One fly – Doubt and Confidence

On September 4, 2010
Comments (18)

Ever since getting into the discipline of using one fly pattern/style only, with no great concern for choosing the “right” fly, but rather focusing proper fishing technique (presentation and manipulation of the fly), there have been moments of doubt. However, I have chosen to rely less on gear and perfect technique instead. I wanted to learn more, to become proficient at fishing, not spend my time changing flies.

Further, I’m very attracted to the idea that whether I catch a fish or not is entirely up to me and my technique, and that if a fish is not biting maybe I could do something slightly different. This thought, that maybe it’s not my fly selection, but rather my technique on fishing it, have dramatically pushed me to become a better angler. I have stuck with using a tenkara fly only (mostly size 12), no matter where I fish, or what is hatching.  Also, absolutely no indicators, no floatant and no weight!  To once again borrow the words of Yvon Chouinard on the subject, “I believe the way toward mastery of any endeavor is to work toward simplicity; replace complex technology with knowledge, hard work and skill.”

Since the idea of sticking with one fly and relying solely on my technique is still relatively new to me, sometimes doubt creeps in. This is especially true if I find myself fishing a bigger, slower river, like the Madison, for which everyone has advice on what fly to use and for which there are dozens of books on what specific patterns to use at different times of the year, etc. And, it’s also true if I find myself in the company of very experienced anglers, like John Gierach and Ed Engle, who may be using different patterns in a stream they know well. And, it is especially the case if the day is slow.  In these situations it’s very easy to lose confidence in my technique, in the techniques I can use to attract fish, and start thinking that maybe they are right! But are they? The western thought of matching the hatch is so ingrained in our minds that it’s hard to let go of it and realize that a couple of hundred years ago professional tenkara anglers, in the mountains of Japan, who depended on catching trout for a living, made it happen with one fly pattern and flawless technique. Nowadays that is the approach taken by tenkara anglers in Japan, for sport, and they continue catching fish.

Today I find myself in Ennis, Montana. I came here to speak at the Madison River Fly Fishing Festival. During my presentation I spoke about the concept of “one-fly”, of not paying particular attention to the fly but rather to fishing it. That’s usually the part of my presentation where I fear I’ll be thrown out of the room, especially given that my presentation was the day after  a great fly tying demonstration by Craig Mathews and John Juracek , as they demonstrated how to tie fly patterns for the Madison. I’d have to prove my “technique/one-fly concept” in their home water, a type of river I don’t usually fish, the Madison itself.  I’d have to stick with one fly; this was the ultimate test for me.

I typically fish mountain streams (I’ll no longer call them “small-streams”, as I don’t think that’s an accurate description for the best tenkara waters, I fish mountain streams, of many different sizes, which are defined by faster water and distinct features). In these streams I know any fly will work just fine and I no longer have any problem sticking with a sakasa (reverse hackle) fly, size 12, if the fish dont’ bite when I do a drag free drift, I’ll work the fly in a couple of different ways.  I may try a few casts from a couple of different angles, perhaps do a pause-down-pause-down approach, or pull-up-pull-up approach, or try to get the fly deep. If no fish take after a total of some 10 casts, I move on. It’s important to remember that sometimes the fish will just not take anything, perhaps a mink happened to be eating in that pool, or someone may have walked through it, or the weather is just not right and the fishing slows down. Nevertheless, if a trout is the least willing one can catch it with technique, regardless of the fly.

Trout are very opportunistic feeders and they have to grab food quickly, further their vision is not great, and anything of reasonable size will be seen as food. Yesterday I met great success on one of the Madison’s feeder streams; I only had a couple of hours of fishing left and I wanted to fish my favorite type of water, a mountain stream. I bought a map and found a mountain stream about 30 minutes away. In a couple of hours, and despite the very cold water, I managed a dozen or so fish – one fly, of course.  Today, when I told people that I caught plenty of fish, on that stream, with a size 12 only, and that I didn’t choose a fly in particular, they were a bit skeptical. Luckily I had a couple of pictures from last night (fly is a bit out of focus, but on the edge of the frame):

After the presentation I met with Bryan, a tenkara angler who lives in the area. He, a friend of his, his friend’s son and I headed to the lower part of the Madison, near town.  We fished for about an hour and nothing. The kid had a size 14 grasshopper on, I stuck with one tenkara fly. But we couldn’t manage a bite, not on the hopper, nor on the tenkara fly. That’s when confidence started seeping out – what is happening? Will they take a different fly? Is my presentation not good enough? In this case there was relatively heavy boat traffic where we were fishing, and I attributed our lack of activity to that. Or, that fact that perhaps I still hadn’t figured out the right technique for such big water.

We left the stream, and went our separate ways. As there were still a couple of hours of sunlight left, I wanted to do some more fishing for the rest of the day. There a few good mountain streams in the area, the type of water I really like. However, I just couldn’t give up on the Madison. This would be one the few chances I’d have to say that “yes, you can also use any one fly in the Madison, or anywhere with running water and trout”. If I want to master my tenkara technique I’d have to work hard for it. I returned to the exact same location and was greeted by this beautiful sun light and rainbow, a good sign perhaps.

This time I was a bit freer to move anywhere and a bit faster; so I worked that area very hard. I went upstream, across, downstream, to the middle, and to some very likely pools, hitting all spots that I knew should have fish in them.  For an hour or so I only saw a flash or two. Then, confidence started seeping out again. I had a grasshopper and an elk-hair caddis in my box, two “just-in-case” flies I still haven’t had the confidence to put away. I tied the large hopper on,  this was the fly everyone  in town has been raving about for the Madison. About 10 minutes with the hopper and nothing but one tiny strike. I then tied on the size 12 elk-hair caddis, fished it for about 5 minutes on a couple of very likely spots, still nothing. I paused for a moment and thought about what  I could do differently to catch fish.  First of all, I should stick with my one fly, if the results with these “just-in-case” flies are not that apparent, I think I can make it work with my tenkara fly.  In reality any fly of reasonable size should work given the right presentation and manipulation.

How can I make this work? If I only had my tenkara fly, how could I catch fish with it?

This pause was probably sufficient. I had primarily been sticking with dead drifts: casting upstream or to the side and following the fly down with no drag. Sometimes I would cast to the side, pause the fly in place for a couple of seconds, let it go downstream (in a straight line, not swinging), and pause. And sometimes I would cast a bit downstream and work the fly upstream, and other times I’d just cast upstream and try to get the fly deep by lowering my rod tip and gradually lifting it to keep a tight line. Pretty much the major tenkara techniques, in a simplified explanation. One technique I hadn’t been using, however, was giving the tenkara fly a lot of life by casting to the side and very abruptly pulling the fly towards me (with the line in the water). I did this vigorously, pulling at about 1ft intervals, a bit like a streamer. This worked! Suddenly I was getting into fish. The reasoning: the water was very fast in this area and the fish needed to really see the fly well, so giving it a lot of action was necessary. After a couple of fish I decided to switch to a bigger fly, a size 10 which “Tenkara Ouji” had sent me, to increase its visibility. This also worked very well, although I know I could have just as easily stuck with the same fly I had been using.  I landed a few (maybe 4 or 5) 12 inchers,  lost 2 fish about 16-17″  when I was about to land them (yes, I’ll be thinking about these in my sleep, and yes, the bigger ones are always the ones that get away!), and missed a few strikes, a couple of which were very good.

For many months now I have made a point to stick with one fly pattern only. My box has one fly pattern, mostly size 12, but in couple of different sizes and color combinations –  all virtually the same. I would have no problem having only one identical fly, but I like having different ones so I can show different tenkara flies to people. I pick the fly at random, except if the water is very high and I know I want more visibility (both for myself and for the fish), in which case I like using a light colored or bigger fly. In the months since completely converting to one fly only, I have  fished more often than I ever have (fishing about 10-15 days out of each month). And, I continue catching fish, and probably many more fish than I ever have too.

I also initially met the theory of using one fly with great skepticism. It took me exactly a year to fully convert to using one fly pattern only. But, I have learned a lot about how to fish since then. I am striving for perfecting technique and simplifying my fly fishing, I’m now really learning how to fish. I have embarked on a quest to fully embrace fishing technique, and let go of the accepted current thought of “match-the-hatch”.  The longer I fish with only one fly, the more confident I become in my technique, and the fewer fish I catch “out of luck”, or because they “like” a specific fly. Most fish I currently catch, I know why I caught them, and if I don’t catch a fish I know I can improve my technique. The fly shouldn’t be the major concern of the angler, professional fisherman in Japan made a living out of fishing with one fly pattern, how can we argue with that?

In current western thought the emphasis has been on finding just the right fly, for the pool, for the weather, for that fish. We forget that perhaps we can do something differently with the same fly to catch fish. We try to make up for lack of technique with different flies. This theory, that one can use any one fly to catch fish based on his/her technique, will be met with skepticism – this was my own initial reaction to it – and it may be controversial, given that as anglers we have all had the experience of switching a fly and then hooking a fish, and that few people ever talk about this. I don’t believe it is the norm among all anglers in Japan, but for what I see most of the more experience tenkara anglers in Japan use one fly and stick with it. I do see it as potentially a paradigm shift in our mentality for fly-fishing. That a whole group of anglers uses one fly and then focuses on technique is encouraging. I will also try stick with one fly and will focus on my technique.

“Simple fly, simple fly”, as the Tenkara Bum says. And so the “just-in-case” flies are now gone for good!

If you only had one fly pattern in your box, could you still catch fish? If you ran out of your “go-to” fly pattern, would you feel okay and continue fishing, or would your day be ruined?


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18 Responses to One fly – Doubt and Confidence

  1. Brandon says:

    I have been following your blog posts, and for the past couple months have fished only the sakasa type fly in a size 14 with my 12′ Iwana. I do vary the thread color, sometimes also adding dubbing to the body, but more so I don’t get bored at the vise. I also choose the flies at random when I need to tie another one on. I have kept track and am catching on average 3 times as many trout as before. My level of fun is also 3x what it was before, if not more. Keep up the great work! And beautiful net!

  2. Karel says:

    absolute LOVE the post, echos my thinking but i haven’t been that bold yet to change to one fly yet. i was fishing yestserday in my “big” water and was trying to fish with a sakasa kebari for a while but couldn’t buy a bite (i also tried to fish it with out any help such as indicator) – that’s wen it warmed up and i changed to a CDC & Elk that accounted for 4 of my 5 fish yesterday. I guess that I have still a lot to learn and have to re-think the game since became so dependent on indicators.

    great advice in the article how to apply technique and life.

    if you’re interested in my latest blog of yesterday’s venture, you can find it at Tenkara on the Fly Blog.

    tight lines, -K

  3. Karel says:

    oh, one more thing – would you post a picture of your fly box, just curious….

    • Karel, here a couple of pictures I just took of my box. It’s some type of a pill-box I found a $1 store. 4 compartments for the flies (it has a removable top which I took out for the picture) and a larger compartment where I leave the tippet and my nipper. It would have been just perfect if my blue spool fit too, but it was slightly too small:
      Picture 1
      Picture 2

  4. Bart says:

    I think you hit it right on the nose! Quite often its not the fly but the presentation. I have only been fishing Tenkara for a year now, but have been very impressed with the flies and the techniques. In my own experiments once I have found how the fish want the flies presented, changing flies often does not change the catch rate. Interesting stuff to ponder.

  5. Anthony says:

    I have tried to buy into the one-fly idea, where technique beats fly selection – but I am just not convinced that it is effective on pressured waters. Maybe on mountain streams where fish are more willing, but I have just seen a change of flies mean the difference between fish and no-fish too many times in my own experience on more pressured waters.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that the right fly with with bad presentation will never outfish the “wrong” fly with good technique.

    • Anthony, most people are not convinced it can work, and I don’t blame them. The thought of matching the hatch has been ingrained in our minds for so long that it is very hard to let go.
      As mentioned on the post, I made a point to fish a very pressured river and one which people will swear by matching the hatch. There were people coming in and out of that stretch all day, it’s close to the town of Ennis and one of the more pressured lots in the river. It will still work, trout have poor vision and are opportunistic feeders.
      Plus, I am not saying that changing flies is not effective. It may be that if I had changed flies or if I had used a nymph I could have caught a couple of more fish – or maybe not. What I am saying is that one can effectivelly use one fly to fish any stream/river. And it’s not just the “presentation”, but also the manipulation of the fly. The experience was repeated today on three more streams, one a mountain stream, then the Gallatin River, and again on the same area of the Madison. One fly, plenty of fish.

  6. Anthony says:


    I guess I’ll have to have more faith. But the one thing that I should add is that many places that I fish are pretty pressured and in addition are not limitless. What I mean is I may only have a short stretch of stream to fish and I don’t always have the luxury of just trying the next pool. Streams like Spring Creek, can get pretty crowded during the prime hatches and one may find oneself limited as to how much you can really move around. So you may be in a situation where you need to try for the fish that you have rather than being able to look for more willing fish.

    I would love to see a Tenkara Master tackle the sulphur hatch on Spring Creek in PA, just to see what is possible with Tenkara in the hands of a master. Perhaps it would be eye opening.

    I did fish the sulphur hatch there with Tenkara gear and did pretty well – but I was matching the hatch of course (can’t give it up).

    • Anthony, I can see how it would be hard, especially in the situation you describe. Plus, a day with fish is often better than a day with no fish :).
      I hope to make a video on tenkara techniques in the near future, hopefully that’ll help too.

  7. Karel says:

    Thanks Daniel for posting the pictures… very impressive and it makes me even more think that my technique and presentation needs more work, lol. Next weekend I will be hitting the creeks in RMNP and maybe that will be the opportunity to experiment with the one fly concept.

  8. Andrew says:

    I’ve spent much of my relatively short Tenkara time developing my one fly pattern which now takes precedence on my hat ( I don’t have space for a fly box) on the water. It works very well and has allowed my technique to improve beyond my expectations.

    Thank you for the motivation to pursue this style of fishing.

  9. Mark says:

    Daniel, my recent experience was different. I’ve fished successfully with sakasa kebari this summer, not exclusively, but enough to become familiar with the various presentation techniques. Last week I was fishing my home waters on the Arkansas River at a spot I know contains browns. After fishing a pool below a small island where the split stream comes together with a black body and brown hackle sakasa kebari I had managed to catch one 4” brown. After exhausting my repertoire of presentation techniques I abandoned the sakasa kebari, tied on an #16 Elk Hair Caddis and returned to the tail of the pool and began to re-fish the water already covered. First cast resulted in an 11” brown with subsequent casts resulting in more fish. You can argue that my sakasa kebari techniques were inadequate, which may be true, but the fly switch did result in a much more productive afternoon.

    • That will happen. And it’s possible that if I had switched flies, or used a nymph, I could have caught more fish, or caught them more quickly. However, I like to think that I was probably just doing something “wrong”. Changing a variable like the fly could produce different results, but so could changing my technique (for example, getting the fly to sink deeper. I hope to introduce some techniques for actually fishing the fly soon. Like Dr. Ishigaki said, I like knowing that if I catch a fish or not is entirely up to me and my technique. If I am not catching a fish I know I have to improve and learn how to catch a fish with the fly I’m using. I have been learning A LOT since I have started paying attention to my technique entirely.
      I fished with a friend today, still in Montana, I stuck with one fly, he soon switched to an elk-hair caddis. When he did, he caught a fish pretty soon after. However, as the day went on we caught very similar numbers of fish (I may have caught a couple more). In that pool, at that moment the dry produced, when my sakasa fly didn’t, but I’m convinced it was not really the fly, but rather the fact that my technique at that moment was not quite optimal. Perhaps I could have false-cast/dried my fly a little more and offered a more delicate right on the surface presentation, instead I had mostly tried to keep it on the surface with drag (I had just caught another fish doing that).

  10. Jim (anders) says:

    Daniel, I applaud your one-fly crusade. I believe we are all learning from your postings, I know I am. But, one fly, hmmm…. before I became a tenkara fisher I was and remain a fly tier, and I can assure you that there is one thing this fly tier wants to do, fish the flies! So, sadly, I shall not join you in your quest. Today I felt the satisfying tug of a deep feeding brown that took my Tellico Nymph and shortly thereafter the slam and leap into the air of a rainbow taking a Dorato’s Hares Ear, a current favorite dry of mine. I shall, however, remain intently tuned to your writings. Thank you, again.

    • Hi Jim,
      Thanks for the comment, really appreciate the discussion. And, don’t get me wrong, I still enjoying tying flies, but mostly to fill my box these days and I like the simple fly. I also love having the fish take a fly I tie. Plus, with the right technique my fly is a dry and a “nymph”, so I can sink it deep when I want to and have a nice tug, or fish it on the surface and see a leap. I’ll continue tying my fly, perfecting even such a simple design, and hopefully perfecting my techniques for fishing it.

  11. Anthony says:


    I hear you on that about fly tying. I just love to tie flies and try them out. If a fly worked on one outing on a particular stream, I often find myself trying some different new creation the next time, just to see if the new fly will work. Tying and trying new flies is for me, a major part of the enjoyment. I guess I focus on the flies since my technique is already perfect (just kidding of course)

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