“I’ve been fishing in Ontario with my tenkara rod in small streams. What great fun! Thank you for putting me on to this.”
Got this in an email the other day. Few weeks before, I’d been talking with the sender about fishing, mentioned how much I’d been enjoying using a tenkara rod in small streams and ponds. He’d been fishing for decades and had seen tenkara rods in stores, but weren’t sure what they were about and had never tried one.
I told him how practical the rods are: collapsible, extremely lightweight, no reel, perfect for the backcountry. I’m by no means an expert fly-fisherman, but I’ve found using the tenkara to be both a huge challenge AND a pleasant simplification of the fishing experience. He liked what he heard so much, he bought one himself, I guess.
Fly fishing, as simple as it seems, can quickly become a whirlwind of gear buying and ever-spiraling levels of complexity. Different rod sizes and materials, reels of sometimes staggering price and sophistication, floating lines, sinking lines, tippet strengths, knot-tying tools, indicator rigs, nymphs, emergers, dry flies, hats, vests, hooks, floatants, and on and on. It’s near endless. All of that gear is, as fly anglers know, expensive, too.
Which is where tenkara fishing comes in. Doesn’t get a whole lot more simple. A telescoping rod, a fly line attached to the tip, and a fly at the end of the line. That’s it. No reel means very little fuss. Lately, my tenkara rods have gone from being a fun novelty to the kit I end up using most of the time.
I started with an 8’6″ Patagonia tenkara setup (no longer available), but eventually I switched to mostly using the Ito rod from Tenkara USA.
The Ito is the longest tenkara rod I’ve ever seen and is a nod to the very long rods traditionally used in tenkara fishing in Japan. It extends to 14 feet 7 inches, but can also be fished at a slightly shorter 13 feet because of an ingenious joint near the base. The length means I’ve been able to fish the rod in larger streams and even lakes on windless days. Normally, with a tenkara, you’re fishing with at most 15-20 feet of line, and you’re relatively limited by how far you can cast. But because the Ito is so long, you can reach far across streams that might be 15 yards across. At only 4 ounces in weight, the rod is lively, and light, especially at the 13-foot length.
The extreme length took a bit of time getting used to as it can feel quite slow at first—my first few dozen casts ended with the line coiling impotently a few feet in front of me. But once I shortened my motion a little, ending my backcast at about 12:00 o’clock rather than the 2:00 o’clock I use with a reeled 9-foot rod, and after adding a longer pause to let the rod load, I began sending a nice loop of line out pretty much exactly where I wanted it. Let the length of the rod do the work and it’s easy to cast. Try to muscle the big rod through your casting motion and it won’t have it.
I’ve been fishing the Ito with about 15 feet of line, and a 4-foot tippet tied to the end, usually 5x, though that can change depending on where I’m fishing. On a recent trip to Montana, I fished everything from tiny backcountry streams, to the rushing St Mary River, to high elevation lakes, and the Ito was the perfect choice in every situation.
I definitely still use the 8’6″ rod too though, primarily on high alpine streams, or when fishing in very brushy location. It’s the perfect backpacking rod. Rather than having to unpack a broken-down rod from a tube, putting it together, stringing it, then finally tying on a fly, you just slip it from your pack, unwrap the line, and start casting.
Casting is extraordinarily accurate with both of these rods, simple, and after a time, feels more natural than casting with a traditional rod and reel. Landing fish took a little bit of getting used to, not being able to actually reel the fish in and all. Basically, you just raise the rod high over your head and point the tip as vertical as you can while still keeping tension on the line. When it gets close, you reach out and grab it. I lost the first three fish I’d hooked until I started to get a feel for quickly drawing the line toward me in a smooth motion.
I have no idea what would happen if I hooked a fish over a couple pounds. Probably a lot of running along a stream bank, hoping to tire out the trout before it breaks me off. I’ve heard stories of people just dropping their rod and following it until the fish gets tired of running. I don’t think I’d do that with my $200-plus Ito rod, but if it happens, I’ll get back to you.
Very good, experienced anglers have told me they think tenkara is only for people so talented at traditional fly fishing they need some other difficult thrill to test themselves. Sure, that’s a good reason to try it. But tenkara rods are great for beginners too, for the sheer simplicity. And for backpacking—unless you’re planning to fly fish a lake, or big rivers, I don’t know why you’d bring a rod with a reel over a collapsible, and so quick and easy to use, tenkara rod.
$260 • BUY
More tenkara rods
The Dragontail Shadowfire 12 ft rod is inexpensive and is regarded for its lively casting. $85
Tenkara Rod Co. makes a ton of rods and tenkara accessories and you can’t go wrong with most of their offerings.