A Simplified Aesthetic for Small Mountain Streams: Best Tenkara Rods Reviewed

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Developed on the trout streams of inland Japan, tenkara fishing is gaining popularity in the West, especially among high-altitude backpackers and hikers. In part, this is due to the clean aesthetic and simplicity of tenkara: rod, line, and fly–the three components of fishing stripped of any excess.

But the rising profile of tenkara is also a result of the precision and excitement it offers small stream anglers. Imagine casting wet flies with laser-precision, pulling browns from a fast-moving current or tiny rainbows from the eddy behind a rock, and then tucking your rod away into your pack as you make your way downstream.

Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?

If that’s enough to entice you to try it, or if you dipped your toes in tenkara but were still waiting to take the plunge, we’d like to help. Below, you’ll find a brief guide to tenkara rods and reviews of some of the most select.

Heres a quick glance at some of the best and most respected tenkara rods:

We’d like to note that the rods listed above are what the experts use and they definitely aren’t cheap! If you’re a looking for something that won’t break the bank here are some budget picks:

Tenkara: A Very Brief Overview

Tenkara fishing developed over the last 200 years, paralleling Western fly fishing in many respects while differing in others. Whereas Western fly fishing relies on a reel and a more-or-less conventional rod, tenkara offers anglers a simpler, purer experience.

Flexible but firm, delicate but strong: tenkara rods are in many ways a marriage of opposites. And without reels, guides, or extraneous additions, they offer a more direct experience of the water and its fish.

Modern tenkara rods are one piece, forgoing ferrules for telescoping sections that allow them to collapse for easy transport and storage. Intended to cast weightless flies, their materials, designs, and details allow them reel-less performance that’s precise and perfectly measured for small streams.

One design difference that fly anglers will note immediately is the addition of a flexible fiber to the end of the tenkara rod. Called a “lillian”, this feature helps to increase casting distance by adding a bit more action to the end of the rod. Tenkara fishermen attach their main line to this lillian with a girth hitch or a variation of the double-loop slip knot, depending on which line choice they’ve made.

From there, it’s pretty much what you’d expect in fly line: a length of tippet tied to the main, and a wet fly at the business end.

Source: castingaround.anthonynaples.com

What You Should Consider When Selecting a Tenkara Rod

We’re not going to pretend to be tenkara experts, but we’ve researched these rods very, very carefully.

Line Choice and Weight

Two types of line are tied to tenkara rods: tapered, furled line and level line.

Tapered, furled line is, as its name suggests, tapered toward the fly. This allows more delicate casts and more subtle technique, and is the most common line you’ll find on a tenkara rod.

It’s attached to the lillian via a girth hitch. Here’s a great tutorial showing you just how this is done:

Level line is consistent in its diameter from head to foot. While not as delicate as its tapered alternatives, it does offer an advantage when casting into the wind.

Level line is attached to the lillian with a simple loop knot. Watch this video from the experts at Tenkara USA as they demonstrate the knot:

Much like standard fly fishing line, tenkara lines are measured in weights: #3, #3.5, #4, etc. The lower the number, the lighter the line, the more delicate the action, and the harder the cast!

Beginners should probably start with #4 or #5, while seasoned pros can throw #1.5 and #2 with startling accuracy and reach.

master casting demonstration

Handles

Tenkara rods usually feature either a dense EVA foam or high-quality cork. Some rods, however, use traditional wood as a handle material, huing closely to the old ways of making tenkara rods. That’s an unusual feature in modern rods.

  • Cork – Cork is warmer to the touch, and probably a bit more aesthetically pleasing. But EVA foam is easier to produce and probably a bit more durable.
  • EVA foam – Due to cork shortages, some Tenkara masters prefer to offer EVA foam on their rods, so the cork/foam distinction is most certainly not a marker of quality.
  • Wood – Woods like cedar and cypress are selected by designers looking to increase sensitivity and maximize tradition. It provides the firmest connection between an angler and his or her rod, but it can wear on the hand pretty quickly.

Tenkara handles are usually capacious, in part because they don’t need to make space for a reel seat. They can be subtly (or not so subtly) concave to improve grip, and a wide range of styles are available.

Length: Open and Closed

Tenkara rods collapse, and as they do, the smaller sections nest within the larger sections like matryoshka dolls. That yields closed lengths in the neighborhood of two feet or so, which allows them to be easily transported and stored.

Open, they range in lengths, with the shortest rod we review at 10’ 6” and the longest measuring a full 14’ 11”’. Generally speaking, longer rods will provide more loading during casting as a result of simple physics, but of course, action and power effect that quite a bit.

One thing is certain: longer rods are more likely to cause you trouble where space is tight. If you typically fish a stream with lots of trees and brush, consider what length you’ll need as you make your selection.

Weight

Tenkara rods are ridiculously light. “Heavy” rods, for instance, weigh in at a dainty 3 ounces or so!

But as any tenkara addict can attest, a rod’s absolute weight doesn’t tell the tale, and it’s only in hand that you’ll feel the skill of the designer. Some rods, like the Oni, fish lighter than their scale weights, and the only way to know what’s right for you is–unfortunately–to try a few.

Flex profile is “Tenkarese” for Action

Perhaps the most confusing aspect of evaluating a tenkara rod is understanding it’s “flex profile.” This is presented as a ratio: 8:2, 7:3, 6:4, or 5:5.

For Western anglers, the easiest way to grasp what these ratios mean is to think of them as descriptions of the rod’s action. The larger the first number, the faster the action of the rod. Conversely, the closer that ratio is to equal, the slower the action.

Together, those numbers tell you the point on the rod when the blank will begin to show its power, that is, just how much force it will take to bend the blank beyond the plaint section.

Check out this diagram to see what we’re talking about:

Source: tenkarausa.com

Obviously, a rod with a flex profile of 8:2 will start to bend very near the tip, but quickly reach a point on the rod where the backbone stiffens the action. That point can be found at roughly 20 percent of its length, measured from the tip.

That’s not a terribly transparent system, but it’s probably an improvement on what you’ll find on crappie rod. What is a light action? A medium-light action? And how much does that vary across brands? If you own a few rods, you know exactly what we mean!

That said, tenkara experts are looking for a better way to describe a rod’s action, and one tentative approach is the “common cents” system.

The idea is to measure how many post-1996 pennies it takes to “deflect” or bend a rod by ⅓ of its length. So in the case of a 12’ rod, the question is how many pennies suspended from the tip will bend the rod tip downward by 4’.

The idea is to measure not just the tip, but the backbone as well, providing a standard metric by which to judge a tenkara rod’s action and power.

For a quick overview of these terms, watch this video:

Best Tenkara Rod Reviews

Team Oni USA Oni Type I

Length: 13’/ 24 ⅜”

Segments: 8

Weight: 3.1 ounces

Flex profile: 6:4

Handle: 11 ¾”EVA foam

More than one tenkara expert thinks the Oni Type I is the finest rod in the world. That’s saying something given its competition, and if you’re looking for the best, this is a very good place to start.

Designed by master Masami Sakakibara, the Oni Type I is intended for experienced tenkara anglers due to the light lines it’s intended to cast. Less experienced fishermen will probably struggle with the technique needed, unless they run #4 or #5. Though the Oni will undoubtedly handle these weights with aplomb, #1.5, #2, #2.5, and #3 are where this rod will show its true brilliance.

Its firm foam handle is subtly concave about ⅓ from the top, creating the shape for a perfect grip during casting. And though the Oni isn’t a lightweight, anglers who’ve used one report that it feels incredibly light in the hand while fishing, belying its 3.1 ounce scale weight. That’s because of its center of gravity, which you’ll find pleasant under your hand.

The Oni Type I sports a sensitive tip, easily loading and unloading while casting or when taking the strain of a fish. The common cents system rates this rod at 13 pennies, putting it close to the line dividing tenkara from seiryu, meaning that the Oni is eager to bow. That doesn’t imply weakness, however. Expect to find the rod’s true backbone about 3’ from the tip, where the power of this rod will take hold, allowing you to muscle 18” to 20” trout into your net.

Subtle, strong, delicate, and powerful: the Oni Type I is the epitome of no-nonsense excellence and somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

Tenkara Tanuki 325: The Snow

Length: 10’8”/ 23”

Segments: 7

Weight: 1.9 ounces

Flex profile: n/a

Handle: 9 ½” EVA foam

When you consider Tenkara Tanuki’s The Snow, think “surprising power.”

The Snow uses the same excellent blanks as the standard 325, and they’re limber at the tip, remaining sensitive and willowy until about 40 percent of the rod’s length. At that point, the rod’s backbone will become more noticeable, growing stronger still over the next foot or so. In practice, this means that although the rod will flex easily under load, its strength will be evident as you push it toward its limits. Indeed, the Snow’s blanks will let you cast very light lines with more skill than you think you have, while still allowing you to muscle a big trout from behind a rock.

Anglers report immediate improvements to their casting accuracy with this excellent rod, and from the subtly contoured foam handle to the delicate final segments of The Snow’s predominantly white blank, you can tell this rod is designed to inspire confidence.

Designed to cast a dry fly, this is a light rod for small fish. Keep in mind, this rod weighs in at just 1.9 ounces, and anything much over the length of your hand will feel like a monster!

Tenkara Tanuki recommends fluorocarbon line weights between #2.5 and #3.5, but until you’ve got a few seasons of casting under your belt, we recommend you stick to the heavier weights.

field test

Tenkara USA Sato

Length: 10’8”, 11’10”, 12’9”/ 22 3/4”

Segments: 9

Weight: 2.6 ounces

Flex profile: 6:4

Handle: 10 ½” cork

Tenkara USA’s Sato, while not unique in the world of tenkara, is notable for its exacting design and quality construction. Essentially three rods in one, the Sato, like its smaller sibling, the Rhodo, “zooms” to one of three lengths: 10’ 8”, 11’ 10”, and 12’ 9”.

At first blush, that may strike you as an unnecessary bit of fluff, flying in the face of tenkara’s simple aesthetic. But reconsider: if you regularly fish different parts of a stream–and who doesn’t–you may spend a few hours where the vegetation demands a short rod, only to move later to a wide pool.

The Sato accommodates both conditions with ease, relieving anglers of the need to carry more than one rod. In that sense, this zooming masterpiece is simplicity itself.

Tenkara USA has managed a feat of engineering that users say is hard to imagine. As you lengthen the Sato, it just gets longer–the feel remains virtually the same.

The Sato’s action is best described as a 6:4, and you’ll find that backbone stronger as you lengthen this rod, though it will continue to flex to the same degree. Common cents testing reveals that this rod is rated at 19 pennies, 20 pennies, and 21 pennies as you move from shortest to longest zoom positions.

Casting is excellent, even surprisingly so, and the Sato is intended to cast very light lines. Think #2, #2.5, and #3, and perhaps even lighter in the hands of a true master. This performance is facilitated by a noticeably contoured cork handle, lending the Sato a nearly identical appearance to the Nissin Zerosum.

In short, the Sato is an excellent, versatile rod and an awesome choice for tenkara anglers looking to fish with a minimum of equipment.

field test

Nissin Air Stage Fujiryu Tenkara

Length: 10’10”, 10’11”, 12’3”, 13’7”/ 22 ⅜”, 22 ⅝” (410 Air Stage 6:4)

Segments: 8, 9, 10

Weight: 2.5, 2.6, 2.7, 2.9, 3.2 ounces

Flex profile: 5:5, 6:4

Handle: cypress

Nissin’s Air Stage Fujiryu is the rod to look to for a nod to tradition. Unlike its competitors here, the Air Stage offers a cypress handle, eschewing cork or foam. That has advantages and disadvantages, as we’ll discuss below, but there’s no questioning the performance of this rod for small trout in high gradient streams.

Different models of Air Stage are available, each having two choices of action: 5:5 or 6:4.

The 330 is offered in 10’ 10” and 10’ 11” lengths, with the shorter boasting a 5:5 action, a collapsed length of 22 ⅜”, and a weight of 2.6 ounces. The longer 330 is of course 6:4, and just slightly lighter.

Nissin offers the 360 in a single 12’3” length, in either 5:5 or 6:4, with a 22 ⅜” collapsed length and scale weights of 2.7 (5:5) and 2.9 (6:4) ounces, respectively. Finally, the 410 features a 13’ 7” length, identical 3.2 ounce weights, and a collapsed length of 22 ⅜” for the 6:4, while the 5:5 is just a tad longer at 22 ⅝”.

Let’s discuss the Air Stage’s action in a bit more detail. Obviously, you’d expect different performance from a 5:5 and a 6:4, even in identical lengths. But as you step up in length, you step up in power, too, and the blank is noticeably stronger as you move from the 360 to the 410.

For instance, on the common cents scale, the 360 in 5:5 earns a rating of 12.5 pennies. But the 410 in 6:4 takes 26 pennies to bend to the same degree. Without fishing each and every model, it’s impossible to make fine distinctions. But what’s obvious is that in the shorter offerings, this is an excellent rod for small trout. In its longer variants, especially in faster actions, the Nissin Air Stage can handle some real brutes.

Casting is excellent, as you’d expect. The wood handle transfers feel more directly than foam or cork, and there’s no question that this improves sensitivity from cast to catch. But it’s also less forgiving on white-knuckled grips, and if you’re accustomed to more pliable materials, expect a hot spot or two.

All models of the Air Stage can cast light line in the hands of a skilled angler, but it’s also a dream with #3.5 or slightly heavier level lines, too.

Nissin’s Air Stage is a hard rod to beat, especially if you prefer the tradition of wood handles.

field test

Nissin Zerosum

Length: see below/ 22 ⅛”

Segments: 7, 8, 9, 10

Weight: see below

Flex profile: 6:4, 7:3

Handle: cork

Nissin’s Zerosum offers the quality, feel, precision, and strength that define excellence in tenkara. That may sound like hyperbole, but it really isn’t. Indeed, though Tenkara USA’s Sato looks like a Zerosum, ounce for ounce and inch for inch, the Zerosum is dominantly superior in every respect, with the exception being versatility, of course.

Like Nissin’s Air Stage, the Zerosum is offered in a variety of models. Four lengths are available, the model numbers of which correspond (roughly) to their length in centimeters: the 320, 360, 400, and 450. Each model is offered in your choice of 6:4 or 7:3, yielding a wide range of options.

The best way to communicate this is with charts, borrowed from Chris Stewart at Tenkara Bum

6:4:

Model Length Sections Collapsed Weight Pennies
320 10’6″ 7 22 1/8″ 1.9 12
360 11’11” 8 22 1/8″ 2.1 14
400 13’5″ 9 22 1/8″ 2.6 15.5
450 15’0″ 10 22 1/8″ 3.1 16

7:3:

Model Extended Sections Collapsed Weight Pennies
320 10’6″ 7 22 1/8″ 2.0 16
360 11’11” 8 22 1/8″ 2.3 18
400 13’5″ 9 22 1/8″ 2.8 20
450 14’11” 10 22 1/8″ 3.7 22

Table source: tenkarabum.com/nissin-zerosum-tenkara-rods.html

As you can see, with the exception of collapsed length, the Zerosum offers plenty of variation in length, action, and weight.

Let’s talk about that in depth.

Rather than breaking this down by model number, I think the best way to approach understanding the Zerosum is by differentiation through action.

The 7:3 rods have a slower action than its rating would suggest, bringing it closer to what you’d expect from a 6:4. When loading and unloading during casting, this improves performance with very light lines, while still providing plenty of control when a fish is on. And as is obvious from their common cents ratings, the 7:3s offer quite a bit more backbone than the 6:4s. We might even go as far as to say that the 7:3s are really just more powerful 6:4s, meaning that when the backbone starts to show its strength, it has more to offer than it does on the slower rods.

In that sense, then, you could say that any of the Zerosums in 7:3 are really a different rod from their 6:4 brethren.

By contrast, the 6:4s offer a wonderfully pliant action. The 360, in particular, stands out as perhaps the best all-arounder in tenkara, a closer rival to even the awesome Oni Type I. That’s because it offers tremendous sensitivity, incredible strength, and near-perfect balance, making it very close to ideal when casting or fighting. Where the canopy is clear, or the stream a bit broader, the 400 comes into its own, providing what the 360 brings to the table with a touch more reach.

We’d say the 360 and 400 hit the sweet spot with the Zerosum, especially in 6:4. That said, Sakakibara chose a Zerosum 320 in 7:3, and who are we to question his insight? Our guess: he likes to cast very, very light line, and the 7:3 is going to help him do just that.

Indeed, the 7:3s handle #3 level beautifully, and they can work wonders with a weighted fly as well. They’ll show their true colors in the hands of a master when casting #2 or even #1.5. But they will require a bit more oomph to load, so be aware of that as you make your decision.

Whatever your choice, the already minuscule weight of these rods just disappears in your hand!

field test

Shimano Honryu Tenkara 44 NP

Length: approx. 14’5”/ 39.5”

Segments: 5

Weight: 2.96

Flex profile: 6:4

Handle: 11.8” EVA foam with cork details

Shimano is a name associated with quality in the fishing world, and its products are no stranger to the American market. Their Honryu Tenkara is the longest rod on our list, and Shimano designates it a “mainstream” model. For the uninitiated, this means larger water and bigger fish, not mass production!

Overall build and component quality is excellent, as you would expect. From the contoured handle to the delicate lillian, everything is as it should be. And when you pick this rod up, you’ll know it means business right away.

But if you were expecting a brute, you’ll be surprised. Measured at 15 (or perhaps 16.5, depending on who you ask) pennies, the Shimano Honryu Tenkara 44 NP is happy to bend quickly under strain, and it will also load and unload beautifully when casting. Designed to throw level line, it will take some getting used to if you’re accustomed to shorter rods, as the casting action of this rod is slow and measured.

Heavier level line will help avoid problems in turnover, and Shimano recommends #3 and #4. Anglers who’ve tried this rod agree, and by all accounts, it casts with tremendous precision and grace.

Shimano claims the Honryu Tenkara 44 NP sports a 6:4 flex profile, but this rod feels more full-flex than that in the hand. It’s fair to say that when casting or controlling a fish, it will feel more like a 5:5. But like the Oni Type I, the Shimano offers anglers a surprising backbone when forced through its paces by a large trout. It may bend easily, but that willowy curve provides more than enough power to fight trout of several pounds.

Shimano’s Honryu Tenkara 44 NP is an outstanding rod for anglers who need a bit more length or power, but who still want a delicate, supple action. As with all rods of this length, however, expect the tip to feel a touch heavy.

Is that a deal breaker? Only you can tell!

Discover Tenkara Karasu 360 and 400

Length: 11”10, 13’1”/ 22”

Segments: 8, 9

Weight: 3, 3.4 ounces

Flex profile: 6:4

Handle: 11.8” EVA foam with cork details

Discover Tenkara’s Karasu 360 and 400 are the brainchildren of two anglers from the UK, Paul Gaskell and John Pearson. They wanted to design and manufacture the best tenkara rods available, and established masters like Kazumi Saigo think they’ve succeeded. That’s powerful praise, and if you’re looking for a top-end tenkara rod, the Karasus certainly delivers.

The Karasu is offered in two lengths, 360 cm and 400 cm, and neither can be called a lightweight. But it’s impossible to judge a rod with a scale, and its feel–rather than absolute weight–is what matters. In the hand, both Karasu rods virtually disappear, as their center of gravity is firmly in the grip. That leads to effortless, beautiful casts, as we’ll discuss in a moment.

The blank is the heart of any rod, and in the Karasus, they’re a study in productive contradictions. They offer a delicate, sensitive tip that bends easily, while still controlling wobble and kickback. And when the backbone begins to show its power, it does so progressively, but with gentle authority.

That may sound imprecise, but by that we mean that this rod feels more powerful than it is, inspiring confidence when fighting a large trout while still allowing you to cast the lightest lines your skill allows. In most rods, that involves a distinct trade-off: supple enough to cast #2 often means too soft to ensure good hooksets. But not with the Karasu!

Indeed, casting with Karusus is by all accounts among the very best in the tenkara world. And at 18 and 21 pennies, respectively, either length provides more than enough backbone and finesse for dry or wet flies, weighted or unweighted, and all but the largest trout.

But here’s the rub: Kazumi Saigo chose the 360, rather than the 400, and we can guess at his reasons. While both rods are well balanced, 4 meters of gradually tapering carbon fiber is going to feel tip heavy, whatever the design. And like the otherwise awesome Shimano Honryu Tenkara 44 NP, that may constitute a deal breaker for some anglers.

field test

Final Thoughts

The rods we’ve reviewed are the elite, the very best of the best. There are others that could make our list, too, like the excellent Suntech TenkaraBum 36, a capable alternative to the Discover Tenkara Karasu 360. But we had to draw a line somewhere, and only the most select of the select made our list.

As to the “best” tenkara rod, if we had to pick one, it would probably be the Oni Type I; it’s almost universally adored. But in all truth, any of these rods will be among the best you’ve ever fished, and all of them will put a smile on your face with the first cast. And “best” varies so much from angler to angler and condition to condition that it would be disingenuous to make that call.

Do you prefer a longer rod with a faster action? A full-flex rod that offers a soft feel until the backbone becomes rigid? A traditional wooden handle? The flexibility of a three-position zoom?

A rod you can replace easily if you damage it?

Only you can answer these questions, but selecting from this list is a good place to start.

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