Using Contrast in Sakasa Kebari Design

On June 26, 2012
Comments (12)

Sakasa Kebari Design

There are many variables that make an artificial fly attractive to fish: size, silhouette, movement, and color. Anyone who has seen a sakasa kebari underwater knows that they’ve got excellent, lifelike movement and this is probably the main reason they are so effective. But movement often overshadows color in sakasa kebari design.  Typically, the bodies are an afterthought and nothing more than a simple black or other muted colored thread.  While these flies work, I think we can take a lesson from the great attractor patterns like the Royal Coachman, and incorporate not just color, but contrast into sakasa kebari to make them even more effective.

Let’s dissect the Royal Coachman for a moment.  The most obvious feature of this fly is the red band which many people would identify as its attractor quality (color). But looking deeper, you will notice that the fly also has another great visual attractor: contrast. Of course the red band contrasts against the peacock herl body but look at the wing.  The white wing against the peacock creates the most dramatic contrast of all:  black against white.  And all three colors together create even more contrast. I think it’s not merely the red band that is the key to the Royal Coachman’s fish catching ability, but rather the interplay of contrast between dramatic colors.

So why does it work?  After all a Royal Coachman doesn’t even vaguely resemble anything in the underwater world. But maybe that is exactly why it works.

Stream trout are constantly being bombarded with a barrage of flotsam–twigs, pebbles, larval shucks, vegetation, and insects. The fish only have a split second to identify something as food or not.  One of the things that helps them make that decision is complexity.

Let’s face it, bugs are intricate little creatures.  They don’t look like a lump of seaweed.  They have legs, antennae, gills, segments, wing cases, and tails.  Trout don’t want to waste energy taste testing something to figure out if it’s a twig or a caddis larva and the most efficient way to do that is to visually ID something before they decide to go after it.  The more something stands out as “not a twig”, or “not a leaf”, the more easily identifiable it is as food (i.e. a complicated looking insect).  Complexity helps trout decide if they’re going to end up with a meal or a mouth full of algae.

So that’s the reason flies with great contrast work even if they don’t resemble anything in nature. They’re quickly identifiable as food because their complexity makes them stand out from the other flotsam drifting toward them.

So how can we incorporate this concept into the designs of our sakasa kebari?  After all, they’re so simple–just hackle and thread. The answer is material choice.  Here are some ideas to create the illusion of complexity without compromising the intrinsic simplicity of sakasa kebari.

1.  Use the right Hackle.  For hackle choose a feather with variegation rather than a solid color. Good choices would be grizzly hackle, partridge, guinea, or grouse.  Anything with a mottled appearance will look buggier than a solid color.

Red and white sakasa kebari

Grouse hackle has excellent mottling


2.  Add ribbing. A simple copper wire ribbing instantly transforms a bland thread body into a  more complex, segmented insect body. It also adds a little weight to the fly to help it sink.

Gray Sakasa Kebari

Ribbing makes any fly automatically look buggier


3.  Use contrasting colored threads. If you’ve got a black thread body, add a small white tag (or other color) at the end. Make a body that’s 50% one color and 50% a different color. Use a bright colored thread for the head of the fly that’s different than the body color.  Or make a band of contrasting colored thread in the middle of the body to create a hotspot.

Black and white sakasa kebari

A simple thread tag can be enough to add contrast


Claret and yellow sakasa kebari

A "half & half" claret and yellow sakasa kebari


Olive and orange sakasa kebari

A "half & half" olive and orange sakasa kebari


Skunk sakasa kebari

Proof you can do a lot with just thread and hackle!


4. Use colored loop eyes.  For loop eye flies, choose a material that’s a different color than the body of the fly.  White, red, or yellow all create good contrast and create the illusion of more complexity when they peek through the hackle fibers.

Loop eye sakasa kebari

Red loop made from silk bead cord

Hopefully, now that conversation between the two kebari in the fly box at the beginning of this post makes sense now.  Achieving complexity is simple.  Just by choosing the right materials, we can add the visual complexity trout rely on to identify food without tying overly complicated patterns.  Sakasa kebari already have the dance steps down.  There’s no reason they can’t look the part too.

What design elements have you added to your flies to make them better attractors?

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12 Responses to Using Contrast in Sakasa Kebari Design

  1. Great first post, Jason! Interesting thoughts on contrast. I’m going to have to try the half and half colored bodies. It seems like with half-dark/half-light thread on the body, you are also doubling your chances to contrast with the background.

    • Good point Ashley! The light and dark color combination would give the fish a choice based on how they happen to see it against different backgrounds. That would further increase the versatility of the fly.

  2. Morgan Lyle says:

    Great post Jason! And beautiful flies. I think an important clue that a drifting object is a living insect is its symmetry, and that’s found on every fly, from the simplest to the most complex.

  3. Jack says:


    Great start to your Tenkara USA posting! Now it’s one more blog to follow (although I followed your blog before this anyway

    I’d suggest adding one other important dimension to fly contrast and that’s fluorescence. Fish don’t see contrasts exactly as the human eye does and fluorescent contrast can provide an important trigger.

    Anyway it’s great to have you here!

    – Jack (aka “jayfisher”)

  4. Excellent post Jason and I could not agree more. At the risk of sounding like I’m tooting my own horn (which is not my intention) I would like to add a little more to your post. Before tying sakasa kebari I tied a number of patterns including “heritage” or “classic wet flies”. Many of these patterns were attractors with fascinating histories. One of my favorites was a Royal Coachman. It was developed in 1878 by a fly dresser in NYC. It has been an extremely successful fly and been adapted to a number of other types of flies including Wulff’s and streamers to name a couple. Again these don’t look like anything natural but for the reasons you mention they work. That was my thinking a couple of years ago when I tied one of my first sakasa kebari experiments…a “Royal Sakasa Kebari”. To this day it remains my favorite fly/best producing kebari and I always have one in my fly box. However, I generally tie the red band a little smaller than in a classic royal coachman. The band still stands out but is not quite as striking. what I would like to add is that when this fly (a sakasa kebari) is wet it does resemble an insect much better than the original coachman, which I think adds to how well it works. It stands out and is insect like. I believe adding a little contrast or sparkle to a fly to get a fish’s attention but not scare it away is extremely effective. Another example of this would be to tie a “normal looking” fly but place a small glass bead in the body or just behind the hackle to look like an air bubble…Gary LaFontaine believed that an “air bubble” was a powerful stimulus for a fish to strike. Bottom line your post is right on the money.

    • Thanks Chris, it’s good to have other anglers confirm my experiences. About the air bubble..only certain species actually display this prominently but I think it’s just another quality trout are hard wired to be attracted to (another form of contrast–translucence vs. opaqueness). Your insights are the perfect compliment to this post.

  5. Awesome post but to be honest I would expect nothing less from you. I truly believe in contrasting colors myself and glad to see others do as well.

  6. […] what design elements are better attractors than others in fly patterns will help with your success on the water. “Complexity helps trout decide if they’re going to end up with a meal or a mouth full of […]

  7. Great post, Jason!

    I also use different color dubbing, peacock herl, or lucent chenille thread right behind the hackle to break up the shape and add color and contrast.

  8. Dale H says:

    Great post and I agree that contrast is a big part of “catching” a fishes eye. Something I have found interesting is an article in the latest issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. They talk about using buck-tail for making bodies of flies. I have mixed a few colors of hair and have tied a few buck-tail kebari. The look is pretty crazy. I am hoping to get a chance to try them out this week. They scream contrast!

  9. Sanjay says:

    Another execellent fly! I look faowrrd to holding one in my hands. I have a number of kebari that I have added dubbing to and I faced that same issue you did about where to tie the fly off. The great majority of the time I will tie it off at the back by the bend. I would rather have a few small bands of thread behind the dubbing than mess with the hackle. I feel the hackle is the most important part of the fly and I would not want to interfere with it’s movement.

  10. […] reason the viva is so effective is its use of contrast.  I’ve written about the concept of using contrast in fly design before and the viva embodies this on a hyperbolic level. […]

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