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Which Tenkara Rod Should You Get?

Choosing which tenkara rod to get

I’m new to tenkara. What rod should I get?

I get asked this question multiple times a week, but most of the time the asker doesn’t give me enough information to be able to give a good answer (e.g., the exact size of stream, the amount of cover on the stream, the exact budget, the fish they’ll be going for, etc.). People often say they want to fish “small streams,” but that is not helpful information. Essentially all tenkara rods are made to fish small streams, and everyone’s definition of a small stream is different. Small streams can be 3 feet across or 30, depending on what you’re used to fishing.

It’s also getting to the point where the sheer quantity of people asking is more than I have time to answer individually. So if you’re new to tenkara and ask me what tenkara rod to get, I’m going to send you to this page.

Here’s my advice:

  1. Watch my videos and look for streams that are about the size of what you want to fish. Check the video description to see what rod I’m using. That’s about the size of rod you’ll likely want to get. Check multiple videos to see multiple rods in that size class.
  2. Check the Tenkara Rods I Own page to see what rods I use and how I like them. I try to not recommend rods I haven’t fished with. I haven’t fished with every rod out there, and there are entire brands that I won’t recommend simply because I haven’t used their rods. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad rods.
  3. Dragontail Tenkara makes good rods at good prices. I’m not affiliated with them, but they make a good starting point for looking at rods unless you have a particular reason to go with another company. If you want a Japanese-made rod (in general, these are more expensive and are a bit harder to get spare parts for but are lighter in the hand and just feel nicer to fish with), go browse Tenkara Bum and email Chris there if you have questions about which rod to buy. If you’re set on a rod from a particular company, email the company directly about which of their rods to get. They will know their rods better than I do.
  4. Remember that your rod purchase is not final. If you don’t like a rod, you can always sell it to someone, recoup much of the cost back, and put that toward a new rod. This is especially true for the main tenkara rod companies out there (Dragontail Tenkara, Tenkara USA, Tenkara Rod Co., any Japanese rod, etc.).
  5. You’re not going to find a great tenkara rod under $100, with the Shadowfire 365 being an exception. Any rod under that price will be fishable, but it won’t feel very good compared to the higher priced rods out there. Yes, there is a difference. If you can, save a bit more and go for a rod at least in the $100–$150 range. These also have better resale value than a generic, Chinese-made $50 rod from Amazon or AliExpress.
  6. You probably aren’t going to need any rod under 8 feet for your first tenkara rod.
  7. I’m just one person, and my opinion doesn’t count for much. There are lots of people out there with much more tenkara experience than me. You should get input from multiple people, so I recommend asking on one of the tenkara Facebook groups: Tenkara Anglers, American-Tenkara Anglers, Appalachian Tenkara Anglers.
  8. Regardless of who you’re asking, be as specific as possible about what your wants/needs are.

Have fun fishing!


Note: I’m no longer sticking to a 1st of the month posting schedule here on the blog. I’ll simply post when I have something to post. 

Why Do I Buy and Fish with Super Cheap “Tenkara” Rods?

There were a couple of interesting comments on the last blog post wondering why I bothered with super cheap tenkara rods, referring to the bargain basement AliExpress and Amazon rods that I sometimes fish with (and that I talk about more in this video). Steve said:

What I don’t understand, at least in my view, is why bother with buying the cheap Chinese sticks. I know they’re $8-$12 or whatever, but why waste money on them? Now I think they would be an excellent pick if you wanted to hand a tenkara rod to someone who’s never fished before, or even better, a young child to teach them the basics and not worry about the inevitable rod breakage.

And Bill said:

I would agree with Steve. Why bother with a cheap, fish okay,rod when you have really good quality tenkara rods to fish with. Wouldn’t you want to have a good experience and time on the water with something you enjoy and have fun fishing with?

I see people online saying that they’ve fished with these super cheap rods and that they can’t tell any difference between them and the more expensive rods made by more well-known tenkara rod companies. I also see people online saying that these super cheap rods are complete garbage and are not worth trying. So who’s telling the truth here? There is no value in me parroting whichever point of view that conforms to whatever bias I may already have. I want to find out for myself.

With the Tenkara Addict YouTube channel, I have what I believe is the largest active tenkara audience in the English language (and it’s certainly the largest one not controlled by a tenkara rod company). I take that seriously. I get asked multiple times each week about what rods to get. Sometimes these people have $300 to spend on a tenkara rod. Sometimes they have $10. Not everyone in the world has the same fishing budgets you or I do.

So let me directly answer the question. I try out all of these super cheap rods because…

  1. I want to be able to give an informed opinion about these rods to those who ask me.
  2. I want to show people that you can get out and catch fish and have fun on a very tight budget.
  3. I’m personally curious about them.
  4. It’s fun trying new gear.
  5. It’s boring for me to fish the same great tenkara rods over and over. I’d rather fish ten different $10 rods one time each than the same excellent rod ten times.
  6. They make fishing a creek I’m very familiar with (which, again, can be boring) more challenging and interesting.
  7. They add variety to the YouTube channel.
  8. I believe it makes me more well-rounded tenkara angler.
  9. It makes me more appreciative of the good rods when I do get back around to fishing them again.

Tenkara Rods and “Simplicity”

I currently own a dozen “real” tenkara/seiryu/keiryu rods and a dozen cheap Chinese fixed-line rods. I like fishing with a wide variety of rods. It’s fun for me to do. It makes for interesting Tenkara Addict videos. And it makes me a more well-rounded and better-informed angler.

When I made a video a few months ago about the rods I have, I got a few comments in this vein:

I thought tenkara was supposed to be simple.

The implication here was that because I have many rods to choose from, that complicates things. Because I have many rods, tenkara is no longer simple. Choice is apparently antithetical to simplicity.

First off, making a choice about which tenkara rod to use is always simple. This isn’t rocket science. I look at the stream and think about what size rod would be best. That narrows it down to a few rods. I then look at those few rods and weigh which one I think would be best for the size of fish I’m likely to catch against which rod I feel like fishing, and I make the decision. I’ve never found myself by a stream paralyzed by my inability to choose a rod to fish with.

But apart from that, and more importantly, having the right tool for the job is ultimately more simple. Simplicity is not just how easy something is to understand but how easy something is to do. Fishing a tiny, overgrown creek with a 12-foot rod because you think having additional rods complicates things? That’s anything but simple.

What Resources Have You Used to Learn Tenkara?

I got this comment on one of my Instagram (@tenkaraaddict) photos:

I wonder if you could do a video of the resources you have used to learn tenkara.

That would be a very short video. I learned tenkara by convincing a friend (who had been tenkara fishing for a couple of years) to teach me. We went out together maybe 6 or 8 times early on, and we still get together to fish when I’m in the area. If you don’t have someone who can teach you, going out with a guide a time or two will be well worth it.

Apart from that, I fished a ton on my own and learned a lot that way about things like where fish are in a creek.

I didn’t read any books about tenkara until later, but I’ve found the one by Tenkara USA’s Daniel Galhardo to be the best.

Tenkara USA also has this great video for teaching the basics: The Complete Video Guide to Tenkara: 17 minutes covering everything you need to know to tenkara.

What resources would you recommend to people looking to get into tenkara?

The Only True Way to Fish the Tenkara Is to Become the Tenkara

Editor’s Note: I woke up one morning to find the following trip report on my doorstep. It had been written on rice paper, carefully placed inside of a bamboo tube, and delivered by overnight red-crowned crane. I have decided to publish it here in its entirety.

-Tristan


I wake up at 5:30 am Tokyo time. I slip on my Montbell wading boots and turn on the remote start in the Honda to warm it on this chilly afternoon in early August. The mountains are calling, and I must go. It is time to become one with the tenkara. It is time to become the tenkara. 

After stopping at Trader Joe’s to fuel up on dried kelp, I commence the drive up along St. Vrain Creek. I am in the zone. I picture each boulder and riffle in my mind. I picture the native buttery brown trout that will soon fall prey to my kebari. I smile to myself, knowing those kebari well. I had unearthed them in Noregano prefecture using trained futsu hogs harnessed with horsehair lines I had braided myself. In order to find the kebari’s damp, loamy hiding places, you must become one with the kebari. You must outsmart the kebari. You must outsmart the futsu hog. You must become the hog. I am the hog. I am the kebari. I am the tenkara.

There are just eleven other cars in the roadside pullout when I arrive. Perfect. The dozen of us have this untouched headwater stream all to ourselves. I grab my 700 cm Shimaiwa rod, heft it over my shoulder, and slide down the embankment to the stream.

Hakuchi Johnson

I like to sit and observe a stretch of water before I fish it, so I pull out my weathered emergency poncho and settle in for an all-nighter. I stuff the poncho with gathered mushrooms to provide more loft and insulation, more warmth and comfort. I see many fellow anglers fish my stretch of water. I pity them. If success in fishing is defined as catching many, many fish, then yes, they are successful. But they do not understand that perfection is reached not when there are no more fish to pull out of a hole but when one does not even need to fish the hole in the first place. Fishing is the weakest form of fishing. I am not weak. I am the tenkara.

Afternoon fades into glorious evening. The stars overhead twinkle like so many scales of the iwana. I am reminded of the fresh namekuji I had at the chaya during my junrei of the shinseina kinoko back during the omatsuri of the ōkina kuchibiru o motsu chīsana shika. It seems like only yesterday. 

Suddenly, it is dawn. I am ready. I reach for the Shimaiwa.

No, to reach for the rod would be to reach for defeat. I am the tenkara. I am undefeatable. I must reach inside myself. I close my eyes and begin to slowly rock backward and forward. I sway between the 10 o’clock and 12 o’clock positions. I begin with my torso stiff as my head bobs and pulses. I am 8:2. My shoulders limber up, unable to resist the gathering momentum. I am 7:3. Back and forth I go, the steaming morning air stinging my nostrils. My midsection loosens, and I am 6:4. Faster and faster now, my entire body lithe and willowy. I am full flex. I am bent all the way to the cork now. Fish on! Fish on!

The tug is unmistakable, and I spring backwards, a nest of snagged fishing line and bobbers breaking my fall. I glance over to the water’s edge, and I see that I’ve done it again. A trophy-sized oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi flops around on the gravel. Exactly what I needed for tonight’s dinner of traditional Japanese fish tacos. I thank the fish for its service before dispatching it with a swift dozen blows to the belly. I slowly walk back to the Honda.

Tenkara is not about catching fish, and it never was. Those Japanese commercial tenkara fishermen from centuries gone by did not care about catching fish. What they understood is that tenkara is the only path—the one true path—to self-transformation, to self-actualization, to self-satisfactualization, to self-transcendentalization.  The mountains change you. The river changes you. The fish change you. The kebari change you. The Honda and kelp change you. But you must always ask yourself this: Into what have they changed you?

I know my answer. I am the tenkara. 

Connor “Hakuchi” Johnson is a humble student of traditional Japanese tenkara and is passionate about the eradication of all tenkara anglers who have not been to Japan at least six times.

The $1 Per Fish Rule

Fishing a creek in Utah back in late January. I have indeed "paid off" the Mizuchi.
Fishing a creek in Utah back in late January. I have indeed “paid off” the Mizuchi.

I don’t remember if it was in a comment on one of my videos or through a direct message conversation we had, but GoFishSD on YouTube told me how he justifies buying a new rod:

When he’s caught 1 fish per $1 spent on a rod, he can buy a new one.

I think this is a great idea! Some of my rods (like my Dragontail Mizuchi and Zen Tenkara Suzume, for example) have definitely been “paid off” in that regard. Others, like the $266 Tanuki XL-1, which I’ve caught maybe 25 fish on, still have a ways to go.

I don’t think this is going to change my rod buying habits any, but it’s fun to think about. And if you’re looking for a way to justify or not justify your rod purchases, this is one way to do it!

How many of your rods have you “paid off” with fish? Leave a comment below.

New Rod Day! Nissin Pro Square Super Tenkara 6:4 360

My new rod
The new rod

I do not need more tenkara rods. I have all the rods I need to cover the kinds of waters I fish and the kinds of fish I target. But I do want more tenkara rods.

I like alternating fishing with my different rods, and I like trying out new ones. It’s just fun for me. And like I’ve heard Tom of Teton Tenkara say a couple times (I believe once in this interview and once in this interview), I want to know for myself what these rods feel like. As much as I appreciate the rod reviews of people like Tom, I want to find out for myself what something is like, I don’t feel comfortable talking with confidence about something if I don’t have firsthand experience with it.

This comes into play when people ask me which tenkara rod to get. I get asked this at least once a week, if not more. I am not all that great of a tenkara angler, and I have not tried dozens and dozens of rods, so it always makes me a bit uncomfortable to answer questions like this, but I try to give my best answer with the knowledge I do have.

I’d read online that people seemed to like the $100 Dragontail Shadowfire 365 rod as an inexpensive first rod. The consensus seemed to be that it was a good value and a good rod, but I wanted to know for myself because I don’t feel comfortable recommending rods that I haven’t used. So last year I asked Brent of Dragontail Tenkara to loan me a Shadowfire 365 to use. I fished with it half a dozen times (it’s in this video and this video, among others) and found it to be a surprisingly good rod. It’s become my go-to rod recommendation for people asking me about what cheap first tenkara rod to get if they don’t give me any other information.

But that’s an American-designed rod made in China. What’s a good, cheap(ish) beginner rod designed and made in Japan? That I did not have a good firsthand answer or recommendation for.

I’ve been eyeing the Nissin Pro Square Super Tenkara rods (hereafter to be referred to simply as the Pro Square) for a while now. Chris Stewart on Tenkara Bum calls the 6:4 360 “surprisingly nice” and “the best ‘beginner’ rod I have ever come across.” (I believe it’s the cheapest made-in-Japan tenkara rod out there, but someone correct me if I’m wrong.) It’s a rod that I’ve been wanting to try both for my own curiosity and as a recommendation for people wanting a first tenkara rod that’s made in Japan.

It retails for around $150, but I saw one on Amazon.com listed for $100 with free shipping. That’s about what you’d expect to pay for a used one, so I jumped on it. It shipped from Japan via DHL and arrived in 8 days. Here’s the Amazon link I bought it from, but the price has gone back up to $150.

The rod arrived today. It was packaged in a standard plastic Japanese tenkara rod carton inside of a bunch of bubble wrap inside of a thick, heavy PVC mailing tube. Needless to say, it arrived in one piece.

That's some serious packaging.
That’s some serious packaging.
Nissin Pro Square Super Tenkara 6:4 360
Nissin Pro Square Super Tenkara 6:4 360

A friend of mine has this rod in the 7:3 360 configuration. He said it’s “quite soft, but good.” Other conventional wisdom I’ve read online seems to be that a Nissin 7:3 is like most other companies’ 6:4. Guess we’ll see. I wanted to try the 6:4 because that’s what Chris offers at TenkaraBum as a beginner rod and because my Nissin ZeroSum 360 is a 7:3. It’ll be interesting to compare the two.

One other thing my friend who owns the rod mentioned is that he doesn’t like how the handle has just the one hump instead two. To quote him again:

“Really I’m just not a fan of the handle. I don’t like the single hump and how it starts to flare out again at the bottom.”

I didn’t notice this before, but he’s right. The grip at the bottom kind of just flares outward toward the butt cap. Having wiggled it around in my hand in my office, I don’t think this will bother me, but we’ll see once I actually use it on the water.

Comparing the Zerosum handle (top) with the Pro Square handle (bottom). Note the two humps of the Zerosum.

Anyway, I don’t have anything super insightful to say about this rod. I’m just excited about it and wanted to share my excitement. New gear day is always fun! I’ll be using this rod in the next month or so, so stay tuned.

Have you used any of the Nissin Pro Square rods? Which one(s), and how have you liked them?

How Often Do You Take Your Tenkara Rod Apart to Let It Dry?

Here’s a question from Travis:

I see you lay down your rod on your YouTube videos. Do you ever take it apart and let it dry? Tenkarabum suggests doing this after every trip but seems overkill to me.

The rod doesn’t always get wet when I lay it down (e.g., when I place it on some grass next to the creek). In that case, I don’t bother taking it apart. But if it gets wet, yes, I take it apart and let it dry. Sometimes when I forget to do that, the next time I’m extending the rod to fish with it, it smells like stink water. Not something I want.

Leave your own answer in the comments below.

Do You Feel the Take, or Is it a Visual Thing?

I get asked a lot of tenkara-related questions in the comments of my YouTube videos. I’ve decided that in 2021, a lot of the blog posts I write will be answers to these questions. Feel free to leave a comment on this blog post to give your own answer to the question.

Alex asked:

Do you typically feel takes while fishing a kebari, or is it almost always a visual thing with your line? I’ve been trying to fish kebaris more this fall/winter and am unsure if I’m just failing to feel/see takes or if it’s mostly due to lower fish activity or not casting to the right spots. Thanks!

I rarely feel the take. For me, it’s almost entirely a visual thing. I concentrate intensely on the end of the line (the spot where the tippet is tied to the line). If I see that make any kind of motion that I didn’t cause—a sudden stop, a change in direction, a tightening of the line, etc.—I set the hook.

Of course, I’ll often feel a fish on the end of the line when I go to recast, but that’s different.

Leave your own answer in the comments below.

How Stiff Is the Tiny Ten Versus Other Small “Tenkara” Rods?

Top: Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 180. Middle: Generic Yellow Bamboo Rod. Bottom: Tiny Ten
Top: Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 180. Middle: Generic Yellow Bamboo Rod. Bottom: Tiny Ten

I’ve found that what qualifies as a “small, overgrown stream” often has little to do with the stream itself and more to do with the rod one uses to fish it. What could be considered a small, overgrown stream with a 13-foot (400-cm) rod suddenly becomes quite open and easy to fish with an 8-foot (240-cm rod).

Continue reading “How Stiff Is the Tiny Ten Versus Other Small “Tenkara” Rods?”