Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Rods Tenkara

A Tenkara Rod Designer’s Notebook

It’s not everyday that outdoor enthusiasts get the chance to design their own gear. When I co-founded Badger Tenkara with Mike Lutes in 2014, we saw it more as an opportunity to expand tenkara rod fishing awareness in the US than an actual “business”. That changed rapidly as the community embraced our products and put them to work on the water.

Our underlying company philosophies guided our product design from the start. We were all about making tenkara more accessible (we almost named the company “Access Tenkara”, as it happens) so we focused on three attributes: durability, performance, and versatility. Wanting durability, we chose a more robust carbon fiber. This resulted in a slight increase of weight, but we felt we could offset that with well balanced designs. We wanted our rods to be able to address a wide range of challenges, so while our designs have purpose, they were not overly specialized to the point of pigeonholing themselves. As Mike would put it, “Civics, not Ferraris”. Each model was designed around a specific concept, but kept to performance capabilities that could be applied to many types of fishing.

Neither one of us was ever trained as a product designer, but we have a significant depth of outdoor gear use between us. We focused on the user experience and let that guide us. Our goal: Each design had to cast any type of line within reasonable expectations, perform well enough to cast and land fish enjoyably, and maybe most important, they had to be durable enough to stand up to the kind of abuse commonly delivered upon outdoor gear by Mike and yours truly. We figured if they could survive us, they would be forgiving of a beginner’s learning curve. Not an easy standard – both of us are gifted when it comes to finding ways to break something. 

We felt we hit the mark on almost all of our models and they were well received by the community. Gladly, we were able to pass the torch to Tenkara Adventure Outfitters when we had to discontinue our retail, who now offers and supports several of the Badger rod models. Each model is different had its own unique development. Here’s a little background on each design.

CLASSIC

Our first tenkara rod model, therefore the absolutely least original – a 12 foot, 6:4 profile, with a smooth tip flex. We tested candidates and flex profiles over the course of several months, and chose the one we enjoyed most to be our basic, general purpose offering. In addition to being the all around, do anything rod, It became my go-to choice for warm water and smallmouth bass in streams.

Matt Sment - Tenkara Rod Designer's Notebook - Classic

BAD AXE

The BAD AXE, named for the Bad Axe river in Wisconsin, was specifically designed based on our trout fishing on Driftless streams. Its difficult to get an adjustable rod to perform exactly the same in different positions, as changing the length changes the way it casts and plays fish. We got pretty close, and both positions perform in a consistent manner. We had the option of doing 3 positions, but both questioned the practical utility of a “middle” position? In the end, we decided that adding an additional potential point of failure was not worth the limited utility of a 3rd position.

At the time, the Bad Axe offered the longest single difference between adjustments, and may still. That also meant it has a longer overall collapsed length than most offerings, a drawback for some, but that didn’t seem to be a factor most anglers. What I really liked about it was it’s crisp tip action which makes for clean hooksets. Of the Badger quiver, it was my go-to “Summer” trout rod for throwing wets or drys, while the CLASSIC was my winter / nymphing / streamer / popper / bass choice.

UNC

This 8.5 foot, 2 ounce rod was extremely well received by the community. Named after the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources term for a creek too small to worry about naming – “Unnamed Creek”. Our original intent was an overall collapsed length of 12 inches. We went round and round with our manufacturer but they dug in their heels and essentially refused to do it. They were insistent that doing so would result in durability issues. The final design ended up just under 16 inches collapsed, which we found to be pretty handy. Just a few months later, a well known competitor introduced a line of mini rods that collapsed to 12 inches, and made an absolute killing on Kickstarter. So it goes… that’s life in the big city.

Matt Sment - Tenkara Rod Designer's Notebook - UNC

WISCO / WISCO2

Badger’s “Big fish/big water” rod was designed almost entirely around pursuing smallmouth bass on big rivers, which isn’t exactly tenkara but is an absolute blast. We saw the same task requirements that drove the use of longer, two handed grips in spey casting – heavier lines and tackle being delivered, and experimented with several grip styles, including a version that we tried to lighten by splitting the grip.

Matt Sment - Tenkara Rod Designer's Notebook - WISCO Proto
An early split grip prototype design for the WISCO

The first model sported a 20 inch monolithic grip and what we eventually decided was an overly stiff 7:3 flex. Our second design shaved 6 inches off the grip and softened some lower sections, greatly smoothing out the rod’s loading. The WISCO2 re-design was done in direct response to the feedback we got from customers on where we could improve performance, and we were really happy with the collaborative result. I’m a little biased, but I still feel its on the shortlist for most comfortable and capable “big guns” available for fixed line fishing.

SCOUT

Personally, I think this was the best overall rod design we produced. I was working closely with a well known youth organization at the time, and we coordinated testing with them in an effort to create a rod that would fish well for anyone, of any age. We put a lot of thought into the grip profile, and ended up with a grip that will fish comfortably for literally any sized human hand or height of angler, child to giant adult. We ended up with a well balanced 2 ounces and 10.5 feet, and Its able to take on just about anything you decide to do with a fixed line rod.

Matt Sment - Tenkara Rod Designer's Notebook - Scout

ROCKY CREEK

Our misfired attempt at a full flex rod profile. We wanted a more dynamic, full-flex profile for targeting smaller fish. Unfortunately, a combination of manufacturing limitations and communication issues plagued the development process. The resulting rod was a good design – but not the target we set out to hit. We never got to the full flex profile we’d been dreaming of before having to shutter the company.

OD Green Matte Finish

Our first batch of rods turned out much closer to looking like other offerings than we were comfortable with. This was due to some miscommunications between us and our manufacturer – the learning curve involved in adapting to doing business with people on the other side of world who speak a different language.

The OG109 Uniform

We wanted to go in a direction that made our products distinctly our own, and that simplified some of our manufacturing/communications issues. After some discussion, we decided on using a single color for all of our products. Neither one of us is a big fan of flashy, bright colors in the outdoors, and we wanted something that reflected the company’s personality. Not only did OD green fit the bill, but it was a callback to my old OG109 uniform that I wore during my time in the Army.

Sticking with the matte finish rather than using a glossy top coat gave the rods a distinctive look that most folks seemed to enjoy. I’m not sure if the matte, drab color makes any difference in overall stealth – because I’ve caught too many fish on neon colored lines and race car-red rods to support that at this point. That being said, If you like to use natural colors in your outdoor gear, this is about as well blended in as you can get. Be careful setting them down in tall summer Driftless grass without a marker, they DISAPPEAR!


Designing rods for the tenkara rod angling community was an incredible experience. The best part of it, to me, has been sharing the experience with others. Through calls and emails, or on social media, or in person at events and on the stream, I’ve feel blessed to have been able to share and encourage so many positive experiences with so many anglers. The rods are essential to tenkara fishing, but the fundamental payoff is the experiences we have when using them. May your rods take you amazing places!

The original Badger Tenkara designs are now available at Tenkara Adventure Outfitters.


Do you have a story to tell? A photo to share? A fly recipe that’s too good to keep secret? If you would like to contribute content to Tenkara Angler, click HERE for more details.

When you buy something using the retail links within our articles or gear shop, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Tenkara Angler does not accept money for editorial gear reviews. Read more about our policy.

1 comment

Let's Discuss in the Comments:

%d bloggers like this: