Article by Steven Maichak
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
In our modern world in which an abundance of high-tech solutions are the norm, tenkara fly fishing is the anti-hero anglers need to remind ourselves of why we originally fell in love with fishing. While advanced materials and complex equipment flood the shelves of our local sporting goods stores, tenkara harkens back to a time when cutting edge meant a cane pole, natural fiber line, simple float, and a half dozen hooks. With no more than a rod, fixed line, and fly, tenkara fly fishing offers simplicity as a counterculture to the fishing industry’s push for selling gear that entices buyers to bite more so than the fish themselves.
My newest state of residence, Utah, is a cutthroat haven with four distinct subspecies, so it’s only natural that I decided to take part in the art of fly fishing. Tenkara, unique for its slim and trim approach, makes a healthy trout feel like a tuna on the end of your line. Because I spent my first 23 years basking in the glory of all the warm water fisheries of Oklahoma, fly fishing was a complete mystery to me. I bought my sister a proper tenkara rod made by one of the big name manufacturers, and I of course wanted one for myself, but I didn’t want to throw down another $150 for a new rod that may never see the use it deserves.
There are numerous options available for anglers who want to dip their toes into the streamlined world of tenkara. In fact, dedicated tenkara rods run the gamut from under $10 all the way up to the more refined options that demand more than a couple Benjamins. Perhaps, the best entry level values are the complete combo packages from Maxcatch and Angler Dream that come with all the basics a person needs to get on the water and start catching fish. After researching online the only other options I could find were the high-dollar mass produced rods or bargain bin telescoping rods that simply looked clunky or ill fit for dedicated tenkara style fly fishing.
However, I didn’t find those options appealing enough for me. I had an alternative route in mind, and I just couldn’t shake the thought. That’s why I decided to commit to the idea of making my own tenkara rod – something with the “proper” aesthetics, dimensions, casting fluidity, zoom capabilities, and portability of the rods made by the big name manufacturers. Follow along as I present my tutorial for how to construct a DIY zoom-takedown tenkara rod outfit, a creation I christened the Carbon Cutthroat.
Rod Blank – $49
I wish I could tell you I designed the rod dimensions and made the graphite rod blank myself, but that would be a lie. What I can do, however, is describe my reasoning behind my particular rod blank selection. It took awhile to track down with most other rod blanks either being too short or too stiff, but I eventually found just what I needed.
The rod blank used as the foundation for my creation was far and away my most important decision, and I spent the bulk of my time on this particular part of the process. My primary inspiration for both my rod design and this overall project came from a YouTube video by John Davenport. I spent a lot of time perusing the Internet before I finally found exactly what I needed with eBay having the most usable options for a “proper” tenkara rod. My selection happened to be an 11’ 2/3 wt 4-piece switch fly rod blank from Get Bent Fly Shop. Get Bent offers other rod blanks of various lengths and weights that are also suitable for tenkara, however, I felt my particular selection would be an ideal balance for trout, pan fish, and small bass.
Each rod section measures 34.5” in length, and the blank even came with a partitioned sleeve for organized storage while protecting from simple scuffs and scratches. Though less svelte and convenient than the telescoping designs from the big name manufacturers, the tip-over-butt ferrule system does allow “zoom” capabilities. I can fish the rod with all four sections at 11’, the three thinnest sections at 8’3”, or the two tip sections at 5’7”, which rivals the impressive Tiny Ten Rod from Tiny Tenkara. I also suspect I could create a quick-attach/detach lillian that would allow me to fish the three thickest sections for an 8’3” 4/5 wt rod. The versatility of my selection means I won’t have a need to purchase or make another rod in order to match all the diverse fishing scenarios I will be likely to encounter.
The entire rod blank weighs a minuscule 2.2 ounces, casts my line with grace and precision, and transfer even the lightest hits with great sensitivity. The 5:5 flex profile means it has no issue bending like a question mark, and it bow and arrow casts acceptably well. At the end of the day, it has no issues hauling in stringers big enough to fill my belly, all while breaking down into a portable package under 3’ in length. If I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t hesitate to get the same Get Bent rod blank, but I might go with the 3/4 wt counterpart for the added backbone and tip strength. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t. I don’t expect to be catching tons of trophy size trout with my outfit, so I’d rather enjoy the fight of the smaller fish I’ll be typically catching.
Grip – $7
I debated for several days about which material to use for the rod grip. I primarily considered cork, a high-density foam, paracord, and baseball grip wrap. The final decision was the baseball grip wrap.
The wrap maintains a slim profile that gives it more of a traditional Japanese rod aesthetic, and it provides a great purchase even when wet. A part of me wishes I had gone with a cork grip that fills my hand a bit more, but I can’t deny I shied away from deviating from the black color scheme. All said, I am plenty happy with the end result, and it slides into the rod sleeve much more easily with the thin grip profile.
Lillian – $1 in combined materials
Searching for the perfect rod blank took me the longest amount of time, but devising how to attach a lillian required the most ingenuity due to the rod tip not being hollow like the mass produced tenkara rods. I wanted a permanent solution that isn’t permanently affixed to the rod. It needed to be strong and secure without damaging the tip, but I also wanted it to be easily removable if needed.
My initial design replicated that of John Davenport by using a 4-6 stud electrical ring terminal. I tried using 3/32 – 3/64″ heat shrink tubing to secure the ring terminal, but the tubing wasn’t big enough to fit over the stud, which then forced me to incorporate electrical tape – not a sleek design by anyone’s standard. For a second there, I thought I figured out a creative way to overcome the conundrum of attaching a lillian, and it was a pretty decent idea that certainly would’ve worked, but it wasn’t the best idea possible. With tenkara emphasizing simplicity, I found myself to be the second ‘S’ in the K.I.S.S. method.
Fortunately, I was struck with a better idea that was staring me in the face using the same shrink tubing I now had on hand. All I had to do was remove the ring terminal and replace it with my new idea that is more true to tenkara’s elegant form anyways. The following photo sequence shows my process for creating the lillian.
My thought behind the spiral wrap is that it will prevent the lillian from being pulled straight out. This was the most difficult part of the construction. Of course, difficult is a relative term as it only required a little patience on my end to tinker with the setup before securing the lillian. I probably didn’t need to double up on the heat shrink tubing, and it certainly takes away a little sleekness from the end of the rod, but my hope is it will prolong the life of that portion of the build.
Line – $20 for two furled lines, $4 for tippet
The line is where I got caught up in the DIY mentality a little too much. I thought I would be able to circumnavigate the issues of homemade lines so many other anglers warned about throughout the Internet, but I should have heeded their cautions from the get-go. First, I created a line using the 20 lbs. orange fly line backing that was also used for the lillian, but it was far too limp to deliver the fly on target, certainly not with any extended range. I then made a line using a single strand of the only standard fishing line I had laying around, 8 lbs. monofilament, but it too was a monumental failure. The monofilament line wouldn’t turn over, and the fly barely made it to the water when casting from the bank.
In the end, I decided tenkara-specific lines were the only way to go. I no longer wanted to continue scheming workarounds and purchased two orange and black (remember, we have a theme going now) Maxcatch furled lines. Through the first part of the experimental phase I used Rio 7X tippet but quickly switched over to 4X when I realized how frustrating it is to untangle tippet with such a delicately thin diameter. Once I feel I have mastered the furled line I intend to graduate to Dragontail’s hi-vis level line as it seems to be the best value available for both price and spool length.
Tackle Essentials – $10 + dealer’s choice on flies
Of course, I needed to invest in an assortment of flies, so I went down the road to my local sporting goods store. There, I purchased a micro tackle box for $2, forceps for $8, and hand-picked a baker’s dozen assortment of flies for another $12. I figured the flies were a pretty good bargain, but I also had no idea which ones I should be purchasing, so I picked a wide variety that looked like it would carry me through the late winter, spring, and summer months. However, I did a bit of research and found the ‘killer bug’ pattern to supposedly be a year-round trout slayer, so I used the remnants of an Amazon gift card to purchase a pack of a dozen killer bugs.
Travel Tube – $3 in materials
As mentioned earlier, my rod blank came with a partitioned travel sleeve, but I wanted something more robust for those times when my rod starts rattling around in the back of the truck with heavier gear. The cheapest suitable material I could come up with, while sticking to the all-black theme, was ABS plumbing pipe with a 2” inside diameter. My local plumbing supplier didn’t have any scrap lengths long enough for my needs, so I was forced to purchase a full 10’ pipe, but the cashier threw in the end caps for free.
I took a hacksaw to the pipe to remove a 37” section so I would have a little wiggle room on each end for the rod. Remembering I had an old exercise foam mat laying around in my materials cache, I decided to give it a workout by creating some internal padding within the tube wall as well as on the insides of the end caps. I quickly spray painted the foam mat pieces to… well, I don’t know why I did that because it wasn’t necessary. Nonetheless, the padding fills the void perfectly while allowing my rod to slide down into the tube without any free play for rattling.
The final step in creating my travel tube was devising how to create a shoulder strap. A strap isn’t necessary for the travel tubes used to protect the mass produced telescoping tenkara rods because their lengths are so much shorter when retracted, allowing them to fit nicely into backpacks. However, my travel tube is long enough and thick enough that it would be a nuisance to carry in hand while hiking deep into the backcountry during a trout fishing expedition. The primary design feature I wanted to incorporate was a way to secure the end caps to the strap so they can’t be misplaced. I grabbed some black paracord I had laying around and braided a strap that works well when orienting the tube diagonally across my back.
Line Spools – free materials already on hand
Line spools seemed like a proven, effective way to have pre-rigged lines ready to go in a compact form, so I made some of my own using the exercise foam mat.
To accomplish this I smashed one of the travel tube’s end caps into the mat six times to score the foam with clean circle impressions. I used a fine point marker to trace the outer edges of four circles and inner edges of two other circles. Then, I ran a razor blade through the mat to cut out each circle. I determined the difference in diameter between the smaller and larger circles wasn’t enough, so I used a Dremel to reduce the smaller circles’ diameters a little more. When I was satisfied with those I then super glued the layers together to create spools. I also used the Dremel to plunge holes into the centers of each spool should I ever need to carry them on the rod.
If you make your own spools in the same way I did, then I recommend you also super glue the internal seams once more to prevent the layers from peeling apart.
Fishing Pack – $16
As the final accessory, I needed a way to carry all my new gear. In an effort to stay true to the slim and trim nature of tenkara, I purchased a simple waterproof fanny pack. Now, I’ll fit in with all the old-timers on the stream…or maybe it would be best to say I won’t stand out as much against the backdrop of older gentleman with western fly gear and bucket hats.
Personalization – $8
As the icing on the cake, I wanted a way to personalize my rod with a name. The first thing that came to mind was vinyl letter decals, so that’s what I went with. It’s a little hard to admit I spent $8 on some simple letter decals, but we can agree it’s the small details that often make the biggest differences in presentation. Is that the case with my rod? Perhaps not, but I was willing to splurge on my creation to give it that extra little bit of refinement.
The costs listed are not for the sum totals to purchase materials not already on hand. In other words, I am not taking into account the cost of the entire 10’ ABS pipe, complete spool of fly line backing, or full package of shrink tubing. Instead, I am assessing cost on a ‘per unit’ basis. All prices listed are the amounts I paid during time of purchase. Items are listed in my order of importance. Your costs and order of importance may vary.
The total for the entire tenkara outfit I listed in the table amounts to $140.
I’ll let you determine what items are essential versus optional for your needs. The bare bones essentials needed to go fishing are the rod with lilian, a single line, a spool of tippet, and a single fly for a total of $65. Of course, I would never hit the water with just those items, but you can see how my breakdown of items allows you to determine how much your own DIY tenkara outfit might cost. Consider yourself ahead of the game if you already have some of these items.
At the end of the day, my complete package listed above cost me less than most of the mass produced rods, which often come with a travel tube, furled line, some tippet, and a few flies to get you going. However, my DIY package easily surpasses the value of those high-dollar options by also including an extra line, two spools, two dozen flies, a tackle box, and forceps. When compared to the high value combo kits from Maxcatch and Angler Dream, I am humble enough to admit my package does not quite meet the same value. However, I can say my rod does provide significantly better variability in its zoom capabilities to the point of essentially being three rods in one.
Summary of Rod Qualities
– Travel compactness (compared to most baitcasting, spinning, and western fly tackle)
– Zoom capabilities with large variability between each length
– Supreme value compared to high-dollar, mass produced rods
– Satisfaction from catching fish by using a rod of my own design
– Compactness for travel (compared to telescoping rod options)
– Time required to source materials and piece them all together
– “Slow” deployment and retraction
– No manufacturer warranty
As mentioned at the beginning of this tutorial, you can purchase any number of different rod options for well under the price I paid for mine, and they’ll all catch more fish than you can count. After all, people around the world have been successfully filling their bellies using less sophisticated equipment for centuries long before the advent of graphite rods. I could have easily kept my spending at a fraction of what I did, but my end product is irrefutably one of a kind. It may not have flashy branding, a refined finish, or a suite of boutique grade materials, but it will compete with the best of its manufacturer made competitors and put one helluva grin on my face.
I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t have to do much except scheme a clever way to attach the lillian and make a simple travel tube. But that’s exactly the point – you don’t have to invest a lot of time or money for a new fishing experience, and your homemade creation doesn’t have to give up the aesthetics or fishability of a manufacturer produced rod.
You too can build your own DIY tenkara rod. It wouldn’t take you long to search around the Internet to find creative anglers making their own homemade tenkara setups for considerably less than my own rod build. Many of them even incorporate the revered telescoping design. Tenkara is a fun new fishing niche we can all explore, but that doesn’t mean we should have to shell out a couple hundred dollars before being able to wet our lines. All you have to do is complete a few quick online searches for design inspirations, source some cost effective materials, grab a handful of your favorite flies, and you too will be able to fashion a tenkara package fit for your next fishing adventure.
As for me, it’s fair to say I’ve found my new on-the-go truck setup for those times when a surprise water body beckons to be fished. There’s something to be said for catching a fish, however small it might be, with my own creation. The fish will never know the difference, but I will, and that in turn makes all the difference. I hope to cherish my creation well into the future on unnamed streams deep within our vast wildlands. Maybe we’ll even run into each other out there. Until then, I bid you good luck during your DIY tenkara rod building experience.
There’s only one rule I expect you to remember: I already called dibs on Carbon Cutthroat.
“To an English eye the native [Japanese] method of fly-fishing will be rude; but it is justified by its results.” – Basil Hall Chamberlain, 1890
Steven Maichak is a conservation field biologist and the writer behind Adventure Life Freelance (advfreelance.com). His fishing roots are in Oklahoma, but he first cast his tenkara line in the mountain streams of Utah where he now lives in pursuit of the state’s Cutthroat Slam.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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