This winter I decided to embrace the “dentō” or tradition of tenkara kebari. I wanted to try and make some of my own traditional kebari with hooks made from sewing pins.
Our early tenkara predecessors in Japan used what was available to them for their fishing gear. This usually meant silk thread, feathers from local foul and hooks made from sewing needles and pins. The silk eyed hooks have always held an allure for me. As I am getting older and my eyesight is losing its sharpness for threading the eye of a hook, the silk eye has other benefits too.
I discovered a quality to the finished flies I made that dips into that world of being functionally artistic. Tying the silk eye onto the hook in gives a little more thickness to the body of the fly that I think also adds weight.
In making the hooks that I did, I tried to make bout a size 12 but sometimes hit on either side of that with a size 10 or a 14. When it came to the shape, I found that the shape of the hook could be easily manipulated, and a variety of shapes could be made with a little practice. Finally, for the weight of the hooks I made I learned a bit about the different kinds of metal used to make pins. The pins come in different thicknesses and the metals used to make them are all over the place. For any kind of consistency, you will have to play around with some different sources.
Choosing the right pins…
I am not sure what sewing pins or needles the villager fishermen of Japan had to choose from but in our modern world we have quite a few. Pins vary in quality, density and weight. You must be a little selective as you play with them. Some will weaken as you heat them and will be brittle. I tried the following:
Straight pins/needles. Straight pins you buy from sewing stores can be hit or miss on quality. You must look at the thickness of the pin and assess the density of the pin. The only way to know if any pin is going to make a good hook is just to bend it. I tried and had a little success with one batch of pins that came with a new shirt. Then again, the next shirt of a different brand had pins that were too weak and came unbent too easily.
Safety pins These offered a good variety of weight as a base material. The final flies I tied with these had a very authentic appeal, reminiscent of what I imagine a village fisherman’s kebari would look like. I found that the 1” and larger pins worked well. The larger the pin, the larger the gauge of the hook weight and thickness.
Just keep your eye out for any kind of pin that would be suitable. I have found “T” shaped pins at an office supply store that were a very sturdy gauge weight. Depending on which pins you find will dictate what the weight and gauge of the fly you are going to tie will be. I like having a variety to help me have some flies that sink faster than others.
Tools you will need:
1 or 2 sets of pliers: Needle nose pliers work fine but I also found jewelers pliers that have rounded conical tips to be excellent for shaping the hooks. One of each or two of either will be fine. I quickly found that I could also just use my fly-tying vise to hold the pin while I shaped the hook bend.
Wire cutters: My needle nose pliers have a cutter on them, and I used those to cut the hook shaft at the appropriate length. I believe a small set of actual jeweler’s cutters could be better still.
Small metal file. If you don’t use the jeweler’s cutters and instead use the bulkier cutter on the pliers, then you may have a sharp barb left over after cutting the hook to length. The small file will allow you to file off any rough barbs on the tip of the cut.
Steps to bending a hook
Place extended pin in vise: Your vise is the most obvious utility device to use for bending hooks in. You know immediately from experience how a hook should look and what size of bend you need. Because you will be bending the sharp end first you will clam the head end of the hook into the vise with the point extending from the tip. If you are using a safety pin open the pin out but don’t cut it yet just open it out and clamp it at an angle in the vise.
Flip hook around in vise: Remove the hook from the vise and turn it around. Put the hook into the vise with the bend in the clamp. From here you will now decide how long your hook shank is going to be. Use the cutters to cut your hook shank to the desired length. If there is a rough edge on the cut, this is where you file the point a bit and can continue to shape the hook if you would like.
(Optional) Step four: You may want to strengthen the hook bend by tempering it. When I first started bending hooks, I would heat them up first and then bend them. This worked a little, but I found it really wasn’t a needed step and it tended to weaken the hook if I overheated the metal. I had several hooks become brittle and break in the vise. If you do choose to temper the bend of the hook just use a lighter and heat just until red. Once heated dip the hook into cold water to quickly cool the metal and temper the bend.
There you go! That is all there is to making your own hooks. I really enjoy making these and have a feeling that I will be doing a lot of fishing with them in the spring. I enjoy the rustic shapes and the lack of continuity each hook has. The more you work making your own hooks the better you will become at getting them to the size and shape you want.
Tying in a silk loop eye
So now that you have your hooks you will probably be wondering how to tie in a silk loop eye. It is simple enough...
And that is all there is to it!
I hope that you have fun exploring this tradition and stepping back into time a little. Our appreciation for the first tenkara fishermen is honored in little things like this. When we practice these techniques, we begin to appreciate more about the early ways fishermen had to think and spend their spare time. We get a better appreciation of those traditions and build on our own skill sets and confidence. I will continue to wait for the spring and in the meantime keep making these kebari. Still can't wait to get out and surprise the fish.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a smart older dog, a new river puppy, and a very lucky cat.