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Interview transcript with John Gierach

Interview transcript with John Gierach

Adam: John, thank you for allowing me this interview.

I’ve read your new book; “All Fishermen Are Liars” and I really enjoyed it however I would like to start the interview with a question on an older book of yours. I’ve spoken with a lot of people that are into Tenkara that know nothing of this book of yours and I would like to make them aware of it. I think it is a great way to look at fishing a small stream and even a good introduction to fly-fishing.

“Can you tell us about your book, Fly Fishing Small Streams”?

John Gierach: Fly Fishing Small Streams” was published by Stackpole Books in 1989 and is still in print. It was essentially a second installment of my earlier book “Flyfishing the High Country” (Pruett, 1984) for those who didn’t have 14,000-foot continental mountain ranges in their backyards. Small stream fishing wasn’t unheard of in the late 80s, but at the time it wasn’t considered sexy enough to be covered by the fishing magazines. Everyone wanted to catch 20-inch trout in big water in Montana or fish for steelhead and salmon; fishing for ten-inch trout in little creeks was considered kid’s stuff.

I’ve since been accused of popularizing small stream fishing and I’m certainly not blameless, but I think it would have happened anyway. As your readers know, it’s just too much fun to have stayed a secret for long.

Adam: I really like it and still pull it out from time to time to reference or lend it out. In the chapter, “The Comforts of Stuff” you describe your time searching for the “all around fly rod” and then the specialty rods for small streams. I enjoy the parts you wrote on the lite lines of 1 and 2 weights. It is this natural interest that you have that probably brought you to Tenkara rods and fishing that sort of equipment, I don’t know, maybe you could comment on that.

In my own experience, the search for a rod that will deliver a fly with such delicacy yet have so much control over it that brought me to Tenkara. The simplicity is sort of “anti comforts of stuff” but it is all fishing.


“Will you tell us a little more about how you look at Tenkara with such a long history of fly fishing?”

John Gierach: If I’d known about tenkara when I wrote “Small Streams” I’d certainly have included it. Then as now, some people would have jumped on it and others would have resisted it.

I think a tenkara rod is perfect in the narrow range of conditions it was intended for: small to medium-sized pocket water streams with trout (or whatever) not much more than ten inches long and open enough to swing a long rod. But the farther you get from these ideal conditions the less perfect it is. On small, brushy water you’ll probably be happier with a shorter rod. On big water with big fish, you’ll want a reel with extra line. And of course the break-off points will be different for every fisherman. We’ve all been caught from time to time with too much rod or not enough and muddled through somehow.

When I first heard about tenkara my writer’s antennae went up. I thought this was something new to write about, especially because I’m fascinated by different kinds of fly tackle. I didn’t want to be one those phony experts who tries something for one afternoon and then writes the authoritative article about it, so I spent the better part of a fishing season learning about it and getting to be at least an adequate tenkara fisherman. (It’s not that hard if you already know how to fly fish.) I haven’t done all that much tenkara fishing since I finished the story. My current fascination is learning how to cast Skagit and Scandi heads on spey rods.

Adam: From the start, I really took an interest in lite lines of 3-weights and below. As much as I was fishing small streams, I was also fishing a large Western river, Lees Ferry in Marble Canyon, up canyon on the Colorado River from the Grand Canyon. Back in late 90’s I was taking my Sage 0-weight with a large arbor reel (I was helping Loop develop an interest in North America market with their first version of Team Loop) and catching large river rainbows. Because I could feel the tension on that 6x tippet much better than I could with a 7-weight, I could pressure in larger fish faster than my friends with their river fly rods. That business about stressing out large trout with lite lines came from people that didn’t understand just how much pressure you could exert with a rod that telegraphed the tippet strength much better.

“Given that you have now fished Tenkara, has your view of fishing small streams changed?”

John Gierach: My view of small stream fishing hasn’t changed a bit. I still fish them in the same way with the same handful of nondescript fly patterns. As for ultra-light tackle, I think most fishermen over play their fish on light rods, sometimes stressing them so much they don’t survive release. Even on small streams I won’t use anything lighter than a 4-weight and I try to use the heaviest tippet I can get away with in the interest of landing fish quickly and releasing them unharmed.

Adam: I’m going on five years now fishing only Tenkara on mountain streams. Wind is common in the open meadows and I’ve fished my Tenkara rods in significant wind. My fishing areas are 100 and 200 miles away, if there is big wind, it is because I have made a mistake in the weather forecast or I’ve chosen the wrong stream to fish. I’m not going home, I just change tactics.

I use the wind to my advantage working with it instead of fighting it.

“I’m thinking you may have gotten to a point where you don’t decide to go Tenkara fishing today, you probably just take your Tenkara rods along and if it is a Tenkara day, you open the rod or do you decide, today is a Tenkara day before you leave the house?”

“Can you tell us how and why you choose to fish Tenkara if there is such a decision? You know so much about fly fishing, I want to know what makes you choose to use a Tenkara rod instead of one of the beautiful bamboo fly rods that you own or have access to.”

John Gierach: My default small stream rod is a 7-foot, 9-inch bamboo. Now and then I’ll string up a tenkara rod in the kind of pocket water where I need the extra reach, but for most of my small water fishing I need something more versatile.

Adam: Speaking of bamboo rods, I know you know people that make them. You have probably spent some time around the shops that they are made in. They are really fishy places filled with wood, bundles of bamboo, old tools, knick-knacks of fishing, spirits and old characters.

“Have you made your own bamboo fly rod? If you have, what did you choose to make? If you haven’t, I bet you have had your hand in making some curls. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with bamboo fly rod makers and their shop?”

John Gierach: I tie my own flies, but I leave the bamboo rod making to others. As for hanging out in rod shops, most of the rod makers I know would rather work on their rods than talk to fishermen, so I try to be respectful.

Adam: And one of your friends, A.K. Best is… He is one of the best at tying. I just wonder what he thinks of us that really limit our Tenkara patterns to only a few.

Twenty years ago when I started to tye my own small stream flys, I started out with an Elk Hair Caddis. Not a particularly hard fly to whip up but not easy in comparison to one of the Tenkara Kebari that I use now. Before Tenkara, there were a lot more tying techniques I had to get just right in order to have a reasonable fly to fish. I have some of my first Caddis dries and they still look nice but even now, tying is utilitarian for me, it was just something I have to do. I didn’t like it then so it was hard for me to learn. Anything beyond a Caddis or Adams, Pheasant Tail or Caddis nymphs and I just didn’t tye it. Lucky for me, I don’t need much more than that for the small streams I fish.

Now, I enjoy my time at the vice, Tenkara has made my vice time much more enjoyable.

“Can you tell us a little bit about your tying and how you look at tying Western patterns and how Tenkara Kebari compare? What do you think of that? In my view, with Tenkara, the pattern is somewhat secondary to the choice of rod and line. Any thoughts on that? I’m curious about your comparison and contrast from a small streams type of fly fisher.”

John Gierach: For small streams I tie a handful of general patterns – dry flies, nymphs and soft hackles – in two or three sizes. I also tie more specific and specialized patterns to match specific hatches as well as streamers for both big and small water.

I also travel a lot, so I’ve tied specialized flies for Alaska, Labrador and such, including patterns for steelhead, and Atlantic and Pacific salmon. Of course there’s only so much tying time and some years, like this one, I end up buying more flies than I tie.

Adam: “What is your favorite Tenkara Kebari?”

John Gierach: I don’t have one. I’ve fooled around with tenkara flies, but I do better on my own more conventional patterns. I’d never limit myself to just one fly. I’ve caught too many fish that refused the first two patterns I showed them and then ate the third.

Adam: In your new book, “All Fishermen Are Liars” you have a chapter dedicated to Tenkara. Again, I just want to thank you so much for that. It’s perfect how you did it because it really is how it happened for many of us. It’s about meeting Daniel and I’m happy to see that you took him in and gave him some words on it.

People affect us in so many ways. For me, there are people like Daniel and you that really affect me even though I have never meet you in person.

I’ve shown you how you have affected me in my fishing life. John, has anyone affected your fishing? Maybe someone you never meet?”

John Gierach: Every fisherman I’ve ever met has influenced my fishing, usually in a good way, although sometimes as a negative example. I’ve never been an innovator when it comes to fishing; I’ve always just tried to make other people’s ideas work. I learned a lot about casting from Lefty Kreh and especially Joan Wulff. A.K. Best, Chris Schrantz and Ed Engle taught me about fly tying and are old friends. They also taught me about fly-fishing in non-technical ways that are hard to describe – something along the lines of patience, observation, stillness and appreciation.

Influences on my fishing writing are too numerous to list, but would have to include Thomas McGuane, Russell Chatham, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Waterman, Jack Curtis, Jim Harrison, Norman Mclean, Ted Leeson, James Babb, Craig Nova and so on, plus a lot of writers who wouldn’t know a fish if it bit them in the ass like Annie Dillard, John Casey, Scott Spenser, Richard Ford, Ethan Canin, James Galvin, Philip Roth, John Updike, Alice Munroe… The list goes on.

Adam: I had someone die because of a story I wrote about fly-fishing. It really knocked me down. I wrote about a place on the Big Island of Hawaii that I went fishing at. It was an off the beaten path type of place where it is hundreds of feet deep just a few yards off the shelf you cast from. I was fishing off of this shelf for jacks with a 10-weight with feathers (Clousers) knowing it would be futile to land them in the surging water. It was early winter so there was a swell running. I’m a surfer so I know the sea and I could see blue water ground swell coming in and would have to scamper back as the water level in front of me was ten or so feet below but when the swell would come in, the blue water would pour over where I was casting, three feet deep. It would just well up and fan out thick. I would watch closely with my casting so that I could just scamper back and away to safety. Only the larger sets would do this and it was a fun game for me.

So I wrote a story about this place when I got back home and published online. It was a great piece that I really enjoyed. The story was about fly-fishing in Hawaii and the bit about this area was just a small part.

A couple of months after I ran the story, I got a e-mail from a lady that told me that her husband had died fishing my spot. They were in Kona for the marathon and her husband went missing. They looked in his briefcase back at their hotel and found my story printed out and went looking in the areas that I had written about. They found his rod and fly box. Apparently he was washed out to sea.

None of it made sense to me. So I began to investigate her story and it was true. The local news reports, the Coast Guard report, the obituary, it made me sick. The woman didn’t blame me, she was just in pain of losing her husband and my story helped her find him and she was just connecting each piece.

“John, any stories of your writing and the people that have read your stories? Has your writing had an impact on your life caused by someone else telling you something from it?”

John Gierach: I’ve had any number of people tell me that reading my books has changed their lives and I always tense up, wondering if they’re about to shake my hand or punch me in the nose. I’ve also had people complain that I’m sometimes secretive about where I’ve been fishing. I have a rule that I adopted from Ed Engle. He once said, “I won’t write about a stream by name if I can roll cast across it – and I can roll cast a hell of a long way.” I’m an essayist, so I don’t have the responsibility of a travel writer to hot spot places. Also, I think if the story is successful as a story, it doesn’t matter where it took place.

Adam: I’m reading your new book and I must say that it is awesome, especially for me. The first two pages choked me up quite a bit because it describes my youth in a way that I am taken back to it. You see, as I write this, I am looking out the window of my farm home that I grew up in (in the summers of my youth in the 60’s and 70’s) looking over our farm land. The farm ponds that I learned to fish in are in my view and it is no problem for me to imagine the cane pole fishing I did then with found bait.

Running around with a BB gun picking off cigarette butts on the barbwire fences, I too graduated to a .22 rifle. Our land being enough that you would have to work hard at shooting a bullet off of it.

It’s not hard to remember all those stories of growing up when the land you did it on has changed very little. Later today we will place a target at 1,000 yards, aiming away from it so the wind will carry our bullets in to smack the armor plate. After the report of the shot, we listen for the SMACK of the bullet hitting the plate to travel back a couple of seconds later. Today, I’m 50ish and doing the same sort of childish stuff in the same fun way as I did when I was a boy. Yesterday I tried catching the couple of feet large catfish by grabbing them in their mouth as they scoop up the catfish chow we feed them. I’m still trying to capture childhood moments like you do in your books.

“How do you do it John? How did you know how we grew up? How do you capture this interest so well with words? Is there any advice for those of us that aspire to write as well as you do?”

John Gierach: One: read all the good books you can get your hands on. There are some basic rules of writing, but in the end it’s best taught by example. If you read something that really knocks your socks off, read it again critically to try and figure out why. It’s probably best to avoid most fish writing; sadly, most of it isn’t very good. Notable exceptions include “The Longest Silence” by Thomas McGuane, “The Habit of Rivers” by Ted Leeson, and “Dark Waters” by Russell Chatham.

Two: Apply the basic rules of journalism. Double check all facts so you know you have them right. Avoid websites. Most websites have no oversight and can amount to repositories of misinformation.

Three: Be honest and don’t worry about how a story makes you look. A common flaw of most bad writing is self-aggrandizement on the part of the writer.

Four: Be succinct. Figure out what you want to say and then say it once concisely instead of two or three times poorly. A hint that you’re doing this right is that your stories should get shorter with editing instead of longer. And edit unmercifully. Remember that the first draft is always shit – no better than raw material. The real work is in the revision. Colson Whitehead once said, “Revision is when you do what you should have done the first time, but didn’t.”

Five: understand that the best fishing stories aren’t really about fishing.

Adam: “All Fishermen Are Liars” could very well become my favorite book. I can’t give it that title just yet; it has to pass the test of time just like “Fly Fishing Small Streams” has.

“What makes up a good book for you? Simple question, not so simple answer, or maybe it is. I have to ask, you are my favorite author.”

John Gierach: A good book is one that tells me something I didn’t know or, better yet, makes me see something I did know in a new and different way. A perfect example is “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Mclean. Another is “Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway.

Adam: “I know you are busy, in your own words, can you tell us a little more about your new book? For someone new to your writing, what is a good book to follow up your new book? I think you will find new readers that will want more of what you write”

John Gierach: The hardest thing for a writer to do is synopsize his own book. You want the work to speak for itself and if you could adequately explain what the book is about in 200 words (as some publishers ask you to do) then the book would only have to be 200 words long. Basically, I’ve spent a career looking at fly-fishing as a subculture and wondering in print why we do it and what we get out of it.

A lot of people say “Trout Bum” is a classic. It’s been in print continuously for almost 30 years now and is in Japanese, Norwegian and French Editions, so maybe that’s true. (On the other hand, Mark Twain once said, “A classic is a book that’s often praised, but seldom read.”

If someone reads “All Fishermen are Liars” and wants to read more by me, good for them. My advice is to pick a book at random. I either don’t have a favorite or my favorite is always my most recent book. And that’s probably only because I think I should be getting better instead of worse.

Adam: “I’m just tickled pink that you have shared a little time with us here. I would again like to thank you for taking your time to sit for this interview. If there is anything that you would like to write about, please take this opportunity.”

John Gierach: I just finished a nine-city book tour and a bunch of interviews for the new book. Now I’m going fishing. This year I’ll be in Labrador and Quebec fishing for big brook trout, Maine for landlocked salmon and up in the northwest for steelhead, plus some other places I’m not at liberty to mention. This will be one of those years that I buy more flies than I tie, but what are you gonna do?

* (bamboo fly rod makers),