“Homegrown Tenkara,” or How to Make the Best of a Broken Fly Rod in the Backcountry

Written by: Mike Dawkins, WorldCast Anglers

It is a common misconception that people in fly-fishing industry in the Rocky Mountain West get to fish a lot during the summer. But during the busy time of the season, my time on the water is pretty limited. Most of my time is spent in the fly shop and office recommending patterns and talking to others about fishing, but the activity of fishing itself sometimes vanishes in the breeze. On the flip side, each moment I get to spend fishing and on the water is special and never taken for granted.

Mondays are my personal days. Grocery store, bank, oil change, hardware store, clean the house, do laundry for the upcoming week, mow the lawn, weed the vegetable garden—the list goes on. You get the idea: it’s usually my day to basically get my life together from the crazy times of being a partner and manager of a fly fishing outfitter and retailer from May through October.

I had spent the previous day camping and fishing up in the Gros Ventre Wilderness and National Forest area outside of Jackson Hole with some friends, but strong thunderstorms and rain, as well as the Gros Ventre river rising and decreasing in clarity, helped me make the decision that I should head back home. I had a garage full of wet and dirty camping gear to clean, organize and put away, as well as my normal Monday chores, ahead of me.

But I thought to myself, “Michael, why don’t you get this stuff done and then head out to wade fish for the afternoon since your camping trip was cut short?” The  gleaming from the eyes of my 4 year old Black Labrador, Tui , seemed to say, “Great idea, let’s do it!” My chores were completed at a record pace and Tui and I were headed over Pine Creek Pass for a little afternoon session on one of my favorite tributary creeks.

Nothing like discovering an extra piece in your fly-rod case when you’re already at the trailhead.
Photo by Mike Dawkins

I arrived at the trailhead a little past 3:30 pm. I wasn’t worried about any other anglers ahead of me, as it was Monday and that time in the day when most anglers would have started their hike back to the truck. Plus, I was very familiar with the area and knew exactly where I wanted to go and needed to be. Life was good!

I unloaded Tui out of the truck, grabbed my fishing pack with day-hike essentials (water, rain jacket, bear spray, etc.) and unzipped my rod/reel case to rig up my four-piece fly rod for some afternoon Cutthroat dry dropper fun! Unfortunately, I counted <em>five</em> rod pieces. The tip middle section of my fly rod was broken about 6 inches from the bottom portion of the ferrule! “You have got to be kidding me,” I yelled at myself.

I wasn’t angry about the rod being broken. In my experiences with outdoor sports, equipment breaks all the time, mostly due to my error. This rod had been through the paces the past three years, and I am surprised it didn’t bust into more pieces earlier in the summer. I was mostly discouraged because I did not bring a spare rod, I had driven 45 minutes to the trailhead, bugs were hatching, and hoppers were buzzing everywhere around me. The fishing was going to be awesome, and I was going to have to just turn around and head back home.

“Heck with that,” I said to myself. “I am going to make this work, “ I said to Tui as he stared at me in amazement when he realized that his owner was an idiot for bringing a broken rod with him from a garage that was filled with more fly-fishing gear than most human beings could use in three lifetimes. “If those Tenkara guys catch fish, then this will work, ” I muttered to myself as I stripped off 30 feet of fly line off my reel, cut it with my nippers from my fishing lanyard and loaded it on the pathetic 29 inches of rod tip and tip middle section that I deemed fit for use. “Look at this,” I chatted to Tui as I cast a tight loop of 30 feet of fly line. I could tell he was not impressed. I tossed my GoPro in my pack just in the event we actually caught a fish on such a junk show of a set up. We headed up the trail, and “Homegrown Tenkara” was born!

Tui and I spent the entire afternoon and early evening hopping and jumping from pool to pool with the “Homegrown Tenkara” setup. To be honest, it worked! The cutthroats didn’t care what mechanics were used for the presentation of the fly; it just needed to be drag-free and look natural. And that is what we did. We fished big dry flies, little dry flies, and dry-dropper rigs. I skipped the streamers.

We missed a lot of fish, hooked some, and lost even more. All in all, it was sort of fun when I got the hang of it. Don’t get me wrong; I would have rather had a rod that consisted of more than a tip section and a 30 feet of fly line. However, it was simple (not easy) and a new challenge and twist on some of the water where I am blessed and fortunate to call home! At the end of the day, I had a broken Helios fly rod, a chopped up fly line that was no longer usable in any shape or form, a tired and exhausted black Labrador, and huge smile on my face!

I guess I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but my “Homegrown Tenkara” days are over. It was fun while it lasted and a great way to spend the afternoon and evening on the water, but I now can relate and have first-hand experiences into the frustrations and creative thought processes of why fly anglers created the fly reel. What a genius idea and invention, but most importantly, I’m happy about the Orvis rod shop and its team of technicians that fix our fly rods so that we don’t have to fish with just the tip sections. What a horrible world it would be without them!

The author and Tui had the stream to themselves, so broken rod be damned.
Photo by Mike Dawkins

6 Things I learned from my “Homegrown Tenkara” experience:

1. Always bring and carry an extra rod with you at all times. This entire story would hot have happened had I had simply thrown an extra rod into my truck when I left my house. Easy enough, right?

2. Homegrown Tenkara is not all it is cracked up to be. To be honest, it’s pretty much brutal. Don’t’ try this if you don’t have to. Think of it as an act of survival, not everyday life.

3. Remember to de-barb your hooks. This is a good practice to follow when fishing in all situations; however, I guarantee that you will hook yourself during your experience. You will hook yourself a lot! Think beadhead droppers to the back of the head and dry flies stuck in your shirt and arm; it will happen. Throw in a 75-pound Black Labrador, and they will get hooked as well. Trust me on this one. Tui no longer thinks Chubby Chernobyls are that great of a fly pattern.

4. Setting the hook and landing fish is as tough as it gets. You will lose a lot of fish. A lot. Think of all that length of the rod you are missing to pick up the line to set the hook or as the cushion for every surge and pull that a hooked fish makes and throws at you. Now the game is played with 29 inches of graphite, your arm, your leader, tippet, fly and most importantly, your knots. Don’t get discouraged! This is supposed to be fun, right!?

5. Your fly line, leader and tippet will get caught around every stick, stone, log, leaf, tree, bush, backpack, waist pack, hat, GoPro, watch, Labrador retriever, wading shoe, and body limb available. Get ready to bring your patience meter up a couple of notches! Remember: It’s not like you have a fly rod to break over your knee if you lose your cool.

6. Last but not least and the most important: if you are using a textured fly line in your Homegrown Tenkara set up (I was using 30 feet of Orvis Hydros 3D WF5F) and you are dragging it behind you to avoid knots and tangles (as I did most of the time moving from spot to spot), it will sound like some wild creature is following you. Don’t laugh; it is simply not funny in grizzly bear country!

Mike Dawkins is the Chief Operating Officer/Retail Manager of WorldCast Anglers in Victor, Idaho, and Jackson, Wyoming.

4 thoughts on ““Homegrown Tenkara,” or How to Make the Best of a Broken Fly Rod in the Backcountry”

  1. It doesn’t help to call it Tenkara. It’s not exactly courteous. Our writer is fishing something closer to what that Macedonian was using centuries ago and what came go be known as a “loop” rod–for the loop at the rod’s top to which the line was attached, dead off.

  2. Excellent story! Good thinking to adapt to the circumstances and make the best of a broken rod. Not for nothing, though, the things you cite as lessons learned from your “homegrown tenkara” experience shouldn’t be mistaken for how tenkara fishing with suitable rod, line, and fly is usually done. Once you figure out how to cast, strike, and land a fish with a tenkara rod, it’s pretty easy – and a whole lot of fun! Just like standard fly fishing, tenkara takes some practice. Tenkara is a highly advanced and technical way to fish (as opposed to “traditional” or “ancient.” Homegrown tenkara? Like you say, it’s probably best done when there’s no other option or contingency. Thanks for the story!

  3. What you had was the exact opposite of tenkara. The essence of tenkara is a long rod and extremely light line. What you had was an extremely short rod and a heavy PVC line.

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