Daniel Galhardo: John, most people we are familiar within the small world of tenkara are those who regularly participate on online forums, write blogs about tenkara, or are engaged in social networking within the community. You are a reminder that the tenkara community expands well beyond the realm of online activity. You have been very engaged with the tenkara community in many levels, attending the first Tenkara Summit, participating in some video productions (not yet released) and more, but most people don’t know you yet. Tell us a bit about yourself.
John Geer: I grew up in southern Illinois. My father and grandfather were coal miners, so I did a lot of fishing on strip pit lakes, and also a lot on area farm ponds. My family would take vacations to Missouri, where my father is originally from and my parents live now, and fish Missouri’s trout parks, which are mostly small spring creeks managed as put and take fisheries. That’s where I caught my first fish and my first trout on spinning gear when I was about three or four years old. We were really more bass people back then and took more of our later vacations to some of the large warm water reservoirs in the Ozarks, like Table Rock and Bull Shoals. Somewhere in there my grandparents started spending thier summers in Idaho near Yellowstone and I got my first taste of western (states) fly fishing.
I’ve moved around a bit since high school, and have lived in Virginia, Colorado, Missouri, and now Montana. It makes ten years here this October. I fish around the Yellowstone region, mostly in southwest Montana, but also in YNP and a little in Idaho on the Henry’s Fork. For the last five years (six summer seasons) I’ve worked for Toby Swank at Fins & Feathers Fly Shop in Bozeman. I’ve been really lucky with who I’ve worked for and with, in fly fishing industry. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s all led me to the point I’m at now, which I’m very happy about.
DG: I remember the first time we met very clearly. About 2 years ago I was invited to speak at the Madison Fly Fishing Festival in Ennis, Montana, and you emailed me saying you’d be coming to watch my presentation. I believe you had gotten into tenkara a few months before then.
When did you get into tenkara and how did you get into it?
JG: I remember it very clearly, too. Yep, it was early that spring that I got my Iwana. Tenkara just looked like a lot of fun to me, and I liked the aesthetic of it. I was lucky that Brian Fleming started coming into our shop and actually let me see and cast one of his rods. It just seemed like they would be so much fun to fish. That’s what finally put me over the fence to order a rod. I didn’t realize what a fundamental change in my fishing it would lead to.
DG: Do you fish tenkara exclusively? Or, can one find you with a reel in hand every now and then?
JG: One of the great things about Montana is the incredible diversity of the fisheries here. Some of them aren’t very tenkara appropriate, and I still use western tackle in those places. That’s usually on big flat tailwaters and spring creeks, or still waters. It’s been almost all tenkara through the summer months this year.
DG: You also teach billiards (is that correct?) at your local college. I grew up playing pool with my father, but have no idea whether anything from playing it ever translated to my fishing. Do you think there is anything one can take from billiards to their tenkara fishing?
JG: I’m no longer teaching at MSU [Montana State University], but still play and compete a lot in the winter. I do a lot of reading on sports or performance psychology and one of the common threads in my reading is the idea of keeping the analytical mind out of the execution of a physical task. I think that’s a big part of what a tenkara angler does when he chooses to fish with one fly and simpler tackle. Basically it makes it easier to cast, wade, manipulate the fly, tie knots, etc. if you’re not splitting your focus by trying to figure things out. It makes it easier to fish “in the zone”, if you will. That’s a little bit of an oversimplification, but it’s an interesting idea I’d like to explore more.
I would also say that both fishing and pool reward focus and attention to detail, and are a way to immerse yourself in an activity outside your regular world. Both are a form of escapism for me and make life more fun and interesting.
DG: I often say that one can find in tenkara anything they want; and I like to think of tenkara as something that is a bit beyond description in a way because it is perhaps a state of mind. What is tenkara to you? Do you focus on the traditional aspects of the method or do you just use tenkara as a tool?
JG: Tenkara is still changing to me. My first season and a half of fishing was very much tenkara as a tool, although much of it was on mountain streams. Since the first tenkara summit, my tenkara has taken on a much more traditional style. I’m lucky that I live in a place where that’s not really asking any sacrifice in terms of catching fish. I have plenty of tenkara-perfect streams here where the fish respond enthusiastically to traditional tenkara flies and presentations. This summer especially, I really enjoyed keeping to the traditional methods. That’s not a rule I’ve made for myself, it’s just the aspect of tenkara I’m most excited about. I may do some different stuff in the winter months, or if I get a chance to fish a different type of water, like a farm pond with an old friend in Illinois. Sometimes it’s good for us to step outside of our box or even back into an old one.
DG: Your experience with tenkara has been quite vast. Can you give me a couple of highlights of your time with tenkara?
DG: In 2011 you spent several days with Dr. Ishigaki and I as we fished different spots in Montana following the Tenkara Summit. But, rather than just fish with us you the whole time, you really seemed to enjoy observing us fishing. You told me that you wanted to see what we did and learn. In the other times we have fished together you really seemed to enjoy the process of learning and it was real fun to see how you analyzed many small things others wouldn’t notice and ask questions about them. What are some things you learned from your observations and time fishing with us?
JG: I really have to answer these questions together. The first summit, and the days prior to and just after it really were an incredibly influential and eye opening time for me as a tenkara angler. Before that I really didn’t know much about the traditional methods, and had never really seen them executed. When I watched you and Dr. Ishigaki fish, I saw a totally different approach to fishing than what I was used to. I really hadn’t started to look at the water any differently than I did when I fished with a western rod.
There was one event in particular that sticks out that changed this. We had taken you, Dr. Ishigaki, Masaki Nakano, and Chris Stewart to a stretch of the Gallatin. I normally fish alone and move fast, so fishing in one area with a large group really made me nervous. I wanted everyone to catch fish and see how great my home river was. I think almost everyone did catch a fish or two, but after fishing for a while I lost any confidence that we’d be able to stay in the same place and remain successful. I was walking down stream to talk to you about moving – tough with such a big group – and saw you and Dr. Ishigaki putting on different lines. You both started casting to the far bank across some very heavy current, something I never would have thought to do even with a tenkara rod. You were both using a pulsing retrieve that I had little experience with at the time, and thought probably wouldn’t work on Gallatin fish. You both hooked up very quickly, and I think hooked more fish on the far bank than the group had fishing the close water. That was the first time I saw long line tenkara and anything besides a dead drift presentation, and that was also when I realized it might be best to stay in the background and just watch.
I got to see how a skilled tenkara angler could really unlock a whole stream, especially a fast moving mountain stream, when they really took advantage of their ability to effortlessly cover conflicting currents. I also saw how an angler could work through different presentations to catch fish instead of changing flies. That was the first day; there were a lot of other lessons through the summit. I think Mr. Amano told you that he learned tenkara by hiding and “stealing” techniques by watching another angler; that’s sort of what I did. It was really an incredibly lucky break for me to be there and be a part of the summit and really disappointing to not be able to attend this year. I really missed having the chance to learn new things, make new friends, and reconnect with all the ones I made last year.
DG: What is your best advice to anyone getting started in fly-fishing?
JG: This is easier to say than to do, but try not to base your success purely on fish caught. Tenkara is more accessible to beginners, but both tenkara and western fly fishing are skilled endeavors and you’ll see more success as those skills improve. Try to enjoy the process of getting better and the environments that fishing takes you in the meantime. Give yourself some time to develop those skills, and don’t be too hard on yourself if your own execution isn’t what you would like when you start. Never lose confidence that you can become a better fisherman. Those early hurdles are a big part of what makes fishing so rewarding besides just being fun.
DG: What is your favorite tenkara rod and tenkara setup (rod, line length, etc)?
JG: I’m probably fishing an Ito with a 20’ or so 3.5 level line more than any other set up right now. I’ll match the rod and line to where I’m fishing, but I fish a lot of larger than average streams for a tenkara angler and that’s the set up I like for them. That’s a little longer line than I would have said just a couple of months ago; I still feel like I have a lot of developing to do as a tenkara angler, and expect my preferences to change some.
DG: One fly or many flies? Which fly(ies)?
JG: I’ve been fishing an Amano style kebari almost exclusively most of this summer, but do carry it in different colors. Like I said, that isn’t really a rule, it’s just what I like. I’ve been playing around with some bigger kebari this fall, like the ones Mr. Sakakibara uses. Hopefully they’ll tempt some big browns. This winter might be different, but it might not. I guess I shouldn’t say I’m a one fly angler, but I usually approach the stream with a one fly mentality.
DG: What is your favorite type of water?
JG: I love to fish tenkara on small to medium size mountain streams. The Gallatin is my home river and I don’t think I would trade it for any other that I’ve fished. It’s a little on the big size by tenkara standards, but for me it’s the perfect tenkara stream and has done more to shape my tenkara than any other fishery.
DG: You’re just about to start working for Tenkara USA. This is a big change for you. Why did you decide to join Tenkara USA? What do you expect your experience will be like?
JG: I’ve met a lot of really wonderful people through tenkara, in fact I can’t think of any bad ones, and had a lot of wonderful experiences. It’s become a really big part of my life besides just being a way to fish. Tenkara USA really made tenkara accessible to western anglers and I’m excited to help them spread their message, and to help more people on their tenkara journey through my role in supporting customers and working with Tenkara USA. I hope and expect that this will be another positive experience in my own journey and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot in the process. Thank you very much for the opportunity; I hope to do a great job for both you and our customers.
John Geer is the newest addition to the Tenkara USA team, and will start working with us on October 1st, supporting our customers with questions about tenkara and all the other customer service inquiries. He will be joining TJ and I in our efforts to provide the best customer support in the industry in addition to taking Tenkara USA to new levels of product development and ambassadorship. I’m very excited he decided to join our team as he brings his passion about tenkara along with industry experience and a keen interest in helping others. John is also one of the nicest guys I know, making him the ideal addition to the team.