Tenkara rods did not get to be the way they are by accident. Over hundreds of years they have evolved from simple bamboo poles to the modern ultralight high-tech carbon fiber telescopic rods we use today. They are designed specifically for fly fishing small streams.
Because the line is tied to the rod tip, the rods have no guides and no reel seats. US anglers might think "cane pole" and UK anglers might think "whip." Tenkara rods can cast an unweighted fly with a very light line and protect a very light tippet, something neither a cane pole nor a whip could do. And if that wasn't difference enough, they weigh just a few ounces and collapse to a very compact length.
Similarly, they are on a completely different level than the telescopic crappie poles that they vaguely resemble. Before I could buy a real tenkara rod, I bought quite a few crappie poles trying to find a good substitute. They just aren't the same. The action is different, and the quality is in another league.
From time to time, I go back and fish one of the crappie rods. You can do it, but it really isn't nearly as much fun. Tenkara rods are lighter and much more responsive. Crappie rods are pretty much designed to fish a light jig or to fish with bait under a bobber. Tenkara rods are designed to cast a fly on a very light line. Very different requirements, very different rods.
Actually, they are quite a bit different from fly rods as well. Beyond the lack of guides and reel seat, the most obvious difference is that the rods are telescopic rather than having ferrules like a fly rod. This allows the rod to collapse down to between 15 and 26 inches, depending on the model. The small size and light weight makes them a great choice for backpackers, for whom every ounce counts.
There has been a bit of controversy lately about what exactly is a tenkara rod. Personally, I think that is the wrong question to ask. A better question, in my opinion, is whether the rod you are interested in can be used effectively for tenkara fishing. In a sense, this gets back to the crappie pole and whip question. Crappie rods just do not have the right action for tenkara fishing.
There are other rods that do, however, even though they are not sold in Japan as tenkara rods. I first discovered this when I got my first Soyokaze rod, which I had actually purchased for microfishing - targetting very small fish. The first time I used the rod, however, I discovered it cast a size 3 tenkara line absolutely beautifully, and handled a 10" wild brown trout as if that was what it was made for. Since then, lots of people have bought Soyokaze rods, and they are as convinced as I was that the rod works beautifully as a small stream tenkara rod.
I have experimented with other rods that may not technically be tenkara rods, but which work very, very nicely. My goal is not to promote a very narrow definition of tenkara equipment, but to provide rods that work well for tenkara fishing. Some of the rods shown below are tenkara rods and some aren't. All can be used for tenkara fishing.
Confused by too many choices? Make it simple and get a starter kit that contains rod, line, tippet, flies, and fly box.
I have a number of rods that I have gotten in to evaluate. Some may eventually be regular offerings, some will not. All are very nice rods for their particular niche.
The following rods are no longer abailable, but they may give you some insight into what I look for in a rod.
Tenkara rods are telescopic because they have to be. If you catch an unexpectedly large fish and it heads for the next county, you don't want your rod to come apart and the tip section to follow the fish. Also, eventually you will snag your fly at the extreme end of your cast or backcast, at a point where you cannot even reach the line to pull on. In that case, all you can do is pull straight back on the rod. If the rod had ferrules and one of them came apart, you could lose your rod tip.
Both of those scenarios also illustrate why you must use a light tippet. Do not fish with tippet stronger than 5 lb breaking strength (4x or 5x depending on the brand of tippet). The rods are very good at protecting light tippets, and light tippets are necessary to protect the rods. In the case of the snag described above, pulling back on the rod will tend to jam the rod segments together, and a light tippet will help prevent them from getting so tight that you can't collapse the rod. Collapsing the rod is the cause of most broken tenkara rods, as the last few segments are delicate. That's why I feel so strongly that all tenkara anglers should have a Tip Grip - so strongly that I am giving them away.
Some rods have been broken when an angler gets the fly snagged and then tries to jerk it out (or does an aggressive hook set on what ends up being a snag). The quick jerk (as opposed to the steady pull of a fish) puts a strain on the rod for which it wasn't designed. Treated with care, the rods are quite durable, and the breakage rate has been much lower than I had anticipated.
Tenkara rods are not grouped by line weight like fly rods. Instead they are given a rating such as 5:5, 6:4 and 7:3. Although all tenkara rods have soft tip sections and much stiffer butt sections. The ratings give an idea of where the softer sections transition into the stiffer sections. It is not specifically 6 sections are stiff and 4 are soft, because most tenkara rods don't actually have 10 sections. It's more of a percentage split, like 50/50, or 60/40 (60 percent of the rod is stiffer and 40 percent is softer). It is a trap to think that a 7:3 rod is stiffer than a 5:5 rod. The rating is a measure of where the rod bends, not how much force is require to bend the rod.
If you've ever taken a rod and just wiggled it, you've seen the butt section move to the left while the tip moves to the right, then the butt moves to the right and the tip moves to the left. There is a point on the rod that is stationary, the point where the tip section goes one way and the butt section goes the other. On a 7:3 rod, that point is closer to the rod tip than on a 6:4 rod, and it's closer to the tip on a 6:4 rod than on a 5:5 rod.
Unfortunately, the rating system is of little use to rod buyers. Not all tenkara rod manufacturers use it, and among those that do there is no consensus so a 7:3 rod from one manufacturer can be very, very different from a 7:3 produced by another manufacturer. It is a guideline at best. I have tried to further the discussion of tenkara rod ratings with the Common Cents Database and my "What is a 7:3?" essay.
Broken Ito Rods
Rethinking Rod Choice
Rethinking Rod Choice II - Ito for Bass
Rethinking Rod Choice III - Many
Why I sell Rods That Aren't Tenkara Rods
Tenkara with a "tanago rod?"
It's all about the fishing
Lillian Knot - To Knot or Not to Knot