This post first appeared, in slightly different form, as a feature article in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler Magazine. As spring 2017 has arrived and our thoughts turn to the season ahead, I thought you might like to read it, if you haven’t already. My thanks to Mike Agneta, webmaster of Troutrageous! and editor of Tenkara Angler, for allowing me to publish it.
Photos: Brad Clark
My first tenkara rod was a 13-footer, which I used on the trout streams of North Georgia—the Chattahoochee and the Tallulah River among them. This purchase was quickly followed by that of an 11-foot rod. The 2-foot subtraction helped me stay out of the rhododendrons, but if a shorter rod had been available then, I would have bought that as well. Unfortunately, there wasn’t.
When I moved back to Massachusetts a couple of years later, I knew these rods would be unworkable on many of the small streams in northern New England that are home to wild native brook trout. These waters, heavily canopied, often unnamed, faint blue lines on the Gazetteer, do not allow for 9-foot rods, let alone 13-footers.
When my friend Chris Stewart, the Tenkara Bum, began touting the Daiwa Soyokaze as a micro rod that could be fished tenkara-style, some tenkara traditionalists (who’d been at the game for all of three years) balked. For those of us who fish for brookies in New England, however, the short sticks seemed tailor-made for the game. For me, whose initial attraction to tenkara was its minimalism, the Soyokaze further simplified things. Here was a fly rod stripped to its essence: a carbon stick and little else. The Soyokaze cast both furled and level lines well—and it caught fish. When Daiwa ceased production, I regretted not having bought a few more of them.
If you’re interested in playing the small-stream tenkara game, the rod is your primary consideration. There are several seiryu and micro rods on the market of less than 9 feet that will fit the bill, including the Nissin Air Stage 190 (which comes in several flex profiles) and the Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 24, 21, and 18 (just under 8 feet, 7 feet, and 6 feet, respectively). Although the Kiyotaki 18 has become my go-to rod for small-stream brookies (simply due to its length), it’s a bit stiffer than I would like.
Fast-forward 7 or 8 years after tenkara first hit the U.S. and we now have several homegrown companies producing rods for the American market, 3 of which offer a dedicated tenkara rod of less than 9 feet.
At 8’6” extended and 18 inches collapsed, Badger Tenkara’s U.N.C. (which stands for “unnamed creek”) is spartan, a matte drab olive blank (presumably for stealth). Writes Matt Sment: “We founded Badger with the goal of making tenkara accessible to the broadest possible audience … focusing on the angler’s preferred experience rather than trying to clone Japanese products and culture. The vast majority of our customers are Americans fishing American water and terrain, and our products are shaped by our experiences on the same.”
The company describes the rod as a 6:4 action with a medium flex. Frankly, I don’t pay too much attention to technical specifications. I fished the rod and it cast well and hooked fish. And at $90 retail you really can’t argue with the price. (I didn’t get a chance to take the U.N.C. down to the pond, but I’m sure it’s an awesome little bluegill rod.)
Zen Fly Fishing Gear’s Suzume (“sparrow”) is one of the neatest tenkara rods I’ve fished with yet—a downsized triple-zoom (10’8”, 9’3”, and 7’7”) that Zen owner Karin Miller designed specifically for Rocky Mountain National Park. “Those are our home waters,” she writes, “and what we fish every day. It’s small streams, tight places, lots of trees and overhanging canopy, and pools and pockets. We wanted something that could handle these places without a lot of acrobatics and maneuvering and could also reach the other side of that wider pool or beaver dam when you finally get to that place where you can see sky and the water opens up for a bit. The range that the Suzume has is something we’re pretty proud of. You can cover a lot of situations with a single rod—and still feel pretty balanced and not tip heavy in any of its three positions (which is very hard to do on a zoom rod and especially a tri-zoom). It’s a sweet rod that offers some really nice options.”
Zen describes the rod as a medium-fast action with a 6:4 flex. I was afraid the rod would feel a bit stiff at its shortest length—but it didn’t. At $229, the Suzume is more than twice the price of the U.N.C., but if you think of it as buying three rods the price gets a lot nicer. As an added bonus, Zen includes an extra tip with each of its rods. Says Miller, “It just makes life that much sweeter if you should experience a break.”
A roster of short sticks. From the top, Zen Fly Fishing Gear’s Suzume; Badger Tenkara’s U.N.C.; Shimotsuki Kiyotaki 24; Shimotsuke Kosasa, 6’10”; Nissan Air Stage 190; Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 18.
Once you’ve procured your rod, your next consideration is line. Although most tenkara anglers today prefer to fish with level fluorocarbon lines, I still prefer furled lines, which feel and handle more like conventional fly lines. In the tightest spots, however, you’re bound to end up in the trees occasionally. Pulling on the line to break the tippet is almost sure to cause the line to tangle. Tangle a furled line and you could spend the next five minutes trying to untangle it. Furled lines for very short tenkara rods are not the norm. You may have to substitute a furled leader made for a Western-style fly line. Otherwise, Mike Moline at Streamside Furled Leaders is willing to do custom work at a small additional charge. Whatever line you choose, 3 or so feet of 5X or 6X tippet will suffice.
Life in the headwaters is a hardscrabble existence. Competition for food is keen, so the fish aren’t fussy. Forget about matching the hatch—just throw a few flies into a glass vial and go. I do most of my small-stream fishing with only two patterns—an Elk Hair Caddis and a Yellow Soft Hackle, size 14 or smaller. Plan to do a lot of walking when you play this game. If you don’t get a rise after a cast or two into the same water, move to the next likely-looking spot. If you rise a fish but don’t hook it, don’t spend a lot of time working over him, as it’s unlikely you’ll rise the same fish again.
This stream actually does have a name–Needle Shop Brook in Hill, New Hampshire. One of my favorite spots for small-stream tenkara. I’ve yet to see another angler here. If you decide to visit, please release all fish and pack out your trash.
As I said previously, the thing that attracted me to tenkara initially was its minimalism. I like to travel light. I can fit everything I need for a day of fishing into a small fanny pack. If I can get away with wet-wading in a pair of shorts and Vibram FiveFingers, I leave the waders at home (I find the Vibrams made for trail running offer better grip on wet stones).
To enjoy this game requires a shift in attitude that some will never manage—which may be why I rarely see another soul. You have to accept there will be no rods doubled over, no singing reels, no trophies as such—none of the usual rewards of the five-star experience. (The first time I showed my wife a wild brook trout she said, “We came all the way up here for that…?”) If you’re after those things you’ll be elsewhere—wading the ranch’s private water, or standing at the bow of a flats boat.
But if you’re here, bare ankles numb, dancing your CDC Caddis across a pool no larger than your bathtub, you’re after something else.
Trophies, but no bragging.
Streamside Furled Leaders
Chris Stewart stocks an impressive array of tenkara and other Japanese rods. For all of the specialty rods mentioned in this post, please refer to his Website.
Zen Fly Fishing Gear
JJ’s Wood Fired Pizza and Tavern
If you make the trip to Needle Shop Brook be sure to stop by JJ’s. Nice people, excellent food, and an impressive beer selection. Piscator non solum piscatur.