Ever since I started tenkara fishing, I’ve been fascinated with those who subscribe to the “one fly” approach. Imagine an angler so confident in their skills, having so much faith in one fly, that they choose to carry only one pattern with them. It seems almost mythical. Yet, there are some practical reasons why this approach really works that will resonate with the Western angler. Whether you’re new to tenkara and want to explore traditional Japanese techniques or you’re a seasoned tenkara angler thinking about trying the one fly approach, here are some basic considerations that might help you better understand why this ancient practice works (and sometimes doesn’t).
Many anglers in Japan that practice the one fly approach have settled on the sakasa kebari as their weapon of choice. And for good reason. This is an extremely versatile reversed hackle wet fly (usually with a simple thread body) that has great action underwater. It can be fished upstream, downstream, dead drifted, pulsed, twitched, swung, or even fished in the surface film as an emerger. If I could go golfing with only one club, I’d want one that could drive, putt, chip, and get me out of the rough. If you think of your fly box as a golf bag, the sakasa kebari can certainly replace a lot of your other “clubs”.
But to be fair, “one fly” doesn’t mean only carrying a #12 with black thread and brown hackle. In fact, many Japanese one-fly devotees actually carry the same pattern tied in different sizes and color variations. Preeminent tenkara master Dr. Ishigaki carries some lighter versions of his one fly with grey bodies and grizzly hackle. Whether carrying different sizes and colors or not still constitutes “one fly” is beyond the scope of this article but I mention it to take away some of the anxiety for those considering fishing one fly and because it will become relevant later.
Why it Works
There are three reasons why I think the sakasa kebari works and is a great choice if you decide to follow the one fly approach.
1. Versatility. As mentioned above , the sakasa kebari is an extremely versatile fly that can address a variety of situations. It also has good action underwater that makes it look alive and can even trigger strikes from fish that aren’t actively feeding. If you can only carry one pattern, it makes sense to have one that can wear the most hats and the sakasa kebari can switch into different roles more seamlessly than an accomplished Vaudeville actor.
2. Confidence. This has to do more with the angler than the fly itself. Many tenkara anglers say that the fly doesn’t really matter–it’s the skill of the angler presenting it that matters. Usually, by the time someone settles on a particular pattern as their one fly, they have acquired a certain skill level. In Western fly fishing, we often talk about “confidence patterns”. We say that if you fish patterns you’re confident in, you’ll fish better and therefore, catch more fish. I wonder if somehow it’s opposite for tenkara masters. To me, it seems that their confidence comes from within rather than being imparted from an external source such as a specific fly pattern. This notion has prompted some to coin the phrase “any fly” rather than “one fly”, meaning that a skilled tenkara angler has such confidence in their technique that the fly essentially becomes irrelevant. Whether you place your confidence in your skills, the fly, or both, I think it’s reasonable to assume that by the time one commits to the one fly approach, it’s ultimately confidence that is driving them to fish better and that is one reason why it can be so effective. And this confidence paired with the intrinsic fish catching qualities of the sakasa kebari is a deadly combination.
3. Expendability. Unlike many intricate Western patterns, sakasa kebari are expendable. They’re so easy and inexpensive to tie that you don’t feel the same sense of guilt you might at tossing them into log jams, tight pockets, under-hanging brush, or other precarious situations where you might fear losing a complicated, difficult to tie, or more expensive fly. This gives you the freedom to explore water that other anglers might shy away from for fear of getting snagged. Ultimately, this increases the amount of water you can fish and gives you first dibs on fish shunned or overlooked by others.
Does it always work?
Someone in the forums recently made the claim that sakasa kebari “work anywhere, anytime, hands down”. Let me give you a spoiler alert: I flat out reject this claim. It has nothing to do with sakasa kebari. I think you can’t make this claim about any fly. There is no one fly that will work in every situation. People tend to make hyperbolic statements like this to prove the effectiveness of sakasa kebari (perhaps somewhat defensively) but why? Isn’t it enough to just say sakasa kebari are effective flies? Why does it have to be exaggerated to be credible? I think hyperbole actually detracts from credibility. So, for the sake of this post, I will say that the sakasa kebari is a highly effective fly. I won’t say it works everywhere, any time, because I would never say that about any fly. But as far as an all around pattern, I think it suffices to say that this is about as close as you can get.
Now that we’ve examined some of the mechanics of why the sakasa kebari is an effective pattern and why it’s a natural fit for the one fly approach, let’s look at some different common on-stream situations and try to figure out how a sakasa kebari might fit in.
One of the questions I see most frequently asked is if a sakasa kebari can be fished effectively during a hatch. Looking at a sakasa kebari, you might think it doesn’t really resemble anything. On the other hand, it’s so nondescript that it could resemble many different things. Depending on the size and color you use, a sakasa kebari could actually match the hatch for a variety of mayfly and caddis species. And depending on the presentation you use, it could accurately mimic many different stages of emergence. That’s fine for mayfly and caddis hatches but what do you do if the fish are feeding on #22 midges or other insects that don’t immediately look anything like your one fly? To answer that, let’s take a minute to figure out a trout’s typical MO during a hatch.
This weekend, I was fishing a #12 sakasa kebari with a black body and grizzly hackle to a pod of fish that were actively feeding on #22 grey midges. And, I caught several fish. This might seem strange until you consider a trout’s motivation during a hatch.
All trout are opportunistic (sometimes). In general, they want the most amount of protein gained for the least amount of energy expended. Hatches are “opportunities” because the fish have an ample supply of the same, easily identifiable food source being spoon fed to them by the current. So, the fish’s instinct is to get “locked in” to taking the same thing over and over since it’s already proven itself as food. There’s no need to waste energy trying something different that comes along which may or may not be food. But why then would a fish take a fly ten times the size of the millions of midges coming down stream? It’s a calculated risk and one that some fish will take while others will leave at the table.
Just like every angler on the stream has a different skill level, so too do the individual trout beneath its surface. There are the naive (newbie) stockers, younger fish, the cocky teenagers, the middle-aged fish with more experience, and the wise twenty-inchers. Each of these fish have had different experiences that will determine how willing they are to take your fly or humiliate you with a convincing refusal. And which fish your fly ends up in front of will largely determine how likely you are to get a strike or not. So, the newbie stocker will probably jump at anything that looks like food and is easily distracted (even from a prolific hatch where they could easily sit back and slurp away) by anything that moves. This explains why you can still catch some fish with a sakasa kebari that doesn’t match the hatch at all.
On the other hand, the older and wiser twenty-incher probably won’t be bothered to risk trying something different. They know there’s an endless supply of food coming so why move out of a good feeding lane to risk something that might get them hooked (again). They’ve learned their lesson. Of course, this isn’t written in stone. You can fool the occasional wise guy with a sakasa kebari during a hatch. But this has to do more with a triggered response. Just like you can get steelhead to strike out of aggression even they no longer actively feed when spawing, the pulsing hackle of a sakasa kebari can be so enticing that it is enough to tap deep into even the most educated trout’s instinct to make them strike. And that explains why every once in a while, you can get a big fish during a hatch.
Remember when I mentioned above that tenkara anglers tie their one fly in a variety of sizes and colors? This is where is comes into play. Carrying sakasa kebari in different variations will allow you to pander to each skill level of the different trout in the stream and greatly increase your chances of catching fish.
Show me something different!
But beyond matching the hatch, I think it’s important to mention that sometimes fish just get “tired” of a particular fly. As an example, last weekend I was fishing a #12 sakasa kebari with thick hen hackle to pod of fish at the tail end of a large pool. I caught several fish but after a while, the remaining fish started ignoring the fly. They wouldn’t even give it a look out of professional courtesy. So, I switched to a #14 sakasa kebari with a thinner body and much sparser grizzly hackle. As soon as I switched, I started catching fish again. If I had only had that one fly with me, I would have considered the pool fished out and would have moved along. But having a variation to switch to allowed me to catch more fish that I would have otherwise missed. Even if the fish are receptive, sometimes you just have to show them something different and if you have variations of sakasa kebari in your one fly arsenal, you will be able to pull more fish out of pools you might be walking away from prematurely. This is where it’s nice to know that “one fly” can mean “the same fly” in different sizes and colors.
Sakasa Kebari as Attractor Patterns
Probably 90% of my fishing takes place when there is no significant hatch and I’m using a sakasa kebari as a searching pattern. This is where the sakasa kebari really shines in my opinion. As I eluded to above, sakasa kebari represent everything and nothing, making them an excellent attractor pattern. I can surgically pickpocket my way down a stream until I reach a decent pool and then make a variety of different presentations thanks to the fly’s versatility. Whether the fish ID it as something familiar, or just something that looks alive, they take it. And that is the hallmark of a good attractor pattern–one that you (and the fish) can believe in.
Volumes could be written on this subject and this post can’t even attempt to be comprehensive. What I hope is does offer is some insights for those trying sakasa kebari for the first time or those toying with the idea of taking the brave plunge into the one fly approach. While I can’t say I’ve made the jump myself, I’ve stuck my toes in the water. For the better part of last fall and early into this season I’ve been narrowing down my “go-to” flies to something more like a “three-or-four-fly approach”. Whether “three” will become “two” or “one” remains to be seen. All I know is that empirical evidence is teaching me something and I become more and more confident in the traditional method every time I fish. I’m learning to trust it. I’m learning to believe it. I’m learning to do it. And on some level, it works.