Over the years Adam Trahan produced good content about tenkara, particularly in the form of interviews, on his website tenkara-fisher.com. But, while he’s often been the interviewer Adam has not yet been the interviewee. I thought you’d enjoy learning a bit more about who Adam is and where his experiences with tenkara have taken him.
Daniel: Adam, I’ll start by talking to you about Japan. You just put out a nice resource asking a few people who have spent time in Japan learning tenkara about their experiences. This includes yourself, who went to Japan last year and spent time visiting tenkara anglers. It has been very cool to see more people going to Japan with a focus on learning more about tenkara. What made you decide to visit?
Adam: Adventure! That’s the main reason. Going to Japan, a country that I have been pouring over in historical tenkara research for years, sharing time with Japanese friends on Facebook seeing their pictures and information feed, reading about your trips to Japan, I had to go.
There were other reasons too, I wanted to fish with my friend Satoshi Miwa. He is a Western Fly Angler, we met at smallstreams.com We had been conversing about his favorite streams and I came out and asked him if he would help me visit. “Of course!” he said, thinking that I was being diplomatic and not really going to visit.
So we began to plan my visit. I was counting off the days and when it got down to one week away, I became nervous, edgy and started to think that I didn’t want to go so far away by myself. I was struggling with knowing that I would soon leave my house and get on three plane rides, going to the other side of the world then driving many hours to a mountain lodge to go fishing with people that I never meet. That last week was rough. I was second-guessing my choices.
My wife helped me with my nervous apprehension about the trip. Before I left, you (Daniel) helped me with my indecision about fishing “one fly.” Because of you, I left my little box of comfortable Western patterns.
The alarm went off early that morning at my home and I began my journey. I got up and got dressed. Each step took me farther from my home. The Airport Shuttle picked me up and I just kept going. After the three plane rides and a few hour drive, literally twenty four hours later I was fishing tenkara in the streams of the Central Mountains of Japan. I was in a real dream and it was everything that I had researched and hoped for.
The process of planning the trip was quite simple; the hardest thing about the trip was to leave that little Wheatley fly box. It had all my years of hard earned confidence in it. I was nervously placing my new found faith in the Sakasa Kebari. I had made many good decisions based on experience and faith.
Daniel: Did you feel there were things about tenkara you could only learn by visiting Japan?
Adam: Before I visited, yes, and now that I have gone to Japan and have fished there?
Before I went to Japan, I did not know what to believe. In my thoughts, I challenged everything that was being “sold” to me. Not everyone has good ethics when it comes to marketing. I wanted to know for myself what tenkara in Japan was all about. I just wanted the truth, not an idea of what it could be, I wanted what tenkara was and I found it in Japan. I found out that you had done a good job, I found what you were telling us all along, I was experiencing it in my own visit.
Some people just go “fishing” and nothing more, I get it. I go fishing to relax and I really enjoy taking a nap in the grass during a day of fishing a small stream. I enjoy it so much that I want to fish when I am at home so I research every aspect of fishing that I can in my free time. A foreign style of fishing, a style so new, I want to know if there was something that I am missing. A lot of my fishing is done at home. This comes from the Internet and promoting forum member’s stories by publishing their writing at my web sites. It also comes from research into the tools and techniques of building and making fishing rods.
When it came to Japan, I had read your accounts and it was very attractive to me to dream about. With your articles and my own friends in Japan, I crafted a visit.
I enjoy adventure and exploring the unknown. “I’m going fishing in the central mountains of Japan” sounded so appealing to me and now that I have tasted it, I want to do it more.
I was the only Westerner that I saw during the first week while I was there. During my stay, I found that you (Daniel) where very respected by the Japanese fishing community. They all wanted to know if I knew you. Although tenkara in Japan is not that popular, your accuracy in reporting on it is excellent. You brought your competitors with you along for the ride. You love tenkara and it’s more important for you to teach it than it is for you to sell rods. You just want to be a part of it.
That is all I want too, just to be a part of it. I am not interested in selling anything or anyone. It is my only goal to build a bridge between Japan and the rest of the world for tenkara anglers to cross. To that, I think that I am doing ok, but there is always room for improvement.
Perspective seems to be a word that is always just a short reach anywhere in my experiences. Daniel, I enjoy your perspective on Japanese tenkara and now Paul Gaskell and John Pearson’s perspectives as well. You guys put so much accurate information out there, free to the public. What you have effectively shown me is that you are more interested in sharing tenkara than profiting from it. No one needs to go to Japan to really know the background and techniques of tenkara. With all the good information out there, you can learn from your computer, you can learn by doing it yourself on your local stream.
A trip to Japan is just a great tenkara adventure.
Daniel: You have been involved in the online fly-fishing community for quite a long time, and you also started the popular smallstreams.com fly-fishing forum. You obviously see the power of the Internet to establish connections with and among people. You also have a full-time job and a family. Tell us, what motivates you to spend time managing the online resources for the community?
Adam: It’s not the interview with the big name that motivates me. It’s the everyday person that writes about fishing and does it from the heart. That story is not perfect, it is often choppy and is not polished but within those words are the magic of tenkara and the harmony of the forest stream. I can go fishing with you by the words you share; often I am taken along with you by your words.
The reason why I started making forum based portal web sites was that there are a whole lot more small stream fly fishers found online than in magazines or books. It seems we have the common denominator in that we often fish alone and in the overlooked waters. We are not headhunters looking for giant trout. But we are looking for the largest trout in the smallest of streams. The beauty of a six-inch trout in the pristine forest with mossy rocks, sun glinting off of the dew in the tall grass… It’s so quiet, so beautiful.
Magazines or books rarely focus on these small waters. So I filled a void by writing about it myself. Others started sharing their stories and I was so happy to elevate their stories to the front page of our site. I began to see people getting together because of these forum friendships. I wrote “how to” tutorials about making your own web site. I learned how to put people together to help each other build rod, tie flys, how to teach yourself by helping others. I gave out the information that I wanted and in return, people shared their experience at our community.
It is a way that I can fish while being at home and able to leave it when I needed and then come back to it.
I live in Phoenix, Arizona, the sixth largest state in America. Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the United States with something like two million people in the metropolitan area, you would think that there is a thriving community of small stream fly fishers or tenkara anglers here but there isn’t. Phoenix is in the middle of a desert. We used to have four or five dedicated fly-fishing shops in Phoenix, now there are none. There are two forest stream zones, two and four hours away by car. Phoenix is in the Sonoran desert where there are only two limited rivers within an hour’s drive one that is stocked in the winter with rubber (rainbow) trout.
My favorite streams are a solid two and four hour drive on a highway with quite a hike when you arrive. It takes a lot of effort to go fishing for trout in a small stream here. Building a community of small stream anglers, I could go fishing more often from the comfort of my home.
Daniel: Like myself, you also enjoy a variety of sports and hobbies. I think the outdoors in general draws us both. And, while fishing may be a very large part of our lives, perhaps the largest, it is not the only thing you and I do. What other activities do you enjoy? And, do you ever combine other activities with tenkara (hiking/backpacking/flying)?
Adam: My Grandparents raised me. In the early sixties, I would go to Tennessee and visit my great aunts and uncles in the summer. There I fished our farm ponds with a cane pole. A little later on, my mother gave me her skateboard. I loved that thing, clay wheels and shaped like a surfboard. It’s really what started me down the path of self-reliance in what ever I did. Skateboarding was a way that I could challenge and entertain myself. I didn’t need anyone else to have fun.
Later on, she gave me a Yamaha “Motobike” a BMX bike that had shocks and I was early into bicycle motocross. I raced BMX in the mid seventies against some of the biggest names. I used to ride my bike to the landing zone at Shaw Butte, the center of Arizona’s hang gliding scene. I loved watching the pilots circle up in thermals “specked out” below the clouds. They needed someone to drive their trucks back down the locked radio tower road to the landing zone. That is where I learned to drive, down the dirt mountain road. I think I was 14 years old.
We moved to Scottsdale across the city from Shaw Butte. Big Surf was closer and I really liked surfing. I was much closer to it and to better skateboarding pools. Surfing was cool but I was away from my hang gliding friends. I got my license and started to surfing at Big Surf a lot more. I made trips to California and Baja Mexico. My favorite break was Blacks Beach and there I saw the hang gliders soaring along the cliff, surfing an airwave. Again I was mesmerized by foot-launched flight, I had to do it.
At 17, my father bought me my first hang glider. I always wondered why. I was trying to teach myself. One day I actually flew higher than I wanted to go. It scared me so bad, I knew that I would kill myself learning to fly alone. About the same time, I got my first snowboard and travelled to Utah to learn from one of the fathers of snowboarding, Dimitriji Milovitch. I am a pioneer of snowboarding, a first group in many solo sports.
There was more, I was climbing, skiing and into punk rock music. I just didn’t want to conform and get an education. I was a good kid but did not care about anything other than surfing, skateboarding or going to clubs to chase girls.
My father told me one day, “Adam, I am rich, you are not. You need to learn to take care of yourself.” He was a heart surgeon and I was his skater/surfer bum kid. “Dad, I want to be a professional surfer.” “Adam, bring home some trophies and we will talk about sponsorship.” My father suggested that I join the service. So I did. I joined the Army and became an Infantry Medic in Hawaii. It was a blast! Hard work but I got to surf the North, South and my favorite, the West shore of O’ahu. On the East Side of the island, I learned to soar along the cliffs in a hang glider. I was doing on my own and I was going big in Hawaii.
I was a good medic and often chosen for special assignments. I went to Malaysia for Jungle Tracking School, Korea and Japan for joint training exercises. After three years in the service I had had enough of the military. I went home and started to work on my father’s Open Heart Team. I bought a Volkswagen Van and a new hang glider, more snow and surfboards, got married, had children and really started to grow up.
Still flying, I got into cross-country hang gliding for several years. I also started to paraglide with my friends who had the early wings that were not so safe. I finally had to quit soaring because of my growing responsibilities. I needed a safe outlet so I returned to fly fishing and computing.
Lets land the glider and fast forward to tenkara.
Tenkara is an end all for me. The concept of Tenkara+ (another sport) is brilliant. But I have been so distracted my whole life; it is nice to focus on one thing when I go fishing. If anything, I combine hiking and tenkara. They are organic to each other.
Daniel: How did you learn about tenkara? And, what drew you to tenkara to begin with?
Adam: I was administering Grassart; a closed and secret forum based web site that I created for bamboo rod makers. At the time I was asking around how to make a long rod that I would tie a line to the tip and make a cast to fish for the bream and catfish back in our family farm ponds in Tennessee. Tom Smithwick mentioned you and your web site. I called and we spoke a little about my streams and we decided on the Ebisu to start my journey.
I was drawn to tenkara from my specializing in light line weight small stream fly rods. My favorite being the Sage SPL 080 “Zero Weight” I was sponsored by Loop (Fly Fishing) and was tutored in making European style custom fly lines. I had already made a monofilament fly line. The large arbor reels helped tame the coils but it was unruly. I was teaching people how easy fly-fishing was and even wrote about “one fly” and made references to sawanobori from scrambling up our headwater streams. I often use the Internet Wayback machine to re-visit those old pages that I made. I was on a crash course with tenkara and finally getting a rod from you, it was perfect timing but it killed my bamboo rod making progression, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I stopped fly-fishing and haven’t been back since.
The simple form of tenkara is damn near perfect for small stream fishing. The fact that it is similar to cane pole fishing is a plus, not a bad thing. Many anglers in their mid life now learned to fish by a cane pole. We are now talented fly fishers. The fly fishing industry has killed off it’s growth with the cost of a good rod being $700 and a reel at least half that with $100 lines. I remember counting up the cost of my salt water kit, a 6, 8, 10 and 12-weight T&T rods with Tibor Reels along with Able pliers and a few fly boxes in a Tupperware bin. It was like $6-7 thousand dollars easy. People want good equipment but that kind of cost does not promote growth.
Tenkara is efficient and economical. You can easily teach yourself.
I like this about tenkara, you can teach a person in a day to catch fish effectively. Tenkara can also keep an angler interested in his or her own progression for their lifetime. Tenkara is so simple and complex at the same time.
Tenkara is what you make it.
Daniel: Were you skeptic about the method at first or was it clearly something you saw you’d be doing?
Adam: I overthought tenkara right from the start. I tried to make it complex. But it was so easy, it just couldn’t be that easy, no way, I made it hard because something so easy was not going to overshadow all the complex doings of my small stream fly fishing education.
At first I just fished it Western style, I fashioned a line out of a 00-weight fly line and used my Western flys. I caught so many more fish this way and it was liberating. I would go fishing with my Western fly-fishing friends and just outfish them terribly. It was funny to hear them make up excuses, I knew tenkara was something cool but I did not know where I could take it.
I read about Dr. Ishigaki’s style and started to use a Sakasa Kebari and the fish count got even better. I did a season of only using one pattern and I caught fish in places where I normally didn’t. I just caught more and more fish the more I got into it.
I knew from the start I was a tenkara fisherman but the bamboo rod shop that I had at home was holding me back. When I lost our home and the rod shop to the housing bubble, that broke the anchor chain. I’ve been sailing free for 5 years now, I’m not homesick, if anything, I am enjoying the fact that I can go back to fly fishing or bamboo rod making when ever I want. I just don’t see myself doing it anytime soon.
Daniel: You have done a lot of work to help continue spreading tenkara in the last few years and I appreciate your support. I also like the fact that you have respected tenkara’s origins in sharing the story of the method. And you have a long fly-fishing experience. Why has tenkara become such passion for you?
Adam: That is a question that I ask myself sometimes. I get down because I have had some less than good experiences in my excitement to promote tenkara. I would write something with only the passion to share my enthusiasm with all the readers at my own web site only to have that idea turn on me because of the language barrier or something that I wrote that was a culture faux pas. I’ve learned that the Japanese are people, good and bad, just like people anywhere but they are people and susceptible to all the emotions that people have.
My passion comes from the excitement that is as pure as going fishing when you were a child, I’ve been doing it for a while now and I don’t see it getting old. When I was fishing with Satoshi, we would talk in the car on the highways. He relayed to me that he has about 15 more seasons of fishing and that is it; he will be too old to go. To a young person, time has a way of moving along slowly, very slow. 15 years to a teenager is their entire lifetime so it seems long. To someone in the middle of his or her life, 15 years has gone by three times! 15 years will fly by for me, I am middle aged.
So my passion is geared towards how I want to spend what little time I have left in the forest. I will spend my time wisely fishing tenkara. It reminds me of the simple time fishing as a child.
Daniel: I admired the work you went through to collect tenkara flies created by anglers from all over the world. And, you preserved those flies in a unique set of shadow-boxes. I understand you communicated with a lot of people to get flies that they tied. Could you tell us how you went about creating this with the help of the community? And, could you share a couple of pictures of that project?
Adam: I have had the wonderful opportunity to be able to communicate with some great tenkara anglers around the world while making Tenkara-Fisher available to the community. While I was in Japan, I saw a couple of shadowbox on the wall in the lodge at Tanzanawa. As I looked at those, I started to understand that I would like to honor the tenkara anglers that I meet by a collecting their kebari.
I already had a small collection and got started on it putting together the shadow box. I would choose a picture of that person and sizing it was probably the hardest thing in the whole project. Every person except just one has participated with such nice things to say about it. The one person that declined, there was no drama, he just didn’t want to be a part of it. It turns out that he is a nice person and has a unique perspective. I enjoy diversity and uniqueness.
The Tenkara Fisher shadowbox project is a great example of how the community really is. You will see the collection at the summit. It is a lesson upon itself about fly tying and choices. Some of the flys, you would not know they were from decades of experience while others are from anglers who have only been tying kebari for a short time.
Mostly the shadowbox project is from my contacts at Facebook where it was easy to contact a person, grab a picture, resize it and take the image file to a photo finisher to be printed.
Daniel: You live in Arizona with your family, and I see many pictures of you in your hikes around there. How’s the tenkara fishing in Arizona?
Adam: All those pictures you see of my hikes are in and around Phoenix, quite a long distance from any trout stream.
The trout streams are all above 5,000’ and in two zones, 2 hours away and 4 hours away in the alpine environment of the White Mountains on the Apache Indian Reservation in East Central Arizona. It is in this area that my favorite streams exist.
My favorites are above 9’000; they are meadow streams that meander, Rosgen E type streams filled with brook trout, my favorite to catch. I have had a couple of hundred fish days and many near that. Although I am skilled, these numbers are not a measure of skill; it’s just the right time and place with the right fly. These streams are chock filled with brook trout, over populated and the competition for food makes these trout abandon caution. I’ve had trout take the fly in the air from my fly being cast short on the grass on the edge of the stream.
Our trout streams are good and there is one book that is completely accurate that makes you just as good as you can be as far as knowing which streams hold what populations.
Daniel: Tenkara can be translated as “from heaven”, but with the way it is written we can’t be sure what it was supposed to mean. If you were to create a translation for the term tenkara, what would it be?
Adam: Hmm, great question. I will need to think about it. Ok, “fly marionette” is the best I can come up with.
Just like everything in tenkara, the origin of the name only adds to the allure of this great way to fish.
The way you introduced tenkara was with honor and done in good style. You did not dangle anything or try to fool anyone with a mimic of what it really is, was or could be.
Daniel, you have earned my respect by your kindness. I have learned a lot from you and I would like to commend you right here. My observation is from afar but you really seem like a good friend. You have been consistent in your approach, quiet when you needed to be, outspoken when it was called for and you have my respect.
I do not think anyone could have done what you have done with honor and regards to the Japanese like you have done. I wish you good fortune and success in your life and I’ll leave you with this, “Thank you for introducing me to such a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors.”