February 21, 2013

Shimano Keiryu Tenkara 34-38 ZL -- review

I have been reviewing quite a few rods lately, as you may have noticed. Reviewing rods is something that I like doing. If for nothing else, I get to fish with many different rods from different rod companies!

I have personally bought all of my rods, with the exception of the Tenkara USA Ayu series II which is on loan. Because I bought these rods, at full retail prices with my own hard earned cash, I don't feel any beholding to the company which made them. If I like them, I like them. If don't, I don't. Also, I don't personally know, or feel discipleship to, anyone who designs, makes, sells, or consults on these rods (although, for disclosure, I did meet Daniel Galhardo once for a brief moment at last year's Tenkara USA Summit in Utah. He seemed like a nice guy.  I also met Chris Stewart of Tenkara Bum. He seemed like a nice guy, too!).

Before I begin this review I want to, once again, for the sake of clarity, emphasize that my opinion about a rod is just that -- my opinion. I may like a rod that you don't and visa versa. Also, when it comes to a rod review there is no substitute for actually holding the rod in your hand and/or fishing with it. If you really want to know if you'll like a rod then do as I do, buy it and try it. If not, then see if you can borrow it from a friend. Experience trumps all verbal hyperbole!

Yeah, what ever -- lets get on with the review!

Shimano Keiryu Tenkara 34-38 ZL

I recently received this rod from Chris at Tenkara Bum. There has been some buzz on the internet about how wonderful this rod is, but mostly from folks who haven't fished the rod yet.

The rod is quite different from other tenkara rods that I have. First thing that is noticed, it is a 340 cm (11' 2") to 380 cm (12' 5") zoom rod. This is not too unconventional, although most zooms in this category are 360 cm to 390 cm, but what is different is the black EVA foam handle. The handle is 29.5 cm long with the proximal 4.5 cm being cork. This is not found on your ordinary tenkara rod! This handle has a very nice and stylish double hump or gourd shape, but it is not as exaggerated as the Nissin Zerosum 360 cm.

The 34-38 ZL comes in a typical plastic Japanese carton with a rod sock (woven, stretchy material with green sparkles -- looks like a headband from the disco era). The rod is strikingly long when fully collapsed. At 70.5 cm (27.7"), it has the appearance an antenna or radio aerial sticking out of your backpack! I don't think this rod was designed with the backpacking tenkara crowd in mind. Compared to other rods I have, the 34-38 ZL looks really long.

Bottom-to-top: Shimano 39NT , Daiwa LT36SF,  Suntech Field Master 39,  Daiwa Sagiri 39MC,  34-38 ZL and carton
Rod sock

The EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) foam lends a very nice feel to the handle. It is soft, yet not too soft and it has a pleasing non-slip feel. Why EVA foam? I'm not exactly sure, but it might have to due with the fact that good-to-high quality cork is getting very hard to find, and when it is found it is expensive. EVA foam also has better durability than cork. Many of the leading rod makers are going to this option on their rod handles. EVA foam doesn't have weight advantages over cork, so it must be cost or aesthetics.

Stunning -- like Audrey Hepburn in her black Givenchy dress!

Why the little section of cork? For looks, to stick your fly into, I don't know? It is cool though!

The next thing that is noticed is that it is shockingly lightweight. Without the tip cap it weighs just 76.1 gm. That is pretty impressive. It's not as light as the Nissin Zerosum 360 cm but then again, this rod is a zoom rod. They are typically a little heavier. Also, the Shimano is a 390 cm rod, so 76.1 gm is freaking amazing!

The rod is a dark black, with a glossy finish. The carbon is high modulus in what Shimano calls "Muscle Carbon". This is high density fibers in the same wall thickness as most other rods. Also, some of the fibers are spiraled around the longitudinal carbon fibers reportedly increasing the rod's strength. I don't know if both of these really help resist breakage, but I hope I don't find out!

The tip plug is wood and is quite long. I drilled mine, as I do with all my rods, to accept a Dacron loop. The butt cap is covered in the same EVA foam as the handle. It has a rubber bumper to silence the collapsed segments. The lilian is attached directly; no micro-swivel.

Tip  plug (measure in cm)

Butt cap

It sounds like I'm completely enamored with this rod, doesn't it. Well, just hold on, I'm getting to some characteristics I don't care for.

Casting the rod really surprised me. After I took the rod out of its plastic carton, I extended it to the 340 cm length and dry casted it. Unlike Chris Stewart, who apparently liked the feel, I too said "Wow" but because I didn't expect the rod to be so soft! Chris describes the feel as "very crisp" but I don't equate this rod as crisp. To me this rod is soft in action and smooth in arc, but not crisp. I guess I should have expected this from its Common Cents Scale (CCS) rating. At 340 cm it is rated as 19 penny; at 380 cm 14 penny. This should have told me that the rod is on the softer side of what I like, more like a 5:5 full flex rod, but the word "crisp" threw me. For my waters and average fish size, I prefer a 21-23 penny rod. I'm not saying that Chris is wrong and I am right; to the contrary. The CCS clearly told me what the rod was like and I didn't listen! It is completely my fault, not his!

I liken the feel of this rod to my Daiwa Sagiri 39MC, except that the Sagiri is a little stiffer in the lower segments. Also, when fully extended, the 34-38 ZL is noticeably softer in action, like the Tenkara USA Ito fully extended, while the Sagiri 39MC is not.

I took the 34-38 ZL to the river the other day and fished it for a while. I was hoping it would grow on me. At what it costs, I was really, really hoping it would grow on me. I used a 12 foot, #3.5 line and fished an unweighted fly. I must admit it does cast very smoothly with that particular line attached, no overshoot or oscillation that I can perceive. Targeting was very accurate in the 340 cm configuration; a little less so in the 380 cm, but not bad.

I only hooked one fish, and he was a little guy. He did not test the rod at all, except that you definitely could feel him on the line! I dropped him in the snow just before releasing him. Here he is:

To give the rod another try, I took it on a different day to different waters. This river has a higher CFS flow and higher gradient. I thought it would be a good testing ground to see if this rod could handle modest size trout in fast water.

At first I tied on an unweighted sakasa kebari. After getting used to the smooth rhythm of this rod's action I could put the fly anywhere I wanted without difficulty. I fished the sakasa kebari for a while, and not hooking anything, I decided to change to a #14 beadhead nymph. Yes, I changed flies, and while I know that is a tenkara "no no", I wanted to hook some trout to feel them on the 34-38 ZL. The sakasa kebari was obviously not the "one fly" for today.  In just a few minutes after switching flies I was into my first trout. It was a nice 14 inch cutthroat. The current was brisk and the rod could not control the trout as well as, say, my Daiwa LT36SF. But, after guiding the fish to a hydraulic cushion upstream of a large rock I was able to net her.

It's faster than it looks.

The first cutthroat

A few casts later, I hooked another cutthroat. This one was about 11 inches. There was no issue getting her in.

The second cutthroat

Upstream from there I hooked a few browns. The largest was 14 inches, but most were in the 8-10 inch range. Again, the rod had issues controlling the larger fish, but not the little ones. The current plays a large role in controlling the hooked trout with the 34-38 ZL. Since it is not a stiff rod, heck it bends all the way to the handle with a 10 inch trout,  there is very little "backbone". You have to let the fish swim and tire itself out upstream from you, then let it come into your net. You can't "horse" them into the net with this rod!

Mid-thigh deep and pretty swift

The large brown
A smaller brown
and another,

and finally another.

Finally, I did hook and net a Mountain Whitefish. This one was about 14 inches. I wasn't sure I'd get her to the net, but I was able to get her swimming just upstream from me for a few moments, then I lifted her head quickly. This brought her head out of the water and she couldn't swim. The swift current swept her into my waiting net.

The whitefish

The rod after a few hours fishing. Ready to go home.

Conclusion: I like this rod, mostly.  I can say that I love the look, the handle shape and materials, the weight, and I love the concept of 340 cm to 380 cm zoom. I am disappointed in the collapsed length of 70.5 cm (27.7") particularly if this rod is designed to be a portable rod. At that length it is definitely not backpacking friendly. As far as its action, I am OK with it, but I could of wished it to be just a little stiffer -- say a good solid 20 penny in both configurations. I do much prefer to cast it in the 340 cm configuration; less so in the 380 cm. I can say that the rod casts effortlessly and is very, very smooth with a #3.5 level line.

I consider this rod a speciality rod. If you live in the eastern US, and fish mainly small streams with native brook trout or small browns (less than 14 inches) then this rod may fill your bill (if you can get it through your heavy undergrowth). If you live in the Midwest or South and want a rod that would be fun with sunfish, then this rod may fill your bill as well (I think a Bluegill of this rod would be a blast). But is you live in the Rocky Mountain or Intermountain West, where stream gradients are high and many trout are routinely over 16-18 inches, then you may want to be careful with this rod. It is not a "big" fish rod, IMO. It is a headwaters, small-moderate size trout, rod. I will not use tippet over a 5X as I would rather loose a 18 inch rainbow to some rapids than risk breaking the rod. It's too expensive to break, and not being a Tenkara USA rod, it may be hard to get replacement parts (but Chris Stewart may be able to help get them). And warranty?  -- ya right, that would probably be difficult to collect on since I don't live in Japan.

One last thing. The foam handle now smells of fish. I washed it under a tap but it still smells of fish. It appears that EVA foam may not clean off as well as cork. I'll see if it still smells in the morning after drying. I just thought you'd like to know.

Want one? Contact Chris Stewart at Tenkara Bum.

Here is the video of some of these fish:


  1. Nice review Tom. I have found the rod to be the same as you describe. After you catch the first few fish, you can immediately feel that this rod is designed for the average sized trout/char in most Japanese tenkara streams. 10-14 inches in length. Dr. Ishigaki did caution me about hunting big fish with this rod when we were playing with the prototype together.

    John Vetterli

    1. Thanks, John. I believe I'll have a lot of fun with this rod. I wish it was shorter when collapsed though, but I'm sure Dr. Ishigaki designed it as such to help with its weight and bend profile.


  2. As for the longer collapsed length I think this falls in with the Diawa DSG series rods as this rod is similar in length if I recall correctly to the DSG35LL rod I had been considering. One thing I really like it it looks like the lillian is attached really well to the tip section by a good bit when looking at it. Feels like a light weight Ebisu and seems to have a similar flex to the Ebisu as well.

    1. Yes, it is a soft rod. I sold my Ebisu so I can't compare. Is the DSG series still in production? It is off Daiwa's website.


    2. Chris thinks they discontinued the DSG series this year as he didn't see it at the Okinawa (I think) show that he attended. Just finished watching your video and it does seem to have a real similar profile to the Ebisu which I recently sold. Definitely want to get mine out hopefully this storm dumps some snow and moves out quickly. If you scroll down just a bit you can see the bend profile on the DSG rod over at Tenkara Fisher. http://www.tenkara-fisher.com/showthread.php?68-Available-Tenkara-Rods Thanks again for your time spent reviewing this rod.

    3. It was the Osaka Show, I just went and checked Chris' site.

    4. Thanks. Good information!


  3. Thanks for the review. Very helpful, including the comparisons to rods I know so I can assess better what the feel may be like. Sounds like not one I'd like, I tend to prefer the slightly stiffer rods like iwana and field master 32-39 even to my own sagiri a lot of the time. But I'm in the minority, and it sounds like a well designed rod that is well suited to the majority who prefer the softer but controlled rods.
    The other Craig :-)

    1. I was fishing with the 34-38 ZL yesterday and I lost a nice brown -- probably over 16 inches. I hooked him above a small cascade. He shot over the cascade and I could not control him with the rod. He broke the 5X tippet. I'm not sure, but maybe I could have kept him from going over the cascade if I was using the Field Master or LT36SF.


  4. Got to know how's the fishy smell? Not that it is a big thing for me but wondering if it dissipated.

    1. It was reduced by the morning, after drying. It is still there but much, much less.


  5. Thanks for the review! Maybe it's just me but foam grips bring back memories of the cheapest of the cheap fishing rods I fished when I was a kid. IMO, they don't have a place on rods of this price.

    Tom in OH

    1. I too was concerned but it seems that more rods in the upper price ranges are going with EVA foam. I guess we'll see if it is worth it after using it a while.


  6. Tom, thanks for anofher very nice and honest review.
    The smell absorption characteristic is the one
    thing that makes me avoid foam grips.

    Softer rods are nice to cast and have good feel
    But suffer when it comes to control larger fish.

    I guess this one is not for me.