Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Kebari & Fly Tying Techniques Trout & Char Warmwater

Seeing Creative Possibilities

Fixed-Line Article by Bob Long, Jr.

These flies are called Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead. So, just how do they apply to tenkara rod fishing?

Bob Long Jr (1)
Sensing creative possibilities at various points in time allowed me to create size 6, 3x Elk Hair Caddis wet flies for Steelhead from size 14 Elk Hair Caddis dry flies for trout, to ultimately using these larger flies with my Tenkara rods for Smallmouth bass in Rivers, Creeks and Streams. – photo by Bob Long

The point at which these flies (as well as lures, lines, techniques, etc.) meets fixed-line fly fishing is about ‘Creative Possibilities.’  Which lines, tippets, flies, lures, weight, casting techniques, or presentations might work for me with my tenkara rods in any given situation? Especially, for me, with smallmouth bass in rivers, creeks and streams. While tradition might provide a bit of direction, a few answers, or at least a starting point, I ultimately agree with 20th Century, English writer, W. Somerset Maugham,

“Tradition is a Guide, not a Jailer.”

Over the next some paragraphs, I hope to lay out, in a reasonable way, how Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead meeting my tenkara rods is a good representation of the concept of creative possibilities. However, there is another quote that has guided much of my life, including my love and fishing lives, regarding what might be considered reasonable;

“The heart has reasons, that reason knows little of.”

Blaise Pascal, French, 17th Century

So, we shall see.

Upsizing Elk Hair Caddis

These, quite non-traditional, Elk Hair Caddis are over 25 years old (I tied them in the early 90’s and first wrote about them in 1994). I patterned them after the Elk Hair Caddis used for trout. For reasons I’ve long since forgotten, I thought the Elk Hair Caddis dry fly might work as a wet fly or nymph for autumn and spring-run steelhead in the Wisconsin tributaries of Lake Michigan. However, the Elk Hair Caddis dry flies (which I’ve always called “EHCs”) as they existed were too small and wimpy for Steelhead.

So, taking the form while abandoning the function, I tied them up in sizes 6, 8 and 10 on 3X nymph and dry fly hooks, and the ever-so elegant and graceful, (3X) Tiemco 200R.

Bob Long Jr (2)
Elk Hair Caddis tied in sizes 6 and 8 on 3x Tiemco 200 hooks, don’t need to float when fished for steelhead and anadromous brown trout. They were designed to be fished sub-surface as wet flies, streamers or even close to the bottom as nymphs. – photo by Bob Long

I wanted a larger size and sturdier fly as steelhead are a big, rough-and-tumble fish compared to fresh-water ‘bows and browns. Also, floating on the surface was a non-issue. I was going to fish them sub-surface in current, as a duo-service wet fly and/or nymph; to drift them anywhere from just inches off the bottom to about 6-inches below the surface.

As they were going to be used for steelhead (and anadromous brown trout) I tied them in a variety of steelhead attracting colors, not the standard, match-the-hatch ones (although some are also tied in softer, more muted tones). Body materials varied by whim: sparkle braid, chenille, vernille, dubbing, four-strand floss, embroidery floss. Soft, slightly longer fibered hackle is used instead of dry fly. But I still liked elk over other hairs (I liked the way it looked – on the fly and in the water).

The verdict? They worked wonderfully for those steelhead and browns, October through March/April, season after season. And, as a bonus, I found them to be a good-looking fly; one that is fun and creatively rewarding to tie, and that photographs well.

Bob Long Jr (8)
I admit, I’m not fond of having a limited color palette when tying flies. Just as I have many effective lures in colors found nowhere in nature, I like tying and fishing flies like that too. – photo by Bob Long

An Unexpected Discovery

One hot summer evening BT (Before Tenkara) found me fishing my favorite smallmouth river, The Kankakee in Illinois. A marvelous, heavy-duty mayfly hatch was coming off with bugs filling the air as thick as February snowflakes. All types of fish were coming up everywhere, busily slurping flies off the surface.

I thought, “Oh yeah, time to switch from a crayfish pattern to a full-bodied streamer (like an older, Dan Gapen-styled Muddler Minnow – a mouthful of a fly and a fave of mine) and swim it just under the surface film.” But, darn it, I had not one streamer box with me. However, while rummaging around in the back pocket of my vest looking for something, anything, I found a small EHC for Steelhead box.

“OK,” I sighed, “might as well try one of these, I guess.”

I did. They worked; marvelously. Again, I fished them as a wet fly/nymph, working them from a few inches under the surface to just off the bottom. Towards dark a number of guys passing by on their way back to their cars asked me what I was using. I told them. They looked really skeptical; more like I was them, actually. I showed them a couple of the EHCs – tied on size 6, Tiemco 200Rs – and shared how I was fishing them. I think a couple of them wanted to believe me, but the iron grip of tradition overruled any possible leap of faith. Oh well.

Since that time, whenever I go out to fly fish smallmouth, I always have a small box of EHC for Steelhead in my fishing box in the car. Although tied un-weighted, they aren’t designed to float (and I like the lightness of sub-surface action they have un-weighted – especially when used with a non-slip loop knot). I fish them with a size ‘B’ split-shot or two placed right up against the loop knot to get them down as current dictates (it can be tough to get a fly to sink in current when you want it to, especially when its fished downstream and across-and-down. Over the course of my life, I’ve very seldom experienced split-shot being so visible to be a problem for the fish).

Bob Long Jr (3)
Creative possibilities said these Elk Hair Caddis, now called EHCs for short, didn’t need to be tied in subtle or muted “hatch-match” colors. They could be tied in any variety of steelhead attractor, impressionistic or muted colors as suits one feelings. – photo by Bob Long

OK, So What Does This Have to do with Tenkara?

The intersection at which all of the above (flies, lures, lines, techniques, etc.) meets tenkara is about ‘Possibilities.’  Such as, in this case, my tenkara rod, Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead and smallmouth. Didn’t see that one coming, but glad I was open to it.

“The only limits to the possibilities in your life tomorrow are the ‘yeah buts’ you use today.” 

Les Brown

An unexpected discovery. When I took up tenkara, around 2011, I was not interested in using the rods for trout – nor in using sakasa kebari. I wanted to use my newly found tenkara rods (a 6:4 and a 7:3) to fish for smallmouth in rivers, creeks and streams, using my existing smallmouth flies and small lures. (Yeah, I know, I was asking a lot; still am). One day, as I prepared to go smallie fishing, tenkara rod in hand, I again found that small Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead box deep in one of my wading pouches. Although there was no hatch going on, I smiled and thought…

“Oh yeah…these. Oh well, might as well try them with this rod and see what’s cookin’.”

I did. They worked; marvelously – fished sub-surface with a split-shot or two as necessary. And, as a part of the discovery, I gave these EHCs those enticing, pulsing actions associated with tenkara  and sakasa kebari (as seen in Youtube videos from Japan) as they drifted downstream; starts, stops, pauses, holding in place, swim them left and right, bring them forward, drop them back. Love that about tenkara.

Bob Long Jr (5)
The author when he first discovered that river Smallmouth can be caught using Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead, fished downstream as wet flies, after dark. Didn’t quite imagine that 20 years later this would be repeated using Tenkara rods.

While I didn’t, and don’t, consistently get the bigger fish with these EHCs (even at a size 6, 3x, the fly at 1.5” is just too small for that), the numbers and the action keep joy and hope alive.

To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”

Kurt Vonnegut

I discovered several interesting differences between using EHCs with tenkara rods vs. western ones. One difference comes with the short, max casts of 30-feet (or less) I get with my tenkara rods. The rods 12- to 14-foot length and short, fixed length of light-weight line and leader, allows me a masterful sense of control and feel over my flies. In the clearer waters of summer, I can often see my lighter and/or brightly colored EHCs as they drift high through the water. Sometimes I can see the takes with the flash of a fish as it turns or, more often, when the color of the fly simply disappears.

Another difference for me when using tenkara rods is that even when I can’t see the EHC in the water, the tenkara rod’s shorter lines, tippets and minimal slack, I have a good idea of where it is, and I can respond to subtle takes via movements of my bright orange or chartreuse furled line. Third, I thought I might have some casting issues with the limber tenkara rod and fly/weight combo. I don’t. In the wind, it’s actually of benefit.

Bob Long Jr (6)
My standard tenkara set up works perfectly with EHCs: 12’ – 14’ Tenkara rod, 10’ – 12’ of furled poly line, three to four-feet of 4 – 6-pound-test tippet, split shot as necessary. – Photo by Bob Long

Tenkara and My Attitude

Various lines of thought have been present and guided me for much of my life, among them;

  • Homage to tradition, but never slavish imitation, and
  • an attitude of Shoshin, “Beginner’s Mind.”

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Shunryu Suzuki, 20th Century, Soto Zen Monk

Thus, when I choose to use a tenkara rod, there is no demand, dictate or insistence upon which flies (sizes, styles or colors), lures or techniques can be, should be, or must be used. Traditions can be good, not all are bad, but often strict traditions can take the joy of discovery out of life. (Please note, my way is NOT the only way. I have no issues if you are a person who likes or benefits from varying degrees of structure and/or direction. Please, go for it.)

Still, I hope some of you may be willing to consider (just consider, mind you) such things as Elk Hair Caddis for Steelhead, as well as other possibilities and out-of-the-ordinary flies, techniques and tactics for your tenkara and fixed-line fly fishing. Consider what discoveries may await you in creating new paths from older ones; exploring a search for expression outside of what is expected.

“Great things never come from comfort zones…”


Oh yes, there is much to be discovered with this sublime and marvelous tenkara thing.

Bob Long Jr (9)
For the last 35+ years of my fly-fishing life, I’ve been more interested in experimentation and discovery than in following or adhering to tradition or traditional concepts. Catching fish while having fun and creating new fly-fishing paths for myself has always been most rewarding. When Tenkara came into my life, it fell right into that place. – photo by Yuichiro Ogura

Bob Long, Jr. is in charge of Chicago’s Fish’N Kids Program which takes kids ages 8-12, teens, adults, seniors and people with disabilities of all types fishing. He also teaches many tenkara and fly tying.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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