Choosing The Best Tenkara Flies | Great Days Outdoors

Choosing The Best Tenkara Flies

One of the big appeals of tenkara fishing to anglers like myself is the advertised simplicity. It can be fun to make full use of your cognitive abilities to identify patterns and trends in fishing and keep track of changes in preferred insects and forage, but it can also be exhausting. I personally do a lot of heavy lifting mentally at my work, and by the time the weekend rolls around I don’t want to think…I want to fish. With that in mind, we sat down with John Geer and TJ Ferreira at Tenkara USA to get some recommendations on solid performing tenkara flies, and some general rules of thumb for when and how to fish them. John and TJ have decades of experience tenkara fishing, and John is also an accomplished conventional fly fisherman. If you want to shave a few years off of your learning curve, read on!

The Traditional Kebari Fly

If you’ve started researching tenkara rods, you may have run across the word, “Kebari.” But what exactly does the word mean?

“The word “kebari” encompasses a big group of flies,” John explains. In Japanese, the word basically translates to “hairy hook.” So it’s really just a general term for a fly. Now, the forward facing hackle you see so much of is the “sakasa kebari.” Sakasa means reverse in Japanese. So a sakasa kebari is a reverse soft hackle fly. Typically in Japan, not always but typically, they fish tenkara with unweighted, wet, reverse hackled sakasa kebaris like the ones that we sell. Our founder, Daniel Galhardo, his teachers fished sakasa kebaris almost exclusively. They’re a very popular style in Japan, and when we were introduced to tenkara we fell in love with them. I’ve fished them a lot, and I really do love them. They’re very productive. They’re one of the easiest flies to tie. And once you have the basic pattern figured out it’s very easy to vary the size and color that you tie them in to experiment with different things. I’ve caught a lot of different types of fish on them, and they’re probably my best bass fly. I tie a little, black, sakasa kebari modeled on the ones like Dr. Ishigaki in Japan ties, and it does really well on smallmouth bass in particular.”

Ishigaki tenkara flies
These are the tenkara flies used by Dr. Ishigaki, renowned tenkara angler and leading tenkara authority in Japan.

“They really are effective,” TJ interjected in our interview. “I agree with what John says about how easy to tie they are, but the thing I really love about them is how you can “pulse” them on the retrieve. That reverse hackle, every time you pull on it the hackle flares backwards and then when you stop it collapses on itself. It gives it a really awesome pulsing action. A lot of the time, I kind of have a certain routine I’ll go through during drifts, and on one pass I’ll always pulse it a little as it’s lifting to the surface. It’s just super effective. I also love the simple, pleasing aesthetic they have. They’re elegant, and they don’t really look like any specific bug but you can make them imitate many bugs depending on how you present it.”

“Yeah, TJ makes a good point,” John continued. “How you fish them is a big part of their effectiveness. But it was really eye opening to me the first time I got to see them used. I had experience in fly fishing and I was always taught, you know, “match the hatch” and that sort of thing. And then I see Daniel and Dr. Ishigaki and a few other of the guys who were involved early on, and they were fishing what I considered really tough and technical water, and they were just catching fish everywhere with just those sakasa kebaris.”


“The nice thing is you can use whatever you like, ultimately,” said TJ. If you’re the type who’s a numbers guy and you’re out to catch lots of fish, that’s great. If you like scrolling through bigger menus and that variety tickles your fancy, then go for it. Bring all of your flies and fish them all. For me, I just want to hurry up and tie something on because I may only have half an hour to fish. I don’t want to overthink things. And I feel like sometimes when you get to overanalyzing your fly choice and you tie on this one and then that one…it gets less fun for me. So I actually fish just one kebari pattern, that I tie myself, everywhere I fish. And it may not be the most effective pattern on the water that day. The guys I’m fishing with may catch more fish. But I’m just stubborn. I want to do whatever it takes to learn how to present my one fly and figure out a way to get it where I need it and catch a fish. That’s the fun part for me. It can stress other people out. They may think, “I want to catch more fish.” But for me, it’s like, “I want to catch one fish on this fly. And once I’ve figured out how to do that, maybe next time I’ll be better prepared to do it again.”

For kebaris, you can easily tie different sizes and variations for different fish.

The thing that I like most about kebaris is that you can easily tie different sizes and variations for different fish. I have big kebaris for largemouth, spotted, and redeye bass; and small ones for bluegill, green sunfish, and other lepomids.

Tying Your Own Tenkara Flies

I can vouch for what John and TJ say. The first fly I ever tied was a (very ugly) sakasa kebari. Funnily enough, the first time I ever had a conversation with John, it slowly dawned on me that he looked and sounded familiar. It eventually clicked in my head that he had in fact taught me to tie that first fly by way of a Youtube tutorial he put out several years ago! 

This video is a really clean, concise example of how you can tie a kebari with nothing more than a hook, a feather, a bobbin, and some thread. Fly tying can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be! The first kebari I ever tied caught a fish, which was tremendously satisfying. 

“Western” Flies For Tenkara

While I enjoy fishing the kebaris I tie, I also have had a lot of success with other patterns. John, who fishes both tenkara and western style, also likes to switch it up a little. During our discussion, I took a moment to pick his brain on his favorite “normal” flies to use with a tenkara rod.

“My favorite flies evolve over the course of the seasons,” John replied. “I’m not necessarily the type to restrict myself to just one thing. So, like, if the fish are really deep and kind of inactive, I’ll fish my go-to weighted nymph, which is a black copper john nymph. I really like that fly, because it sinks well and I don’t have to add any weight to it to get it down quickly to where the fish are. That’s a good fly when an unweighted wet like a kebari isn’t getting down quickly enough. And I typically just dead-drift that like I would a kebari. I’ve also been “regular” fly fishing since I was a little kid, so I’ve got a lot of love for an elk hair caddis and an adams dry fly. And, of course, sometimes I’ll throw the good ole wooly bugger as well. I haven’t fished one at all this year, but last year I had some good luck using them to target some bigger-than-average brown trout last year when testing the new Satoki.”

You can stock you tenkara fly box with a mixture of kebari and more “Western” style flies.

While I don’t have nearly as much experience as John, I’m also partial to the flies he mentioned. I’d swap his copper john for a zebra midge since chiromids are a big part of bluegill’s diet, and I’d take a blue-wing olive over a traditional adams, but I’m down for a small wooly bugger. I’m also partial to a size 8 amnesia bug in chartreuse on redeye bass streams, and I tie a very fun micro-sized san juan worm on a size 20 hook that’s a secret weapon on small sunfish like dollar sunfish. I’ve also had lots of luck with foam hoppers and gill getters, and a very crude, downsized version of the “seaducer” that I “discovered” before I knew what a seaducer was. 

Final Thoughts On Tenkara Flies

Ultimately, outfitting your tenkara fly box can be as easy or as simple as you’d like to make it. Sometimes, I favor TJ’s approach, and hit the water for a quick trip with nothing but my Rhodo and a few kebaris. Other days, I may set out for an all-day creek cruise with a selection of flies intended for everything from shiners to choupique. Whatever my choice, I always have a good time, and I come home with a clearer head than I left with.

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