Tenkara curious? It’s OK. Many traditional fly fishers are simplifying their angling and choosing the simple options that tenkara offers. Fishing with only a rod, a line, and a fly has its appeal. And no, it’s not “cane pole” fishing that the discipline’s critics tend to espouse. While the rods are simple, choosing the best tenkara rod for your needs can be challenging. I’ve taken the mystery out of that process by testing rods and choosing my picks for the best tenkara rods for different applications.
The tenkara craft still requires a cast and, often, a mend or two. It still requires anglers to move their feet to be successful and it still requires anglers to use fishing skill. Tenkara is a great method for seasoned fly fishers who understand how rivers work and how drag and drift combine to make or break the perfect cast and presentation. It may seem overly simple, but being able to keep just the fly on the water—with no line to get caught in a rogue current—is a sure-fire way to catch more trout.
The simplicity of tenkara is perhaps its most appealing feature. It’s an excellent tool that new fly fishers can use to practice and master the basics of the craft, from the simple fly cast to more complex skills, like mending and stacking. More people are fishing tenkara because it works.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Tenkara Rod
Choosing a tenkara rod is a lot like choosing something simple, like a beach-comber bicycle. Foot brakes. One gear. How tough can it be, right?
At their core, tenkara rods enable anglers to engage in a simpler form of fly fishing, using only a rod, a line, and a fly. But it’s fly fishing, and fly fishers have never been shy about adding gear, gadgets, and sometimes-unnecessary accouterment. There’s no need to go nuts with tenkara. For a fly-fishing discipline that markets itself as simple and easy, it really can be simple and easy.
How Does a Tenkara Rod Work?
A tenkara rod is a simple implement—it’s a telescoping rod that stretches out from 8 or 9 feet all the way out to 15 feet or longer. It doesn’t have a reel or a line holder, but tenkara anglers still “cast” their level lines just as regular fly casters do.
Consider Your Fishing Preferences
If you like to fish small, intimate water in places where you’re not likely to rub shoulders with other anglers, a tenkara rod can be a real asset. First, they’re eminently packable—very few, when fully retracted, are longer than 2-feet long. If you are a sight fisher who enjoys targeting specific fish (and you don’t need to throw a 60-foot hero cast to reach it), tenkara might be your new thing. If you’re a drift-boat angler that’s forced to adjust cast lengths, strip heavy streamers, and cast in tandem with another angler, tenkara might not be the right choice (but if you’re boat-bound and want to keep nothing on the water except the fly, tenkara can be your new secret weapon).
Tenkara fishing represents the philosophical opposite of the approach gear junkies take when hitting the water. Anglers toting a tenkara rod are more likely to be wearing a decent pair of wading sandals and carrying simple tackle than they are toting a stuffed-to-the-gills backpack full of flys and fly fishing gear.
For the wanderer who might like to add fly fishing to their menu of pursuits while on a hike or a multi-day pack trip, tenkara is, without a doubt, the best way to do just that. It’s simple and easy to do, and the rods retract and are virtually weightless. It’s a non-intrusive activity anyone can do after the tents are set up on the banks of a creek or a high-country lake. And adding fresh trout to the menu is a nice reprieve from even the best backpacking food.
- Length: 25.2 inches collapsed and 11.14 feet fully extended
- Weight: 2.86 ounces
- Matte finish
Why It Made the Cut
The Mizuch ZX340 is budget-friendly and offers three length options for anglers who may not be sold on the idea that longer rods are better rods (and they’re often not).
- Can zoom to three different lengths: 7.88 feet, 9.58 feet, and 11.14 feet
- Budget friendly
- Decent construction with a rubberized butt cap that stays put
- It doesn’t cast or handle intuitively at its shorter lengths
- Even when it’s fully retracted, it’s more than 2 feet long
- No lifetime warranty
The Dragontail Mizuchi zx340 Zoom is the best tenkara rod for beginners or the traditional fly fisher switching to tenkara. It’s a solid choice with three length options, and at around $150, it’s a sure-fire way to get an intro course on tenkara without making a painful investment.
The Dragontail Mizuchi zx340 Zoom is a good tenkara rod for anglers considering the craft or for budget-conscious anglers who want to experiment with tenkara. While Dragontail markets the rod as fishable at three different lengths—something that many in the tenkara-verse have requested for years—the finished product just doesn’t handle as well when it’s not fully extended. When extended in all its 11.14-feet glory, it’s a joy to cast and fish.
Best Tenkara Rod for Hiking or Backpacking: Zen Tenkara Zako
- Length: 21 inches collapsed and 12 feet extended
- Weight: 3 ounces
- Flex: 6:4
Why It Made the Cut
The Zako’s high-end performance on the water makes it an excellent option for new tenkara anglers, and of the rods I tested it packs down the smallest, making it perfect for hikers and backpackers.
- Casts well fully extended
- Good value for the price
- It doesn’t offer the flexibility of multiple fishing lengths
- A screw-on aluminum butt cap is a recipe for disaster—if this is your rod of choice, check the butt cap every time you go fishing
The Zen Tenkara Zako is a refreshingly traditional tenkara rod that doesn’t try to be more than it needs to be. At 12 feet long, it allows anglers to deliver a quick and accurate cast, particularly when using the Zen Tenkara coated nylon level line. I find it to be an intuitive casting rod that helps anglers with both accuracy and presentation. The main con of the rod is that aluminum butt cap that screws onto the rod. It can easily come loose and cause issues, so be sure to stay vigilant with managing the butt cap.
The Zen Tenkara Zako is the perfect rod for the weight and space conscious angler, hiker, or backpacker. When it’s fully retracted, it’s a scant 21.75-inches long, from tip to butt. When fully extended, it’s 12-feet long and has enough backbone to handle any fish a 5-weight fly rod could handle. It’s pretty impressive performance for a 3-ounce rod.
Best Tenkara Rod for Situational Angling: Tenkara USA Sato
- Length: 22.75 inches collapsed and 12 feet 9 inches extended
- Weight: 2.9 ounces
- Zooms to 10 feet 8 inches, 11 feet 10 inches, and 12 feet 9 inches
- 1% of sales go to conservation
Why It Made the Cut
The Tenkara USA Sato is a dependable choice for anglers looking for a quality rod at a fair price. It features three fishable lengths and performs well at all three lengths, which is a bonus that can’t be ignored.
- Three fishing length options and good castability at each option
- Comes with two plugs and a built-in system to prevent loss
- The rod is backed by a lifetime warranty
- The nylon tag on the butt cap is a snag waiting to happen
The Tenkara USA Sato is a predictably good tenkara rod from a reputable company. It’s compact enough to fit into a day pack or backpack, and its three fishable lengths provide more sophisticated tenkara anglers with some on-the-water options. It casts and mends level line with relative ease, and it’s backed by a lifetime warranty.
In testing the Sato I found one major flaw, and that’s the snag-prone tag on the butt cap. But beyond that one con, it’s a fascinating rod. The Sato is a rarity among tenkara rods because it’s difficult to find a rod that casts well at all its lengths. I found that the rod loads and casts very well, whether I was fishing lengths of 10 feet 8 inches, 11 feet 10 inches, or a full 12 feet 9 inches. Anglers who might need to adjust their casts or their reach when fishing tenkara will find this rod to be the most effective and most intuitive when it comes time to throw line.
- Length: 12 feet extended and 23 inches collapsed
- Weight: 3.5 ounces
- Action: 6:4
- Nine pieces
Why It Made the Cut
The Tenkara Rod Co. Teton Zoom is what traditional tenkara anglers have come to expect in a rod. This tough and dependable option allows for some length flexibility without a hit to the rod’s casting and loading abilities.
- Two casting lengths with no loss of accuracy or loading ability
- Lifetime warranty
- Good backbone for larger trout at 10.5 feet, and good finesse at 12 feet
- It’s a bit bulkier than other tenkara rods and the handle is longer, which can cause some casting comfort issues.
- The screw-on aluminum butt cap comes undone too easily.
Tenkara Rod Co.’s Teton Zoom is a versatile rod that doesn’t try to do too much. It’s two casting lengths offer plenty of variety for anglers on small water or slightly larger streams where bigger trout might be targeted.
The Tenkara Rod. Co.’s Teton Zoom is a high-performing, general-purpose tenkara rod that features two casting lengths and plenty of backbone for bigger trout and bigger water. Of all the rods I tested, this one performed the best at both casting lengths—10.5 feet and 12 feet. It also has the longest handle of the rods tested, and it is bulkier in its butt section than the others I tried out. If you’re looking for one rod to handle small and large streams and small and large fish, this is an excellent option.
Q: Is tenkara good for beginners?
Yes, tenkara is a great way to learn the basics of fly fishing, and it’s also an excellent fly-fishing discipline for anglers looking to add something to their hiking or backpacking. And no, you don’t have to “graduate” from tenkara angling to traditional fly fishing. In fact, many traditional fly fishers are taking up tenkara, simply because it’s a simple craft and an excellent way to catch fish.
Q: How do I choose a tenkara rod?
Choosing a tenkara rod depends heavily on the kind of fishing you enjoy. If you’re a backcountry “creek freak,” tenkara might be your new thing. If you’re a boat-bound fly caster who needs to throw lots of line or strip heavy streamers for deep trout, tenkara is probably not the right choice.
Q: What size Tenkara rod should I get?
Again, what kind of fishing do you enjoy? Small water? A light tenkara rod with supple sections can make backcountry trout feel bigger than they really are. Big rivers? Larger, bulkier rods are the name of the game here, and, yes, there are tenkara rods that can handle trophy trout.
Q: What kind of line do you use for tenkara?
Most tenkara rods are built to cast a level line, a line that’s the same width from top to bottom. Others can cast tapered mono or even coated nylon that looks and feels like a traditional fly line.
Q: How far can you cast a tenkara rod?
If you have a 12-foot tenkara rod and 15 feet of line, leader and tippet, you can conceivably cast 27 feet—more if you reach. And, in most instances, that’s plenty far enough.
The rods tested above were chosen for a number of reasons. First, to appeal to anglers interested in trying tenkara, I didn’t want to select rods that were prohibitively expensive. Second, all the rods chosen are comparatively compatible—I wanted to try general-purpose tenkara rods that could be used in common situations. Finally, I tried each rod and judged its performance based on how well it cast the line chosen by its manufacturer. Granted, casting tenkara rods isn’t rocket science, but there are differences in how each rod performed, both subtle and marked, particularly among the rods that boast several castable lengths.
I judged how well rods loaded, how well they cast line forward and how accurately they sent their line toward set targets. It’s a basic test, but for a simple implement like a tenkara rod, the basics matter most.
There’s a reason tenkara fishing is still going strong among North American anglers—it’s a productive fishing method that takes a lot of the guesswork out of fly fishing, particularly for anglers who might be intimidated by a standard fly rod. Years ago, tenkara was considered a fad. But its Japanese origins go back thousands of years—western anglers are just scratching the surface of tenkara, and there are lots of options for those interested in taking up the discipline.
From big water to small streams, tenkara rods offer a painfully simple way of casting to—and catching — trout. The rods tested above offer different features, but all of them allow anglers to participate in an age-old angling craft that is both enjoyable and effective.