Saturday, February 16, 2013

Don't ruin it...

I suppose it was bound to happen, and I really shouldn't be surprised. I guess I'm just a little disappointed, is all. Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Just a few years ago, when Tenkara was still a relatively new concept in the States (belying its ancient roots in Japan), it was the simplicity that attracted me to it. It seemed so slimmed down... so clean and unfettered by all the trappings that can tend to mire the craft of fly fishing. It was the perfect method (and likely still is) with which to approach the backcountry trout stream--it broke down into an easily manageable little tube and actually encouraged the minimalist in me.
Simple, clean ... and affordable? Not so
much any longer.

With my Tenkara rod--a Tenkara USA 11-foot Iwana--a lanyard with the basic tools and a pair of wading sandals, I could disappear for hours into the wild and not be burdened with too many moving parts. What's more, the rod--the simplest of creations ... tubes of graphite in descending sizes sliding neatly into one another--was an affordable tool that actually let me drag the entire family into the craft without having to consider a second mortgage.

This morning, out of sheer curiosity, I did a little Google homework on Tenkara.

My motives were simple--I've been pulled away from my backcountry trout water by the siren song of the saltwater flats and marshes over the last couple of years. I've learned (although that's debatable, really) to double haul and strip-set. I've developed a much sharper "fish eye," and I honestly love the "big" feel you get when you're standing on the flats and the there's nothing but water in every direction.
But recently, the trout are starting to pull me back. I yearn for summer days spent standing in cold water that's in a hurry to get somewhere. And that, of course, has translated into a desire to pull out the Tenkara rod and go fishing.

Unfortunately, two of the family's three Tenkara rods are in various states of disrepair. My trusty Iwana has a broken midsection, a casualty of a Lost River willow. My wife's Fountainhead has broken tip section. Our Amago is in good shape, but I think it has too much backbone for backcountry trout water, and is more suited to bigger water and bigger fish.

So I hopped online to see what I'd need to do to repair the Iwana and the Fountainhead. One thing led to another, and I started scanning all the new offerings out there for Tenkara. And there are plenty. I think it's safe to say that Tenkara has arrived in the U.S., and the fly fishing industry has taken note. Not only are there new rod choices available to American anglers (Temple Fork now has a line of Tenkara rods, and I noticed offerings from Daiwa and Shimano over at Tenkara Bum, in addition to the   Fountainhead choices), but the reviews of the rods, the list of their specs and the accompanying accoutrements are starting to get a bit complex. There are diagrams that show different flex points, and talk of ratios and the explanations behind the engineering... the use of math is now starting to bore me to tears (much like my ninth-grade algebra teacher did all those years ago).

And then there's the price... Sweet Cindy Lauper... the price. I got into Tenkara because it wasn't so prohibitive. It was simple. It was clean. And for a little over a hundred bucks, I could be catching brookies and cutthroats without having to worry about skipping last month's gas bill to do it.

Not so... not any longer. Some of these "simple" implements are now coming with $350 price tags.

But like I said many paragraphs ago, I shouldn't be surprised. It's one of many oddities of the fly fishing world, and I guess when a "conventional" fly rod can approach $1,300, it makes sense that a Tenkara offering could come with a conventional price tag.

Trust me... I understand the logic. I understand the costs associated with research and development. I understand that engineering doesn't come cheap. I understand that excise taxes associated with importing sporting goods (that are funneled to important conservation efforts) take a piece of the action right off the top. But I also suspect the rising costs have to do with the consumer demographic, and the belief that fly fishers have swollen bank accounts (and, apparently, egos to match).

The boy with the Tenkara... 
I'm hard pressed to see myself paying today's prices for a "simple" Tenkara rod. And I'll never pay four figures for a conventional fly rod--I don't care if it casts like a stick of butter and washes my car after a day on the river. That's simple insanity.

And I don't think I'm the exception, frankly. I'm a fly fishing junky. A full-on devotee... an addict. But I also have a family to care for, a mortgage to make and bills to pay. Most of the folks I fish with are in the same boat, and short of blowing a tax refund a new toy, they're not about fork over the kind of money today's manufacturers and retailers--Tenkara or otherwise--are asking.

There's a lot of talk in the industry about "growing the sport," about making fly fishing more accessible to the plebeians.

With the price tags I'm seeing these days, it's just that... talk.


  1. Yet another fad. Spey rods, switch rods, tenkara. All for trout? For the price, one can afford to buy one heck of a nice conventional fly fishing outfit. Rod, reel, line. The whole enchilada. Do people still use those?

    1. I might have agreed with you five years ago... now, I think Tenkara is here to stay. And I'm fine with that.

  2. I'm a tenkara fan (like you) but also not an apologist. You know how I roll...looking at pretty much anything with a cynical eye, but I would be reserved in this criticism of pricepoint. It's just like any other ANYTHING out there. When you have good, better, & best products, they typically come with good, better, and best pricepoints.

    Can you get a sub $100 tenkara rod? Yep. Can you get a $300+ tenkara rod? Yep. Are there a ton of options in between? Yep. Are they the same? Nope. That's just the way things like this work. I find your complaints exactly that, just complaints.

    Also, (and you note this in your post) I wouldn't fault anybody importing rods from Japan from famous makers like Shimano or Daiwa for sale in the US for having prices a little bit higher than you might expect. They have to pay duties and all that fun stuff. Until tenkara gets big enough here and those companies set up distribution domestically where retailers can simply pay wholesale, yeah, those "premium" Japanese rods are going to be pricey.

    Tenkara USA just put out a new version of their Ayu rod. They probably could have said it was way better than the last one and demands a premium price tag over $200. They stuck at $165, just like the old one. Maybe more expensive than one might like, but it is what it is.

    But like I said, there are plenty of options in the $75 to $150 range. Sure, no $20 yellow Eagle Claw rods you might find in Walmart, but find enough scale, and that might eventually come too. Probably not though. As a manufacturer, you can't just immediately choose to find scale through low retails and make enough profit to keep moving forward. All that does is create sub-par product and a business model that's unsustainable in the long run.

    Even with this rant of mine, please don't confuse me as a equipment elitist. I'm as cheap as the next guy. My favorite rod at the moment is a Cabela's CGR fiberglass 4 weight that retailed for $100 and I got on sale for $70. Paired with a $25 generic click & pawl reel. I've never paid more than $150 for any of my fly rods, Western or Tenkara, and they all work just fine (for my skill level) IMHO.

    Anyway, keep at it Chris, your opinion is just as valid as mine. God Bless America. There's a reason why I keep coming back to EMBT, posts like this are it.

    1. I knew you'd be among the first to comment (and I needed some pageviews this week, so I was hoping you'd share it, too ... ;-) ... ), and I'm glad you did. Believe me, I completely understand the the price of doing business, and I value Tenkara USA above most other companies, simply because they walk the walk--they know that their business depends on customers having opportunity, and that opportunity depends on intact habitat... (I know... same old rant). I'm among their biggest fans.

      My biggest rub, however (and this isn't just about the prices associated with Tenkara rods, for the record), is all the talk about growing the craft, introducing new people to the sport that, largely, has remained static over the last decade, especially since the impacts of "the movie" have worn off. Also, I feel like I just kind of checked back in after a hiatus (been traveling a lot, hitting the salt, etc.), and have been slapped in the face by the dollar figure I'm seeing on a fairly simple implement. I'm a fan of the "you get what you pay for" line of thought and if that's accurate with the Tenkara choices out there now (you would know this much more than I), that's fine.

      Like you, I'm budget conscious. And I'm struggling with sticker shock. Frankly put, it makes me wonder about the mark-up, industry-wide, and if it's reasonable, especially in a down economy and in an industry that's trying like hell to grow. As the wife of a good friend put it to me today, after seeing that Sage has a $1300 rod on the market, "No wonder they just go to Wal-Mart and buy a spinning rod."

      Now, I realize there are affordable options--like you, I've come back to glass as a fly fishing implement, but I think we'd both agree that glass is now more of an acquired taste, even at $30 a rod, and loaded up with an old 1492 that might have run $25 when it was in production.

      Even "entry level" rods are a bit pricey, especially when compared to what it costs to get a spinning outfit of similar quality. For an industry trying to expand, you'd think that disparity would be among the first things its leaders addressed.

      Like you, Mike, I rarely pay big money for a rod. The "premium" rods I own (both of them) didn't come my way via direct retail--there's no way in hell I could afford it (and there's no way in hell someone new to fly fishing is going to make that kind of investment in something he's just trying out). I'm always on the lookout for a bargain, as I see you are, too.

      I guess I'm just alarmed that the Tenkara end of the industry seems dangerously close to following suit with the rest of the industry... frankly, the affordability of Tenkara USA products was one of the reasons I tried Tenkara in the first place.

      Here's hoping they (and their competitors who haven't already) don't price themselves out of the market.

      Thanks a bunch for commenting--I value your opinion (and I bet, if we sat down over a beer, we wouldn't be too far apart on this.



    2. I bet you're right. I'd agree with just about anybody over a beer or three.

  3. You forgot to mention those bamboo tenkara rods, talk about EXPENSIVE!

  4. It's like golf in that equipment costing $250 is somehow labeled as 'affordable.'

    For conventional fly fishing, a lot of credit goes to Redington, Echo, Cabelas, and BPS for making outfits that are actually affordable enough to get new people into the sport.

    1. I agree, Bob... when did $250 become affordable? If that's the price point that must be met, considering the R&D, the engineering, the marketing and the manufacturing, I suppose that's fine. I guess that's where I'd like to see some data. Perhaps the rub is that there just aren't enough fly fishers out there buying rods to keep companies in business if they were to sell fly rods at less expensive prices. And I would imagine that there won't be any time soon... sort of a Catch 22.

  5. You're exactly right. I guess they just saw that rise in popularity as a way to increase their profits.. Due to the price tag, I passed up on the Tenkara rod I was dreaming about in exchange for a BPS Classic Ultralight. It just arrived today, actually.

  6. Keep it simple? -- yep, stick with Tenkara USA products. They have a great product line that won't break the bank. Want a little more? -- get a Japanese import rod from TenkaraBum. Options are great! That's why I eat burgers at more places than just McD!

    Teton Tenkara

  7. If you want cheap, I have seen some $18 12-foot "tenkara" rods on Ebay. Not sure if you can trust to get something worthwhile, however.

    1. That's the thing, Lynn... I don't want "cheap." I want "affordable." I suspect a lot of others do, as well.

  8. I certainly understand your feelings, and those of a few others who feel that the simplicity has been lost. All I'd like to say is that the offerings of expensive rods are largely driven by people asking "can you get me a ________?" People know what they want and many aren't too shy to ask for it.

    I'm afraid it's like the simplicity we had when there were only 5 TV channels and 3 ice cream flavors. Gone forever.

  9. I find that one of my glass Wright & Mcgill rods from the 1960s, bought mint on eBay for a measly $50 catches trout and bass just fine. I am a gear junkie, but I'm a gear junkie with a tight wallet and an appetite more towards practical than pretty.

  10. I disagree with the timeline/price assertion in this post. Tenkara has not gotten more expensive -- it's without a doubt cheaper to get into than it ever has been. It used to be that if you wanted a tenkara rod, your choice was Tenkara USA or BackpackingLight (a TUSA-made rod). Bottom price was about $150.

    Now that the market has expanded greatly, there are MUCH cheaper options than there used to be. Amazon and eBay have rods well under $100. There may be more expensive options as well, but those are options, not requirements.

    Basically you have the same choices today as you did in 2009 -- plus a whole lot more, both less expensive and more expensive. It's very hard to see what is worth complaining about. You can buy a Pagani sports car for $1.2M. Does that mean subcompact economy cars no longer exist?

    1. I think my perception is based on the choices you mentioned above. If you read into the post any criticism of TUSA, that was NOT intended... I'm a loyal customer. But doing some homework and seeing Tenkara rods selling for over $400 alarmed me. I realize those rods are available today and weren't obviously available a few years back, so that's completely on me...

      But I'll say this... perception is reality. My perception of a $1300 fly rod is negative--I'll never pay anything close to that. And I think, seeing more (and more expensive) options out there for Tenkara, I won't go that route, either. My worry--and I think this is legit--is that Tenkara is on the precipice of growing into the traditional fly rod mode... that, before we know it, $350 will become an "affordable" option.

      I'm grateful that TUSA has held the line on costs to the customer. Between that, and the fact that TUSA is a conservation supporter, I'll always be one of their customers.

      But I'm still watching the trends... as I said, perception is reality. I think, to address perception, TUSA ought to make a big deal out of the affordability of its rods vs. the competition that, frankly was non-existent in the USA three years ago (or at least a minor consideration).

      Next time, leave your name, please.

  11. Have to agree with some of the other posters here. I don't really see prices having moved much for Tenkara USA rods and in fact they are offering some deals that are much cheaper now. Sure you can pay a lot more for premium model from Tenkara Bum or one of the other sites. There are different features that some of these come with to justify the price tag but if you are new to Tenkara I still think Tenkara USA is the way to go for pure value. The life time warranty is hard to beat. Over the last few years while fishing Tenakara almost exclusively on a regular basis I have broken one rod and several tips and have never had problems with getting them fixed or replaced through Tenkara USA (at a reasonable cost of 7 - 17$ depending on how bad it is). Some of the other importers can be much more costly to fix, assuming they can even get parts. If you have a broken mid section on your iwana pay the 7 bucks for a replacement section and you will be good as new.

    And don't even get me started on comparing the overall cost of Tenkara to traditional fly fishing. Most nice reels alone cost more than a Tenkara rod. The fly line alone can be as much as some of the cheaper rods.

    1. OK... as noted above, if my post came across as being at all critical of TUSA, mea culpa--that was not my intent. Let's put that to bed. TUSA is not the problem (likely, they're the solution).

      Now... let's look at this whole picture... certainly, you buy cheaper Tenkara rods, and those options have been around for a bit. What alarms me, after suddenly starting to pay attention again, is the availability of Tenkara rods that price me (and I would venture to suspect a lot of folks) out of the market, much like what's happened in the mainstream fly fishing market over the last decade. Is it just my perception? Possibly. Were $400 tenkara rods available three or four years ago in the USA? If they were, I missed them.

      To see these price tags on products I've always associated with a slimmed down, minimalist approach to angling alarms me, and makes me fear that Tenkara will follow the model of the mainstream industry and end up in a few years with rods that eclipse $500 or more and make it impractical for me to keep and keep my wife and kids involved (which Tenkara has done for me, by the way).

      We can talk specifics, but I continue to maintain that perception is a market leader. I think Tenkara USA could do wonders for my perception (and I can't be the only guy out there worried that my next Tenkara rod will cost $250) by boldly promoting the affordability of its products in comparison to its competitors.

      Finally, you're absolutely right ... Tenkara is MUCH cheaper than traditional fly fishing. That's why I love it... and I want it to stay that way.

    2. On that point I can certainly agree. Once my son is old enough to fly fish I plan on starting him with Tenkara and there is no way I would start him with a 500$ rod or even 250$ rod for that matter. In fact I doubt I would have even given Tenkara a try if all I saw were rods in that price range.

  12. Not sure if you are familiar with Temple Fork Outfitters, but they make fly rods that are affordable and reliable. I got my TFO 3 weight with a Hobbs Creek reel for $150 at Bass Pro shops. I have now been using one for 3 years,and there is even a warranty for that terrible slip on a rock that leaves you with a 3 section two piece haha. Tight lines, and check out my blog,

  13. I decided to try Tenkara, but I refused to spend over $150 total to get into the hobby. I bought the Fountainhead Caddis 12' rod, level line, tippet, a few flies, and 2 spools. I haven't hit trout waters yet, but I'm catching bass and bluegill like crazy on our local ponds. It's tremendously fun.

    I ordered the $10 cheapie rods from Amazon for my family to use. If they're having fun and outgrow the cheapie rods, I'll get a new rod (likely another Fountainhead) and pass my Caddis along to one of them.

    I refuse to make this hobby complicated or expensive. I'm having a blast right now. I'm hoping to hit trout waters soon.