Tenkara Rod – Origin Stories

SunsetIf I could pick one word to describe Tenkara it would be “tradition”. The tradition that surrounds tenkara is palpable. When you pick up your first Tenkara rod you will feel like you were just adopted into a community that’s hundreds of years old. I want to build on this feeling by elaborating on the history of the tenkara rod. By the end of this article, you will understand where tenkara came from and how it started along with how it came to America. I hope that this knowledge will help you feel even more connected with the sport and the culture.

Where Did It All Begin?

To fully comprehend the true age of the tenkara rod, I want to point out that the first car was invented in 1886, or 135 years ago! Going back a little further, American won its independence in 1776, or 245 years ago. That seems like a long time ago, but tenkara rods have been around for almost twice as long as America!

Over 400 years ago, in the high mountains of Japan, early commercial anglers would spend their days hiking through mountain streams catching Yamame, Iwana, and Amago fish on the tenkara rod. This was their lively hood! Their fly patterns were very simple, following the tradition of their rods, which were originally made from long bamboo trees. The tenkara rods would vary in length but commonly were 11-15 feet in length.

furled line

Traditionally, the unsplit bamboo rod had a line, made of horsehair, approximately the same length as the rod which was attached to a simple fly. Now, it is common to use a tapered furled line attached to about 1-3 feet of tippet (monofilament) or a level line (fluorocarbon). Rods are no longer made of bamboo but are commonly made from composites like graphite or fiberglass.

Why Tenkara?

Fishing was what these Japanese anglers relied on to provide food for their family. Because of this, it’s no surprise they would find the most effective way to catch fish. Tenkara was discovered to be the best way to catch fish on small mountain streams for a few reasons. It proved to be so effective because of its simplicity, low cost, and accuracy.tenkara rod


As far as fishing goes, it doesn’t get more simple than a rod, line, and fly. Hundreds of years ago, when this style of fishing was just beginning, they used long rods from bamboo. Bamboo grows locally, making it easy to source new rods. Because they could make their own rods quickly and, in many cases, for free it made sense to fish with them.

As the method of fishing progressed rods were made of different sections so that you could easily store and transport them. Today they come in many sections and are telescopic. While you now have to purchase your tenkara rods as opposed to making them, they are very affordable when compared to western-style fly rods. If you have $200, you can get a nice tenkara rod. The line is about $15-$20 as opposed to the western-style line which can cost upwards of ten times as much. On top of that, you can keep a few different kinds of tenkara lines and easily switch between the two. This is not as easy with western fly fishing.

After seeing how affordable and simple tenkara is, it’s no wonder the early Japanese used this method. In addition to these reasons, tenkara offers a very accurate way of casting, making sight fishing very easy. You may have to be a little more careful not to spook the fish since your line is shorter but typically you’ll be fishing on small streams anyway.

The Kebari Fly

Western fly fishing is known for the abundance of fly patterns ranging from hoppers to mice. You may think that tenkara is the same way but it’s a little different. While you technically can tie any type of fly on your tenkara, it is known for a specific style of fly. The kebari fly.Tenkara Rod

The kebari fly, a wet fly whose name literally means feathered or haired hook, is very simple in design. Are you seeing a trend yet? The early tenkara anglers earned their living by selling the fish they caught. Because of this, they didn’t want to spend hours and hours tying complicated flies. Instead, they generally used simple variations of a kebari fly. This fly usually has a thin thread body with a reverse hackle about 1/3 of the way down the shank.

Even though this is a very simple fly it is extremely effective. I personally have caught more fish on this style of fly than any other. If you can tie flies, I would recommend tying up a few of these. if not, go to DRAGONtail Tenkara and pick some up.

When Did Tenkara Come to America?

While tenkara as a whole is very old, tenkara in the US is very new. It wasn’t until 2009 that you could buy tenkara rods from an American company. This company is Tenkara USA, which was founded by Daniel Galhardo. Daniel is a fly angler whose wife is a Japanese- American woman. In 2008 they went on a trip to visit Japan. While in Japan, Daniel visited local fishing shops and discovered a tenkara rod, which he purchased.

Tenkara Rod

Upon arriving back in the states he realized the beauty of the tenkara style and knew he needed to share his discovery. In 2009 he founded Tenkara USA which is based out of Boulder Colorado. Since then the sport has exploded in America. It has become a great way for people to learn how to fly fish or expand their skillset if already familiar with western-style fly fishing.

Currently, there are three big companies for tenkara in America which include, Tenkara USA, Tenkara Rod Co, and DRAGONtail Tenkara. All of these companies make beautiful Japanese-styled tenkara rods. You can purchase a rod from these companies starting at just under $100, and going up to about $300. If you’re curious about getting into tenkara, go check out my article “Tenkara Fly Fishing – A More Affordable Option”. There you will find a list of tenkara rods for sale.

What Does This Mean?

Western fly fishing has been a favorite here in America for years and it will continue to be a favorite for years to come. With that being said, tenkara is an amazing addition to the sport and will provide an opportunity for those that want to fly fish but either can’t afford it or want to do something a little different. This style will offer more versatility on high mountain streams and backpacking trips. All in all, tenkara style fly fishing is relatively new to America, it’s here to stay, and I’m excited about that!

If you still have questions concerning tenkara or want me to write more about tenkara please reach out! I would be more than happy to answer any questions or expand on something I might have said!

Also, If you are interested in getting into tenkara, I’ve written reviews on the DRAGONtail Shadowfire 365 as well as the Goture Tenkara 360. Feel free to check them out!

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