Rethinking Rod Choice - Many

I used to count caught fish, diligently noting species, length and fly used. I’ve since simplified things. There are, or at least were before the anthropologists found them, several tribes in the world whose counting system has only three numbers: one, two and many. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for so I’ve modified that to be one, two, a few, and many. Sunday was a “many” day.

Small stream with rocky banksCatskills Brookie Stream

I was on a tiny little brookie stream (and the only clue I’ll give you is that it is tributary to the Beaverkill). I started the day fishing a 9’ Soyokaze 27SR, which I’d come to view as the perfect brook trout rod. As I climbed higher and the stream got smaller, I switched to the 7’8” Soyokaze, and finally ended the day with the 6’6” Soyokaze.

Daiwa has since discontinued the Soyokaze. I will say it again - Daiwa has discontinued better rods than most tenkara companies have ever made.

Angler holding brook trout near Daiwa Soyokaze rodDaiwa Soyokaze 27 and brook trout

It was one of those days you daydream about while sitting at your tying table. The stream was pretty much just a series of plunge pools, and every pool yielded two or three brookies. Mountain stream brookies don’t get very big, but if you match the action of the rod to the size of the fish you still get a very satisfying bend in the rod and you can feel every head shake.

Brook Trout alonside Daiwa SoyokazeDaiwa Soyokaze 24 and brook trout

For small streams such as this one, you also have to choose the length of the rod based on the width of the stream. Of course, if you are fishing in the Sierras where the stream-side foliage is all conifers, which grow up rather than out, you can get away with a longer rod. And if you are fishing in Japan, where typhoons cause such frequent flooding that many of the streams have no stream-side foliage, you can use an 11’ or 12’ rod (and you can understand why the Japanese manufacturers don't make 9' tenkara rods). I later learned that if you are fishing in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, and the small stream runs through a cow pasture with no trees for hundreds of yards in any direction, you can fish a very long rod. To fish a brookie stream in the eastern US, though, you need a shorter rod.

What was generally recommended (by people who don’t fish eastern brookie streams) was to collapse one section of the rod if you have an 11’ rod, or two sections if you have a 12’ rod.

You could do that. You could even still cast it. But it’s loose. The collapsed sections rattle around in the grip. When you are used to casting a rod so sensitive that you can feel when your wet fly leaves the water on your back cast, when you don’t have to check if it has a bit of moss on the hook because you know from the feel through the rod that the fly is now heavier, you don’t want a rod that rattles when you are casting. Trust me on this one, you don’t. The sensitivity is gone.

Small brook trout, Soyokaze rod and Hen & Hound flyDaiwa Soyokaze 20 and brook trout

In 2012 I read that Dr. Ishigaki thought it was a shame that there were short rods without cork grips being sold for tenkara fishing. I’ll tell you what I think was a shame.

I heard a story about when Dr. Ishigaki was in the Catskills in 2009. I wasn’t with him on that particular day, so I don’t know if it actually happened, but the story certainly has the ring of truth to it. He was fishing a small stream, not the same one I was on, but similar in that it is also a very small stream known for wild brookies and it is also tributary to the Beaverkill. At many of the most productive looking pools, he didn’t even cast his line.

His rod was too long. I suspect he was using his Shimano LLS36NX, a 12’ rod which casts beautifully (if you have room to cast it). Word is he helped design it. The thing is, though, he designed it for Japanese streams, not for Eastern US brookie streams. So there I was, someone with a "passing knowledge of tenkara" (quoting from Tenkara USA's "Public Service Announcement" on what is really a tenkara rod) on, using a rod that that is too short, and doesn't have a cork grip, one that's a shame I am selling, catching multiple little wild brookies in every pool, and the Japanese tenkara master couldn’t even cast.

He had flown half way around the world to be there and to fish for wild brookies. Now that's what I think is a shame.

Very small stream amid lush foliageShort rod needed here.

The point of this essay is not to poke at Dr. Ishigaki. It is that you should not get caught up in the dogma of what is and what is not a “tenkara rod.” Tenkara is the best way to catch fish in high gradient mountain streams. However, and I feel very strongly about this, the best way to fish is with a rod that matches the stream you are fishing and the fish you are catching. If you are fishing a stream that is lined with trees and bushes and has low overhanging branches and in spots you can almost step over it, tenkara fishing with an 11’ rod “because it has to be 11’ to be a real tenkara rod” is just not logical. Clearly, Dr. Ishigaki could not have realized the limitations our eastern brookie streams place on rod choice until he experienced them for himself.

It is just as illogical to insist that a rod that weighs less than 2 ounces have a cork grip. Why? You are not going to get blisters. The rod feels like it has the swing weight of your average soda straw. To those who seek to live by Yvon Chouinard’s comment “The more you know the less you need,” know this: you don’t need cork on a sub 2 ounce rod.

Angler holding brook trout above Daiwa Soyokaze rodOne of many brook trout.

In addition to matching the rod to the size of the steam and the size of fish, you of course have to consider the action of the rod. In this regard, I would council that you should be much more concerned with how the rod casts than with what the rod says on it. I have now cast many different tenkara rods from a number of different manufacturers, and I can tell you from experience that some rods that don’t say "tenkara" on them cast a tenkara line better than some that do.

Does that make them tenkara rods? Not really.
Does that matter? Really not.

If the fish you are catching run from 4 to 8 inches, fishing with a rod that will handle a 7 lb brown in New Zealand or an 8 lb salmon in Wales is just not nearly as much fun as fishing with a rod that was meant for smaller fish. Fishing with a rod that weighs over 3 ounces is more tiring than fishing with a rod that weighs under 2 ounces, no matter what material the grip is. And a rod that's so long you can’t even fish with it? Well, that’s just the wrong rod. Even if it does have テンカラ written on it.

Tenkara LLS36 written on side of rodShimano LLS36NX tenkara rod.
Great rod, but only if you can actually use it.

Update - December 2023

In just the last few weeks, Tenkara no Oni and Tenkara USA have introduced relatively short (2.9m and 3.0m, respectively) rods that do not have grips. Whereas the new rod from Oni is described only as an Oni Rod (Oni Rod - Onistyle Blue or Onistyle Pink), the Tenkara USA clearly describes their new Ukiyo as a "tenkara rod."

Given the amount of grief I received for selling rods that did not have cork grips (the Daiwa Soyokaze 27 and 31 SR and Daiwa Kiyose 30 SF) ten years ago, and describing them as rods suitable for tenkara fishing, it is interesting that a couple of the largest names in American Tenkara are now selling rods without cork grips. 

I'll take that as the sincerest form of flattery.

TenkaraBum Home > Tenkara Rods > Rethinking Rod Choice III

“The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten” - Benjamin Franklin

"Be sure in casting, that your fly fall first into the water, for if the line fall first, it scares or frightens the fish..." -
Col. Robert Venables 1662

As age slows my pace, I will become more like the heron.


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