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 fishing unweighted wet flies in small streams.
Because the line is tied to the rod tip, the rods have no guides and no reel seats. People might think cane pole or crappie rod but 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 crappie rod 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 (back in 2007), 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.
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 28 inches, depending on the model. The small size and light weight makes them a great choice for backpackers, for whom every ounce counts.
More significant, though, is that tenkara rods are designed to cast a much lighter line than fly rods, and most tenkara rods are longer than fly rods. The longer rod and lighter line allow tenkara anglers to keep their line off the surface, minimizing drag, and to manipulate their flies in ways that are difficult with a shorter rod and heavier line stuck in the water's grip.
There has been an ongoing controversy in the US - ever since I imported the first Soyokaze - about what exactly is a tenkara rod. Personally, I think that is the wrong question to ask. Rather than ask what is a tenkara rod, a better question is what rod is best suited to the type of fishing you want to do. It might very well be a tenkara rod, but then again, depending on the type of fishing you want to do either a seiryu rod or a keiryu rod might be a better choice.
Seiryu rods are designed for smaller fish in streams with modest current. The Japanese use them for chubs and dace. Most Americans use them for smaller trout - and they are wonderful light, sensitive rods for fishing smaller streams.
Keiryu rods are designed for fishing with weight - split shot and bait in Japan, but generally bead head flies in the US. Most keiryu rods have firmer midsections than tenkara rods, allowing them to get good hook sets with fishing deeper in the water column. Most are also quite a bit longer than tenkara rods. In general, most keiryu rods are better than most tenkara rods at fishing weighted nymphs.
Carp rods, not surprisingly, are designed for catching carp. People have used tenkara rods for carp. Carp have broken tenkara rods. I would urge people who want to target larger fish, whether carp, channel cats, or schoolie stripers to use rods actually designed for larger fish.
Almost from the very beginning, and certainly from the first Fly Fishing
Show at which I had a booth, people have been asking me for steelhead
rods. I finally have one (Suntech finally made one). Carp rods MIGHT work, but the extra length of a rod actually designed for sea-run fish would be better.
Over the last few years, a lot of small companies have sprung up and
are offering tenkara rods - in some cases the very same rod with a
different name and paint job. Some I've fished with and some I haven't,
but I can assure you that there is a big difference between a rod
designed and built by a Japanese company with a long history of making
tenkara rods and a rod bought by a startup company over the internet
from an outfit in China that has been making tenkara rods for only a few
years. Even the best known US company has only been making rods (in
China) for a few years. Tenkara is a traditional Japanese fishing style,
it only makes sense to buy from companies that grew up with that
Japanese anglers can buy rods from all over the world. Sage and Scott fly rods are quite popular in Japan. They could buy tenkara rods from American companies, and they certainly would if the rods were better than the Japanese rods. They don't because they aren't. They buy tenkara rods from Japanese companies.
If you want the best, follow the tradition. Go to the source.
Please click on the links or the photos to go to pages with detailed write-ups and Add to Cart buttons for the rods.
The Suntech TenkaraBum 36 is the first tenkara rod designed by an American tenkara angler in collaboration with a Japanese rod company. It is made in Japan by Suntech and is sold in Japan as well as in the US. Designed to be better at fishing weighted nymphs than the average tenkara rod, it handles dries and unweighted wets just as well.
The TenkaraBum 40 is emerging as an excellent rod for Tactical Nymphing, which is a blending of tenkara and European nymphing styles.
The TenkaraBum 33 is a bit shorter and a bit stiffer. It is a great choice for anglers fishing heavier nymphs with a tight line or tenkara anglers who prefer furled lines.
No other company has a rod like this one. The Suntech Kurenai HM30R is a seiryu rod that is just under 10' and just under 1 oz. You will not find a rod that is more fun for the little brookies, 'bows, browns and cuts that live in the thin blue lines.
For fishing unweighted or very lightly weighted flies on a light line. Optimized for high gradient small to medium streams and 8-20" fish (depending on the rod).
In Japan, the Honryu are the rivers, larger than the mountain streams but still generally high gradient. Honryu Tenkara is fishing in larger strems with longer rods and longer lines. Much, though certainly not all Honryu Tenkara is fishing in bank eddies on the far side of the stream, holding long lines above the intervening fast current. The rods are 4 to 4.5m and the lines can be up to 10m long.
Basically, the long rods and long lines are used to fish spots to which you cannot wade close enough to reach with shorter rods and shorter lines.
I have seen YouTube videos of Japanese anglers fishing in large rivers with the Daiwa Rinfu 45 (discontinued) and the Daiwa Sagiri 45, both of which are seiryu rods. Given the size of the fish that could be hooked in the larger rivers in the US, I wouldn't recommend Honryu Tenkara with seiryu rods unless you know there aren't fish larger than perhaps 16".
Most tenkara and keiryu rods are suitable for backpacking, but there are a few rods that collapse to a length that easily fits in even a modest daypack. The Nissin Pocket Mini and Tenkara Mini are the shortest when collapsed, but also the most delicate. The Suntech Genryuko and Daiwa Keiryu-X are more robust, but are pretty stiff rods. The Shimano Pack Tenkara is nice for smaller streams, but shorter than you would want for fishing alpine lakes.
The Tenryu Furaibo TF39TA is clearly the best for tenkara fishing, but is also the most expensive. Backpacking rods truly illustrate that every rod is a compromise. You have to give up something to get a short collapsed length (although with the TF39TA you only give up more money).
Headwaters rods are designed for very small streams, perhaps brushy or very overgrown, and for the smaller fish you will find there. Not all are tenkara rods but all are light, sensitive rods very well suited to fishing the headwaters.
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 back cast, 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.
Please read the Short Course on Telescopic Rods. It could save your rod - or your life for that matter.
Tenkara rods are not grouped by line weight like fly rods. Instead most 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 standard 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.
Rethinking Rod Choice
Rethinking Rod Choice II - A Softer Rod 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