How to Fish with One Fly Pattern Tenkara Techniques

On May 12, 2012
Comments (8)

This is one of the most difficult concepts to embrace in tenkara, but in my view the most liberating. What I am talking about is the idea of using [any] one fly pattern in pursuit of trout in mountain streams. I have talked at length about the idea of not getting caught up on the western fly-fishing mentality of changing flies in order to catch trout, but rather to learn techniques to use your one fly in many conditions. Instead of relying on gear (i.e. changing of fly patterns), one can rely on his skills to make the fly work in any situation. This is not something I tell people they have to do with tenkara, it’s simply something I say is possible, and very effective.

If you are short on time, the main content I want to share is the section titled “Techniques” below, which talks about the 6 main techniques used in tenkara.

Getting comfortable with the idea that one fly pattern is sufficient takes time and some degree of dedication, but most importantly it takes knowing that this is something you want and something that suits you. It is not something most people can or should be convinced of, they have to know they want this degree of liberation in order to seek it. Much like tenkara, those who get it, get it and will eventually try it on their own pace, and it is not for everyone.

Even for myself it took time to embrace the concept. I first heard about it when Dr. Ishigaki visited the Catskills – a traditional center of American fly-tying tradition – for a talk on tenkara. Like everyone else in that room, I was VERY skeptical and probably gasped a bit when he mentioned that for the last 10 years he only used a simple and non-descript pattern. Well, he caught a fair number of fish when he was visiting. After he left, I hesitatingly  gave his fly a try whenever I would go fishing, but could not get myself to abandon the western fly-fishing tradition I had embedded in my mind. A year later I spent a week fishing with him in Japan, and only using one fly and catching plenty of fish. I returned to the US dedicated to the idea that I could learn how to use my one fly in any condition, yet my fly box continued to have a “just-in-case” compartment of assorted flies. A few months later, about 1 1/2 years of practice and experiments after learning of the concept I finally embraced it on the trip I describe here. It has been the most liberating aspect of  tenkara for me – I can travel anywhere, anytime and never have to worry about what is hatching or consult a local shop on what fly I should use. And, I have travelled to a lot of places and fished in a lot of different types of waters without worrying about my fly selection. Beyond paring my equipment down to rod, line and flies, I also pared down my fly choices. Getting here took some serious time and belief, but I believe it has paid off.

There have been numerous occasions when the belief I had in my one fly was ascertained, and some where the “faith” in the one fly has been shaken. Those who fish often enough will occasionally have a day when the get skunked, whether they rely on one fly pattern or every fly and rig in the bookd. It is important to know we won’t always catch fish, it is not always up to us. At the moment however, I can say I have full confidence in saying that it is possible to catch plenty of fish just about anywhere and anytime with your one fly. After all, the fly that is in the water is the one that will catch the fish.

What does one fly mean?

Just to be clear, the idea of using one fly can mean slightly different things to different people. My main teacher Dr. Hisao Ishigaki, who first introduced me to the concept, will tie what is essentially one fly pattern but in different variations (a couple of sizes – primarily 12, but some 16s and a few 8s – and some dark and some light). As for the colors he says he gets bored of tying the same fly, but also seems to give preference to a “whiter” fly in high water conditions. As for size, and as a generic rule of thumb, if fish are striking the larger flies but not taking them he will go smaller, or in fast water he may go bigger. On the other hand, another teacher of mine, Mr. Katsutoshi Amano, uses only the exact same fly pattern, same size, same color and same materials. I have arrived at a combination of 4 flies that I use based on what I have learned from my teachers (the ones on white background on this page).

Mr. Amano showing his fly box, the only one that is different is one I gave him that day:

What fly?

Ask 10 tenkara anglers to show them the fly they use and they will show you ten different tenkara flies. Thus, in a play of words, it is often joked that “tenkara has ten colors”.

Anglers arrive at their fly based first on suggestions from friends or something they read, and then they navigate to their go-to fly based on experience. Experience primarily has to do with reinforcing patterns: use a fly, catch a bunch of a fish on a good day, that will be your first go-to fly next time. Catch fish on that fly and it becomes your favorite pattern. Because it is your favorite pattern, it spends more time in the water and catches more fish.

The fly really doesn’t matter a whole lot. Watch footage of fish underwater and you’ll see them grabbing rocks, leaves, twigs and anything that could pass as food. On my first extended visit to Japan to fish with Dr. Ishigaki at one point I ran out of the flies that he taught me. I would pick up any of the other flies I had left and ask if that was okay, “yes, that will work”, he would respond. The third time I asked him if my chosen fly was okay he say, “yes, any fly okay”.

With that being said, I have come to the conclusion that the “sakasa kebari“, the most distinctive fly used in tenkara with the hackle facing forward, is the most versatile and best fly to become your “one” fly.

There is a good reason it is the chosen tenkara fly of tenkara anglers in Japan, and the reason is simple. If you settle for a western dry fly that is designed to float, it will float okay, and kind of sink when it is wet, but it will not sink well if you want it to sink. If you settle for a nymph pattern, like the now-famous Utah Killer Bug, it will do a great job at sinking, and it will do the only thing that tenkara flies can not do very well: sink deep, fast; but it will not be easy to fish it closer to the surface. And, neither fly will have a lot of movement. The sakasa kebari can be fished on multiple water columns with learned techniques, and it can be imparted with movement, by pulsating the fly up and down it becomes very lively and attractive. Thus, any variation of the sakasa kebari is, in my view, the best choice if you are looking for your one fly.


A few days ago I noticed someone in our blog was interested in the idea of using one fly pattern. Not sure why, but it always makes gives me a warm feeling when someone wants to embrace a more traditional aspect of tenkara and seeks to learn more about it. He asked about the techniques used when trying to go with one fly pattern. And, this brings me to today’s post and the meat of this article.

There are 6 main techniques that can be used in tenkara to entice fish. Each can be varied in a number of ways. Illustrations and videos are the easier way to show them, but I’ll focus more on the descriptions and a quick list here.

1) Dead drift
2) Pause and drift (try this with the rod tip high, and also try it with the rod tip low – lift your elbow high so the rod tip points down, having the rod tip low close to the water will make more of the line stay in the water and thus the fly will be below the surface).
Variation: PAUSE, try pausing the fly in one place for up to 5 seconds and then recast it to the same place and pause it there. The objective it to keep the fly in the exact same place (Mr. Yoshida told me that if one can hold the fly in the exact same place for 5 seconds, with no movement, then he will catch a fish – take that with a grain of salt).
3) “Create a hatch” – as Eddie mentioned in the forum, one technique is to cast to the exact same place multiple times, effectivelly creating a hatch – be sure to only have the fly touching the water. I have seen different variations: cast to the same place some 20-30 times as he mentioned, or 5-6 times and then letting it sit, repeat.
4) Up and down – cast quarter upstream, as the fly drifts follow it and at the same time pulsate the fly by moving the rod tip up and down about 3-5 inches. This should be a very controlled movement, not erratic. And, try working the stream in sections, not super long drifts. Mr. Amano does the up and down 4 times, counting to 4, and recasts.
5) Pulling – cast downstream and pull the fly upstream or towards the shore in some cases at about 1ft intervals. The rod tip should be low so the line serves as an anchor in the water and the fly doesn’t come flying. This can be done fast, or slower.
6) Sinking – A few ways of doing this, but primarily casting upstream from a small plunge, then dropping the rod tip (line and fly) into the plunge to sink. If you are doing this correctly you will see the line staying in place at the plunge and spinning around. Then it will tighten. At this point you will start raising the rod tip and following your line downstream, aiming to get the line tight in case there is a fish. Variation: try combining sinking with the “up and down”. If there are no plunges so to speak, casting farther upstream will give the fly more time to sink.

Another variation: to cast the fly upstream, keep the rod tip in place till the fly goes dowstream from it, then when it does pull the line upstream a bit and let it slack by moving the rod tip slightly downstream from the first place you kept the rod tip in place, hold, move rod tip upstream a bit and return to slightly downstream, and repeat. Introducing that slack can allow the fly to sink more every time. When fishing with Karel and Jason in Colorado last year this is a technique I used to get a couple of takes on a day that was very slow and fish were not moving for the fly. We could see fish low in the water but not moving, so I did this, keeping the fly going in as straight a line as possible, to get the fly right to the fish nose. I also combined this with pausing my fly in a few places to give fish a chance to grab it.

Line below the surface V. line above the surface (or, rod tip high v. rod tip low)

With each of these techniques the most basic variation will be based on the position of the rod tip. When the rod tip is high, more line will be above the surface of the water, as the currents push the fly away from the rod, the fly will tend to come up to the surface of the water. On the other hand, when the rod tip is lower or pointing down, more line is allowed to be in contact with the water, and most of it will be below the surface, this will in turn keep the fly below the surface. Knowing this variation is important when wanting to manipulate the fly into deeper parts of of the stream as I describe at the end of the “Sinking” technique.

Frequently you may see pictures of Dr. Ishigaki and myself looking a bit contorted as we fish, with the elbow high and the rod pointing down. What we are trying to do in those cases is keep more line in the water to manipulate the fly in different water columns. You could simply point the rod down, but that limits the range of motion and range of reach of the fly.

Here is one example (photo by

Move, move, move…

I have, in some situations, spent a fair amount of time in certain pools to work a fish and have had success at eventually hooking a fish by changing techniques in the same pool. But,  moving to the next pocket is by far the most effective way of fishing. One of the first fishing terms I learned in Japanese was “dondon, dondon, dondon” , which means move, move, move and Dr. Ishigaki frequently used when I first started fishing with him. Fish can have a hypnotizing effect on us and I know when we spot fish we sometimes spend inordinate amounts of time on one. It is better to move on.

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8 Responses to How to Fish with One Fly Pattern Tenkara Techniques

  1. Daniel, brilliant post. Every tenkara angler should read this and try the techniques you suggest.

  2. Matt Donovan says:

    yes excellent post! I never entered tenkara with the intent of being a “one fly” fisherman, but as time goes on my fly box gets more and more spartan, last weekend I actually went out with nothing but utah killer bugs, and sakasa kebaris, and as soon as the water levels get a little lower it will pretty much be just sekasa kebari. I think in mountain streams, just fishing tenkara style will eventually turn anyone into a “one fly” practitioner. its hard to change flies when your constantly unhooking those pesky trout! :)

  3. Daniel Neiswender says:

    I have been trying to embrace this and have found it truely a release from the pressures of “matching the hatch” being a new Tenkara angler and only fishing with western gear for a few years before. the crazy number of flies to choose and to have the right fly for the right day, time, season, location and bug know how was a big task to say the least. and when I fish now I know that I have one pattern that will get strikes no matter what the sittuation. and that has built my confidence to take more and more steps tword a one fly approch. thank you for your post and help in giving us the tools to fish and really fall in love with a truely relaxing and peaceful way of fishing.

  4. G D BECKETT says:

    I’m new to Tenkara, and also don’t fish wet flys very often. I have found some very productive days with Tenkara using my usual nymph patterns (yes, matching the hatch or expectations). I have also gotten some interest in some Tenkara flies I’ve tied, but not nearly equal to nymphs. So while the techniques are pretty clear & straightforward, I must admit it’s hard for me to stick with one fly.

    But, time will tell, and I am throwing forward soft-hackles often, and with learning, maybe I’ll do better with them.

    • GD, please don’t feel obligated to use one fly, or even a tenkara fly. I mostly share the techniques and how the method is used in Japan (and my style in approaching it) to give something to people who don’t want to be changing flies try something different. I’d say, use what works for you.
      Thanks for giving it all a try.

  5. Don Cohen says:

    This summer I’ll be switching to Tenkara fishing as it surprisingly mirrors a technique I perfected after 25 years of living up in the Vail Valley in Colorado. It’s all about the drift! Guides and fishing partners laugh when I open my fly box and the only pattern it it are #10 Renegades. From summer through fall I fish a renegade on top and catch fish when none are even rising (more when they are). This technique has proven successful in Colorado, Canada, Alaska, Australia and yes, even Northern Iowa. The Renegade is a general attractor and it looks a little about the Tenkara flies. Most importantly, what I’ve learned is that when I manipulate the fly for a perfect drift – I catch fish. My “traditional” gear experience really validates the elegant minimalism of the Tenkara style.

  6. Carl Zobel says:

    One fly method! So reading about the one fly method. I think, it doesn’t get much simpler then that! A telescopic rod, a line, and only one fly! I practice my casting, and my presentation in my open side yard. I head down to my local stream, I study the stream to calculate where the fish are holding. I check the wind to see if it will affect my cast. I approach the stream with caution, so as not to spook the fish, or let them see my shadow. After a few casts….I tug oh so gently to try to retrieve my one fly, from the tree! And then I ponder, once again, this “one fly method”!

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