Monday, August 6, 2012

The Ultralight Championship

(Insert Eye of the Tiger here....)

Well, here it is at last. (Long last, I know....) Tenkara pitted against a 2wt. They go blow for blow to finally put to rest the speculation on which is the Ultimate in Fly Fishing. Can Western Fly Fishing stay on top, or will it be trumped by this millenia-old new comer?

The Tenkara rod used for this is the Fountainhead 11' Caddis rod with a furled thread leader. I will admit now that I really like this rod. So much that I haven't yet felt the need to "upgrade" to a TenkaraUSA rod. Sorry Daniel-san (I wonder how often he hears that one....?) If you want a bit of a comparison between the Caddis and the TenkaraUSA Iwana, Troutrageous! did a great one here.

The 2wt Western Fly Rod in question is the Cabela's LST matched with an Allen trout reel. The LST is  a great rod that, in Cabela's infinite wisdom, decided to discontinue.

So you might be asking why I'm not comparing an Orvis Helios and a TenkaraUSA, as they are arguably the best rods in the 2wt and Tenkara markets respectively. Well, I don't own them and I am not dropping $1000 for a blog post.

Also, I am not comparing rods so much as the fishing styles and techniques that go with them. So the rod choice will be mostly moot(but I will comment on them from time to time.)

Stereotypical Eastern Small Stream. 
Also a quick note on location: I'm in Eastern PA. Our small streams are bigger than those out West consider "small streams." We also have thicker vegetation, both overhead and on the side. These are obstacles that many Western anglers either don't have, or don't have as much of. Please be aware that these obstacles will come into play. If any of my Western friends would like to fly me out and put me up for a week or two while I do this again in your environment, please feel free.... It would only be fair to the competition, after all.

The Breakdown

This will have several categories:

  • Portability
  • Accuracy
  • Sensitivity
  • Fish Handling
  • Versatility
Each will be discussed at length and both rods will be scored on a scale of one through ten. Simple enough, right? And now, to the main event.......


This is the simplest to do, so let's get this out of the way. 

Broken down to it's bare essentials, the Tenkara fisherman will have a telescoping rod that contracts down to approx 12" in length, a leader (either on a leader holder or as I do attached to the rod and wrapped around the handle) a tippet spool and let's say a small box of flies. You can tuck the rod through your belt and put everything else in one pocket of a pair of cargo shorts. 

For the Western Fly angler, you will have a rod, a reel, tippet, and a small box of flies(but really, who only carries one small box? But I digress....)

This is about as open as she gets.
The fly box and tippet will fit into your pocket. Maybe even the reel, depending on the size. But most Fly rods only break down in 2-4 pieces. The LST broke down into 2. So my options were to keep it in the rod tube and sling it over my shoulder, or take it out and carry it. Both are somewhat inconvenient, especially compared to the telescoping Tenkara rod. 

Western Fly: 6
Tenkara: 10 - WINNER


For accuracy I tried several casts with each rod, which I will score independently and then combine for a final score. 

For each rod I used three casts:
  • Standard Cast
  • Roll Cast
  • Bow and Arrow Cast

Standard Cast

10 and 2. Ticking metronome. This is the meat a potatoes of any style of fly fishing. 

With the LST I was casting to targets up to 30' away and was getting with-in the ol' Hula Hoop sized area. The closer the target the better the accuracy, but only marginally. I was hitting in general where I wanted to and I was catching fish. Presentation was good with only minimal disturbances of the water. 

When I switched to the Tenkara rod the stroke was the same (except for slightly different timing) but accuracy improved. Instead of Hula Hoops I was hitting dinner plates.  And catching fish. Presentation was noticeably better with the Tenkara rod then in the LST, sometimes not even a small ripple.

Western Fly: 7
Tenkara: 9

Roll Cast

Roll Cast a Tenkara Rod?!? You bet.... but it's more of a modified roll cast. The motion is the same but instead of casting out into the water, you cast parallel with the bank. Imagine the mechanics of a roll cast but at 90 degrees from your body, and you'll have the idea. It works Okay once you get the hang of it. 

That being said, the target has to be fairly close to the bank and defeats the purpose of the roll cast in most situations. This would only be necessary if you had obstacles to your casting side and the stream was very narrow.

You can do a traditional roll cast with the Tenkara, but you would either need a leader as long as most Western fly rods would cast out (30-40') or to shorten the rod by several feet, making the cast awkward to say the least. 

The LST laid down the roll cast like it was supposed to. 

I caught fish on both these methods, but the LST's roll cast was, unsurprisingly, more fluid and more versatile to what I needed. 

Western Fly: 9
Tenkara: 5

Bow and Arrow

This is the recommended close quarter cast for the Tenkara rod. That being said, I did run into an unforseen difficulty using the Tenkara rod for this cast.

My Tenkara leader is slightly longer than my rod, 13'. This helps with some of the wider small streams we have here. Add 3' of tippet and from tip to fly is 16'. 

To perform a bow and arrow cast, you should take the fly in your hand, pull it back so that the rod bends and "shoot" your fly to the target. But if the leader is longer than the rod...... you see the dilemma.

I had to hold the leader to shoot the fly. This caused, about 50% of the time, a bit of a tangle in the line. With some modifications, such as decreasing the bend in the rod and making sure the I held the leader by the smallest fraction of my finger tips, I was able to successfully cast this about 85% of the time.

In this regard the LST had an advantage over the Tenkara. To much line? That's what the reel is for. There was always the perfect amount of line. One set back was the cast range. 7.5' rod and 7.5' of line = a 15 foot cast. I did figure out a way to hold a little more slack line off between the reel and the first guide and with a bit of timing you can let go of the fly, then the slack line and shoot out another foot or two of line to increase your range to almost 20'.

Comments: If I had the proper length of leader for the Tenkara rod, the bow and arrow cast would have been spot on. That being said, given that both rods had some issue with this cast as I was performing them, the Western Fly rod more easily overcame the issues that I was presented with at the time and with the gear on me. Tenkara is supposed to be simpler, I don't want to have to carry 4 different leaders with  me.  And on the water, that is what is most important, overcoming the obstacles to get to the fish.

Wetern Fly: 8
Tenkara: 7

Total Points:
Western Fly: 24-WINNER
Tenkara: 21


Here is where the Tenkara rod starts to really shine. With the LST I can feel some of the harder strikes but but found myself relying quite a bit on visuals to detect a strike. With the Tenkara rod I could feel the current of the water, the fly ticking off of the bottom in ways that really impressed me. 

That being said I also fished both rods with an indicator. The indicator helped me detect strikes that I did not feel through either rod. So while the sensitivity of the Tenkara rod is vastly superior, it's not perfect. 

**Score also reflects sensitivity to fight fish, as outlined in next section. 

Western Fly: 5
Tenkara: 9-WINNER

Fish Handling

Both rods do a great job of catching smaller fish, playing fish and quickly bringing fish to hand. With an average size panfish or trout, neither of these rods had a clear advantage. It was time to up the ante. 

I would have like to catch a comparable fish on both rods. Same species and approximately the same size. Unfortunately that didn't happen. What I did do was catch a 12" Brownie on the Tenkara rod and a 21" Bass on the LST, both of which I've put in previous posts. Both are very decent sized fish for this area. Since this is what I have to work with......

I've been dancing with
Mr. Brownstone
The Brown on Tenkara: I felt the fight with this one the way Evander Holyfield felt Mike Tyson's need for a snack. Every pulse of the fish I felt clearly through the rod. Exhilarating! But there were times when I wasn't very confident that I could control the fish. If the fish swam downstream and I tried to turn it upstream, the rod didn't feel like it had the backbone to really turn the fish. As a result the fish dictated the fight more than I would have liked. I landed him at an opportune time when the fish swam towards the bank, not when I directed the fish towards me. 

A quick kick in the bass
The Bass on the LST: I had this one bass on twice. Both times I found this fish the rod showed that it did indeed have the backbone to move this fish where I wanted it. I was able to fight it as long as I wanted to and able to bring it to hand when I dictate. 

These findings do not only have to do with the rod but also to the ability to bring in, or feed the line to the fish during the fight. When the Tenkara line is taut and the fish is pulling at the very end of the line, you can't help but wonder if your tippet/knot is really strong enough to keep a larger fish on the end. With a Western Fly rod/reel that's not as much an issue. 

But the rod lacked a certain sensitivity that allowed me to feel the fight the same way the Tenkara rod did. My adrenaline rush was more the size of the fish compared to the rod than feeling the fight in the rod. 

**Sensitivity score has been modified to reflect the findings in this section. Points based solely on rod's ability to fight the fish. 

Western Fly: 9
Tenkara: 7


This category will be the hardest to judge. It's taking these rods and pushing them outside their comfort zone.   Both of these rods are very lightweight and as a result they are very prone to the situations that they are in.

We're changing that. It's casting streamers. Casting with strong gusts of winds. Fishing at lakes. Fishing where and when you shouldn't be with these types of rods.


No matter what, wind sucks when you're fly fishing. The line has a mind of it's own and getting the fly in the pocket is like playing blind-folded drunken pool. So I took these rods out on a few occasions where the winds were picking up, just prior to storms and such.

The LST performed Okay. I was able to control the line during some stiff breezes with a double haul, but all levels of breeze affected line control while in the air. Once the line was in the water it was business as usual.

The Tenkara performed rather interestingly. Some minor winds did not effect the casting at all. My theory is that the line has so small of a profile that it was almost aerodynamic. With an increase of wind the line started to have issues. But without the ability to double haul, there was no way to correct these so the rod performed poorer in better conditions as compared to the LST.

Another issue that the Tenkara rod had, which took me completely by surprise, was the creation of drag during windy situations. I was fishing a stream and I was able to cast fairly well with the mild breeze that was blowing. I was fishing a nymph subsurface. The nymph would be dead drifting drag free. But then the wind would pick up slightly and the line would be pushed by the wind, creating an obvious drag. The fly would shoot through the water! I did not have this issue casting drys; I think that the water on the line created just enough resistance to the wind that it was able to hold the line taunt and blow it. Bizarre....

Western Fly: 7
Tenkara: 5


It goes without saying that these are not the rods that you want to be throwing big streamers around with. But should the fishing situation call for it, the Tenkara rod's casting goes off course far before the LST rod began too. The LST had fairly good control over all of the streamers that I've tried, even the ones that I thought would give it issue.

Western Fly: 8
Tenkara: 6


Just like throwing streamers, these are not the ideal rods of choice for fishing lakes. Both fly selection and range of casting is limited.

But the surprising advantage went to the Tenkara rod. While the LST does have a longer casting range, the Tenkara showed the ability to place a fly in the tiniest spots between the lily pads, showing superiority in a very technically challenging fishing situation.

Western Fly: 6
Tenkara: 8


So how does the scoring finally work out??? Well, here it is:

Western Fly: 65
Tenkara: 66

Tenkara by a point!!!!

Western Fly rods are great at being able to handle a vast array of situations that are thrown at them. And that's only natural. I think most civilizations had some form of Tenkara/cane pole fishing and eventually advanced technology to allow the fisherman to reach fish farther and deep away. Hence the invent of more advanced rods and even simple reels. It's simple evolution.

What I think sets Tenkara apart is that it does a limited number of things, but it does them exceptionally well. Yes, you are limited to your range and the wind will screw up your line easier, but these are offset by more precise casting and more sensitivity. Under the right circumstances, this will help the Tenkara angler out fish a similarly competent Western Fly angler.

So while I'm not going to run off to eBay to hack all my Western rods and reels quite yet, I think that Tenkara shouldn't be so easily dismissed as many fly pro's and bloggers would like.

Now here's my disclaimer: I attempted to be as objective in this as possible. This whole "contest" began because I contemplated getting rid of the 2wt in favor of the Tenkara rod as an ultralight rig. BUT.... as I was testing/writing this and doing the scoring, I honestly thought that the 2wt was going to not only win, but score significantly higher than the Tenkara. Wrong! When I added up the final scores, I was quite surprised.

So here it is. This is my opinion; some will agree and some will disagree. If you don't like it, feel free to write your own damn post.  :-)

Tight lines!!


  1. Many thanks for this - I have been thinking about Tenkara a lot of late and part of me wants to dismiss it as a fad.


    1. Your welcome, and thanks for stopping by. I think that it's popularity may taper off eventually, but I can't foresee it disappearing completely in the immediate future. I think of it more as an underground movement than a fad. Fads die off, movement's become mainstream for a while, then go back underground.

  2. I would suggest that a better comparison would have been to use a current generation 2 wt. GLASS rod. You could have had Cameron (The Fiberglass Manifesto) send you a loaner for the comparison test. The end result would have been superior accuracy and sensitivity. The Tenkara rod would not have been able to keep pace as a result. Current graphite rods are no better than tomato pool cues with line and reel attached. I'm just sayin'...

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I agree to a point, but my purpose was more to evaluate the techniques of the different styles of fishing more than the actual rods themselves, since very few fisherman would own the exact two rods that I would use, regardless of what I used.