Article by Chris Kuhlow
I had always wanted to take the plunge into fly fishing since I was a kid but it all seemed kind of intimidating. First, there were the different rod weights and the selection of fly lines that could be used for every situation under the sun. The knots needed to set up your rod and line would be enough to cause any angler to seek psychiatric help. Then there are the accessories and the difficult choices that accompany them. Do I send my children to college or do I fill every pocket on that fishing vest with some potentially usable item? And casting? Not even Yoda could help me with that. Fly fishing remained firmly in the world of “maybe someday…” There it would remain until I stumbled across tenkara.
The complexity and cost of traditional western fly fishing had kept me at bay so I stuck to what I knew best, fishing with a spin rod. Back in 2010 I was looking for a way to combine fishing with another favorite activity of mine… hiking. However, even with a 5 foot ultralight spin rod and a minimal fishing bag it was still a bit cumbersome to hike through the woods and carry my gear. I started searching for any kind of fishing equipment to easily carry with me on trips to the woods. That’s when I came across an obscure reference to something called “tenkara.” After a little research I became fascinated by it. Tenkara… a rod, a line and a fly. Could it be any simpler than that? Here was something that was everything I was looking for. It was portable, inexpensive and simplified that mysterious sport of fly fishing to me. I decided to immerse myself in everything “tenkara” and purchased my first rod and required accessories. After the rod arrived I began practicing in the backyard and thought to myself, “there is nothing really complicated about this at all.”
That is until I asked myself the age old question…. ”What fly should I use?”
There was so much literature, differing schools of thought, opinions and advice out there. What were the essential flies to always have in your fly box when out on the water? The sheer number of variables to consider, such as what’s hatching, the water conditions, time of day, etc… could make one wonder if it was even possible to catch a fish with an artificial fly. Before I knew what hit me I found myself dizzy and weak into the knees trying to figure out which flies to carry on me. I did some extensive searching and came up with a few dozen patterns that seemed to be the most popular and effective and began tying them all. My first fly boxes were filled with some seriously ugly flies. Although I had fun tenkara fishing that first year and caught some fish here and there, I found that having to search through fly after fly looking for what worked could become a little frustrating. I wanted to learn but I also wanted to catch fish and not waste time tying on fly after fly with my sausage-like fingers. Although “matching the hatch” worked for many anglers and appealed to the biologist in me I wanted something simpler. That is when the simplicity of tenkara stepped in again.
A couple of years after the introduction of tenkara to anglers in the US and the west we were introduced to the concept of “One Fly is all you need” (later modified to “One Fly/Any fly”). Skeptical may be a bit of an understatement to how it was received. Who was this Daniel Galhardo guy to suggest that the choice of fly doesn’t matter? This flew in the face of decades of the traditional approach of match the hatch. Some on line forums got a “little heated” over the subject. Fortunately there were more than a few anglers out there with an open mind who decided to try it. Much to their delight it worked. Imagine how simple life could be for any fly fisherman who wished to fish anywhere and not worry about water conditions or hatching insects. As long as you concentrated on your presentation and used any fly that somewhat resembled an insect you were good to go. At last, the last bit confusion and complexity was eliminated. At this point you may be wondering, why is this guy rehashing much of what the rest of the tenkara world already knows about it? To understand where one is going, sometimes you need to understand where they came from.
I have arrived at my own personal Flyosophy through a number of years of incorporating bits of advice from fellow anglers, reading historical literature, on line searches, forum discussions, and good old fashioned experience. Before I discuss my personal flyosophy I want to state up front that what follows is my own personal set of guidelines for the fly selection I use. In no way do I want to impress upon anyone that my way is the best or only way to select flies to use on the water. Match the hatch may work for you and be very rewarding. You may be a nymph’s only kind of angler. You may only fish dry flies when Saturn is in the house of Aries… or something like that. If you catch fish on the fly and you have fun doing it… then do what makes you happy. Who am I or is anyone else to tell you different? I offer what wisdom I have for the newbie or someone looking to try something new or different.
I am neither a match the hatch nor a one fly/any fly guy. However, I do lean very heavily towards the latter option. When I am out on the water, whether it be a local pond for bass and bluegill or a Catskill mountain stream looking for brookies and brown trout my fly box will be compact with at most 3 to 5 patterns in the box. My experience has been that if I can’t catch a fish with the patterns I have brought then it’s highly unlikely that I would catch anything if I had brought a 6th pattern. Some days you will get skunked and there is nothing you can do about it. On the other hand, I have tried fishing “one fly” on more than one occasion and found that when I gave up and used a second pattern I caught fish. A little flexibility can improve your day without you having to waste time tying fly after fly onto your line searching for the winner. The previous statements explain the number of flies I carry but not the specific flies.
Since I limit the number of flies I’m willing to carry on me at any one point when fishing I want to maximize how effective and versatile they will be. The fly patterns in my fly box must possess the following qualities. Each fly must be simple to tie and only consist of generally 3 materials or less (not including the hook). This serves to increase the speed at which I can tie replacement flies and reduce the cost of materials. For instance, a Usual (created by Fran Betters), consists of nothing more that thread, hook and fur from the underside of a snowshoe hare’s foot. As long as you have hooks it will only cost you about $6-7 for thread and a snowshoe hare foot and you will be able to tie dozens of flies.
The next quality a fly of mine will possess is durability. The fly must stand up to the abuse it will receive. When fish are practically throwing themselves at you no one wants to stop to change a fly because it’s falling apart after catching one or two toothy trout. I often use a pattern of mine called a Kiwi’s Killer that I have caught literally caught tens of dozens of bass, bluegills and some brook trout on multiple fishing trips without having to change it. If I tie a new one on it’s usually due to losing it to a snag.
The third quality a fly of mine will need to possess before I take it with me is versatility. The pattern should not be restricted to only one type of water or a limited to only few kinds of fish. In addition, the fly should look like just about everything a fish may encounter but nothing very specific. A simple thread and hackle sakasa kebari, a Killer Kebari or Killer Bug could fit the bill on this requirement. The Killer Bug’s middle name should be “versatility.” There is no single fly I have ever fished that has produced as well as a Killer Bug has for me. I have caught fish anywhere I have fished it. Bass, bluegill, sunfish, various trout, yellow perch & bluefish-snappers (saltwater) have been brought to hand. I have even caught alewives during their spring migrations from saltwater into freshwater on Long Island on Killer Bugs.
The last and most important property for any pattern is how effective is it? This is somewhat of a no brainer. If a fly catches very few or no fish at all why would you use it? I have tied some beautiful (to look at) patterns that fish have never given a first look, let alone a second look at. Those flies were relegated to the odd fly box where failed experiments go to collect dust. If you are looking for ideas what makes an effective fly simply look at the literature. If a pattern has been around for decades or longer there is probably a good reason for it… it works! North Country spiders and soft hackled patterns are personal favorites of mine for their simple beauty and associated history. Many North Country patterns have been around for a couple of hundred years. Maybe the original tiers were on to something?
In addition to these qualities, I have honed my flyosophy even further by using the philosophy of simplifying from tenkara. I have even simplified my hook selection by reducing it to only a handful of hook styles and sizes. 90 to 95% of the flies I tie for myself or for commercial purposes are tied on Mustad C49S size 12 scud hooks. I chose the brand for no particular reason and I like the shape of them. I find straight hooks to be a bit unnatural looking. Most insects I find floating or moving in a stream tend to be moving or curled and not straight and stiff as a board. However I did chose size 12 specifically. The fish I generally catch range in size from 5” brook trout to 20+” largemouth bass. I have found that size 12 will be readily taken by fish along the whole continuum. Therefore I reduced yet another variable I would have to worry about and focus on my presentation and enjoy what I’m doing instead.
So what patterns do I carry that fit all these criteria? My Fly box will usually consist of Killer Bugs, Killer Kebari, Royal Sakasa Kebari and maybe Killer Buggers and Usuals for dry fly fishing. Sometimes I will change a pattern out just to change it up but that is essentially it.
There you have it, my personal flyosophy. Is it the best way? Is it the only way? Has it settled once and for all which fly to tie on the end of your line? Perhaps not! However, I have found it’s what works for me. Using this approach to fly selection I feel I have reduced the cost of materials and flies that I need. I spend less time at the vice and have reduced the number of choices that cause me to lose time to changing flies and increase my time that my fly is actually in the water. With the patterns I do carry with me I have increased my confidence that their versatility and effectiveness will help me in any situation I may find myself in and have a successful outing.
If you are wondering what additional patterns might satisfy my requirements I would suggest you get your hands on a copy of Morgan Lyle’s Simple Flies. Morgan has done a superb job of putting together a collection of flies that are exactly the kinds of patterns I am talking about. There are a number of patterns in his book that you will find in my fly box at any given time and many more.
I hope my little words of wisdom may help you to develop your own flyosophy that will enable you to answer that age old question… ”What fly should I use?”
Chris Kuhlow lives on Long Island with his wife and two beautiful girls where he practices tenkara in traditional and not so traditional ways.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015-16 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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