One month ago was released the first DVD totally dedicated to Tenkara outside of Japan and the least I can write about it is that it is a total success. I have been so enthusiast about this DVD that I can not even count the number of times I have already watched it! So I wanted to learn more about the makers of this documentary and as a result I offer to you this interview with John Pearson and Paul Gaskell.
Can you please introduce yourself to the readers? Can you tell us about your fishing career? I
noticed that the both of you have a scientific background; do you think this influenced your passion
John Pearson: Hello, I'm John Pearson and I've been an angler for over 30 years and a fly fisher for over 25 of those years. Since around 2007 I've been a part of FISH ON PRODUCTIONS making fly fishing DVDs and providing fly tying products. I've also written articles in Total Flyfisher magazine here in the UK for the past 4 years as well as being a contributor to Tenkara USA's first magazine. In 2012 I set up the website Discover Tenkara with Paul Gaskell (and Dean Hodson) with the aim of sharing our passion for Tenkara.
As for the scientific background, I have a BSc in Field Biology. In terms of influencing my fishing the
reality is quite the opposite... I actually chose my degree based on my obsession with fishing! I think
the deeper understanding of things like habitat and predator/prey relationships certainly provides
an added advantage in fishing and the knowledge has also come in handy when making
environmental films together with Paul for the WILD TROUT TRUST.
Paul Gaskell: My name is Paul Gaskell and I am 40 years old, I have been fishing regularly since I was six. The obsession I developed for underwater life that caused me to pick up a fishing rod also lead me into a career in freshwater biology – through both contract and post-doctoral academic research posts; and now also conservation work. My fishing and study of biology are not really separate things. Instead they are part of the same “whole”. I started out fishing on canals and ponds and the occasional river (and at the seaside on family holidays) using a variety of methods and learning a lot about fish and underwater life from my older brother Ian and my dad. I first picked up a fly rod when I was 13, and alongside a few years of carp fishing, that soon became the dominant method for me. As well as practicing casting as much as I could and taking up fly-tying from age 14, I eagerly read any fly fishing information and literature I could get my hands on. Although I still enjoy many different forms of fishing, at my core I enjoy fishing flowing with the fly water most of all - especially on freestone rivers and streams. My approaches and preferences that I had arrived at by the time I first discovered Tenkara were already startlingly similar to a number of the characteristics of Tenkara – simple impressionistic flies, long but delicate rods, line held off the water, dead drift and a love of inferring where fish will be from interpreting the signs in their habitat – and honing “contact” with the flies during dead drifts/subtle manipulation (and associated take-detection).
You have a long experience in the fly fishing field and you are now certified Tenkara guides, how
did you discover Tenkara, why did you decide to become Tenkara guides in a country where this fly
fishing technique is still not mainstream?
John Pearson: I discovered Tenkara in 2009 after watching a documentary on the BBC called "Fish a Japanese Obsession". Interestingly there wasn't any Tenkara in the film but it inspired me to investigate
Japanese fishing a bit more. At that time Tenkara USA was one of the only English language
resources on Tenkara so it was mainly due to Daniel Galhardo's early efforts that I was drawn to
Tenkara. I'd been working together with Paul on one of Fish On's River Academy DVDs (Urban Fly Fishing) and it was clear very early on that we were both fascinated by Tenkara. We spent a great deal of time researching as much as we could, including translating whatever Japanese websites we could find using Google Translate (which can be very difficult!)
I think we both have the type of personality that wants to learn everything possible about a subject
we are interested in so our mutual obsession with Tenkara lead to a rapid progression in our
knowledge as we were able to pool our resources and share information.
In terms of becoming a Tenkara guide, it really ended up being a natural progression. The fact is I
don't think there is anyone else in the UK who has worked as hard as Paul and me to discover and
share information about Tenkara. It wasn't long before some quite well respected anglers were
referring to us as the ones to go to for information about Tenkara.
Paul Gaskell: I had heard about it through several contacts at the Wild Trout Trust (the river habitat conservation charity that I work for) – as well as seeing early UK articles that mentioned the method – including one by Jon Beer. The people that I talked to about it all mentioned this new company “Tenkara USA” who had brought the method out of Japan. I thought it sounded interesting as I recognized some similarities of this “survival” form of fly-fishing with the methods honed by another force of necessity; international competition river fly fishing. I was also already interested in some aspects of Japanese culture – having practiced Judo between age seven and my late 20’s before taking up Shodokan aikido in my 30’s (which would lead me to travel and compete in Kyoto, Japan in 2009 – as well as also providing me with the chance to train at the home of Judo – the Kokodan in Tokyo). Another catalyst was probably the TV documentary “Fish: A Japanese obsession” made by Charles Rangeley Wilson – a founding member and serving president of the Wild Trout Trust. My initial reservations about the limitation of a fixed-line style of fly fishing were quickly replaced by a realization that I’d stumbled on a vast school of thought on elegant and efficient ways to effectively fish flowing water with an artificial fly. I am drawn to things that elevate and reward the perfection of technique and developing understanding above blunt force and apparatus designed to replace skill. Getting to know John through working on a DVD about urban trout fishing together was also highly significant – as we both started to learn (and then discuss) more and more things about Tenkara in Japan. Going out and learning – and best of all practicing – these approaches was just so profoundly enjoyable that we wanted to start sharing some of these experiences and our findings. We both felt unable to keep our enthusiasm to ourselves.
Last month you have released a documentary that is the first DVD totally devoted to tenkara that
has been released outside of Japan, can you tell us what is the process that brought you to release
John Pearson: Again I think it's part of the natural progression. We are both have a genuine passion for Tenkara and we love to share that with people. Part of my career has been producing fly fishing DVDs so it seemed inevitable that we'd make a Tenkara DVD. We decided we would make a DVD when we started the DISCOVER TENKARA website but we spent over a year researching Japanese Tenkara and honing our skills before starting filming anything for the DVD. I think that there are a lot of people trying to be experts on Tenkara without really doing their homework first; we wanted our DVD to be as accurate as possible so we spent a lot of time and effort on that.
Paul Gaskell: Well – there have obviously been Tenkara USA’s collection of short films compiled on DVD and also the Tying Tenkara Flies DVD. However, I suppose it will be the first production that tries to capture an introductory overview of Tenkara’s history, Japanese flies, Tenkara casting mechanics, hand-lining and the first presentation skills that anglers need to learn – all in a single, English-language film. It was something that we wanted to do right from when John and I first started talking about Tenkara and researching it – and we have been developing, honing (and rejecting!) ideas for filming ever since. If we had the budget, we would have loved to offer more audio language options as well.
Dr Hisao Ishigaki is featured in this DVD, how did you meet him? He seems to be a very kind man
with a good sense of humour, have you an anecdote with him during the making of the film?
Paul Gaskell: It is a strangely circular story – but Steven Wheeler (who appears as Ishigaki-san’s interpreter in the DVD) worked in Japan for many years. He already had an interest in fly fishing and he read Jon Beer’s article in Trout and Salmon magazine that mentioned Tenkara. Steven was due to be (re) visiting Japan after moving back to England - and he wanted to find someone to give him a Tenkara lesson, so he contacted Jon Beer who asked his own Japanese contact if there was anybody who might fit the bill. Without knowing it – Steven got his first lessons from one of the most respected expert Tenkara anglers on the planet! Consequently, when Dr. Ishigaki mentioned to Steven that he’d like to fish in England some day; Steven went back to Jon Beer to ask him if he might have any suitable contacts – and Jon contacted us as he knew we were mad-keen Tenkara addicts who were in the process of setting up the UK’s first fishing syndicate dedicated to Tenkara. We owe Steven a massive debt - not only for his formidable interpretation skills – but also for the way he helped the whole trip to happen. Dr. Ishigaki is a super charismatic guy with a great sense of humour and impressive casting and fly-control skills. Probably my favorite anecdote (although it is hard to choose just one) was when he was tying his famous kebari as part of one of his tuition seminars. He had tied one fly (accompanied by his famous “guru guru guru guru” commentary with high-speed thread wrap). As he finished, he said in English “Now I will tie a different pattern”. He proceeded to tie an identical fly whilst saying “chun chun chun chun” instead of “guru guru guru guru” before offering his fly box around so that everyone could choose their favorite souvenir for themselves.
John Pearson: I know Paul has covered everything about the way we met in his answer (not to mention how instrumental Steven Wheeler was) so I'll talk a little bit about Ishigaki-san himself. He really is one of the most good-natured and charismatic people I have ever met and at the group events we arranged during his visit everybody commented on this. Ishigaki-san is very open about tenkara and shares his knowledge freely but we did notice that he tailors his instruction carefully depending on the skill level of the person (or people) he is teaching; he definitely seems to have a philosophy along the
lines that students should learn to walk before they try to run. Some people may be left thinking
they received pretty basic instruction but it seems that this would be more a reflection on their
current tenkara skills rather that Dr Ishigaki not having anything more to teach.
On the last day of Dr Ishigaki's week with us he gave us a very intensive session that felt like a
mixture of master class tuition and assessment/examination. We learned a great deal from our time
with Ishigaki-san not just about how to practice tenkara but how to teach it too.
Before leaving we asked Ishigaki-san for his honest opinion on our tenkara skills. He was quiet for
several moments before he began to answer and when Stephen translated what he said we were
speechless, shocked, humbled and honoured!
This is what he said: “I have seen John and Paul fish and taught them tenkara technique and culture.
Their Tenkara technique is very high level. There are few people, even in Japan, with their level of
technique. They have the correct technique and knowledge of Tenkara and I recommend that you
learn Tenkara from them.”
More seriously, do you think that it is important for the development of western Tenkara to be
supported by Japanese Tenkara masters such as Dr Ishigaki? Do you think the western anglers need
this stamp of authenticity?
John Pearson: There are many people who are quick to voice the opinion that they don't think there's any need to follow any dogma with Tenkara and, while I'd agree with that sentiment up to that point, some people do then go on to criticize people like me and Paul for trying to bring some accurate and
authentic knowledge to a wider audience.
I think if you just want an enjoyable fishing experience with a Tenkara rod, then that's fine. We're
fond of saying "there's no right or wrong way to have fun". If you take a close look at most people's
fishing gear (whether it's Tenkara or regular fishing) you'll often find an eclectic mix of different
disciplines and influences.
What I do feel is important especially for those that claim to be experts - who write about or teach
Tenkara - is to have a solid foundation of authentic knowledge gathered from the source. It's only
arrogant and short sighted people who think they have nothing to learn from Japanese Tenkara's
culture and its history possibly dating back over 1000 years.
What better way is there to ensure that your source knowledge is accurate than to have the support
of the most respected authorities on the subject, such as Dr Ishigaki?
Paul Gaskell: I 100% feel that – for any activity that you wish to either excel in and/or teach to others – you need to go to the source to learn it. This is true even if you want to rip up the rule book and go a totally different path once you have achieved a degree of mastery. So, it isn’t really about reducing things to a stamp of approval (although that is a useful guide to credibility), it is more that we would kick ourselves if we didn’t squeeze every bit of available information and wisdom from the originators of this art. I think that it is both naïve and arrogant to presume that an art that has an unbroken line of practitioners (not authors) spanning probably more than a thousand years would not have developed a thing or two that was valuable – or at least interesting - to know. Having said that, I absolutely support anyone who wants to take a Tenkara rod and use it any way that they enjoy - I truly think that is wonderful. BUT, if you want to teach Tenkara, comment widely and potentially shape opinion on it – you better make sure that you are not just pulling “facts” out of your own ass!
Tenkara is traditionally a technique devoted to commercial anglers but it seems to me that
nowadays most of Tenkara anglers equate Tenkara with calm, peace of mind, in a word Zen but
without forgetting the very efficiency of this fly fishing technique. At the same time we rarely see
any kind of competition spirit among the Tenkara anglers, have you also observed this fact?
John Pearson: I don't think this phenomenon is unique to Tenkara - there are many modern leisure activities (and sports) that have their roots in commercial or subsistence survival activities. The common thread with all activities which make the transition to become a leisure activity is they are enjoyable!
There's always a temptation with anything that gives us that sense of calm or peace of mind to label
it Zen. Zen has become a "catch all" term in the west for anything connected with a spiritual sense of
calm but reconciling fishing with the Zen Buddhist religion is difficult.
To me it seems that the philosophy of Tenkara leans more toward competition with yourself rather
than others. You simplify the way you do things; you simplify the tackle you use and then you see if
you are capable of using your own knowledge and skills to be a successful angler. There also seems
to be a great sense of community with Tenkara - rather than gathering together to compete it seems Tenkara anglers are happy to gather together and just share their experiences.
Paul Gaskell: The feeling of total absorption or “flow” when fishing is one of its most appealing attributes – and many use “zen” to describe that (which is valid and highly descriptive). It’s worth flagging up, though, the difference between that descriptive statement and actual Buddhist religion (which might prove challenging to reconcile with catching animals for sport or food). Beyond that, what is really interesting – and something that we spoke about over several long conversations with Dr. Ishigaki – is that modern Tenkara in Japan deliberately avoids competition. The feeling of the amateur (but passionate) body of Tenkara anglers in Japan (of which Dr. Ishigaki is the current president) is that much of the joy in Tenkara involves sharing freely with each other – both across Japan and around the world. So – there is nothing fundamental against competition in general; they just see it as something that might inhibit the sharing of the method and associated enjoyment. The reason that those conversations got so long and interesting was due to the “convergent evolution” of fishing methods that win most river fly fishing contests on the world stage (i.e. French Leader/European nymphing techniques) and the means of survival and profit for the professional Japanese mountain fly fisher! In both arenas – there would be no value in being able to only “talk a good fight”; results are all that mattered. We spent hours identifying quite a lot of technical commonalities of Tenkara with European competition methods – as well as really significant areas where Tenkara differs greatly.
The United Kingdom has probably the biggest number of anglers in Europe, I have seen on the
Discover Tenkara blog that you organize tuition and talks about tenkara and I was wondering what is
the proportion of fly fishermen among the participants? My personal opinion is that European fly
fishers are very conservative and less adventurous in the fishing field than the Americans, do you agree?
John Pearson: We have run some local community events where attendees have no previous fishing experience but on most of the other events we organize, as far as I can remember, all of our attendees have some fly fishing experience (quite often fly fishing on rivers).
I think there's scope for very wide variations in attitude both in Europe and America and it's hard to
say what percentage of a country's anglers are conservative or adventurous. We only really see or
hear from the ones that make their presence known and there's probably thousands (even millions)
of anglers out there just getting on with enjoying their fishing.
We still meet anglers who are very dismissive of Tenkara but their attitude tends to be born out of a
lack of knowledge. We've managed to convert quite a few sceptics to Tenkara once they've had a
chance to try it but there will always be those who will be determined to criticise any method they
don't personally favour - we've seen the same attitude towards plenty of other fly fishing methods
over the years.
Paul Gaskell: Aside from community engagement events (where most attendees have little or no previous interaction with rivers of any kind) I would say that close to 100% of our attendees on tuition events are from a fly fishing background. Having said that, there is currently only quite a small proportion of fly fishers that (if they have heard of Tenkara at all) actually have an accurate idea of what Tenkara involves! To provide that accurate idea - and make a route map for people to gain Tenkara skills if they become interested as a result – are the fundamental aims of our website, tuition, writing and DVD projects. Interestingly, in my experience, the average level of technical ability is much higher in river fly anglers from continental Europe compared to UK counterparts (although this may be skewed by the type of European angler that I have met so far!). I will be interested to find out whether higher technical ability (regardless of country of origin) translates generally into greater openness to or dismissal of Tenkara.
A few days ago I have seen on a facebook post of yours promoting the DVD an angler using the
perennial « argument » of dapping, what is your opinion about this « argument » against Tenkara? I
have noticed that this comes back in the conversation each time the anti Tenkara guy has nothing
serious to support his thesis! Isn’t it a kind of fear to realize that Tenkara could bring them to
question what they think they know about fly fishing in your opinion?
John Pearson: I think it's a symptom of the internet age... you'll always get people who are willing to offer their opinion on a subject they know nothing about! This is often accompanied by an argumentative nature that quickly resorts to insults if you provide any kind of constructive or reasonable argument.
I'm happy to get into a discussion with someone who is sceptical about Tenkara if they're genuinely
curious and willing to have a discussion but there are plenty of closed minded people out there who
see Tenkara as an "easy target" and are just looking for someone to insult. I suppose you have to try
and rise above that sort of bigoted behaviour - in these situations a famous quote by Mark Twain springs to mind "Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference".
Paul Gaskell: I think it is just an example of human nature where we try to fit anything outside of our experience into a box that contains things we already know about. It soon disappears when you get people casting and fishing and they feel the difference for themselves. This is a perfect demonstration of progressing through what psychologists call “The four stages of competence” in learning. When someone reduces Tenkara to “just dapping” it is a great diagnostic feature of the first stage – which is known as “unconscious incompetence”; in which the individual does not know how to do something and is also unlikely to recognise that deficit.
We are about to enter spring and a new trout season so what are, as Tenkara guides, your
expectations and plans for this year 2014?
John Pearson: I work as a guide full time so in addition to the group events advertised on our website I'll often be out guiding clients on a one to one basis. I love sharing my passion for Tenkara so, for me, it feels like the best job in the world!
We'll also be visiting Japan to fish with Dr Ishigaki and several other Japanese Tenkara experts. We'll
be working hard and taking plenty of notes, video and pictures all the time we're there to bring back as much knowledge as we can. We're also working on the next Tenkara DVD which we hope to release later this year.
Paul Gaskell: We are hoping for a fantastic series of tuition events and we have a lot of exciting content planned to make available to the world of Tenkara. We are also visiting Japan to meet with many Tenkara experts (and, just as importantly, Tenkara enthusiasts of all skill levels) in late May/Early June to increase our learning and appreciation.
The «Discovering Tenkara » DVD cover mentions « vol. 1 », can you please tell us anything about
«vol. 2 » or is it to be kept secret for now?
John Pearson: We have so much information to share and we're constantly working to increase and improve our skills and knowledge. We have plans to feature more advanced techniques and skills in future DVDs. but we were very keen with this first DVD to offer a solid foundation for people to build from. We're also hoping to feature more information of traditional Japanese kebari patterns and maybe
something about building tamos.
Paul Gaskell: We have a lot of plans and it partially depends on the order in which we are able to capture particular aspects on film. Of course, we will be taking cameras to Japan and who knows what we might record out there! Broadly speaking though, as the series progresses you can look forward to demonstrations and detailed tuition on more advanced casting, presentation, fish-location and fish-playing techniques – as well as showcasing the fun experiences to be had with Tenkara on-stream.
Thanks a lot for giving of your time to answer my questions! I will let you, please, conclude this
John Pearson: Thank you Christophe. This was a really interesting set of questions and I've really enjoyed answering them. Thanks too for all your interest in Discover Tenkara and thanks for the wonderful review of our DVD... I hope we can continue to deliver the same standards in the future.
Paul Gaskell: Many thanks to you Christophe for your thoughtful questions and also for your interest in - and support of - what we are doing at Discover Tenkara. Thank you also for providing such a positive and humbling review of Discovering Tenkara: Vol 1