Article by A.J. Moore
Unlike modern western fly fishing where anglers often select from a variety of flies based on season, weather, turbidity, water stage, temperature, and hatches, tenkara fishing has traditionally been approached from the perspective that varying the presentation of a single fly pattern can be sufficient to entice fish in most conditions. So, it wasn’t without a certain amount of trepidation that I undertook such a sacrilegious exercise as to suggest that an angler change up the kebari that they’re using throughout a season in the Driftless. I don’t think that a case needs to be made for it, as we all seem to like to collect fly patterns, like racoons and ravens collect shiny things. But if I have to throw myself at the mercy of the tenkara meijin, I can expand a little.
Tenkara kebari have been designed, selected, and evolved to suit the specific waters in which they were regularly fished, and they have a distinct regionalism to their construction and materials. The colors, materials, hackles, shapes and dimensions are all specifically suited to the characteristics of their waters, and their design is greatly dependent upon specific physical traits that make them more suitable to being cast and controlled from a fixed line in high gradient streams and currents.
Being traditionally unweighted flies, their position in the water column and currents is a product of the hydrodynamics of the body and hackle and the relational position of the tension of line and tippet. Additionally, tenkara emphasizes techniques that use current and tension to position the kebari and to keep the casting line off of the water. Action given to the fly through vibration and pulsing give the kebari the impressionistic and aesthetic effect of a potential meal for the fish rather than presenting a facsimile of a particular species.
While a western fly may be associated to a specific regional origin (like Speys or Catskills), their designs are more often specific to the replication of various aquatic species of insects and other prey at specific phases of their life stages. Western style anglers often select flies specifically for their replication of the life stages of those species of aquatic creatures that are the current top menu items in feeding trout at that time. Presentation is still a matter of consideration, but given the incredible diversity of options of style, weight, composition, beads, resins, and materials, the angler’s fly selection often determines its position and behavior (or vice versa).
In my mental shorthand tenkara kebari are impressionists like Monet or Pissarro making a nearly abstract aesthetic impression on fish that inspires a feeding response, while western flies are often like the amplified realism of Wyeth or Millet, purposefully presenting a meal that looks even more enticing than the picture on the menu.
With all of that said, what I’ve done in assembling this reference is first and foremost to catalog the western fly patterns that I’ve found most effective in the course of a year. It’s by no means meant to be exhaustive or exclusive, it’s just a collection of what has worked for me and what I hear from others. I think it’s perfectly legitimate for tenkara anglers to use western flies, and for western anglers to have some kebari in their arsenal, and any fly can be more or less effective from one day to the next.
I started with the list of western flies and made the table of materials and components based on how I prefer to tie them. I listed them like I fish them. Your mileage may vary.
For the kebari list, I assembled the names and styles of many of them from the research of esteemed angler and artist Yoshikazu Fujioka. In most cases, those kebari are named for the region to which their style is associated or from which it originated. I did take some liberties with eponyms in those cases where a particular angler or fly tier has been recognized for origination or innovation of a style. Others are named by their designers and makers, and I’ve carried those names over directly.
In aligning the kebari to my annual calendar, I focused first on matching the presentation and physical characteristics of the fly to the conditions I commonly encounter, and only looked at making comparisons to the hatch and corresponding western flies second. I was reluctant to include specific sizes for the kebari, but chose to put slightly broader ranges instead. Similar to western flies, the effectiveness of a particular pattern can be greatly impacted simply by changing the size. A size 22 Kuroi may be a solid producer in early March and a size 8 may be more likely to deliver in August.
From the general lack of dam systems in the Driftless, there’s much less of a headwater/tailwater strategy, however the natural progression of temperature tends to draw trout upstream as summer progresses. As a general rule, I favor smaller more delicate presentations in the spring, get larger toward the summer, then onto more splashy and lumbering presentations in the high summer and early fall, and progressing smaller again into winter. Also, as the seasons progress, it’s natural to move from the deep and slow waters in early spring, to top dries in the sunny early summer, and back to the depths and dark as water temperatures climb into high summer. Of course, turbidity, cloud cover, and a whole host of other factors can greatly impact behavior, but these presentations tend to follow the fish and where they’re feeding and having both tenkara kebari and western flies at my disposal helps me put them there.
There are always glorious exceptions and surprises, so get out there with whatever you have, take it all in, pick a pattern and find out!
A.J. Moore is a tenkara angler, fly tier, woodworker, homebrewer, game designer, and writer who has fished the streams, rivers, and reservoirs of the Driftless Region for more than 40 years. Follow A.J. on Instagram @kebarikaiju.
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