebari, they are called – with the hackles leaning forward, over the eye of the hook, never looked right to me.

It may be because when a natural mayfly or caddis fly is drifting or swimming underwater, its legs and antennae tend to hang rearward. But the more likely explanation is that western wet flies have always been made this way and I’m just used to it.

Of course, the advantage of forward-leaning hackles is that when the fly is given a little pull, or when it is swinging below the angler against the current, the hackle fibers will move and wiggle but will not fold down over the body and practically disappear, the way they do on western-style soft hackle wets. The fly’s helpless, frantic limb-waving remains plainly visible and, presumably, signals “easy meal” to trout.

I’ve given sakasa kebari the occasional try, but have usually given up quickly and gone back to my western flies. Then I saw one tied by a Scotsman, Davie McPhail, that gave me the confidence to tie it on and leave it on all day. And leaving your fly on, instead of compulsively changing to other patterns, is the difference between tenkara fishing and western-style fishing with a tenkara rod.

McPhail’s fly has a body of turkey biot, which gives a beautifully segmented look, and a small thorax of dubbing just aft of the forward-leaning hackle. I think he used furnace hackle for his fly, but I use grizzly hackles from a low-grade cape, which are stiff enough to stick out but still soft enough to wiggle. The grizzly feather looks good with the grey biots I use.

I write this a few hours after fishing the whole day with this fly on my tippet. I caught four trout, which isn’t bad for me, especially when the fishing is slow, as it was today. And today was not the first time I’ve caught fish on this pattern. It’s earned a spot in my starting rotation.

First published in The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y., May 19 2011.


2 responses to “How I Learned to Relax and Love Tenkara Flies

  1. Wasn’t keeping up with your posts, so sorry for the late reply.
    Happy to know you’ve given the sakasa flies a fair try. They do grow on you, it took a year for me to completely switch over to them, but their versatility has completely won me over. The only fly in my box.

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