by Timothy Nitz
I recently purchased and tested two rods marketed as "tenkara" rods, sold by the same distributor and apparently made by the same manufacturer. You can find my reviews of these rods elsewhere on the site, the AllFishingBuy Universal Tenkara Unagi 4505 and the AllFishingBuy Kasugo 4509.
In evaluating the Unagi, I purposely put it through a series of exercises intended to evaluate its use as a "tenkara" rod, at least as I have been practicing it. Some aspects of the rod prevented me from recommending it for that application. By coincidence, however, and spurred on by Randy Knapp's exploits with a shorter version of the rod (the two appear to share the same top three tip segments) I attempted to hook and land some lake char in Wallowa Lake (together with kokanee, they are about as big a fish as I can find locally right now). What I realized right off is that the lake trout were completely ignoring anything above them. Explaining my dillema to the local fly shop owner, he pulled out a short length of sinking line which he gave me. While I grimaced at first, I realized that I could not get down deep enough using typical tenkara technique and if I was to get one of these fish on the line, I would have to do something outside tenkara. And so I did, and in the doing realized something significant. I was no longer practicing tenkara and the Unagi isn't really a tenkara rod. Soon thereafter I received the Kasugo and immediately found in it a tenkara rod of the length of the Unagi.
I mean absolutely no disrespect by what follows, and I in no way mean to suggest that anyone else should adopt my ideas but the experience did help refine, for myself, what tenkara is to me and why one rod is a "tenkara" rod and another is a fixed-length line rod, or "loop" rod. I'm no expert in anything, this is just what I am finding. Right now there is alot of exploration of the gear and application of the gear to various waters, species, and approaches throughout North America and I am honestly as interested as anyone in seeing what comes out. But I think it misleading to confuse angling traditions, when both already exist, simply based on the similarity of the rods.
For me, tenkara is a branch of angling in which a flexible rod is used to cast a light line of fixed length. To the line is attached tippet and a "round" generalist wetfly. The line is light and stiff enough to minimize "sag" when extended. The angler focuses not on static representations of exact species of food, nor on "matching the hatch" but instead chooses a fly based on its adaptibility to various levels of the water column and its ability to be worked to represent aquatic food sources (typically insect life) IN MOTION. Thus, presentation of the fly is more important than the specific appearance of the fly. The lack of attached weight and need for the fly to function at various depths in the upper part of the water column limits application - it is difficult, maybe impossible, to apply tenkara approaches to water depths of more than a few feet.
Throughout the world are other types of fixed line length angling, often using long rods, and including in most respects the more recent "euro-nymphing" approaches. This does not mean they are all "tenkara". I am not expert, nor would I consider myself well-read on the subject, but it seems to me that "loop" rod angling may be a better way to define these practices. Many, maybe even all, of the historic works on the use of the loop rod include use of bait in addition to artificial flies. The earliest work include streamers as well as wet flies. The range of approaches and techniques are also presented. As a precedent to modern western fly angling, it seems most appropriate to refer to a modern return of long rods, without reels, and a fixed length line, by a western traditional name, such as "loop rod". For myself, an angler that simply takes his toolkit from western fly angling and applies it to use with a long rod and fixed length line, is more likely to be applying a return of the precedent gear to his angling tradition than adopting a more limited historical angling tradition.
I do not in any way, shape or form want to segregate the community of anglers who have taken up the long rod and fixed length line - we have more in common, I think, than we diverge, but I do think we should be more careful about the way in which we refer to our respective traditions. And, already, some of the gear on the market reflects these differences.
Imagine, for a moment, how you would apply "tenkara" to larger saltwater species. What would you need in a rod, in a line, in an attractor? Would there still be any semblance of the tenkara approach left? What would be your focus and approach. Is the only commonality the gear? If so, is that really the same method of angling? For myself, I have come to the conclusion that while I could apply tenkara to still waters, it's only tenkara if the fish are responding to and I am angling in, the upper levels of the water. And if and when I switch attractors to something other than a generalist wetfly I can't really say my focus is then on overall presentation of motion rather than static imitation or stimulating other senses.
And here, for me, is the reason this is important. For tenkara angling, I need a light line with minimal sag and that is generally taut. I am relying not so much on sight as I am on feel and so I need a sensitive tip, a tip that allows me to distinguish between current effects on a fly and different takes by a fish and to guage depth, in part, by feeling a fly strike a boulder or waterbed. I need a grip that allows for a gentle casting approach, preferably one in which my index finger is extended with the fingerpad on the rod itself, not insulated from the rod, so that I can perceive vibrations and effects on the fly. I need a flex that allows line cast with little movement and also protects the tippet (and, for my own interest, shows some response to fish of 4" or so) and, further, allows precise manipulation of the fly without much movement of arm or wrist, where gentle nudges provide oscillations that manipulate the fly to the degree or lack of degree I want. And because the waters I frequent, which are the reason I started coming to terms with tenkara in the first place, are narrow with overgrown banks and submerged limbs from winter/spring runoff, I need a tip that can handle occasional snags without breaking or always being able to "do it the right way". Otherwise I would end up fouling all the water while I retrieved my line and fly from an overhead limb.
A stiffer rod, such as the Unagi, allows me to use heavier lines, perhaps even lightweight PVC fly lines, sink tips, weights, casts of multiple flies, even bait, and streamers. The stiffer rod requires either a heavier line to load the rod or else additional work by the angler to flex the rod. In both cases, a "v" or "power" grip can be a benefit. While I personally always like a sensitive tip, some species of fish or the additional weight of the line itself, may make this less of a requirement and a stiffer tip may be of higher priority. Bringing a "tenkara" rod to this approach seems illogical - tenkara rods are designed for something completely different. But using a similar style of rod with a fixed length line does bring many of the same benefits to angling as found in tenkara including better ability to manipulate line in current without undue drag, more control over casting because of consistency in line length, and an overall simplicity in gear allowing focus on other aspects of angling. It's no less or no more than tenkara, just different.
In this particular case, AllFishingBuy's "Tenkara Universal" Unagi line seems misnamed - the series is certainly universal in the sense that it will work with a wide variety of approaches to fixed line length angling. But I'm not sure "tenkara" is quite right.