Techniques Tenkara

Kebari Manipulation: Matching Nature

Article by Vito “Tsurikichi” Rubino

I always feel satisfied returning home from the river. Every day spent tenkara fishing keeps me company during the rest of the week. My mind is still there, by the stream, casting and enjoying the grinning water and the beautiful landscape surrounding it.

Some days last in mind more than others, with few moments that become indelible snapshots. Laughter with friends, the joy of being in the nature finally free… Every fish caught it is much bigger and heavier when you’re in this mood.

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I have always believed and said that the essence of tenkara lies in the “handle”, shifting the attention from the imitation to the expert hand of the angler that moves it. I have seen evidence of it many, many times. During the past season I caught many native trout using traditional kebari, and in few occasion of experimentation, “western” dry flies – mayflies, sedges and so on. Most of these catches also came using flies that were not hatching while I was fishing, and that were not part of the trout’s diet in that period in that stream.

I believe that “match the hatch” (which is the practice of using an identical imitation to what the fish is preying at that moment) it is a fascinating strategy full of knowledge, where entomology meets angling. For the ones in love with that practice sees it almost as a chess battle. They love to search for the solution to the problem (such as a reluctant selective trout) by constantly changing flies, focusing their efforts on the imitation of appearance rather than on the fly movement in the water and other factors, using always the dead-drift approach. In my point of view, it is therefore just a strategy, a personal way of approaching and viewing fly fishing. Just another way to reach the goal. It is not the golden rule.

So my questions were:

In terms of fly fishing (or tenkara), is there another approach to achieve the same goal? Is there a reverse way of thinking? One which brings attention from the fly imitation in itself to the way it is handled, focusing on fish perception?

The answer, in my opinion and in my experience, is “Yes” and it is the one upon which all the fly fishing methods were originally developed. “Imitate” does not mean just using a fly that appears identical to the real one. Imitating also means “to appear alike” through movement, with dynamism and distinctive features in a kind of stylization, far from every mannerism.

The verb “to imitate” derives from the Latin “imiter” and means “to bind” or “to connect” one thing to another, a vision to another vision.

Let’s try to build a generic fly, that does not resemble any real insect, a quickly rolled feather on a hook. Then show it motionless, still on a table, to your wife (holy woman) or to a non-angler friend (do you still have any?). They will tell you that it may resemble some bugs. But they will do it quietly, without fanfare.

Now shake the same “fly” in front of their eyes, make it dance on their shoulders (I hope you are using a barbless hook for their sake!). You will get screams as natural reaction to an unidentified “crap” insect bouncing on them. And what we call “crap”, the fish would call it food. Fish reaction will be predatory, and just when its other senses will be notified of the non-edibility it will spit the fly. Meanwhile, in this very short span of time, we will hopefully have already set the hook.

Those who say that tenkara flies, kebari, do not imitate anything in my opinion, are making a big mistake, because he or she forgets the basic principle that has given life in every part of the world. From Japan to Italy, from Macedonia to England, fly-fishing, tenkara, valsesiana or another traditional method.  The principle is to imitate insects of the river that are at the base of the fish diet with feathers and thread, with a knowledge anglers got from experience ignoring entomological names from ages and ages.

Now, the big difference between Western art and Oriental art lies in the essence and in the constant research of it. In Western art, the artist reaches a point of balance and then add details to obtain the final result. In contrast, in Oriental art the artist reaches a point of balance and then subtract elements to reach the essence, the stylization, the symbol, the icon. And kebari are a heritage of Oriental art and its spirit.

Those are generic imitations and stylization in their absolute minimalist, able to interpret many insects thanks to the life that an experienced tenkara angler gives them through the right movement. And with the word “movement” I mean their way of being in the water, from dynamic to static or dead-drifting.

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To clarify my point of view, I shall write about an emblematic day.

I decided to put this theory into practice, so one day I brought with me to the stream some of my kebari, very different in colors, sizes and materials. Given the lack of activity, typical of the cold hours of the opening season in early Spring, I began to fish with my Tenkara USA Sato, about 15 ‘ of #3 level line, a 4’ 5x tippet, and an Amano kebari. The imitation worked perfectly under the surface in very shallow water.

After a few casts I hooked the first brownie. The joy was so great. A beautiful ten-inch trout, in the free section of a stream which is heavily fished with natural bait during the opening week, always represents a good trophy. I released it with care and kept on angling, but with poor results.

It was raining and sleeting. Few peeps of the sun were immediately crushed by clouds which took again their place and continue to threaten. During the day the temperature warmed up a bit, so I decide to stop on a spot that looked really promising with warmer weather. “If they decide to move, this is the spot” I said to myself, in a tone between stubbornness and confidence.

Suddenly, the corner of my eyes saw something, able to make every sick angler crazy, “BLUP!” Here we go. Something started to rise. I decided to use a traditional kebari, hand-tied the night before; eyeless hook with a black silk eye, size 12, dun thread for the body, a couple of rounds of dun cock for hackles. Nothing could be simpler.

I cast it upstream, allowing the kebari to flow with the current on the water surface in dead-drift.

And a trout rose. I released it, cast again and… another trout rose. That’s entertainment!!! Then, nothing more.

Two trout were rising upstream and a friend, an experienced fly angler and tier, joined me and began his chess game. His “match the hatch” style made of expert entomological knowledge and a lot of technique. I stopped and looked. His fly passed over the head of the trout in a completely natural way, free of dredging, but nothing happened. He changed his fly. Nothing. And again. Nothing. His flies were incredibly identical to the hatching insects, realistic and beautiful to the human eyes.

That scene got me thinking, and as my friend moved away, I moved to his spot and mulled it over. Why was that? Why didn’t the trout rise on such perfect flies? What was wrong?

The first kebari I had used was not so imitative, but it was still the same color and size more or less of the mayflies in the stream. I tried to give an answer to the question that haunted me by putting into practice what I learned from the Japanese Masters, from the rivers, and most of all, from Daniel Galhardo, founder of Tenkara USA, when I had the chance to fish with him in Italy.

At that moment, I deeply realized that it is not the fly to make a difference but it is how it moves, how it is alive.

So I decided to use a totally different kebari, similar to those from the Kurobe mountain area in Japan. Very simple and used by a lot of anglers, also in past ages, around the word. Red thread body, ginger cock palmered on the body and ginger cock for tail. That’s it. Nothing could be more different from every insect at that time on the stream.

I cast upstream and let the kebari flow in dead-drift downstream. No fish reaction. So I tried again, casting in the same point, but stopping the kebari, holding it still while the stream pushed beneath it. The kebari drowned against the current, then got rid of surface tension and fought with all its strength to remain on the surface thanks to my traction. In Japanese this technique is called “Tometsuri” (tome=stop / tsuri=fish). Not even a second and a lightning flash grabbed it voraciously.

Fish on! I set the hook, and after a short fight I put it in my tamo and I kept looking at the trout, with my hands still trembling with emotion. “Ok – I told myself to calm down my excitement – it does not mean anything.”

Just the time of the release and I cast again, then I hold the kebari until it reached another spot. It drowned, it emerged, it fought against the current. And splash! Another trout rose angry and ended up into my photo album. I cast again and applied the same technique to another spot. And another trout came. One may be an exception, two could be luck, but the third trout represented a confirmation of the theory, at least in that stream.

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Entranced, as only tenkara makes me feel, I moved upstream, trying to refine an approach that took account of the new findings.

I like to call it the “X Approach:”

Cast in the spot upstream leaving the kebari flow natural in dead-drift, and then retry the same spot downstream holding the kebari (holding it against the current, stop-drift-stop and so on), then change spots. I think it represents the best strategy to approach mountain streams, also varying movement techniques.

In Japanese this movement technique is called “Sasoi,” that literally means “entice,” “invitation.” Master Masami Sakakibara always began a fishing session on a new stream by stopping a big kebari against the current, to check the superficial activity and the tendency of the fish to rise.

Besides kebari pulsing, the Master Dr. Hisao Ishigaki often uses the prior mentioned “Tometsuri;” holding and releasing the kebari making it swing under and on the surface.

The last trout of the day seemed to be sent by someone as a joke, to confirm my theories. So obvious that I suspected the fish was trained by some “video prank” producer.

I cast upstream, and the kebari swept past in dead-drift. Nothing. I made ten steps upstream then cast in the same spot but downstream, stopping the kebari against the current. Splash! The trout rose but it missed the kebari as it was bouncing on the water. Not what we would call a “refusal,” but a real miss.

I knew the fish was still there since I did not sting it. I cast to the same spot, but left the kebari to drift free. Nothing. I cast again, holding it back. Splash! The trout rose and missed again. I laughed through my teeth. I cast again and let it drift. Nothing. Cast again and holding it back. Splash! This time the trout was there, hooked, rebelling with all its strength but eventually ending up in the tamo.

I would have liked to have a chat with that trout and tell it about my new sensational discovery. However when I saw its face I understood that it would not have enjoyed the conversation at all. I released it, leaving us to think about what had just happened, the trout in its hole, me in my thoughts.

I met my friend again, who had a wonderful day as well. We talked, exchanged opinions, and slowly removed our waders with the pace of children who didn’t want to go home. If the world is beautiful because it can always surprise you, the river is a paradise because it can surprise you even more.

The deduction that worked here may not work elsewhere, but a strong belief took place in my mind like a new awareness: It is not what you use. It is how you use it.

And if you think about it, this motto can apply to everything in our life. I could say that the principle “it’s not what you use but it’s the way you use it,” can really match nature.

In conclusion, kebari can be fished in the stream with a dead-drift, my first technique to use especially on native fish. But this cannot be the only technique, and if the dead-drift does not work you can find the solution with the right manipulation without the need to change the fly, becoming what some Japanese tenkara anglers call a “fly nomad”.

My friend pulled a CD out of his pocket, mysteriously found on the banks of the stream, strangely mint. As a funny thing to do, we put it the car stereo, leaving to the fate the soundtrack that took us home after that wonderful day. The stereo read it smoothly. It was an Italian song I’ll never forget, and the lyrics seemed to read my mind, plagiarizing my thoughts:

“For every day, and every single moment
I’m experiencing…
Thank you very, very much.”

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Vito “Tsurikichi” Rubino has fished since the age of 6. When he met tenkara several years ago, it was love at first sight. He left western fly fishing to embrace tenkara totally and rediscover simplicity, nature, and freedom. Everytime he tenkara fishes it’s like when he was a kid; just a fixed line rod, a fly, and all the freedom in the world. You can follow him on Facebook:

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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