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An Update on the American Tenkara Rod (Is that an Oxymoron?)

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As you may or may not know, Zen Tenkara will be offering a new rod in the near future that will be making history. It will be the first-ever 100% American-made tenkara rod. Not only is this groundbreaking news, it’s (as our tag line states), “defining American tenkara,” for real.

A Review

Zen is a small company and we have a reputation for being a little non-traditional with our approach to tenkara. We were laughed at for our Kyojin Rod, affectionately referred to as our “beef stick” or “whale Shark” rod. But that rod has a loyal and appreciative fan club. Our Baichi Rod was also scoffed at. The rod was stiff, short and many “traditional tenkarist” said “Boo” and scrunched up their noses at it. Yet, it was an olive-branch-of-a-rod for us. Early on when regular fly fishing anglers joked about the tenkara method and shops and celebrity angers yelled “FAD”, and some even got angry about the minimalist approach and purist philosophy that was so common, the Baichi felt familiar and comfortable in the hand of a regular fly guy. It was like being home in their 9ft 5wt and it made the tenkara experience not so risky or foreign. They fished the Baichi rod and softened to the possibilities of tenkara as a whole. The Baichi rod is a nymphing rod with back. Skeptics threw mouse patterns and streamers and decided tenkara wasn’t all that bad…. or different, after all. And well hey, we CAN actually all get along. 

Jump forward a year or two and my day is less about explaining what tenkara is as it is responding to excited inquiries and those seeking it out with enthusiastic curiosity. A few years can sure make a difference. Several years back when we contemplated making a short rod, naysayers argued that a short rod defeated the intent and advantages to tenkara. A short rod wasn’t tenkara…. Yet how many times did I find myself in cramped quarters with my 12ft rod in hand, thinking to myself, “This sucks, I need a shorter rod”. Jump forward again, and the Suzume rod sold out in a month. People love the short lengths it fishes at. Lesson learned: Listen to your gut more and people less. 

So back to the American rod. We tried. We tried hard to knock this thing out on existing mandrels and well, lesson learned again: You can’t build a tenkara rod on non-tenkara rod mandrels. We wanted to, and thought we could but, you can’t. So we stopped trying and took the bull by the horns in the most American way possible, we said, “to hell with that, we’ll machine our own”, because at heart, we are rebels, rebels with a cause. Americans are notorious for that – look at pizza. American pizza is SO different than pizza you get in Italy. The Chinese invented ice cream but America OWNs ice cream, or maybe Ben & Jerry’s own it. Chunky Monkey, Cherry Garcia, delicious! Am I right? So it’s time for tenkara to stake its claim in Americana too. 

Moving onto Mandrels

Mandrel making is a not-so-easy process. Definitely more complicated than pizza or ice cream but American ingenuity and stubbornness is helpful in situations like this. A quick and dirty for those not familiar (which was me too not too long-ago) with the technical side:

Mandrels are what fly rods are rolled on. Carbon fiber sheets are wrapped around them to make fly rod blanks. Mandrels are manufactured in machine shops that are highly technical. They are ground down from aircraft quality steels using computer numerical control grinders. A highly automated process creates an end product that meets aerospace standards for finishes and tolerances. Once ground to exact specs from precise CAD drawings, the mandrels are heat treated and cured for longevity. Next, the mandrels are cleaned to remove all grit and treated to high heat temperatures to extract residual oils. Special agents are applied which ensure the carbon fiber will release easily and properly from the mandrels. This has to be repeated several times and is referred to as the curing process.

Mind you, the mandrels were machined long AFTER months of testing rod proto-types that had previously been built on pre-existing, borrowed mandrels. Those blanks were, in Goldilocks terms, “too stiff, too soft, too weak, and too ridged”. We were frustrated yes, but more determined and more knowledgeable than before. New mandrels complete, we are now confident that our new pro-type rod blanks will, again in Goldilocks terms, be “just right!”

It’s a Wrap

Not a burrito wrap or a song rap, I’m talk’en carbon fiber wrap. Very thin sheets of the stuff are wrapped around the cured mandrels and heated to create the rod blanks. But my friend, there are many ways to skin a cat and just as many ways to wrap carbon fiber. Vertically, horizontally, diagonally, and varying degrees in between. Oh the options. And, how many layers to wrap is another thing to ponder. The number of layers and way the carbon fiber is wrapped affects no, determines, the rods strength, flexibility and durability. And, is completely different than creating a rod blank for a traditional fly rod (or as tenkara folk say, western fly rods). “That baby’s got back” as Sir Mix-a-Lot says in his song. In other words, western rods have a spine. They have a distinct top and bottom which makes the rod designed to be cast a specific way. Tenkara rods don’t. They are in fact, (do I dare say it), “spineless.” There is no top nor bottom to a tenkara rod. They don’t need to be cast in a specific direction for optimal performance. They are the Gumby of fly rods, able to bend in all directions. This fact was pivotal in our mandrel making and previous attempts and is key to what sets tenkara rods apart from other fly rods.

Bottom Line

Testing, testing. 1, 2, 3, testing, testing. That ‘bout says it all. We are testing and playing with blanks and tweaking (not to be confused with twerking) our samples and fine tuning to create an incredible American tenkara rod. Because, when all is said and done, and the fancy handles are faded, and the cool package it came in is thrown away, and new rods and tenkara companies come and go, it’ll be about the blank. The fine-tuned, CNC grinded, aerospace standards, high-tech, American-made rod blank that will ‘drop the mic’, or so we hope, and remain standing tall and proud. It’s been a huge learning curve for everyone involved – even people that you think, know it all. And that’s been good. We’re pushing ourselves to bring you the best product ever. At Zen we don’t simply re-label products. Whether they be American or imported, we are designing and creating rods and products to our own specs. We innovate and challenge and that’s why our rods and gear are different. The coming months will produce some very exciting prototypes. Final components and finishes will be the easy part and are ready and waiting. (Pipe in the song, “I Did It My Way.”) Stay posted, a few photos might sneak out here and there so get ready for some tenkara, American-style.

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