Tenkara and the Single Fly Approach

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Photo by Daniel Galhardo

Photo by Daniel Galhardo

One of the most appealing aspects of tenkara fishing is the concept of using only a single fly.

For folks considering tenkara, this concept is likely THE most difficult to embrace- especially if they have a western fly fishing background. However, I like to say it is also the most liberating aspect of tenkara since when you learn how to use different techniques to effectively use one fly, all of a sudden you can go anywhere in the world in search of trout with the same fly box. And, it can be very effective.

Before I go any further, let me get a couple of things out of the way: First, you can use ANY fly with tenkara. It works well with your favorite dry fly (no drag on the line, beautiful drag-free drifts), it works well with nymphs too as you can have a nice tight line and lots of sensitivity. You do not have to use a tenkara fly, and you do not have to stick with one fly pattern. I like sharing this concept because it goes completely counter to the thinking in western fly-fishing, but also because it changed my fly-fishing forever to learn that a whole group of people in Japan didn’t change fly patterns while fishing and were still catching a lot of fish.

I am the type of person that gets frustrated by the amount of choices on a dinner menu. I’d much prefer to see a menu with just three items- all of which will satisfy my hunger and taste great. Adopting a single fly approach can liberate you from Latin names, thermometers, dip nets and specific hatch books. With tenkara and a single fly approach you extend the rod, walk into any stream and start casting. As the hours go on, you’ve moved from one spot to another but the one thing you didn’t do was second-guess fly choices or waste time changing flies. Eliminating complicated choices actually allows me to spend more time on the water fishing.

Early Japanese tenkara anglers made their living by supplying fish to mountain villagers. As a humble group of people, with little access to resources, the commercial fishermen simply could not rely on a great selection of flies. And certainly, they did not want to be second-guessing their fly choices, both when creating the fly nor when fishing. What is to say the next pool wouldn’t have produced a fish with that first fly?

Over the past few years I have fished all over the United States and several countries using only the same few flies, essentially one fly pattern in 4 variations. The flies I use are a reverse hackle fly, also known as sakasa kebari (where sakasa means reverse, and kebari is the Japanese word for artificial fly). They vary slightly in color and size but generally look similar. Size 12 is my go-to but I also use size 8 for faster water and 16 for waters with more fishing pressure.

By limiting fly selection a tenkara angler is inspired to develop and hone alternative presentations. With the fixed line length you are directly connected to the fly giving you endless opportunities for imparting action to entice fish. The dead drift can be supplemented with pausing, lifting, pulsing, swinging and skating. Here is a video where I go through the main techniques used by the “one fly angler.”

I often think of famed mountaineer Reinhold Messner who climbed the world’s highest peaks by what he termed “fair means.” Eschewing supplemental oxygen and the siege tactics popular at the time, his methodology of “a rope, a rack and the pack on my back” was viewed as reckless by some but is now common practice.

Obviously, limiting the number of flies in your box is a personal choice. If you seek a fishing experience rooted in effective presentations and few accouterments the single fly approach will certainly speak to you.

You can learn more about the one fly approach and philosophy HERE.

Founder of Tenkara USA
Gink & Gasoline
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6 thoughts on “Tenkara and the Single Fly Approach

  1. I am in love with my tenkara rod. While I don’t subscribe to the one fly method it has influenced me. I’ve cut down to one simple fly box with everything I need. 5 nymph patterns, about 7 dry fly patterns, one simple streamer pattern and of course sakasa flies. To be honest with all the a sakasa will be the first thing I tie on. They fish line a dream and the only real reason I will change flies is because I want to. Still love that dry fly action.

  2. I love this concept. When I first started guiding I crammed as many flies and boxes as I could into my vest. I wanted to be prepared. But I’ve cut way back and now carry two small boxes with me on trips. The last trip I did we just fished a prince nymph as our wet fly and an elk hair caddis for our dry. We caught fish all day long . . . so maybe on my next personal outing I’ll take only one type of fly and make it happen:) And if I’m brave enough, maybe on guided trips too!

  3. Louis: John Girardeau took his dad, Doug, for a Tenkara lesson with a guide just outside of Morrison, CO. I was a little “puffy” from the altitude, but great company, instruction, and company. At the end of our week, I joined John at the Tenkara fly store where he got all he needed but a fishing stream to try it out before he goes back to school. It reminded me of my youth in which I saw black women using a
    cane pole and bass lure to drop among the lilly pads and catch supper. They
    also clever enough to tie their line to the base of the pole and then up to the tip in case they caught a big bass that broke the tip. Thanks for the intro. Doug Girardeau

  4. Pingback: The Magic of Soft Hackles | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

  5. Pingback: Lessons from a Season with One Fly | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

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