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A Few Thoughts on Rod Handles

by John Evans
(San Antonio, TX)

The super-slim profile of the non-skid handle perfectly matches the Nissin Air Stage Hakubai 240.

The super-slim profile of the non-skid handle perfectly matches the Nissin Air Stage Hakubai 240.

One subject tenkara and keiryu anglers enjoy discussing is the shape and construction of rod handles. In looking over my rod rack, I see that four types of materials are represented: the plain, non-skid surface of rods that are designed for keiryu fishing, the traditional cork handles of tenkara rods, EVA foam that is becoming more common, and wood—which is, perhaps, the least common. Like most anglers, I’ve developed opinions over the past few years, but I’d be interested to know the views of others.

Five thoughts come to mind when I consider past angling experiences, though I recognize that my views may change.

First, a good rod doesn’t have a bad handle. What I’m saying is that the handle is a part of the whole package. I doubt that most tenkara anglers choose a specific rod just because of the grip material or shape. Instead, we consider the other merits of the pole, and the handle is just a part of the buying decision. If the rod works well, then the handle must be doing its job, too. I’ve never said, “Boy, this rod is great, but I just can’t stand the handle”! I would also say that good companies do a fine job of incorporating excellent handle design into their rods. All of the rods that I’ve ordered from Chris Stewart have felt just fine in the hand. And, while I might slightly prefer one handle over another, the differences, even among the various materials, are relatively minor. Frankly, after thousands of casts, I’ve never lost a rod because I couldn’t hang onto it.

Second, the material is often less important than the shape of the handle. Study the photo above of the Suntech Field Master 39 and the Suntech GM Keiryu Special 39. Cosmetically, these rods are quite similar, though the Field Master is a stiffer rod. The handles are the same non-skid surface. But, do you see how the Field Master handle flares slightly more? It gives a different feeling when you hold it. The Keiryu Special is more streamlined, while the Field Master may afford a little better purchase for bigger fish. Both handles, however, work well. Also, the straight cork cylinder of the Tenyru Furiabo has a different feel than the gourd-shaped Nissin Zerosum. Again, both are excellent rods that represent different approaches. All of these handles are pleasing.

Third, companies should match the handle to the rod. The one thing I can’t stand is when a handle seems mismatched to the pole. I’ve never had this problem with any rod that I’ve purchased from TenkaraBum, but I have seen it on bargain-basement rods. Why would you put a clunky grip on a sensitive, small-stream rod? Who would want to fish with that pole for very long? Doesn’t a slim pole that weighs an ounce or less cry out for a streamlined handle that fits it? For example, the super-slim non-skid grip on the Nissin Air Stage Hakubai 240 looks like it grew on that rod naturally. No other handle belongs there!

Fourth, the size of the angler’s hands often influences handle preference. I have an extra-large grip, so it’s not unusual for tenkara handles to feel a little small in diameter for me. Is that the fault of the designers? Of course not! It does mean, however, that I may find larger handles to be a little more comfortable. For example, the wood grip on the Nissin Royal Stage Honryu 330 works especially well for me. I would think that one of the biggest challenges facing rod designers is how to design handles that adequately fit a huge range of anglers from several different countries.

Fifth, all rod handles reflect some compromise. To say it another way, no handle can possibly be perfect in all respects for all anglers. The plain, non-skid surface on keiryu rods is super-sensitive but may not give quite as good a grip as a cork handle. High-quality cork is comfortable and aesthetically pleasing but may not be quite as light or sensitive. EVA foam allows a secure, comfortable purchase but may not be as pretty as cork. A classy wood handle combines a substantial grip with excellent sensitivity but adds a little bit of weight and expense. Decisions on the handle also affect the price of the rod. One of the first give-aways on a cheap rod with a cork handle is the amount of filler in the grip. The first time I compared the super high-quality cork on my Tenryu Furaibo TF39 to an inexpensive pole was a real eye-opener.

Also, tenkara and keiryu rods vary widely in the length of the grip, which affects both the weight and balance point of the pole. Obviously, a two-handed carp rod needs a different handle than a super-light seiryu pole.

I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning, however: If the rod works well, the handle must be doing its job.

So, next time you pick up your tenkara or keiryu rod, give the handle some thought and see if you can discern the designer’s choices. Does the shape and material of the grip fit the overall design of the pole? Would you have done anything differently? I’d like to read of your experiences.

Comments for A Few Thoughts on Rod Handles

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Jun 16, 2017
Where in the Hand?
by: Les A.

Excellent article. I only have one Tenkara rod. All of my other rods are Keiryu style rods. To me, the difference of having a handle of another material, or the handle being an extension of the graphite rod is where in the hand I feel what is going on. With my Tenkara rod, the feel is detected from front to back. With my "no material" Keiryu rods the feel is throughout the hand. In my opinion, you get more feel with having a direct connection with the rod. I also believe that you get a broader feel as the nerves in your hand are in direct contact with the rod.

I'll never forget my thoughts and feeling when I opened the box and took out my Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 24. I thought, "No way can this be the whole rod." I went out to Red Top Pond and caught dozens of sunfish and very small bass and had a ball! The skinny handle didn't seem like an impediment at all, but an essential attribute to this ultra light experience. Any type of handle would have diminished the connection with the fish. The other extreme of my Tenkara fishing is the Suntech Keiryu Sawanobori 63. It has an awesome handle. (check it out on this website) I have fished it for hours without fatigue. It is well balanced and very light. I can fish it one handed, but it is a dream fished two handed.

I fish two handed rods a lot, and there is a nice transition of feel from one hand to the other. I keep thinking I should get another Tenkara rod, but I haven't seen any disadvantage to not having a cork, wood, or EVA grip. You don't really have to index a fixed line rod, like you do with a rod with guides and a reel. In my opinion a wider grip is good for indexing. I am also learning that one of the advantages of fixed line fishing is being able to roll the rod to my advantage. I fished my Tenkara Rod this weekend as well as one of my Keiryu Rods. The bottom line for me is the cork grip had a more muted feel and the carbon fiber grip had a more direct feel. I enjoy the feel of my keiryu rods. The bottom line is I get excited every time I extend one of my Keiryu rods! Maybe my Tenkara rod feels too much like one of my fly rods. If I had never fished a Keiryu rod, I would have been happy with a cork or EVA Tenkara rod.

Jun 16, 2017
A Few Additional Thoughts
by: John Evans

In principle, I think you're right: Anytime you transition between two different types of material, the tendency is to lose some sensitivity. My most sensitive rod is the Nissin Air Stage Hakubai 240--but it's definitely a small fish/micro fishing rod. My next most sensitive rod is the Suntech Kurenai 30, which will handle a little bigger fish.

My third most sensitive rod, however, is the wood-handle Nissin Royal Stage Honryu 330. It's capable of landing bigger fish, though it's still fun with the little guys. I've wondered what makes it as sensitive as it is. The wood seems to transmit even the lightest of strikes effectively. Also, more of my hand is in contact with the wood, as opposed to a slimmer handle. That might help. Also, the longer collapsed length and fewer sections gives the rod an exceptionally smooth bend profile and, perhaps, fewer "dead spots". Plus, the wood handle is short enough that my index finger tends to creep onto the rod blank itself, which I'm sure helps.

Chris can confirm or explain these points better than I can. Plus, Chris, how does the sensitivity of the Honyru compare with the other wooden-handled rod, the Nissin Air Stage Fujiryu?

Jun 25, 2017
by: Phillip Dobson

Handle design is something I think about a lot. A good handle should enhance control and reduce fatigue. A really good handle should do that, while at the same time being beautiful.

I haven't figured out the common preference for cork on fishing rods. It feels so dead in my hands. It's true that cork is lighter than wood, but extra weight in the handle has very little effect on the rod's moment. To my mind, the right wood improves control and sensitivity, and looks much better than cork. The exorbitant cost of cork also seems to lead to handles that are smaller than they should be, and therefore increase fatigue.

My tenkara (keiryu and seiryu) rods all have integral carbon grips. These are very functional and look pretty good in a modern-production sort of way. I modeled some of the ergonomics of my Western 4wt handle after what I liked about these grips. Namely, a little larger diameter and simple curves that can be gripped in a variety of ways. The difference is that I made the 4wt handle in maidou burl with African blackwood caps. It ended up about 4g heavier than if it was cork, but it's more comfortable to cast all day than any cork handle I've used.

I have some tenkara handle projects in mind as well. Just need to find the right chunks of wood and fire up the lathe. I'll let you guys know how it goes.

Jun 25, 2017
Look Forward to the Results!
by: John Evans

I look forward to seeing the results of your work! That kind of project is beyond my abilities, but I'm grateful that others can tackle it. A nice handle enhances both the appearance and functionality of the rod.

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