Sakasa Kebari: Not the No.1 Tenkara Fly?
8 CommentsThursday, 11 August 2016 | JP
Sakasa Kebari are Awesome - but NOT the only game in town
No one can argue that the long soft hackled sakasa kebari style - with their "backwards" hackle has become the icon of tenkara flies in the west. These flies are so different from what we recognise as a conventional western fly that it’s no wonder they captured the imagination of fledgling tenkara anglers exploring this new and exotic fishing experience.
Before we go any further I’d just like to get one thing straight... what follows here is in no way an attempt to spoil anyone’s fun or to tell you how you should be fishing or tying your tenkara flies. The purpose of this post is to share some interesting facts about the flies of tenkara and hopefully get people exploring the rich tapestry of patterns that can be found in Japan. In fact, one of the most surprising things about some of the flies in "the other 75%" of patterns used in Japan is the STIFF hackled WET fly. In many ways, that is even more weird than a sakasa hackle.
Early experiments with Japanese tenkara flies
Like many people new to tenkara both me and Paul spent our early days exploring reverse hackle patterns both in traditional Japanese patterns such as the Takayama style (or the less well known Okumikawa style) and initially with a few adapted western patterns too. In those early days of tenkara’s spread outside Japan source information in English was difficult to find and Yoshikazu Fujioka’s website "My Best Streams" was (and still is) a great source of information for anyone interested in traditional regional tenkara patterns.
In 2014 we decided to visit the mountain streams of Japan to begin our own research into the attitudes of tenkara anglers to their flies for our (now discontinued) Vol.2 DVD. What we discovered has drawn us back to Japan every year since and has become the subject matter for 2 DVDs and our very first Print Book (Click the following link for full details of the book "How to Fool Fish With Simple Flies: The Secret Science Behind Japanese Kebari and Euro Nymph Patterns").
In all of our research and in interviewing some of the best tenkara practitioners in Japan we started to realize that the iconic fly of tenkara, the “sakasa kebari”, was not the no.1 fly choice of for a great number of tenkara anglers. This is not to say that the sakasa style has no place... quite the opposite in fact; almost everyone we interviewed had some sakasa kebari patterns in their fly box but they are normally reserved for specific scenarios INSTEAD of being the go-to pattern for all round fishing duties.
So, what is the No.1 Tenkara Fly? Enter the Futsuu Kebari
The most frequent kebari style we’ve observed in our studies use stiff rooster hackles which look very much like western dry fly hackles (BUT are actually wet flies). The examples below are just a few of the go-to patterns shared with us by anglers in Japan.
These stiff hackle kebari are not unheard of in the west but they are often not recognised or fully appreciated for what they are... we’ve seen several instances where well known and respected western angling writers have mistakenly referred to jun kebari styles as “tenkara dry flies”. Well, OK it is physically possible to fish them as dry flies - BUT their major function is to be fished as a wet fly pattern...and here's how to tie a great one:
So, what’s so good about these kebari?
A stiff hackled kebari/wet fly can offer significant physical or mechanical advantages over soft hackled sakasa patterns; a few of which include,
- maintaining profile in strong flows
- improved aerodynamics for more accurate casting
- the ability to “anchor” the fly in opposing current
- increased vibration/disturbance when manipulated
If you’ve never experimented with stiff hackled wets I would strongly urge you to give them a try. It’s no coincidence that they are the No.1 choice for so many Japanese tenkara anglers... they reward anglers ability; for example, allowing skilled casters to achieve pinpoint presentation or light line users to keep their fly in the same spot for longer.
But that's not the end of the story...
For one thing, there is not a completely general agreement on what a "REAL" sakasa kebari actually is in Japan. In addition to that, there is yet another type of "regular" hackled fly which is incredibly popular and effective in Japan (the "Jun kebari" style). Don't worry, it sounds more complicated that it actually is.
Let's deal with "real" sasaka's first.
Sebata-san's Definition of a Sakasa Kebari
Mr Yuzo Sebata is a colossal figure in Japanese tenkara. He actually independently developed the "genryu" style of tenkara (hazardous and adventurous combination of camping, cliff and waterfall climbing, living off the land combined with fishing in remote wilderness headwaters). In the process he also invented "sawanobori" or "waterfall climbing" as an independent pastime on it's own too. Over his 50-year plus tenkara career he has also done huge amounts of work to publish and promote tenkara as a valid fishing style - especially in the magazines and videos of the fly fishing industry in Japan.
In Sebata-san's opinion, the kebari pictured at the top of this article would just be a "regular" hackle. He wouldn't consider it Extreme enough to count as a true sakasa kebari. Instead, the style of dressing being demonstrated by Kobayashi-san in the picture below has both the density and severe "cone" shape that Sebata-san requires for a fly to qualify as a real-deal reverse hackle pattern.
Kobayashi san tying a full-on Sakasa hackle which Sebata-san would approve of!
The important thing to know is that you will find a range of opinions on how "reversed" a hackle needs to be before it qualifies as "reversed enough". Of course, Sebata-san's opinion is highly respected, but I'm not sure how widely he has spoken on that one specific subject. It could be very much like the almost unknown fact that he pretty much set the meaning and the use of the word "tenkara" for the style of traditional (reel-less) Japanese fly fishing in magazines when they began to run more stories on this unusual method from the 1980's onwards. Even in Japan, not many folks know that the editor of one of Japan's most prominent fishing magazines (Tsuribito) asked Sebata san whether it should be just called "kebari tsuri" (fly fishing) or "tenkara". Both phrases were used pretty interchangeably at the time - so Sebata san's decision to define and use "tenkara" very specifically is the reason that you can buy a "tenkara" rod today (and even visit a "Discover Tenkara" website).
Jun Kebari - another "normal" style of hackle
While futsuu generally refers to stiffer-hackled kebari (again, you may see some variation as with any common-use/non-scientific word), the term "Jun" usually refers to swept-back soft hackles. The word itself means "normal" - but it carries a feeling of a "conforming" or "following along with" kind of "normal". For this reason, it naturally describes a softer hackle which, by being swept back along the shank, conforms more to the shank of the hook (especially when it is moving forwards).
This is a point that David Walker deduced very well from some of his research of Japanese shop websites selling kebari - and it is great to have been able to confirm that by talking to a number of top-class anglers on our most recent research trips to Japan.
Swept-back soft hackles on Jun kebari (used in a little-known tactic developed by Takahashi-san)
Because these are a lot more familiar to the eye of western wet fly fishers, Jun kebari are often overlooked and - Big Mistake - underestimated. Look out for more coverage on a special tactic developed by Takahashi-san (Mr. Shin Takahashi) where he combines a nymphing approach with tenkara manipulations. He noted that many times fish will grab the fly on the "pause" between two manipulations. Takahashi san also took careful note that sakasa kebari hackles open when you pull the fly - versus a special rig using a weighted fly to make the jun kebari hackle open when you pause the fly.
All in all, the different textures and directions of hackles are matched to their ideal presentation method that lets tenkara anglers take advantage of a really wide range of conditions.
That's why, looking into many top Japanese anglers' fly boxes will often look something like this:
A typical Japanese angler’s fly box featuring a majority of stiff hackles
Want a second opinion?
It’s hard to ignore the facts... in addition to the extensive research Paul and I have carried out in Japan and all the help we've had from dozens of anglers that folks like Go Ishii and Dr. Ishigaki have introduced us to, Yoshikazu Fujioka has done extensive studies on Japanese kebari styles.
How extensive? Well, believe it or not Fujioka san actually recorded and then plotted the frequency of various hackle styles. The numbers he found reflect that normal stiff hackled kebari are the most popular in Japan by a long way....
Would you like to see? Well, (believe it or not) Fujioka san is kind enough to publish his graphs on PAGE 2 of the document on this link on his great and extensive (English Language!) site:
CLICK HERE TO SEE PDF (don't forget to scroll to page 2 to see the "radar plots")
Some figures from Fujioka san’s results,
Because flies with stiff hackles are amazing for some of the most effective "anchoring" and "water-disturbing" presentations - you're missing a HUGE chunk of tenkara opportunities if they aren't in your armoury. So, if you’d like to lock in some tried and tested stiff hackled patterns; Click the link below and have a really close look at out our new range of kebari sets here.
JP and PG