If you’re like most fly anglers, you like flies. Small and large, dull and shiny, reversed or “normal”. As we have introduced tenkara outside of Japan, we have focused on telling the story of tenkara, on sharing the fascinating layers of a method that has been practiced in Japan for centuries. I have gone to Japan numerous times and have spent a lot of time with multiple tenkara masters to learn the method as a whole. I did that to learn things that I couldn’t have learned otherwise, and to share the story with anyone who is interested.
Through tenkara, we have learned that we can make nets out of one branch of a tree. We have learned about flies made from snake skin, and flies made with dubbing from a plant. And, we have learned that most Japanese tenkara anglers of nowadays, perhaps largely influenced by their commercial angler predecessors, use only one fly pattern and focus on learning and refining technique rather than second-guessing fly choice. We also learned that a tenkara rod is just a tool, and in the end ANY fly will work. These are things I have shared on this blog for no purpose other than tell the true story of a method of fishing that I find fascinating, and perhaps to inspire folks to realize how simple fly-fishing can be. It’s never to tell people to simplify their fishing, simply to say it is possible to simplify it.
One of the persons I feel honored to have inspired is Jay “Fishy” Fullum. You may have heard of “Fishy” because of his very interesting fly-tying books, such as Fly Tying with Common Household Materials, or his 15-year-running “Creative Tying” column for Fly Tyer magazine. Now, you may think that someone with his credentials and interest in creative fly tying could be turned off tenkara because of the concept of using [any] one fly. But, instead Fishy has embraced tenkara and tenkara flies, to the point where he is a huge ambassador for us at the Fly Fishing Shows and has incorporated tenkara into his presentations. Why? To begin, Fishy understands that he does not have to, by any means, use one fly. Second, as most of us, he understands that he can tie whatever fly he pleases at the end of his line, the tenkara flies are simply an interesting fly to tie and to use and to show people. The left side of his box is filled with sakasa kebari, the iconic “reverse” hackle tenkara flies.
The concept of using “one fly” has been misunderstood in the past as “one particular fly”. And, some folks have misunderstood our message as “you have to use one tenkara fly”. I have repeatedly shared on this blog that the whole point is that, as the original tenkara angler shows us, the fly does not matter as much as most people think, and that as a result just about any fly can work. I do not profess this to be true 100% of the time, in 100% of situations. Just that it works fine in most situations, particularly in streams. Like anything, it becomes easier with practice and after you gain confidence. Further, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve just worked on sharing the story, and are not interested in telling anyone how to fish or what to use. And, yes, you can use your dry flies, your nymphs, and even your streamers. In the end, the fly that is in the water is the one that catches the fish.
For the last 2 1/2 years I have used one fly pattern anywhere I have gone in the country. I have fished with some of the most experienced fly anglers around, and caught just as many fish as any of them. In Vermont, I fished with Orvis’ Tom Rosenbauer, in Colorado I have fished with Ed Engle and with John Gierach, in Oregon I fished with Dave Hughes. In every single one of these experiences there were no noticeable differences in the number of fish caught, and in each circumstance I stuck with my one fly while they used what they knew worked in their waters. No difference.
Why do it?
This is purely a PERSONAL choice. It is for the same reason that some of us choose not to use a reel that I choose not to use multiple patterns: it simplifies things. Fly-fishing is already a sport of self-imposed limitations. We choose not to use bait in favor of using artificial flies. With tenkara, some of us take it a step or two farther in the “self-imposed limitations”. I personally want to learn how not do depend on multiple patterns. I would never have thought of using just one fly had I not been told by tenkara anglers in Japan that this was a possibility. But, when Dr. Ishigaki and others told me it was possible, I felt liberated.
The idea of using [any] one fly is one of the most difficult concepts to embrace in tenkara. But, it is the most liberating. And, that’s what I love about it. I know that I can go anywhere in the country and carry the same exact box of flies and not consult a guide-book on hatches or worry about what flies to take. There is no anxiety in preparing for a trip. In December, I had to meet the editor of a Japanese magazine in Utah. It was cold and snowing a lot. But, I just boarded the plane with the exact same box I had fished the Sierra Nevada in California a month earlier. And, yes, I caught fish… Main point here, it is possible. And, I believe that with some work and dedication it is very effective.
As another example, when I went to Virginia a few months ago to teach a class at Mossy Creek, the guys at the shop were giving me all kinds of suggestions of flies to use in their famous spring creek, none of which involved a tenkara fly. Teaching a class with one fly is a difficult thing to do, but I explained my philosophy and asked them to give the tenkara flies a chance for perhaps half-an-hour and feel free to change if nothing was happening. About 15 minutes into the class we had the first fish on. It simply took figuring out the technique of the day. Dead-drifts were not working, pulsating the fly was not either. What finally started triggering a fair amount of fish was a pause-and-drift technique. If you watch the video below you may notice I’m making subtle counter-clockwise circles with the tip of the rod. When the tip reaches the top of the circle the fly pauses in place, when it goes down it drifts. And, we caught multiple fish on that technique. A pressured spring creek may be one of the most difficult places to prove that any fly works, but here we had 7 people who now believe it.
Jay “Fishy” Fullum, is an accomplished fly tyer, and he loves fly-tying, and he loves flies. I will never expect, nor ask him, to give up his other flies. And, he understands he doesn’t have to. But, for me, fly-tying and flies were not focus. I like fishing, and I like not thinking about much when I fish. I like behaving on instinct, to cast what fly is tied to the end of the line, and, instinctually it seems, try different presentation techniques when I’m fishing.
Using “one fly” is not for everyone. Not at all. There is a great appeal in flies, as Jay will tell you. But, for some people, like me, the fly I’m tying on is not my focus, I just like fishing. It’s like going to a restaurant; for me the most painful part of eating out is choosing what to eat (though I recognize it is the most exciting part for other people). I feel most relaxed going to an In-n-Out burger where I have only 3 choices. There is a great number of people who, like me, will be happier and more relaxed knowing they don’t have to worry about what fly to tie on. It is to those people that I write this post and that I share the story of using one fly.
What fly to use?
ANY FLY…of reasonable size. Really! Any fly can work. Case-in-point, a while ago I received a box full of different fly patterns, the Vagabox. I made a point to try fishing every single pattern, and in two days fishing with it I caught fish on 3 or 4 different streams using at least 12 fly patterns. Changing flies at every fish was really no fun, but point was proven. Checkout those posts here.
Based on what I have been taught, the best fly to serve as one’s “one fly” is going to be the most versatile one. A versatile fly is that fly that looks like nothing in particular, but at the same time is suggestive of anything that could be in the water. A versatile fly will be the fly that can behave in a variety of different ways. And, a versatile fly is the fly that can be fished in different water columns without changing flies.
So, if you take a traditional tenkara fly, and put it in the water it could easily pass as a nymph, as a mayfly emerger, as a mayfly, and even as a caddis. Particular when motion is given to the fly: pulsate it to imitate a fly trying to come to the surface, skate it to present it as a caddis. Further, these flies can be fished on the surface when false-cast or by keeping the line off the water, under the surface by keeping some of your main line in the water, and under by using currents to sink. On the other hand, an elk-hair-caddis, though a great fly and what I used when I started tenkara fishing, can be difficult to sink deep and has little motion. A wooly bugger, a favorite among many, will be difficult to fish near the surface and it imitates but one thing, a leech, and it has a hard time passing as a caddis. Thus, the flies that populate my box are the same exact flies you’ll find in our tenkara flies page.