Tenkara Flies – Everything You Need to Know
Tenkara flies are very similar in many ways to western flies, yet different in some ways. That’s why I wrote this article so that you can learn everything there is to know about tenkara flies. I’ve broken it up into the following sections:
Are they different from western fly patterns?
Should I buy them or tie them?
If I were to tie them what would I need?
What are the best patterns to tie?
Let’s get into it.
History Of Tenkara Flies
Everything starts somewhere and tenkara flies are no exception. If you read my article on the tenkara rod and where it came from, you would know that tenkara originated in Japan over 400 years ago. That’s almost twice as long as the existence of America!
Now, if you would like to learn more about the tenkara rod itself, you can check out the post I made about the history of tenkara. This, however, will be strictly about tenkara flies.
Tenkara as a whole is very simple and traditional tenkara flies are no different.
As Tenkara was used as a means for commercial fishermen to catch fish from high mountain streams, they needed reliable flies that were easy to make. Their livelihood depended on it.
I’m sure they probably tested and tried hundreds or maybe even thousands of ideas before they settled on the patterns we know today.
Just to put into perspective how simple the flies are that they made let’s look at the most popular tenkara fly used in the US, the sakasa kebari. Also, known as the Ishigaki kebari.
This fly has a hook, black thread, and a brown hackle ( a small feather wrapped around the hook shank). I have personally caught countless fish on this fly and it takes about 60 seconds to tie one.
Tenkara Bum explains that simplicity was also used because the fish that were targeted, typically Yamame, Iwana, and Amago fish, didn’t have the blessing of being picky. This was due to the fast-moving stream water and the lack of food in the water.
Because of these conditions, the kebari fly would act as more of a simulator rather than an imitator. The reverse hackle would move in the fast-moving water and the motion would attract hungry fish.
Another reason is that these streams often had a lot of overhead growth and it wasn’t uncommon to lose a few flies to the trees. Luckily, Since these flies are so easy and fast to make, replacing them isn’t that big of a deal.
Tenkara Flies vs Western Flies
It’s important to note that you can use any of your western flies on your tenkara and vice-versa. You can still catch fish with your tenkara on a streamer or your western rod with a kebari.
Here is a video of the Tenkara Rod Co guys catching salmon in Alaska with streamers. With that being said, certain fly patterns do work better in certain scenarios.
For example, a kebari fly on a tenkara rod in the high mountains will yield better results than a prince nymph in the same place.
There also is a difference between flies used for tenkara and flies used for western fly fishing. Like I mentioned earlier, tenkara flies are simple.
Tenkara Talk wrote a beginner’s guide to tying flies for tenkara and they talked about how most dry flies for tenkara are “spartan” flies. They lack legs, wings, and tails. They are similar to sakasa kebari but typically have stiffer hackles and the hackles are closer to the hook bends. Some have dubbing or wool bodies.
Wet flies are similar but have softer hackles and thread bodies.
Both of these flies don’t necessarily mimic anything in particular but they look like they’re alive when you manipulate the line.
What to use?
Tenkara anglers, on the other hand, are a different breed. One of my favorite people to fish tenkara with only brings two flies, a kebari (wet fly) and a variation of a parachute Adams (dry fly).
The truth is, the biggest difference between tenkara and western flies is the anglers that use them. I often use midges, Adams, mayflies, along with others. However, my go-to has always been and will always be a variation of the sakasa kebari. I’ve had the most success with it and it feels more “pure”.
Buying vs Tying
Here’s the thing, are you wanting to know what’s cheaper? Well, I would say that buying is cheaper for a long time.
For example, you can buy 24 tenkara flies from DRAGONtail for $21.99 (on sale at the time of this article).
If you wanted to tie 24 flies you would need about $100 worth of materials. 24 flies would last you for quite a while. So you see, it would take a while to break even, and even longer before you start seeing savings.
As I said, you would have to go through a lot of flies to break even. But, if you end up tying your own flies for the next 40 years, it will probably be cheaper to tie your flies.
This mindset is different for everyone. What I mean is that not everyone ties flies to save money. I certainly don’t!
I said earlier that I liked fishing with kebari because it’s a more “pure” experience and while that may be cliche, I tie flies for the same reason.
If you’ve never caught a monster brown on a fly you tied, you’re missing out!
I also really enjoy experimenting with new patterns that I made up to see what works well and what doesn’t. Tying flies is also one of my favorite pass times, besides fishing of course!
So, if you want to save money, buy flies. If you are looking for the experience, tie your own flies.
If you’re not sure about dropping $100+ on tools but still want to learn, here is a “cheap” starter option. If you are serious about it, I would probably stay away from kits, since they won’t be the best quality.
However, I have tied hundreds of flies on this kit and it has done the job.
Tying Tools and Materials
Tools, tools. Anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE gear and tools. That’s one of the reasons why tying flies will never be cheaper for me!
However, buying the most expensive tools for tying when you’re first starting is not necessary. Let’s take a look at what you’ll need.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t need a vise to tie flies. I’m not saying that it’s impossible but you’ll hate it if you’re trying to learn how to tie without a vise.
This will be the most expensive tool you purchase for tying but it will last for years.
I recommend looking for a vise around the $50 range. You can spend less but you get what you pay for. If you have the extra capital and want to go all-in you can spend hundreds on a vise.
Scissors are crucial for a smooth operation. If you have dull scissors you will likely rage quit and never tie again.
Luckily, they are not very expensive. You can pick up a good pair for about $10.
A nice bobbin will help you keep the proper tension on your line without cutting or breaking your line. These problems are very, very frustrating.
A nice bobbin can be obtained for $10-$20.
Some anglers don’t use whip finishers and some old-timers look down on them but I love them! They make finishing your flies so much smoother and it’s easier as well.
You can find them for sale for about $10.
Optional (But Very Helpful)
I LOVE hackle pliers. Especially since practically every tenkara fly has a hackle.
I have large hands and fingers and sometimes it’s hard to hold small hackles so hackle pliers are a lifesaver!
You can buy one for about $5-$10.
When tying flies, it’s very easy to trap hackle fibers in the thread and bodkins make it easy to free those fibers.
They’re like $7-$10.
This isn’t as important for kebari style flies but, if you decide to fish deer hair caddis or similar flies this will allow you to evenly stack the hair fibers.
They’re about $10-$20.
Tenkara Flies (Patterns)
Here’s the deal, in America most tenkara anglers use different variations of the kebari fly, along with western flies that take their fancy.
Traditionally this fly has a thread body (usually black) and a partridge feather reverse hackle. The partridge feather provides a soft hackle that articulates in the water, and it has a few different colors in it.
With that being said, you don’t have to use black thread or a partridge hackle. I often like to tie these flies with bright thread bodies as a hot spot. Some of my local “fishing holes” don’t have very clear water and I find that these bright flies work better.
Another thing I like to do is use gold wire or tinsel as ribbing. This helps the fly to be more durable as well as acts as a hot spot. The wire also helps the fly to sink if you have a larger hackle.
I will also tie this fly with a stiffer hackle and maybe a dubbing body, and use it as a dry fly. Typically, I have to continue to add floatant if I do fish it as a dry fly.
This is my go-to dry fly for a few reasons. Firstly, this fly is easy to tie and works well. I hate using flies that are complex to tie because I do lose them sometimes.
The way I tie this fly is either a dubbing body or a thread body, a white indicator post, and a stiff hackle around the post. That’s it. Now and then I put a tail on them but not always.
Second, this fly catches fish! Simple as that!
I love this fly. It’s one of my favorites to tie because of the way it looks and how well it floats. Unfortunately, it takes longer to tie than some of the others and uses more materials so it sucks when you lose them…
The killer bug is a favorite of TenkaraBum. This fly imitates the larva state of a fly and consists of a tapered dubbing body with a few wraps of wire around the tail end of the dubbing. That’s all.
He does tie a few variations of this fly however. These variations are named the killer kebari, and the killer bugger.
The killer kebari is the same as the killer bug except that it has a soft hackle (not a reverse hackle).
The killer bugger is like the killer bug but it has a marabou feather tail. It’s a mix of a killer bug and a woolly bugger.
Dr. Ishigaki’s Sakasa Kebari
TenkaraBum says he likes this fly because of the simplicity of it. It consists of a black thread body and a stiff rooster reverse hackle.*H4 Sakasa Kebari Variations
His favorite sakasa kebari patterns are the Hen and Hound, and the little dark kebari. He does make other variations using peacock herl bodies, soft and stiff hackles, and reverse and regular hackles.
CDC and Elk Hair Caddis
Specifically a variation from Hans Weilenmann’s. This fly has yielded great success for TenkaraBum. You would need a hair stacker to properly tie this fly.
Stewart Black Spider
This is a very simple fly consisting of a black starling soft hackle. That’s all. This fly appears to “swim” through the water similar to a kebari.
Pink Chenille Worm, Overhand Worm, Yarn Nymph, and the Muddler Minnow are some other TenkaraBum Favorites. I haven’t had any success with any of these flies but if you want to learn more about them you can check out TenkaraBum.
Tristan over at Tenkara Addict typically only uses variations of kebari flies when he fishes. Most of his patterns have very bright bodies and often hard colored yarn. He has a company called Fly Tying Yarn where he sells tons of different kinds of tying yarns ranging in color and material. He also sells hooks there and some other ods and ends.
Jason over at Tenkara Talk usually uses a lot of the same flies as TenkaraBum, sticking to a more “traditionally” approach with sakasa kebari.
How to Tie a Sakasa Kebari
Tying flies isn’t hard but there is a bit of a learning curve. A lot of it is personal preference but I would learn to tie flies from a pattern first.
The biggest mistake I see (and one I’ve made multiple times) is wrong proportions. This is especially important when tying imitation flies. If you tie a mayfly that has a tail that’s 3 hook shank lengths, and wings that are half a shank length, it won’t look real.
So, until you have more flies under your belt, I would follow the patterns.
But let’s start with a simple Kebari fly.
Materials and Tools Needed:
- Size 12 hook
- Hackle pliers
- Soft hackle feather (I’m running low on soft hackle feather so I didn’t have any partridge feathers. I used a grizzly saddle hackle.) Hackle size should be about the shank length.
You’ll need to take a hook (I would use a size 12 because it’s not too small) and bend the barb in the vise. The place it in the vise like the picture.
*I always bent the barb for a few reasons. Firstly, I find it easier to retrieve the hook from the fish, it doesn’t do as much damage, and if the wind changes while I’m casting and I catch my ear, it will be easier to remove.*
Pick your thread (color and size and material) and start a base layer, cutting off the excess.
Make a thread head on the 1st quarter of the hook shank. Be careful not to build up too much thread by the eye of the hook.
Tie in your hackle like done in the picture.
Make a tapered thread body going back to the hook bend.
Wrap your hackle around the shank. Keep in mind that you don’t want to make your hackle to dense.
Take your thread and lock off the hackle with a few wraps then snip off the excess hackle.
I like to take my thread and make a few wraps around the base of the hackle to bring it forward like the picture.
Whip it! Now it’s time to use your whip finisher to tie of the thread. I usually do two or three whip finishes just in case one fails.
The beginner steps will be the same for most flies but this post would be
Tenkara flies are very simple yet effective. They’re perfect for learning how to tie flies and don’t require a lot of tools and materials.
Tying these flies opens up the doors of imagination, as you saw with TenkaraBum and Tenkara Addict.
Let me know in the comments below if you have a favorite tenkara fly or if you found a new one you want to try.
Also, if you’ve never tied before but now want to try, leave it in the comments!
If you liked this post, go check out some of my others and be sure to share this post!