Tenkara: No Entomology Required

On July 12, 2012
Comments (7)

Written by Jason
Tenkara Entomology

Stenonema fuscum, Stenonema vicarium, or Stenonema ithica?  Does it REALLY matter?


Where I grew up, knowing aquatic entomology was considered just as much of a necessary skill in fly fishing as casting.  In fact, being able to identify insects (by their Latin names of course) was a sign of “stream cred” and if you could state the number of tails a nymph had on demand simply upon hearing it’s Latin name, you were instantly seen as an expert angler.

As a young fly fisher eager to gain stream cred, I took it upon myself to rise to the challenge.  I read aquatic entomology books more studiously than anything I ever did in school.  I collected stream samples and kept rows of vials containing carefully preserved bugs on my fly tying desk for reference.  It resembled (what I imagined) the entomology department at some lofty university like Harvard.  I could rattle off Latin names with the best of them, tell you when they’d hatch based on the number of days the water exceeded a certain temperature, and, of course, point out the differences between males and females.  On the stream, I spent almost as much time lifting rocks and combing through spider webs to find insects as I did fishing.

Looking back, it reminds me of baseball.  Baseball is a pretty simple game.  Yet, it’s so encumbered by statistics that you almost have to be a mathematician to have an intelligent conversation about it.  To me, that ruins the game somewhat.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was ruining my own game by being so preoccupied with entomology.

The belief that a good fly angler also had to be a good entomologist influenced my fly tying.  I tied for every contingency.  In the ten fly boxes that bogged my vest down (making every wade a potential suicide mission), I probably had patterns for not only every species of aquatic insect on the East coast, but also every stage of every species.  Fly selection on the water became an algorithm, which is odd because I’ve always hated math.  But I thought that was how it was supposed to be.  After all, that’s what elevated fly fishing above cruder forms of fishing like bait fishing, right?

So there I was—a pretty competent amateur entomologist with a fly rod in my hands.  I definitely got the stream cred.  People would bring insects to the fly shop where I worked and ask me to identify them.  It was certainly an ego boost, but there was just one problem.  This knowledge wasn’t helping me catch fish.  The fish didn’t seem to abide by the algorithm.  Sometimes, they took flies when they “shouldn’t” have.  And other times, perfectly realistic imitations presented perfectly didn’t catch a thing.  What was going on?  Why weren’t the fish playing by the rules?

It wasn’t until about ten years ago when I moved to Colorado that my perception about the importance of entomology in fly fishing began to shift.  Back East, before you took your first cast, the common practice was to observe–see what’s going on to determine which fly to put on.  Are the fish rising?  If so, what kind of rise patterns?  Get out the insect net and drag the bottom to see what’s drifting down.  Look in the trees to see if there are any mayflies or in spider webs to see if they’ve trapped any caddis.  There was a Sherlock Holmes mentality to approaching a stream and I wouldn’t even have thought of tying on a fly before conducting a thorough investigation.

But in Colorado, it was the opposite.  I found the fish quite willing to take pretty much any fly I put in front of them.  Part of this is due to the comparative lack of food in many of the high altitude streams I was fishing.  When the fish have a limited menu, they have to be more opportunistic.  I found that 90% of the time, I could walk up to a stream, tie on an Elk Hair Caddis, and catch fish (even when there were no caddis hatching).  It was baffling, yet refreshing to not have to approach the stream like a crime scene.

Back then, I had never heard of tenkara and while I didn’t realize it at the time, life was hinting at the fact that while spouting off Latin names might make you a big shot in the fly shop, all the entomology in the world doesn’t necessarily help you catch fish in real life.  I was slowly learning that I had always focused too much on the fly and not enough on the fishing.  In retrospect, I realize that I was getting a taste of the philosophy behind the tenkara one fly approac

In tenkara, emphasis is placed on presentation more than the actual fly.  In fact, some go as far to say that the fly is irrelevant.  This philosophy is what leads many tenkara anglers to adopt the so-called “one fly approach”.  For some, this means randomly picking a pattern out of their fly box and only fishing that one for the day.  For others, it literally means fishing only one fly pattern for their entire fishing career.


Sakasa Kebari

I’d rather just tie one of these on and fish!


Since discovering tenkara, I have mostly abandoned my entomological endeavors.  Every once in a while I’ll still lift a rock or strain the water with my tamo, but it’s more for simple curiosity than academic knowledge.  Which insects are hatching when never figures into my strategy anymore.  I pick a fly to fish for the day and that’s it.  I focus more on presentation than fly selection.  The angler I was 10 years ago would be shocked to learn that I catch just as many (if not more) fish than I did by counting tails on duns and gills on nymphs.

Is entomology irrelevant then?  I wouldn’t go that far.  It would still benefit an angler to have some basic understanding of what’s on the fishes’ menu.  But you don’t have to be a gourmet chef.  For the novice, I think one of the great benefits of tenkara is that it removes this barrier to entry that many new fly anglers find so intimidating.  Most people would rather just catch fish than have their noses buried in entomology books.  And for the experienced angler, tenkara frees them up from becoming preoccupied with the trivia of insects and lets them spend more time doing what they’re on the stream to do:  fish.

Tenkara has taught me that rather than an erudite scientific study, fly fishing can be a simpler, more primal dance between angler and trout.   It pulls fly fishing back from its over-academicization and returns it to a more pristine state—one that doesn’t require an advanced degree to partake in.  Which reminds me…does anyone want to buy some used entomology books?


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7 Responses to Tenkara: No Entomology Required

  1. Great post, Jason. I agree, it is so nice to be able to concentrate on presentation rather than fretting about your fly matching the current hatch.

  2. Troy says:

    Very very nice post!! I love the insect life aquatica as much as the next fisherman but fishing a one fly pattern exclusively for the last 3 seasons has defiantly led to a loveafair with fishing. Not having a back ground in the western arts of fly fishing my fly choosing were never about what was hatching but rather what I thought would catch fish and what I thought looked really cool. Early on I tied on a lot of Adams, and cutter caddises, at one point dry flys were my cup of tea. Now that I have imbraceded the method and have become a avid “one fly guy” fishing a wet kebari acouple of inches below the water and seeing the flash of the next fish makes me smile. And not having to wonder if I’ve tied on the right imitaion of the trouts life aquatica make me smile too…

  3. Of course, anything can be taken to extremes, but I think part of the appeal of fly fishing is learning something about the insects that inhabit the stream or riparian zone. Let’s don’t lose that in a monomoniacal desire to simplify angling until it becomes nothing more than hooking fish.

  4. Troy says:

    I really love how fishing with one fly pattern and relieing on technique to imprint life into the fly make someone pathologically obsessed or “extreme”. Or that by only using one fly pattern that all of a sudden your need for basic knowledge of stream entomology all of a sudden goes out the window. Mr Ambassador, embrace the primal dance!

  5. Justin says:

    Have to agree with Tenkara Ambassador on this one. For me fly fishing is not about catching fish, but about how you catch them. After all putting a worm on the end of a hook is a pretty effective way to catch trout if that’s all your interested in. I do occasionally fish the one fly approach with a tenkara style fly but I still get a lot of satisfaction in trying to match the hatch when one is happening and in using and tying different types of flies.

  6. TJ Ferreira says:

    I am enjoying my own idea of “One Fly” approach, what I call the Sakasa Kebari Family One Fly Approach.

    My one fly is any reverse hackle fly, so maybe to some that is not one fly only like only using Ishigaki or Takayama. For me, any reverse hackle fly with 3 to 4 components, meaning hook, thread, hackle, and dubbing, is one fly enough for me to abide by.

    All tied similar way that is where we have hook, thread, reversed hackle, and then some little bit of dubbing on the back side near the hook itself. All look the same basic design but are different in that hackle used, hook used, dubbing used, and thread used.

    To me this Sakasa Kebari Family One Fly Approach makes it fun still with variety of flies but all so very close in design, enough for me to feel a One Fly guy.

    The 4 current TUSA kebari all look very similar to me. Basic 3 to 4 piece designs, all reverse hackle, with just “to me”, small difference, but enough to give them their own flavor.

    So if you look in my Fly Box I pimp Amano, Takayama, Ishigaki, Oki, and now my own Siberian Sakasa and Aussie Sakasa using dubbing from my pets fur.

    Works for me.

    Great article Jason.


  7. Justin & Tenkara Ambassador, I agree with both your points. I guess my point was that you can take it to the level you want. If identifying bugs is your thing, go for it. It definitely is fascinating and can easily turn into a lifetime hobby. But I really just wanted to make sure beginners don’t know they have to be a scientist to catch fish. As I pointed out in the post, that was my experience. I felt pressured to make entomology a bigger part of my fishing than it really needed to be. I think it’s important for new anglers to know that fly fishing is a diverse sport and there is a lot more to it than just catching fish. But I think the first message beginners should hear is not a prescriptive one. Rather, they should feel free to delve into the sport as deep or as shallow as they want.

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