Tenkara vs Butterstick Showdown - What is Tenkara?

August 19, 2014

Hopefully this article will either help you get rid of your Tenkara-phobia, a common ailment of long time fly fisherman, or perhaps bring you back down to earth if you are "Tenkara-self-righteous".  I must say those of you that love it.... LOVE IT.  I picked up a little Tenkara outfit recently and was very excited to get out and use it. I got it with my kids in mind, but if I am being honest I was just really excited to use it myself. Boys and their damn toys.  I have done more small stream fishing this year than ever before.  I really believe that when people have the right gear they actually go fishing.  For me, it is very true.  I happened to get a new Redington Butterstick this year and a new Tenkara Rod.  What happened?  More creek fishing.  Anyway, that is enough rambling keep reading so you can learn what Tenkara is.Recently a few of use went out for an all day ?creekin? trip and we joking called it the Butterstick vs. Tenkara Showdown. The Redington Butterstick is a traditional style throwback rod to the 1970?s with its fiberglass chassis and deep bending action. It has really taken the fly fishing contingency by storm with its ?back to the ol? days? look and style. A bunch of us guides have these bright yellow rods and love our Buttersticks. The new rod on the block for the day is one that none of had much time on. It is a Tenkara style rod, that I was personally fishing, and the smack talk started immediately before our feet were even wet! And so began the Butterstick vs. Tenkara showdown!

To explain, Tenkara is basically using a fly rod that is just that a ?rod?. No reel is used, the line connected to the end of the rod for a direct connection between you and the fish. Line lengths can vary quite a bit, but this is new to you plan to picture or start fishing with a length of fly line shorter than the rod. You can use a simple piece of fly line, even old fly line, attached to the end with a simply overhand knot, super easy, and a leader. The set-up is very simple.

How do you fight a fish on Tenkara?

That is a good question!  You can't reel, you can't strip line.  For me, I had only planned to use mine for small stream fishing and small trout where you can simply hand line them in so it is pretty simply.  I?ll try to post a video of me landing a small trout on about 12-15? of total line (including leader) and you can see it live. It is easy. In the event you get a very large fish you might need to get creative. With reasonable sized trout, say up to 13? you can hook them, play them, and simply grab the line after a few moments of action.

Why would you NOT want a reel?

This seems to be the obvious question, and frankly it sounds downright silly when you have to type it but once you have had a chance to fish a set-up like this you ?get it?. Not having a reel makes everything so much faster to set up, there is NO slack to worry about, it is very packable for hiking trips, you get a direct connection to the fish from the rod tip (no line slopping around between the reel and the fish, everything is between the rod tip and the fish). Not having a reel means less to worry about, tangle around, or think about it. It is actually a pretty cool fishing experience.

The TFO Tenkara Series rods are very nice telescoping rods.  I have not had them stick at all and it makes the setup and breakdown a snap.  No pun intended there! *THESE RODS COME WITH A SPARE TIP AND SECOND SECTION!

Ok, what are the cons to this setup?

  • Very small fishing range
  • Small fish only type weapon
  • Limited to small streams (IMO) Serious Tenkara anglers would adamantly disagree but I am just a casual Tenkara user haha. Probably a lot like you, I think you would agree that it is limited to small water as well.
  • Overall it has less versatility than a traditional rod/reel.

What are the pros?

  • Awesome young angler/beginner?s rod for small streams.  They will get more fishing time and less fooling around.
  • Line Can't Slide Back Down Through Your Guides!!!!!  This is more significant than you might think.
  • Fly manipulation is precise, twitching, skating, drifting and swinging is all under very tight control. You just have to try it to understand how good your drifts can be!
  • Simple
  • Breaks down small, 20" total length
  • Great casting rods (no slack and no guides).  
  • Supreme feel.  Having the line attached tight to the tip of the rod gives you an amazing connection with the currents and the fish too of course!
  • You learn to fish with your feet, moving when necessary
  • Quick breakdown and set up (going from spot to spot it breaks down small and fast
  • Great learning rod, less line handling to worry about so the focus is on the fish!

Bluegill on Tenkara Rods?

Ok, this isn't part of the official Butterstick vs. Tenkara Showdown, but I do need to add that I took my wife and kids Bluegill fishing this year and we fished both the Butterstick and Tenkara.  The fish weren't too spooky so we got the boat close and the whole family wound up really liking the Tenkara for what this intel is worth.  Here is s shot of my 7 year old son releasing a panfish for my wife.  This rod was really fun, less tangles, great connection to the fish, and the kids learned to roll cast and manage line intuitively.  

Overall thoughts on this fishing approach

I have to confess, I really like my Tenkara setup. You are also talking to a guy with A LOT of fly rods. I can?t help it, I absolutely love fishing and learning new strategies, styles, and picking up new gear. I want to be very careful here and not sound biased, but I really think more anglers should try this idea. This might be less versatile, has less range, and isn?t well suited to big fish but?.. why did you start fly fishing in the first place? To have fun right? This is a really enjoyable way to fish that will leave a smile on your face from ear to ear the first time you hook a spunky river trout on a fast swinging presentation. It won?t replace any rods in your quiver, to the contrary. This will either be your 5th fly rod or your 2nd fly rod. I see it as a novelty piece that every die-hard should get someday, or something that a person on the learning end of the spectrum gets initially for small stream fishing. It will accent their token 9? 5 weight and help them have a good time on small water. Eventually they will drift towards a traditional 2-3 weight rod and expand their casting range but on small brushy stream starting with a Tenkara style rod is key.

I view it as an ?experience?. It will make your traditional long line ?rod/reel? angling better. I promise a few days spent with a Tenkara set up will teach you more about fly fishing especially swinging flies. Fishing wet flies on a fixed length of line is a great thrill. You learn to side drift/swing raise wet flies in current and I PROMISE that will help your fishing for steelhead and trophy trout. You have ultimate control of the fly and albeit it is on a short line, the same presentation strategies apply on longer lines. You learn to control the swing short first, and then you will have better control when you are throwing your switch or spey rod 85? in heavy current. There is much to be learned here!

So Who Won? Tenkara or Butterstick?

Small Water Cutthroat - Butterstick Wins
On this day the Butterstick took home the awards and bested the Tenkara from a fishing productivity standpoint. Team Butterstick was calling it the Butterstick Beatdown. I will say though, I sure spent a lot of time fishing and enjoying myself thanks to pure simplicity. We fished some bigger water the day we held our mock-competition so the Redington Butterstick definitely held the advantage. I was limited on range big time, we finally hit some smaller water in the afternoon and I caught some decent trout but the versatility of a traditional rod/reel was an advantage. I was also fishing with another professional angler! All in all there are some wonderful reasons to fish with this setup. Maybe its for you, maybe not but either way at least now you know a little bit about this.

Basic Tenkara Outfit/Setup

  • Tenkara Rod - Order Online (our kit includes fly line)
  • Fly Line (we will include a 20? with all of our purchases). The weight doesn?t matter, any section of a 5 weight seems to cast just fine. These are very nice rods and super easy to cast.
  • 7.5? leader ( I like a standard trout leader )
  • A Fly, wet or dry it doesn't matter
  • That?s it. You want more? Buy a cool fishing bag or something with the money you were going to use on a reel.

Traditional Creek Fishing Rod/Reel Setups

Maybe Tenkara fishing just isn't for you, I get it.  If I had to choose one rod for small water it probably wouldn't be a Tenkara setup. Fortunately I don't have to choose hahaahaha!  If you are looking to enhance your small water fishing experience but want to invest in some GOOD creek fishing gear here are a couple of setups that we sell and suggest.  These come "river ready" shipped right to your door step.  Use promo code "CREEK" to get another $20 off your online rod/reel order for reading this blog!

  1. Just seeing this... By no means a useful comparison. ...Pretty much apples to oranges to have a Tenkara newbie going against a pro angler on the Butterstick. It would be interesting to put one of the Tenkara Guides LLC guides in your place and get a more realistic comparison. I am curious how it wold go! The Butterstick sounds cool BTW.