This article has been broken into 2 parts:
If the word “tenkara” really means “from Heaven” it’s probably just shorthand for “God’s Gift to Backpackers.” Tenkara may be the best thing to hit the backpacking world since freeze-dried food. Of course, if you seriously compare a dinner of fresh trout to a pot of “rehydrated, freeze-dried whatever”, I think the trout would win every time. If your backpacking takes you along or even just across a mountain stream or to an alpine lake, tenkara is way better than freeze dried food.
Although tenkara is a centuries old pursuit in Japan, it is still relatively new in the US, having only been introduced in 2009. In the few short years since then, however, the number of available tenkara rods has expanded dramatically from only a handful of rods from only one company to dozens of rods from upwards of a dozen companies. This article will provide an overview of some of the rods and other gear that might be of interest to backpackers.
Before jumping straight into descriptions of individual rods, I would like to introduce a couple of terms that many readers may not have seen before. I suspect most by are now are familiar with “Tenkara” and know that it is fly fishing with a long rod, no reel and the line tied to the rod tip. (There are nuances, and the discussion of what is and isn’t true tenkara still goes on, but let’s stick to the basics for now.)
Backpacking Light Hane - the first tenkara rod for backpackers.
In addition to Tenkara, there are two closely related fishing styles, also traditional in Japan, called Keiryu and Seiryu. The word “keiryu” is translated as “mountain stream” and “seiryu” as “clear stream.” Although mountain streams are certainly also clear, the connotation of Seiryu is of a more placid stream rather than the high gradient rushing mountain stream. Both also utilize a rod with no guides and no reel, and with the line tied to the rod tip.
Keiryu fishing and tenkara fishing are both done in high gradient mountain streams and both target the same fish. In a party of several anglers, there might be some who are tenkara fishing and some who are keiryu fishing. The primary difference is that tenkara fishing is done with flies and keiryu fishing is done with live bait, often using nymphs gathered from under rocks in the stream they are fishing, the ultimate in “matching the hatch.”
With an unweighted fly, tenkara is largely limited to the top few inches of the water column. If there is a plunge pool you can use the plunging water to pull your fly deeper, but without one you can only cast further upstream, giving your fly a bit more time to sink. An unweighted fly is just not going to sink very far, though. Keiryu fishing, on the other hand, utilizes split shot so it is quite possible to fish just off the bottom, whether in runs or in pools. Keiryu rods tend to be stiffer than tenkara rods, I suspect partially because you need a stiffer rod to fish effectively with added weight and to get good hook sets when fishing in deeper water.
In the US, very few people use keiryu rods for bait fishing. Most choose keiryu rods to fish weighted nymphs and to handle larger fish. Some keiryu rods offer a distinct advantage for backpackers - collapsing to a shorter length than any tenkara rod.
Seiryu fishing, on the other hand, targets smaller species and is done in more placid streams. For those reasons, seiryu rods are generally softer than tenkara rods. They are not well suited to fishing heavily weighted nymphs or to big wind resistant flies. They can’t handle big fish. They don’t collapse to a short, convenient length. Why then, you might ask, would any backpacker be interested in a seiryu rod? How about a full fishing kit that weighs just 2 oz (57 g) - including the rod, line, tippet, flies and fly box? Interested now?
Which class of rod - tenkara, keiryu or seiryu is the best choice for you depends on where and how you will fish and what you will catch, and on which attributes are most important to you. Every rod is a compromise.
The rods that follow were chosen primarily for two criteria - weight and collapsed length, with lighter weight and shorter collapsed length being better. I have recently found a very nice rod that I like quite a lot, but it only collapses to about 43 in (109.2 cm). It’s not a rod for backpackers and it’s not on the list. Similarly, there is a very popular rod that weighs almost 4 oz (113 g). At that weight, it’s not on the list either.
Tenkara rods come in a variety of lengths, and both keiryu and seiyru rods come in an even greater variety of lengths. I have chosen the 10.8 ft (3.3 m) length to try to be consistent. Most tenkara anglers use longer rods, but longer is heavier. Plus, you can add fishing distance with a longer line - which weighs a lot less than a longer rod.
The choice of rod may depend on whether you are a fisherman who backpacks or a backpacker who fishes. The fisherman may choose a longer, heavier rod. I suspect many backpackers will want to save the weight and will gladly pack a shorter rod. Ounces add up. Only one of the rods that I’ve highlighted weighs over 3 oz (85 g) and many are closer to two (some are less than one). To some extent, the following list does reflect my personal preferences. It includes rods I like a lot and rods that I don’t particularly care for but which needed to be included to provide a more complete picture. There are many rods that are not included. There was a time when I was personally familiar with every tenkara rod sold in the US, but there are just too many now and new models are offered all the time it seems.
Tenkara rods are the standard - what most people have and what most people know. They were first on the scene and do offer advantages. Most tenkara rods are 11 ft to 14.5 ft (3.35 m to 4.42 m) in length when fully extended, around 20 in (51 cm) when collapsed, and have cork grips. There are (or were) exceptions to each one of those characteristics, but they describe most tenkara rods. Most tenkara rods are well suited to casting a light line and fishing an unweighted fly. Because of the soft rod tip required for casting a light line, most do not do well with heavily weighted flies. Tenkara rods are often rated by a 5:5, 6:4, 7:3 ratio that supposedly indicates what percentage of the rod is stiffer and what percentage is softer. I have not included those ratings here because not all companies use them and even among the companies that do use them they are not at all consistent from one company to the next. Including the rating without substantial additional explanation for each particular rod is more misleading than leaving it out. If a rod is particularly stiff or soft I have noted it in the description.
Backpacking Light Hane
This is the granddaddy of backpacking tenkara rods. As far as I know, it is the first, last and only tenkara rod specifically designed for backpacking. The rod has been discontinued and is only rarely available on the used market, but is included out of respect and as a benchmark. The Hane is 10 ft (3 m) extended (the initial marketing materials showed 9 ft 10 in (270 cm) but my Hane measures 10 ft 2 in (310 cm)), 16 in (41 cm) collapsed and weighs 2.7 oz (77 g). The action is extremely stiff for a tenkara rod, but given that Ryan Jordan’s fishing kit when the rod was designed included split shot, the stiff action is quite understandable. Rods that collapse to a shorter-than-normal length, as the Hane does, also tend to be stiff. If you will be fishing with split shot or heavily weighted nymphs and want a cork grip on your rod, the Hane is still a very reasonable choice - if you can find one.
Daiwa NEO LT33SC and LL32SC
Daiwa NEO LT33SC collapses to 16 ¾ in (43 cm) which is short for a tenkara rod.
The NEO is Daiwa’s line of starter rods. They come in LL and LT versions, with the LL standing for Level Line and the LT for Level Line or Tapered Line. I’ll cover lines very briefly later, but tapered lines are almost uniformly heavier than level lines, and the rods designed to cast them are stiffer than rods intended for level lines. The NEO LT33SC is a relatively stiff rod, as tenkara rods go, but it is not as stiff as the Hane. Still, it would be a good choice if most of your fishing will be with weighted nymphs. One thing the NEO LT33SC has going for it is that when collapsed it is a relatively short 16 ¾ in (43 cm) (the only reason it made the list). Unfortunately, it’s a relatively heavy 3.5 oz (99 g). The NEO LL32SC is a full flex rod that is much better at fishing unweighted flies - the classic tenkara approach. It is quite a bit lighter than the LT model at 2.8 oz (79 g), but is a relatively long 19 7/16 in (49 cm).
Daiwa Enshou LT33SF
The Enshou series are Daiwa’s premium rods. They are wonderful rods and would be worthy of consideration if you are a serious tenkara angler who backpacks rather than a backpacker who just wants to catch a few fish. The LT33SF is just a bit heavier than some of the other rods, at 2.7 oz (76 g) but the 18 in (46 cm) collapsed length is shorter than most.
Fountainhead Stone Fly 330
This is the rod for the backpacker on a budget. At $75 it is a lot of rod for not a lot of money. It is neither as light, 2.6 oz (73 g), nor as short collapsed, 20 ½ in (52 cm), as many of the other rods but it will certainly get the job done.
Nissin Pro Spec 360
The Nissin Pro Spec can be fished at two lengths, providing great versatility.
The Pro Spec is new this year from Nissin, one of the few Japanese tenkara rod companies that actually make their rods in Japan. One of the main features of the Pro Spec is that it is designed to be fished at either 10 ft 3 in (3.1 m) or 11 ft 9 in (3.6 m). That gives the ability to easily fish small brushy headwaters and also more wide open streams or beaver ponds. The collapsed length is a bit long at 22 ½ in (57 cm) but at only 2.4 oz (68 g) the rod is very light for a 11 ft 9 in (3.6 m) rod and lighter than many of the 11 ft (3.3 m) rods. The grip is a bit more aggressively shaped than most tenkara rods and is very comfortable. If the 22 ½ in (57 cm) collapsed length is not a deal breaker for you, this rod deserves serious consideration. .The Pro Spec 360 comes in both a 6:4 and a 7:3. Despite my comment that the ratios are not consistent, you can compare two rods of the same model. The 6:4 Pro Spec is a very soft rod. The 7:3 has quite a bit more backbone and would be suitable for larger fish. Still, if you will be catching 16 in - 20 in (41 cm - 51 cm) bruisers in larger rivers with fast currents you’d want a beefier rod.
Nissin Zerosum 320
The Zerosum 320 is the lightest true “tenkara” rod at this length, weighing in at only 2.1 oz (60 g). The light weight is unfortunately offset by a relatively long 22 1/8 in (56 cm) collapsed length. It is a very light, very responsive rod, though, and if you are fishing for relatively small fish in the headwaters, this is one to consider. Like the Pro Spec, the rod comes in 6:4 or 7:3. The 6:4 is a pretty soft rod. The 7:3 has more backbone but is not a big fish rod for large streams and fast currents.
Ruta Locura Clarkii
If you crossed a tenkara rod with a trekking pole, this is what you’d get. If you already had or wanted to have the Yana trekking pole (the trek- part of this trek-kara pole) or the Gossamer Gear LT4 pole, which can be used with an adapter, the Clarkii might make good sense. I say might because I do not have first-hand experience with it. The Clarkii rod (not counting the trekking pole) weighs only 1.3 oz (37 g) and collapses to 20 in (51 cm), though, which in and of itself makes the rod a contender. There are very few comments on the net about the Clarkii, and even fewer that compare it to a regular tenkara rod. That’s not much to go on. I really don’t know what to make of a Yamame / Yana hybrid. I suspect it might be a mule - strong but sterile.
The Shimano LLS33NB and LLS36NB are Shimano’s entry level rods. One generally thinks an “entry level” anything is likely to be a cheapened stripped down version of the real thing, but this Shimano is a very nice rod. It is light at just 2.3 oz (65 g), has a wonderful action - crisp and responsive, and collapses to a shorter length, 19 9/16 in (50 cm), than any of the tenkara rods other than the Daiwas. The Shimano NB is definitely worthy of serious consideration.
The LLS33NX and LLS36NX are Shimano’s premium rods. Shimano does make two high end “zoom” rods, the “main stream” ZE and “mountain stream” ZL, which like the Nissin Pro Spec can be fished at two different lengths, but neither one collapses to a short enough length to seriously consider as backpacking rods. The NX rods, though, at 2.3 oz (65 g) and 19 3/4 in (50 cm) collapsed, are very nice rods. Considering the quality of the rod, the weight and the collapsed length, they are probably the nicest tenkara rods for backpackers.
Shimotsuke Tenkara 3.3
The Tenkara 3.3 and 3.6 are starter rods from Shimotsuke, a rod company that is known in Japan but not well known here in the US. The rod is a good basic all around rod with a nice action. The rod is one of the more inexpensive rods with 2.6 oz (74 g) and 20 1/2 in (52 g) stats that are neither the best nor the worst. The rod is available separately or as part of a kit along with line, tippet, flies and a 0.7 oz (20 g) fly box.
Tenkara USA 11 ft Iwana
Unfortunately, this rod has been discontinued. In order to get an 11 ft (3.35 m) Iwana you will have to buy the 12 ft (3.65 m) Iwana and also buy a replacement grip that will convert it into the shorter rod. At 2.3 oz (65 g) the 11 ft (3.35 m) Iwana is the same weight as the Shimano rods but its collapsed length of 20 ½ in (52 cm) is a bit longer. The rod comes with a hard case, which you’ll probably never take with you because of the extra weight. It also comes with the strongest warranty and cheapest replacement parts so if you are going to break a tenkara rod, break this one.
Keiryu rods vary much more widely than tenkara rods, ranging from under 6.5 ft to 20 ft (2 m to over 6 m). In general they are stiffer than tenkara rods and have a nonskid finish right on the rod blank rather than a cork grip. Although they are used primarily for bait fishing in Japan, some of them cast a tenkara line quite nicely. Because they do tend to be stiffer than the most tenkara rods, they will do better with a heavier level line or a furled line.
Why choose a keiryu rod rather than the better known tenkara rod? Most of the rods I outline below collapse to a very compact length and will easily fit entirely within even a modest daypack. Most are also available in shorter lengths and the shorter the rod the less it weighs. If you will be fishing smaller headwaters streams, you may not need a longer rod, and you might very definitely appreciate a lighter rod. If you will be fishing with split shot or with weighted nymphs, you may also appreciate a keiryu rod’s relatively stiffer rod tip.
Daiwa Kiyose 33SF
Daiwa Kiyose 33SF excels at fishing weighted nymphs.
Just as the Hane was the first tenkara rod available in the US geared to backpackers, the Daiwa Kiyose SF was the first keiryu rod available in the US that appeals directly to backpackers. Like the Hane, it is a relatively stiff rod, perhaps a bit stiffer than you’d want or need for dry flies or unweighted wets, but it excels at fishing weighted nymphs. It can easily cast the heavier line you might want on windy high mountain lakes. It is just as good as the Hane at fishing with split shot or weighted nymphs but weighs less at 2.3 oz (65 g), packs smaller at 15 ½ in (39 cm), and will still slide into the shaft of your packraft paddle.
Shimano Kozuka 33NT
The Kozuka NT packs even smaller than the Kiyose at only 14 ° in (37 cm) when collapsed, and weighs the same at 2.3 oz (65 g). The tip cap has a clever built-in line holder so you don’t have to pack a separate tenkara line holder or pair of Fuji EZ Keepers. The rod is not quite as stiff as the Kiyose, making it a better choice for all around fishing. I think this is a nicer rod than the Kiyose and is a serious contender for the best backpacking rod.
Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 27
Although the Kiyotaki comes in the same 11 ft (3.3 m) length as the Kiyose and Kozuka rods, only shorter lengths are readily available in the US (longer ones can be ordered). The 9 ft (2.7 m) rod is short for a tenkara rod. The shorter length makes sense if you will be fishing small, brushy headwater streams or Eastern streams that have a low canopy of overhead branches. With this rod you do not get the casting distance you do with any of the other rods outlined here, but you do get a 1.5 oz (43 g) rod that packs down to just 15 ° in (39 cm) and can get your fly into some of the tighter places that other anglers can’t fish. Like the other keiryu rods, the Kiyotaki is a little stiffer than most tenkara rods. The rod is a bit heavier than the sieyru rods, but is capable of landing much larger fish.
Suntech Suikei 39 (stiff)
The Suntech Suikei is unique among the rods available in the US in that it is a three position zoom rod. The (stiff) notation is provided because it also comes in a softer version that is not currently available. It is designed to be fished at 10.5, 12, or 13 ft (3.2, 3.6, or 3.9 m). That provides extreme versatility in matching one rod to a wide variety of streams or mountain lakes. The cloud surrounding that silver lining is that the rod is heavier than most, is stiffer than most and is longer than most when collapsed, 2.8 oz (79 g) and 21 3/8 in (54 cm). The rod might be worth considering for its versatility, but it is not really what I think of as a backpacking rod. (I would consider a backpacking rod to be lightweight and a short collapsed length.)
Finally, we have the seiryu rods, which truly are specialty rods. They do not collapse to a short, convenient length, and they really are intended for relatively small fish. The only reason I’ve included them is that for the small wild trout you find in the headwaters, they are by far the most fun to fish with. Plus, of course, they weigh less than half what any of the tenkara rods weigh. If you want an ultralight fishing kit, and you will be backpacking to or through an area where the trout are generally just 7 in - 10 in (18 cm to 25 cm), and a 24 in (61 cm) collapsed length isn’t a deal breaker, they are worth considering.
A most memorable catch - 7 in fish.
The three rods I’ve listed here are really pretty similar. All are 9.5 ft (2.9 m) which is actually a reasonably good length for many of the willow choked small headwaters streams. All weigh just about one ounce. The biggest difference, other than the color of the paint, is the action. The Shimotsuke is a full flex rod, the Nissin is a mid flex and the Suntech is a tip flex. All are soft rods, though and all will do very well casting unweighted wets on a light line. I have fished small beadhead nymphs with them but they are better with standard wet flies. I really love these rods, but for backpacking I am a bit concerned about the 23 ½ in (60 cm) collapsed length. Depending on how much you are willing to sacrifice to save an ounce, you might find the length acceptable, and depending on how much you are willing to sacrifice to have an 8 in (20 cm) brookie give you a whale of a fight, nothing else might matter. One of the most memorable catches I’ve ever had was a 7 in (18 cm) fish on the very soft Shimotsuke “Just One the” Oikawa III - it wasn’t even a trout but boy did it fight. Fishing just doesn’t get much more ultralight than this.
Nissin Air Stage 290 23 5/8 in (60 cm) 0.8 oz (23 g)
Shimotsuke Oikawa III 290 23 5/8 in (60 cm) 0.9 oz (26 g)
Suntech Kurenai 30H 23 ½ (60 cm) 1.0 oz (28 g)
The Nissin Air Stage 290 is an incredibly light weight rod for small headwaters trout.
At-a-glance: State of the Market of Tenkara Rods
|Weight(oz)||Collapsed Length (in)||Action||Price*|
|Backpacking Light Hane||2.7||16||stiff||Discontinued|
|Daiwa NEO LT33SC||3.5||16 3/4||stiff||$195|
|Daiwa NEO LL32SC||2.8||16 7/16||soft||$195|
|Daiwa Enshou LT33SF||2.7||18||$300|
|Fountainhead Stone Fly 330||2.6||20 1/2||$75|
|Nissin Pro Spec 360||2.4||22 1/2||soft (6:4 rod)||$195|
|Nissin Zerosum 320||2.1||22 1/8||soft (6:4 rod)||$270|
|Ruta Locura Clarkii||1.3**||20||stiff||$87**|
|Shimano LLS33NB||2.3||19 9/16||$185|
|Shimano LLS33NX||2.3||19 3/4||$275|
|Shimotsuke Tenkara 3.3||2.6||20 1/2||$99|
|Tenkara USA 11' Iwana||2.3||20 1/2||$157.95 + $39.95***|
|Daiwa Kiyose 33SF||2.3||15 1/2||stiff||$145|
|Shimano Kozuka 33NT||2.3||14 1/4||stiff||$155|
|Shimotsuke Kiyotaki 27||1.5||15 1/4||$90|
|Suntech Suikei 39 (stiff)||2.8||21 3/8||stiff||$200|
|Nissin Air Stage 290||0.8||23 5/8||soft||$200|
|Shimotsuke Oikawa III 290||0.9||23 5/8||soft||$165|
|Suntech Kurenai 30H||1.0||23 1/2||soft||$215|