We sit down with Sam and talk all things Tenkara, rod building and more.
A couple of years ago, we had the chance to build our own Tenkara rod. In 2014 we came across John Cianchetti, who was one of the first to offer consumers kits with which they could build their own gear. We reviewed at the time the sole Tenkara kit he sold, and had a blast along the way.
Since then, we've been pleasantly surprised by Tenkara. In 2017 we became brand ambassadors for WetFly, who have also started to offer Tenkara. I must admit that the practicality of my 10" and 12" tenkara rods is unrivalled - I can pack them down into a manageable backpack and not worry about carrying around heaps of gear with me. Indeed, a Tenkara rod has followed me in recent trips to Alaska, Russia's Kola Peninsula, Russia's Taymyr Peninsula and the Kuril Islands. In each location - sometimes on rivers that had never been explored before - what made my life much easier was the ease of carrying these rods. On our exploratory expeditions we tend to have to carry a whole load of clunky, heavy camera gear with us anyway - so a 9" traditional fly rod, case, accompanying reel and the rest of my fishing gear is a lot to carry.
But despite the many merits these rods have, and the pains they have eliminated for me, they are not quite perfect. One of our biggest problems in our exploratory trips - as our YouTube videos are testament to - is that rivers that are remote and have never been fished before tend to be overgrown with vegetation. I have often encountered magnificent pools in small streams which have been unfishable by any rod I've owned. Indeed, this summer we fished in extremely tight gorges in the remote Swiss Alps. Some of the gorges were so incredibly tight they too were inaccessible to conventional Tenkara or traditional fly rods.
So it was a real surprise and pleasure to discover very recently Tiny Tenkara, a company which has made Tenkara rods even more 'Tenkara'! We were able to sit down with Samuel Kates, the owner and founder of Tiny Tenkara, to gain some insights into what his revolutionary solution to these problems is, what it takes to manufacture a Tenkara rod, the state of the industry, and much more. Enjoy!
Fishing Exploration: Hi Samuel, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start at the beginning: who are you, where are you from and what is Tiny Tenkara?
Samuel Kates: I’m a Colorado native who’s currently a junior at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Tiny Tenkara came about as a result of me falling in love with the Tenkara style of fishing but not being able to find a rod short enough to fish the small creeks in the canyons around my house. Tiny Tenkara is a company that sells quality Tenkara-style rods that are designed to fish small mountain streams.
FE: Tiny Tenkara – what gave you the idea, and how does it distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded tenkara market?
SK: I got my first Tenkara rod in freshman year at high school, the Amago by Tenkara USA. I absolutely loved the simplicity and accuracy of Tenkara. I happened to then notice a bunch trout in the streams that ran along many of the hikes I would do in Colorado Springs. I originally used an ice fishing pole with a taper leader tied to the tip eyelet and also the top three sections of my Amago rod to fish these small streams. I wanted a small Tenkara rod to fish these streams but couldn’t find one to buy. After a lot of frustration, I decided to make a small Tenkara rod myself. My rod distinguishes itself from other rods primarily in its length. When I came out with this rod, no one in the US was making a Tenkara rod shorter than 10 feet. The second selling point is that unlike other Tenkara rods, mine collapses down so that you can put it in a pocket and it is ultralight. I also wanted to make a well-made rod that didn’t cost over a hundred dollars.
FE: You’re a young guy – how did that affect the process of getting a product developed and into customers hands? And what does that process look like?
SK: Since I started this company when I was in high school, I got a lot of support because of that fact. Because my rod doesn’t cost that much and because the idea of a super short Tenkara rod was novel, some people saw my rod as sort of widget or nick nack. I can remember reading a reddit thread about my rod and a lot of people were making comments along the lines of “well since it costs about a third of a regular Tenkara rod and because he’s a young kid, I thought why not buy one”.
In terms of getting the original rod developed, that was a fairly simple process. Since a Tenkara rod is basically just sheets of rolled graphite with a cork handle, I didn’t need any technical know-how or schematics to have the rod made. I contacted several Tenkara rod manufacturers, asked for quotes, and got several prototypes made. I choose the one I liked the best and that’s the rod that has ended up in the customers hands.
FE: I understand Tiny Tenkara launched on Kickstarter a couple of years ago – how did this platform help you out, what did you learn from it, and how has your vision for TT changed since then?
SK: Kickstarter was a great way to get some starting capital and also gauge if there was a real demand for my product. The community is great and super understanding. I remember that I had to delay the shipping of the rods to the Kickstarter supporters because there was a fire at the factory where my rods were being made! Every one of my backers was super understanding and I can’t remember anyone backing out because of this. Kickstarter taught me that there were other people out there who wanted this product. If I remember correctly, they give you 60 days to complete your campaign and mine finished around the 30 day mark! That really blew me away that so many other people wanted this rod. When I had the initial rod made, I thought it was going to be a one off thing just for me. After the success of the Kickstarter campaign, my vision changed from that to it being an actual company.
FE: Historically, there has been some friction between traditional fly fishers and tenkara enthusiasts. What would you say to someone who has never picked up a tenkara rod before – how is it different and why is it worthwhile?
SK: I would say that Tenkara fly fishing has a couple points of distinction from western fly fishing. First is its simplicity: It’s just a rod, line, and fly. Also, the cast is much simpler and easier to pick up. Third, the actual mechanics of fly fishing are optimized: with Tenkara you get near perfect drifts because only the fly is touching the water. I also find the casting to be much more accurate than traditional fly fishing. It’s worthwhile because it can help you catch more fish on a dry fly which is really what every fly fisherman wants.
FE: Your rods have a 5:5 action. Can you explain to non-Tenkara readers what that means, and why you chose this particular flexibility for your rods?
SK: The action of a rod is how flexible it is. If a rod has a quick action, then the rods get rigid very quickly as you move down the rod from the tip and vice versa if it has a slow action. A 5:5 action is a slow action. I choose this action because I wanted the rod to be as flexible as possible. I knew that since my rod collapses down to just 20cm, it would have a lot of sections and a lot of joints making it very stiff. Thus I wanted an action that would help compensate for the stiffness built into my design.
FE: Interesting. Let's speak a bit about your broader overall design philosophy, are there specific trends in the fly rod industry today that you've tried to emulate? Avoid? What about keeping the cork on the rod – something which more and more manufacturers are edging away from?
SK: Simply put my design philosophy was to take a Tenkara rod and shrink it. I wanted a small rod that could fish small creeks and also could be thrown into a pocket, glove box, or handlebar bag. As for specific trends, no not particularly. I just wanted to keep my design simple. Thus, my logo was made using the drawing tools in Microsoft word and my color scheme is black and white. I didn’t believe I needed fancy packaging and paint jobs to lure people into buying my rod. My rod helps people catch fish and that’s why someone should buy it.
Also for keeping the cork handle, I like the way cork feels, all my rods have cork handles. Also cork like cherry hardwood, ages. The cork handle on my first Tiny Tenkara has darkened and worn down so that the rod has more character. I like that.
FE: Casting the net wider – do you have any role models or inspirations in the fishing industry?
SK: In the industry my role model would be Daniel Galhardo, the founder of Tenkara USA. He really brought Tenkara to the US and without him, I wouldn’t know about Tenkara. But my fishing role model would be my dad. He taught me how to fly fish and instilled this passion in me at an early age. Nearly everything I know about fly fishing; I’ve learned from him.
FE: What next for TT and for you?
SK: The next big steps would be to get more retail presence in fly shops and also to do some trade shows. I haven’t figured out what I’ll do once I graduate and have to get a full time real job somewhere, but I’ll hopefully keep shipping out rods.
FE: Finally, in these unprecedented times of COVID-19, what can we do to help support TT? What are the biggest challenges that are facing the Tenkara industry today?
SK: Despite the COVID crisis, TT is still operating normally. So if you’re interested in getting a rod please do so! If you like the rod, tell your friends. The biggest challenges facing the Tenkara industry today might be gaining widespread adoption. I still know a lot of fly fisherman who view Tenkara as merely daping. I think it’s still a very niche market, but for fishing small waters, I can’t think of a better system.
FE: Super interesting, thank you Sam!
Our chat with Sam will also appear as a video podcast on the Fishing Exploration YouTube channel shortly.
Buy a Tiny Tenkara rod here:
Use the exclusive code: EXPLO for 5% off.
Tight lines to you all.