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June 10 2012

What’s a tenkara rod?

Consider this a public service announcement. Since we introduced tenkara outside of Japan in 2009, a number of rods have appeared in the market, being offered as tenkara rods, and a number of people with passing knowledge of the method have jumped on the bandwagon to offer their “alternative” to tenkara. This has translated into every kind of telescopic rod being marketed as a “tenkara-style rod”, whether it is designed for tenkara or not.

This greatly concerns me. There is a reason there are rods specifically made for tenkara. There is a reason I design rods for tenkara and rely on feedback from tenkara teachers in Japan for making our rods the best possible tools for tenkara. And there is a reason you can visit any tackle shop in Japan, or open the pages of the larger Japanese fishing magazines, and find tenkara rods next to cheaper telecopic hera rods (for carp), telescopic keiryu rods (for stream bait-fishing, generally trout), and telescopic tanago rods (for “micro-fishing”); yet just like a fly-fisherman in the US wouldn’t use a spinning for for fly-fishing, no tenkara angler would use the other rods for tenkara. In sum, there are reasons the rods look different and are marketed for entirely different purposes.

I recently brought up what I have been seeing happening here to my teacher in Japan, Dr. Hisao Ishigaki. He responded in Japanese saying, “it’s really a shame this is happening, as some people will not know what a tenkara rod really is”. Dr. Ishigaki is the leading authority on tenkara in Japan; he consults on tenkara rod design for the large manufacturer, Shimano, as well as for our rods. Shimano makes rods for all kinds of methods of fishing, but they know better than market an “alternative” to tenkara anglers, and Dr. Ishigaki knows using a different rod will result in a considerably different experience.

Chances are, if you have been looking for a tenkara rod recently, you may have visited eBay in hopes of finding a used Tenkara USA rod. You probably have noticed it’s nearly impossible to find one of our rods used on eBay (though occasionally you can find one in our forum marketplace). You may also have noticed several “Tenkara style” rods available for sale there, or in other websites. I hope this post helps clarify a bit what a tenkara rod is made for and why it is designed the way it is.

Tenkara rods are designed with the specific goals of being cast all day long without tiring your hand and arm, and casting a line forward with maximum effectiveness (transfer of energy). In Japan, where tenkara originated, there are dozens of types of fishing that use telescopic rods. It is very common for people to approach us with a rod they acquired in Japan a long time ago, with the idea that if it is telescopic it is a tenkara rod. Each rod style, however, is designed specifically with a certain type of fishing in mind.

With the first goal in mind – being comfortably cast all day – the main apparent and quickly distinguishable feature of a tenkara rod is the presence of a handle (cork is the more common material used for its thermal properties and right degree of softness). The handle is very necessary for tenkara fishing, not so necessary for other types of fishing in which the goal is to cast the bait once and wait. Tenkara is the only method of fly-fishing in Japan, where the line is cast forward. It is a very active type of fishing. When tenkara fishing, a person will cast the line forward hundreds of times in a day, to pockets in the water. The ergonomic handle is there to provide comfort, prevent the hand from chaffing, and keep the hand from getting fatigued. The right diameter and the right shape of the rod handle will keep the hand from getting fatigued. The right materials will keep the hand from chaffing or sweating. A tenkara-style rod, as pictured above, lacks this essential feature, as it is designed for bait-fishing where the purpose is to cast bait forward once and wait.

A second, and less obvious feature to notice, is the casting effectiveness of the rod. More specifically, the dampening of the rod tip after the rod is cast (or shaken). Tenkara rods are designed to cast a very light line forward with maximum effectiveness. A poorly designed tenkara rod, or a rod that was not designed with casting in mind and the rod tip may continue oscillating after the line is cast forward. This oscillation (or wiggling) will make make the line wiggle after being cast instead of shooting straight down to a target. A good tenkara rod, specifically designed with casting the line, will dampen quickly after casting it allowing for the line to straighten.

oscillating fishing rod dampening
(illustration from Dr. Ishigaki’s book on Tenkara, Japanese)

Note: any rod will oscillate after being cast, to improve our rods we design them with the goal of reducing that oscillation, the Ito is a perfect example of a very good dampening effect and I design all our rods with this in mind. Regardless of the rod, to improve casting, at the end of your forward cast relax your wrist to absorb any of that oscillation. Keeping a stiff wrist will make the line wiggle after being cast and likely pile up in front of it.

A third feature that makes a tenkara rod a tenkara rod is the length. Tenkara rods range from slightly under 10ft to just about 15ft, with 12ft being the average length. On the shorter end of the spectrum, the tenkara rod will still allow for good reach while staying away from canopy. At around 10ft the rod is still versatile to be used in slightly larger streams, and when necessary choke up the grip position to get into even tighter spots. Much shorter than that, and it becomes a nearly useless tool in larger streams, and it makes it difficult to fish far enough to not spook fish and to keep line off the water. Ideally, in tenkara one will use the longest rod possible for the stream he is fishing. However, with that first goal I mentioned of comfort, we can only make the rods so long before their balance point gets the best out of them. The longest we have been able to make our rods without compromising comfort but allowing for spectacular reach is 14ft 7inches (the Ito).

As the first person to introduce tenkara outside of Japan, and who has the explicit goal of introducing the method of tenkara outside of Japan by giving people a good experience with the pure method of tenkara, I will always strive to offer the best possible tenkara rods in the market, anywhere, and to continually improve our tenkara rods. I am personally in charge of rod design and am 100% behind every rod I offer. I have decided from day one that if I were to try introducing tenkara outside of Japan by marketing bad rods, or compromising what tenkara rods are, the experience would be quickly compromised and people wouldn’t give it a second look. If I were to introduce tenkara by offering rods that break easily, not capable of withstanding the rigors of the larger fish found in streams here, then tenkara would never succeed. Instead we continually see examples of our rods testing the limits of what tenkara was intended for (7lb Brown Trout in New Zealand anyone?).

If I were to compromise the definition of what a tenkara rod is by offering an alternative in search of an extra buck (more people have asked us for a 7ft tenkara rod than you can imagine, and I guarantee you a 9ft tenkara rod could be our instant best-selling rod as people are used to the idea of a 9ft fly rod – but a 9ft tenkara rod is not the best tool for the method), then we would compromise tenkara and the method would never successfully translate here. Instead, it is successfully catching on because we stayed true to hundreds of years of development in Japan.

The market is still in the education phase when it comes to tenkara, and we will continually try providing insights on what makes tenkara, tenkara.

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