In a sport as resistant to change as fly-fishing, tenkara is a revolution. Actually a counterrevolution, since its stripped-down, minimalist aesthetic harks back to the earliest days of angling with flies. Remember the cane pole of your childhood? No reel — just rod, line and fly? That’s tenkara. Except instead of flimsy bamboo you have an unimaginably light, durable, collapsible carbon fiber rod that fits snugly in your backpack. Leave it to the Japanese to come up with something perfectly simple and beautiful that you can painlessly pack to high-country streams or even carry with you while trail-running.
After years of dalliance, tenkara is finally catching on in the US — Yvon Chouinard, that high prophet of fly-fishing, has even cowritten a book on it — with several manufacturers offering a dizzying array of options that run the gamut in quality, beauty, transportability, and price-point. To be sure, tenkara rods have their limitations: they excel on tight, narrow streams and pools with mid-size fish, and definitely not on big water with, say, a five-pound bass in your crosshairs. But they can be a refreshing break from the standard western rigs, as well as a great learning tool for aspiring anglers at a fraction of the normal costs of a rod and reel — a kind of gateway drug offering beginners a more accessible and affordable entry point. Here are five of the best American-made tenkara on the market today.
Tenkara USA Sato
Best Starter Rod: Named after the British diplomat and outdoorsman Ernest Mason Satow, who was the first to describe tenkara fishing to western audiences, the Sato is a light, elegant, versatile rod that’s tailor-made for small-to-moderate streams with sparse wiggle room. Designed with the company’s “triple-zoom” technology, the Sato adjusts to three lengths (10 feet and 8 inches, 11 feet and 10 inches, 12 feet and 9 inches — the average tenkara being about 12 feet long), allowing you to fine-tune your presentation depending on conditions. Tenkara USA owner Daniel Galhardo also had the novice angler in mind, the idea being to ratchet up your rod length to match your ability. It fishes well at all three lengths, with a soft feel allowing for effortless casting and accuracy, and can handle fish in the six-to-15-inch range, give or take.
Best Finesse Rod: Tenkara tends to close the gap between the novice and the fly-fishing dropout — the guy who grew tired of the cost and aggravation and finally chucked his western rod and reel for a squash racket. When the simplicity of tenkara eventually brings ‘em back, it’s a rod like the Shadowfire360 — arguably the prettiest on the market, with a matte black finish and cozy red “sock” for storage — that’s the catalyst. Its subtle balance, coupled with Dragontail’s signature furled lines, will appeal to seasoned casters seeking precision in tight spots with lots of overhang (say goodbye to snagging your back cast on an aspen tree). At 12 feet, the Shadowfire was built with mid-size trout in mind but can cope with upwards of 24 inches, despite weighing under three ounces. Simply put, at short distance and in fast-moving water, nothing touches it.
Best Small Stream Rod: At a stout eight feet, six inches, Patagonia’s starter rod is dwarfed by most tenkara of comparable action and balance. But it loses nothing in terms of accuracy, and on small streams is so crisp it feels a little like cheating — you simply sit back and let the rod do the work. This is unsurprising considering that all of Patagonia’s tenkara are made by Temple Fork Outfitters, one of the best fly rod companies on the planet (10-foot-6-inch and 11-foot-6-inch versions are also available), renowned for its craftsmanship. At six ounces, the eight-foot-six-inch model is practically obese, but like any good linebacker holds ample power in reserve, and consequently comes alive in heavy winds. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard (“the master of simplicity”, as the company calls him) has also penned a helpful primer called Simple Fly-Fishing: Techniques for Tenkara and Rod & Reel that delivers on its promise to “clear the fog” of tenkara casting technique, knots, flies and strategy.
Tenkara Rod Co. Sawtooth
Best All-Around Rod: Tenkara Rod Co. is based in Driggs, Idaho, right smack in the headwaters of the Teton River and a stone’s throw from Henry’s Fork and the Snake River, three of the country’s best trout waters. The Sawtooth, a supple 12-footer with a gorgeous burnt orange finish, is a natural fit for the kinds of vigilant, delicate casting required to land the area’s finicky trout. Super-light yet bulletproof, playful yet smoothly responsive, a solid performer close in and devastating at mid-range, it does everything you want just a little bit better than most other models. For once, a company’s florid website description is dead on: “You might have a six-inch rainbow on the line but it feels like you are wrestling a tuna!” At a reasonable $129, it’s a proven best for the price. For $30 more, you get a furled line, spool, and three of the company’s hand-tied flies with reversed hackles.
Wetfly Back Country
Best Off-Road Rod: Think of Wetfly’s price point as insuring quality control — more Cadillac XTS than Dodge Dart — from a company that’s been making well regarded boutique fly rods and accessories for years. The package also includes everything you need to get on the water: a 12- or 13-foot rod, two furled leaders, tippet, a dozen flies, rod-tube, and a lovely bamboo fly box. As the name implies, the rod is made for the backcountry, and it’s accordingly hardy and transportable, as well as resistant to dings and scratches. The rod itself feels stiffer than most models and can take some getting used to. But a firm backbone allows you to cast in mountain winds, and a fast action affords tremendous feel and accuracy at just about every distance.