The Bottom Line: A simple, portable fly fishing setup that can travel with you on every trip. It does take a bit to get used to casting, so practice is important. The hardest part is landing a fish, since there is no line to reel in. A shorter 8-foot Tenkara right might help with that.
Note: At this time Wetfly only makes the Backcountry Mini 10-foot Rod. They have improved the models with the Komodo series, which includes a flex model that allows you to adjust it to different lengths for fishing. I purchased my outfit from Sierra Trading Post, which tends to carry models from previous seasons. You can also find comparable models made by Patagonia and Tenkara USA.
Going fishing and catching a fish are two very different things. When I first started fly fishing years ago, my main focus was on catching fish. The bigger the better. Over the years I realized that fly fishing enabled me to spend more time outside, and I gradually started to shift my focus from catching fish to just going fishing. The beauty of the sport is that even when I am not catching anything, I can practice my cast or just enjoy the sights and sounds of flowing water around me. Fall is my favorite time of year to fish, followed closely by winter. As life has gotten more and more in the way, I have gone fishing less, and I wanted a way to change that.
At least twice a week or more I bike commute to work. On this ride I follow a bike path that meanders alongside the Big Dry Creek here in Colorado. Along the way there are at least three urban fishing holes where people can drop a line in besides the creek itself (fishing this depends on the time of year). Ketner Lake is my first stop, followed by Westminster City Park Pond (stocked), and lastly a small catch and release pond behind Front Range Community College. If I was willing to give up some of that picturesque scenery I attributed to fly fishing to fish more, then leaving a bit earlier to go to work meant I could drop a line in along the way. The final part of the equation to solve was the gear. With limited space in my backpack and bike panniers, I settled on a tenkara setup that I hoped would fit the bill. While it has some quirks, I can confidently say that it does allow me to fish more. I am still working on the catching a fish part.
The Backcountry Tenkara outfit from WetFly is a lightweight all-inclusive package that gives you everything you need to get on the water right out of the box. The outfit includes a telescoping tenkara rod, tenkara rod holder, one spool of Level Line, one spool of furled line, one spool of 5x tippet, and a bamboo box of assorted tenkara flies.
The first thing you will notice about the rod is that there is no reel. Tenkara is a traditional form of Japanese fly fishing that merely involves a rod with a line and fly attached. The tip of the rod includes a tiny string (called a lillian) that is secured to the rod at the factory. You use the lillian to attach your fly line to the rod tip, and then you tie your tippet (nearly invisible monofilament line) to the fly line and finally your fly to the tippet. Once everything is set up, you essentially have a straight line of materials from the handle to the fly itself. You reel in a hooked fish by pulling the rod back behind the caster until you can reach the fly line and then pulling the line back toward you until the fish is close enough to net. This will create a huge bend in the rod, but they are designed to do this. The few times I have had bites usually resulted in me wanting to pull in the telescoping sections; given that they were under tension, this was not easily feasible. Fighting a fish on a tenkara rod seems to take a level of finesse that I have not figured out yet (my bites have not resulted in landing any fish and mostly lost flies).
Casting a tenkara rod involves flicking the line in a more vertical manner above and behind the head rather than horizontally over the shoulder (like conventional fly fishing). The more vertical cast of tenkara has some advantages:
The downsides are:
While the 12-foot Backcountry has plenty of reach to be able to get to many fishing holes, my bike commute consists of mostly fishing from a bank. This works great, but without wading into the water I am missing any fish toward the middle of larger bodies of water that I would be able to reach more easily with a conventional setup. My first time fishing with the rod I was used the furled line that has some stretch in it compared to a level line, which is rigid. The only reason I chose this first was because setting it up seemed easier. The night before I tied my tippet to the furled line and pre-tied a fly. When I arrived at Ketner Lake, I simply put an overhand knot in the lillian (I should have pre-tied this the night before but forgot), took the factory tied loop of the furled line, and used a girth hitch to attach the two. This process took about 30 seconds. From there I slowly and carefully extended the rod sections to full length.
Note - when I first got my rod I extended it like a toy light saber, similar to the ones I used as a kid (you just swing the handle and out popped the light saber). This is not recommended! The sections near the rod tip are incredibly tiny in diameter and can easily smash into something and break. Additionally, taking it out section by section allows you to inspect the rod as you go as well.
Once the rod was extended I gently lifted the rod tip into the air (about 90 degrees from me) and then attempted to cast the fly with a downward flick of the wrist. Instead of shooting the fly, it gently lofted through the air like a floating leaf until it landed on the water. I was a bit disappointed. My second cast was much better. The fly in the water created a bit of tension so that when I lifted the rod up the fly popped off the water and into the air. Quickly reversing my arm and wrist motion, I was able to flick the fly back down to the water. A few more casts and things were improving. In conventional fly fishing you often have the line on the water leading to the fly; in tenkara, you really only want the fly itself touching the water. This usually involves keeping your arm extended a bit with the elbow bent. After a while this gets very tiring if you are not used to it. I was frequently switching hands to cast and wait, which the tenkara rod made easy to do. When it comes time to break down the outfit, start at the handle and pull the telescoping sections into one another. Once you reached the rod tip, undo the girth hitch, wind the line around the spool, pop the fly into the back of the spool, and you are off!
As I have fished more with my tenkara setup outside of bike commuting, I discovered that the backs of the spools and the cases they come in double as great fly boxes. If you are looking for an ultralight setup, this helps cut weight down tremendously. The biggest issue I have found is that they do not float like many fly boxes do, so be warned. The cork handle is very comfortable to hold, and I have discovered that the rod is more durable than I originally thought having now smashed it into a few things accidentally. I have experimented with the level line included, but since that involves tying a different knot to attach to the lillian, I tend to default to the furled line for its ease. I have noticed that both lines have a bit of memory from their spooled storage (the level line less so). My furled line does not cast or even stay straight. I have tried to wind it around a larger object and even resorted to clamping it out straight, but it still has some bends to it. I have begun to wonder if it is the quality of the line and will perhaps try a new one in time to compare. It is not a deal breaker, but it makes me wonder if it is impacting my casting a bit (it does annoy me to see).
I have also found that the 12-foot Backcountry seems a bit too long for my needs. While the reach is nice, it can feel a bit unwieldy at times. I noticed this particularly at times when I was working to tie on a new fly. With my conventional setup I just swung the line toward me and would hold the rod with my mouth usually or under my arm (my conventional rods are 8 to 9 feet). The length of the 12-foot Backcountry made this difficult. I found that the best method for tying a fly on was to pull in the sections to shorten the rod. This certainly helped, but often I found that the line would bounce around as I was tying a fly, or it would wrap around the rod itself. Additionally, the length seemed to encourage me to constantly be reaching further with my arm, often causing it to get tired instead of encouraging my to move with my feet. I have begun to wonder if an 8-foot rod might suit my needs better.
The final note I want to make is that tenkara is a great way to introduce someone to the world of fly fishing. Setup is simple, casting is easy and intuitive (most folks in conventional fly fishing flick their wrist, which is improper there but proper in tenkara), and not gear heavy to get on the water quicker. It is a great way to teach kids to fish and certainly gives a different feel to the sport. The setup is even more enticing if you are a backpacker since you can strip it down to a single spool of line with pre-tied tippet, the rod without it's case, and some flies at minimal weight. Lastly, if you are a fisherman who is worried about the durability and landing big fish, there are lots of videos online proving that tenkara rods can hold their own in a good fight, you just need to know how to finesse it a bit (which I have yet to learn).