Tenkara Rods – A Comprehensive Buying Guide
The tenkara rod has slowly but surely been gaining popularity amongst fly fishermen. Introduced to the US in 2009 by Daniel Galhardo after a trip to Japan to visit his wife’s family, they have quickly become popular with a special group of anglers who value finesseful presentations and pristine, unpressured waters.
Tenkara rods are to western fly rods what a longbow is to a compound bow; a simpler and more traditional alternative to what is already a simple and traditional tool. You could also say that tenkara anglers are to the rest of the fishing community what trad bow hunters are to the hunting community at large: a niche within a niche, adamant that the simplicity and grace of their gear enhances rather than detracts from both its effectiveness and the joy it brings them.
With all of that said, what is a tenkara rod?
But a very, very nice stick indeed. The unfamiliar may glance at a tenkara rod and immediately think “cane pole.” But unless your cane pole weighs less than a deck of cards, can fit inside a standard school backpack, and can cast an elk hair caddis fly into a solo cup, you’re comparing a Shimano Curado to a Zebco 33.
Tenkara Rod Parts
A tenkara rod is a relatively simple piece of gear, but there are more parts to its construction than first meets the eye. Before we dive deeper into the world of tenkara rods, let’s take a second to lay out some basic terminology.
Handle: This part is very straightforward. The handle is the part of the tenkara rod that you hold while fishing. It is usually made of cork or a similar lightweight material to provide a comfortable and secure grip.
Segments: Tenkara rods are designed to be collapsible and portable. They consist of multiple, hollow segments that can be extended and retracted, allowing for easy transportation and storage. The number of segments depends on the specific rod model, but most tenkara rods have between 7 to 9 segments. The segments are usually made of graphite, carbon fiber, or fiberglass.
Tip: The tip section is the thinnest and most delicate part. It is responsible for transmitting the energy from your casting motion down the length of the rod and into the line. The tip section needs to be flexible enough to absorb shocks while still providing sufficient sensitivity for detecting strikes.
Lillian:Tenkara rods typically don’t have traditional line guides like those found on Western fly rods. Instead, they utilize a system called a “lillian.” The lillian is a short cord attached to the tip of the rod. It serves as the connection point for your tenkara line and allows for quick and easy line changes.
Cap: At the base of the handle, there is often a cap or plug that protects the rod segments when they are retracted. The cap keeps dirt, debris, and moisture out, helping to maintain the rod’s functionality and prolong its lifespan. Removing the cap allows you to disassemble your tenkara rod in order to dry it off between trips, clean any dirt or debris that has accumulated, or replace a broken section in lieu of buying a whole new rod.
Tenkara Rod Lengths
Tenkara rods come in a variety of lengths, each offering its own advantages and suitability for different fishing scenarios. The length of a tenkara rod is typically measured in feet or meters, and it directly influences the casting distance, line control, and overall fishing experience. Here are the common length ranges and their characteristics:
Short Length (8 to 10 feet / 2.4 to 3 meters): Shorter tenkara rods are ideal for fishing in small streams or confined spaces where casting distance is limited. They provide excellent control and precision for accurate presentations in tight quarters. Shorter rods are also suitable for anglers who prefer a more delicate touch and enjoy the intimate experience of fishing in close proximity to their target.
Medium Length (10 to 12 feet / 3 to 3.7 meters): Medium-length tenkara rods offer a versatile option that can be used in a variety of fishing environments. They provide a good balance between casting distance and maneuverability. Medium-length rods are often favored by anglers who fish in medium-sized rivers or those who want a rod that can handle a broader range of fishing conditions.
Long Length (12 to 15 feet / 3.7 to 4.6 meters): Longer tenkara rods are designed for anglers who need increased reach and casting distance. They are particularly useful when fishing in larger rivers or when longer drifts are required. Longer rods excel in providing extended reach while maintaining line control and delicacy. However, they may sacrifice some maneuverability in exchange for their increased length.
Zoom Rods: Some tenkara rods offer a zoom feature, which means they have adjustable lengths. These rods usually have multiple segments with the ability to extend or retract specific sections, allowing for flexibility in adapting to different fishing conditions. Zoom rods can provide the advantages of both shorter and longer rods, giving anglers the ability to adjust the length based on their specific needs on the water.
It’s important to consider the specific fishing conditions, target species, and personal preferences when selecting the length of a tenkara rod. Shorter tenkara rods are suitable for tight streams, while longer tenkara rods are better suited for larger rivers or situations where extended reach is required. Medium-length rods strike a balance between the two. Ultimately, the length of the tenkara rod should match your fishing style and the environments in which you plan to fish.
Tenkara Rod Weight
Tenkara rods are usually substantially lighter than conventional western fly fishing setups. Obviously, the lack of a reel helps, as does the lack of line guides.
The weight of a tenkara rod plays a significant role in how it fishes and performs on the water. The weight of a tenkara rod is primarily influenced by the materials used in its construction, such as carbon fiber or fiberglass. Here’s how the rod weight impacts its fishing characteristics:
Sensitivity: Lighter tenkara rods are generally more sensitive and responsive. They can transmit subtle vibrations and movements more effectively, allowing you to detect delicate strikes and react quickly. This enhanced sensitivity can be advantageous when fishing for cautious or easily spooked fish that require a gentle presentation.
Control and Accuracy: Lighter tenkara rods are easier to control, especially when performing precise casting and delicate presentations. Their reduced weight allows for finer movements and adjustments, enabling anglers to place the fly accurately and gently on the water’s surface. This control is particularly valuable when fishing in smaller streams or tight spaces with limited casting room.
Fatigue: Lighter tenkara rods are less tiring to fish with over extended periods. The reduced weight minimizes the strain on your arm, shoulder, and wrist, allowing for longer casting sessions without fatigue. This is especially important for anglers who prefer to fish for extended durations or for those who may have physical limitations.
Strength and Backbone: While it might surprise you how big of a fish you can handle on a tenkara rod, they are typically used on smaller waters in pursuit of smaller fish. If you desire to target bigger fish, you’re going to need a bigger (and heavier) rod.
Casting Power: A heavier tenkara rod will cast heavier lines and heavier flies better than a lighter one. This is important to keep in mind if you want to throw weighted flies, poppers, or other big, heavy flies.
It’s important to note that the ideal weight of a tenkara rod depends on personal preference, fishing conditions, and the target species. Some anglers may prefer the delicacy and finesse of a lighter rod, while others may prioritize casting power and wind resistance with a slightly heavier rod. Ultimately, finding the right balance between sensitivity, control, and casting performance is essential for an enjoyable and successful tenkara fishing experience.
Choosing The Best Tenkara Rod
Obviously, while tenkara rods seem simple, there’s more to them than meets the eye. You may be wondering how to take all of this information and use it to select the best rod for your purpose.
Luckily, I got the chance to sit down with TJ Ferreira and John Geer of Tenkara USA. TJ is Tenkara USA’s Customer Service and Operations Manager, and John is the Repairs and Dealer Services manager. They’ve been with the company since it first introduced tenkara rods to the US back in 2009, and between them they have several decades of experience fishing with tenkara rods. They also have arguably more experience with helping people pick the right tenkara rod than anybody else in the industry.
In our interview, I asked them to give me their rod choice for several different scenarios anglers might encounter. Below are their recommendations.
What is the best tenkara rod for small mountain streams and brushy creeks?
Let’s say you fish clear, small streams or rivers like the West Fork of the Little River as it runs through Alabama’s Desoto State Park. In many areas it’s so narrow you could jump across it, but here and there it widens out into bigger pools where small but ferocious Redeye Bass lurk in the shadows. What’s the best rod for small fish and tight water?
TJ: “I would recommend one of our zoom rods. Something like the Sato is going to let you fish those sections you can jump over easily, but extend out to give you some extra reach on the larger pools. It can be fished at 10.5ft, 11.5ft, or 12.5ft, so it’s a very versatile rod that’s at home in a lot of waterways.”
John: “I’d also recommend the Sato, but if you’re on a really tight stream with a lot of brush, another good one is our Rhodo. It was originally developed for really tight brook trout streams in the Appalachians. It’s an adjustable rod as well, like the Sato, but its maximum length is 10.5ft. It’s a really fun rod on tight water with small fish.
Tenkara USA Sato
- Weight: 2.9oz
- Closed Length: 22 3/4″
- Open Lengths: 10’8″ / 11’10” / 12’9″
- Handle Length: 10 1/2″
- Segments: 9
What is the best tenkara rod for lakes, ponds, and rivers?
While tenkara was originally developed for mountain streams, what if your local waterways are a little bigger? The various species of black bass and panfish are popular warm water species that will readily hit flies, even if they’re not the first fish you think of when you think “fly fishing.” What’s a good rod for bigger waterways and bigger fish? Can a tenkara rod hold up to the stress a 5lb bass will put on it?
TJ: “For bigger fish in bigger waters, I’d recommend either the Amago or the Satoki. For myself, when I’m playing in ponds for bass in southern California, you’ve got a good amount of space to cast and the fish can get pretty big; 18” or so. If you’ve got the casting room, the longer the rod is, the better. It gives you more leverage to fight the fish and more casting distance. I like the Satoki because it’s a long rod at 13.5ft and you can zoom it down all the way to 10.5ft if you want to. But if you don’t need that feature, the Amago is a great choice as well and has been around for a long time.
Tenkara USA Amago
- Weight: 3.5oz
- Closed Length: 21 1/8″
- Open Length: 13’6″
- Handle Length: 11″
- Segments: 10
John: “I think TJ nailed it with his recommendation. The only thing I’ll add is that with bass in the 4-5lb range, you’re getting to the upper limits of what a tenkara rod is meant to handle. The Amago and Satoki can handle bass that size, but it’s going to be a very fun fight.”
Tenkara USA Satoki
- Weight: 3.4oz
- Closed Length: 22 1/2″
- Open Lengths: 10’8″ / 12’2″ / 13’7″
- Handle Length: 12″
- Segments: 9
What is the best tenkara rod for backpacking?
One of the major benefits of tenkara rods is their light weight and packability. Tenkara rods are perfect for slipping into your pack while you’re backpacking in the wilderness. What is a good choice if you find yourself heading to, say, the Sipsey Wilderness Area of Bankhead National Forest and want a lightweight and compact tenkara rod for any impromptu fishing trips that may arise?
TJ: “We have a small “adventure rod” called the Hane. It’s a tough little rod that can take a beating in your pack, or from little kids for that matter. It’s a little under 11 feet. You may think that sounds big, but it’s only 3.5 ounces. So it weighs peanuts and packs down to under 15 inches long. It’s a really fun rod to take along with you on trips like that.”
Tenkara USA Hane
- Weight: 3.5oz
- Closed Length: 15″
- Open Lengths: 10’10”
- Handle Length: 8″
- Segments: 12
What is the best all-purpose tenkara rod?
What if you’ve decided you want to try tenkara rod fishing for yourself, but aren’t really sure where you’ll be doing it? What if you like to do a little bit of everything and are looking for a well-rounded performer?
TJ: “The Iwana rod would be my recommendation. It’s a middle-of-the road, 12ft rod that’s been around since almost the beginning. It arguably started it all. Everybody and their mother has owned one at some point. It’s a good all-around rod, and a great rod for beginners as well. I was at a Girl Scout event once and we had a few that we were using to teach them the fundamentals. They held up awesome to what seemed like hundreds of kids getting fairly rough with them.”
Tenkara USA Iwana
- Weight: 2.7oz
- Closed Length: 20 1/2″
- Open Lengths: 12′
- Handle Length: 11″
- Segments: 9
Final Thoughts On Tenkara Rods
Tenkara rods appeal to both ends of the fishing spectrum. On one end, you have anglers like myself who see in them an intuitive, non-intimidating way to test the fly fishing waters. On the other, you have dedicated fly fishermen with decades of experience who see in tenkara rods the essence of the sport distilled in its purest form. Whichever category you fall under, and whatever waters and species you fish, I’m willing to bet that adding a tenkara rod to your arsenal will bring a lot of joy. And as a bonus, it may even make you a better fisherman!
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