Kebari & Fly Tying

Choosing Kebari for Newcomers

Article by Jim Wright

This article was inspired by previous correspondence with new customers. I help a lot of new tenkara anglers, as well as those new to fly fishing in general. The single most numerous question is, “What kebari should I choose?”

“K” writes …

“Hi, I posted this question in a forum and I haven’t gotten an answer (and I suspect why now that I am reading your website)…but I’ll ask anyway.

As a new Tenkara fisherman (and a somewhat new fly fisherman), I’ve always been told to match the hatch. Apparently that’s not necessarily the same in Tenkara, and I guess that you don’t necessarily advocate that. I’m looking for a “starter kit” of Tenkara flies but I thought I’d need to get them more regionally in order to keep them similar to the local hatches. Is not matching the hatch a hard and fast rule?”

Thanks in advance, K”

Hi K. Thanks for your query. That is a very interesting question and I hope that I have some interesting ideas in response. I do not consider myself any kind of expert, but a student of trout. A laying on your belly in the mud kind of student. With that in mind, here goes.

A lot of folks find choosing flies a subjective topic with hundreds of different opinions, but I do not. Once you spend time studying fish behavior including stream trout, as well as “on stream sampling” and examining of aquatic creatures and understanding their role in the aqua-scape, we can clearly see the reason for the approach that I am going to suggest. While it’s true that tenkara equipment and techniques offer a big advantage for close-in (as opposed to distant) fly fishing on streams or ponds and lakes, it’s a well established fact that a few well-chosen patterns will up your game considerably. Fish see a lot of the same food items day after day, which vary among watersheds. Offering a kebari or Western pattern of a similar size and coloration of these local “commodity flies,” will prove the worth of a bit of stream-side sampling.

  1. Generally speaking, when fish are feeding upon a specific size and coloration of insect, they may not find interest in anything else for the duration of what is called a hatch. A hatch is the culmination of the life-cycle of many aquatic insects, of breeding and depositing eggs for the continuation of the species. This is what you would call a “Match the Hatch” situation. I say may not find interest, because I have successfully tempted trout with flies other than the ones that are on the menu during a hatch.

Something to remember: There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing lures for fishing. There are numerous reasons why a fish might choose to take one of our patterns, and some of them are only understood by the fish. But understanding your quarry is the key to successful angling.

  1. However, unless you have a very productive stream, most of the time when you go out, you will not be fishing over an insect hatch. Unless you are lucky or have kept close track of the hatch cycles on your specific stream, it might seem that you are looking at unproductive water. “Where are the fish?” In a decent stream, they will be there somewhere, you just need to know where to look.

Check out this site for more information of reading water to determine where fish might hold:

  1. So here we have another variable. Where are you fishing. In the mountains? Lowlands, ponds, giant lakes? And, when do you hit the stream? Early morning? Middle of the day or at dusk? Once we know the answer to a few questions like this, we can really zero in on your fly kit needs. Initially however, you don’t need to worry much about that. Over time, anglers have found that a few basic coloration’s and sizes which present at several depths and/or speed of current will suffice quite nicely for many occasions. Your deeper involvement in angling will likely spur your interest in a deeper examination of your quarry. Then you can begin to discover the finer details which will lead to opening the door to mastery of your favorite stream.

The short story… 3 or 4 patterns in a couple of sizes will get you by quite well.

  1. So again, generally you will do fine with 4 types of flies:
  • First, a floating one (actually I prefer one that fishes sitting down in the surface film, as opposed to right on the top of the water).
  • Second, something that fishes on the bottom sometimes hitting the rocks or silt.
  • Third, a fly that imitates an insect that is either swimming up to the surface or diving to the bottom during hatching and egg laying behavior. Or more often, just being carried along with the current.
  • And finally, a larger fly that imitates a bait-fish, worm, sculpin or large insect.

Now if you wish to simplify even further, in my humble opinion you can easily get along just fine with one type of fly. One that does most of the work in 3, above. And that fly type is a traditional Japanese style sakasa kebari (subsurface soft hackle pattern).

Because most larger fish will be found most of the time near bottom, actively pursuing dinner or hiding under obstacles, I prefer a heavy quick sinking kebari most of the time. On a heavy, size #12 Klinkhammer hook, I would give it a wool body. This combination provides a better to sink rate when soaking wet. A hackle, preferably from the body or neck feathers of a game bird like a partridge or pheasant. Or, a grizzly domestic hen chicken. And finally, for the pièce de résistance, a Peacock herl collar right behind the hackle. And please… use barb-less hooks!

With this fly in 4 colors; let’s say a Black, Medium Brown, Olive and a Yellow or Cream and making it even more versatile by adding a second size, a number 16, I could fish these flies very effectively by varying my technique of presentation. In the surface film by applying a floatant, as a hatching insect or an insect being washed down stream, or as a tiny minnow trying to escape the jaws of death. I could fish it upstream, down, in fast water, or I could even fish it as a nymph in deeper water.

Why can we get along with just a few patterns? The fact is that most fish are largely opportunists and don’t routinely limit themselves to just one food source. Unless that food source is so abundant that they loose interest in almost anything else (except of course by a big ‘ol killer bugger fished at the right depth… as they say, killer!).

Also understand that fish that live in still water, or low and clear water require a whole different approach (and skill) than those in faster water. The later have little time to examine their breakfast than does the slow pool dweller. The slow water trout have plenty of time to shut the door in your face, while the fast water swimmer only has seconds while braving the full, energy robbing force of the main current lane.

Now you can go either specific with your fly colors and sizes, or more general. However, if you are new to this, I would go with a mixed selection of my cheap-but-good imported flies, since you are going to loose them while you learn, by throwing them into trees and brush piles, but you are also going to catch fish in those environments. If you find that you like the multipurpose rooster hackle style flies, like the Dr. Ishigaki types, or instead prefer the soft hackles, you can then be more selective in your choices.

The final, most important piece of information that I can give you, is to plan on fishing for Bass or Sunfish in a pond or lake in advance of your trip. Then when you head for the mountain trout, you will have some tactical experience under your belt.

I hope that this information helps you. Feel free to write back with any more questions. All the best to you, Jim


Jim Wright, the owner of, has pursued trout, studied stream entomology and tied trout flies since 1967. He retired his Western fly gear, taking up tenkara in 2012.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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