Interview with John Lawrence Geer
I’ve known John for a little while now, I met him through social media. Recently, I joined Tenkara USA as a writer and contributor. At the 2017 Tenkara USA Summit, we shared some time together. Having met him in person, he is a super nice, knowledgeable about fly fishing and tenkara. In short, I look forward to the next time we meet and I hope I am able to do a little fishing with him. So with that and without any more introductions, I want to get into the interview.
Adam: Hey John! I know this might be a stretch for you (the interview) but I appreciate you doing it. Outside of Tenkara USA, I want to tell you that the pictures you post tell a thousand words. You are an experienced fly angler, a tenkara fisher and your story is worth telling, even if it’s just a little slice here.
Let me begin with a thank you for accepting my invitation. I appreciate it and I’m sure our community will enjoy getting to know about you.
“Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?”
John Lawrence Geer: Hi Adam. Thanks for interviewing me and the nice intro. I grew up fishing in southern Illinois on strip pit lakes and farm ponds. We’d took most of our family vacations when I was younger to fish in Missouri on their trout parks, which are basically spring creeks managed as put and take fisheries, and then the large warm water fisheries there when I got older.
My parents moved to Missouri when my Dad retired, so I spent a lot more time there after that. I would fish the big reservoirs with my Dad, and went back to fishing some of the trout streams on my own.
My Dad was more of a bass guy, but Grandpa was a fly fisherman. He and my grandmother spent their summers in Idaho. Visiting them is where I got my first taste of fishing the western states. I loved it and moved to the region as an adult, first to Colorado and then to Montana. I’ve lived in Montana since October of 2002 and have worked for Tenkara USA since October of 2012.
Adam: From getting to know you, by what you choose to write about, what you share in social media, how we talk, I think you are a positive spokesperson for tenkara. I think tenkara and the world needs more upbeat, positive people and I appreciate your point of view.
“What makes you so happy?”
John Lawrence Geer: Mostly, I just put up a good front. Just kidding, but I do have my moments. You can ask my girlfriend or Daniel or TJ. They’ve all seen cranky John. I do think I’ve been super lucky in my life, so I feel like I have a lot to be happy about. I fell into a good place in my life. I had a rough year a couple of years ago, but it was stuff almost everyone has to deal with and things are pretty good now.
Adam: In my understanding, fly fishing and tenkara are similar but also very different. Fly fishing has many aspects, fresh and salt water, still water and moving. It can be very exciting and extreme like fighting a sailfish after teasing it toward you with a plug at the back of the boat, or it can be suspenseful, shuffling through a heard of rays out on a flat. Standing there safe in one spot, casting, catching, always mindful of where you step as you fight a barracuda or a bonefish ripping line. Fly fishing can be a different type of excitement too, in freshwater, like fighting a big rainbow in a strong river or stalking a big brown at a beaver pond.
With tenkara, it’s a pretty narrow activity, mountain stream, rod, line and fly. Simple in concept, pretty easy to do. Tenkara fishing mountain streams promotes getting into a rhythm, same equipment, very little in the way of variables, rod in hand, there is the stream, the fish are in their places, look over my shoulder, put in a cast, there is the take, tight! Grab the net, wet the hands, release the fish, move on… the rhythm in it, movement, and fishing is a series of methodical steps…
I hope you understand…
“Is tenkara too restricting compared to fly fishing?”
John Lawrence Geer: First, I want to say that I’m glad you mentioned rhythm. I think that’s a super important aspect of almost any type of fishing and especially tenkara and mountain streams. Knowing how long to fish a certain spot before moving on is one of the most important skill you can have.
As far as what restrictions, tenkara’s not too restricting for me, but we all choose what restrictions we’re going to hold to. Some of those restrictions are actually advantages, especially in the mountain stream environment tenkara evolved in. When I fish in that mountain stream environment, I very much stick to what I’ve heard you refer to as “Modern Japanese Tenkara”. That mode of thinking influences all of my fishing now, with a western fly rod or even a spinning rod, but I don’t usually feel bound by it when I’m away from a mountain stream environment.
Adam: I have no problem with the restrictions, as a matter of fact, I like the mountain stream environment. I’ve just started fishing bigger water and I’ve done some lake edges work. I did the same thing with my fly rod but I specialized the equipment, the length of rod and the weight of the line.
“What are your thoughts on tenkara, this simple, focused method of fishing? Can it compete with fly fishing? Are the two disciplines apples and oranges or are the alike more than they are apart?”
John Lawrence Geer: The simplicity and unburdened nature of it is a big part of what I love about tenkara. I love the way those “restrictions” work within the mountain stream environment. As I mentioned, I still do some western fly fishing and tenkara fishing has helped me strip that down to the things that are really necessary for me to enjoy it. It’s actually helped my productivity in a lot of ways. I’ve found a lot of the time, if something isn’t helping me it’s just in my way. So I don’t always see simplicity as a restriction. Sometimes it provides a clearer focus on what’s really helping me catch fish and enjoy the my time on the water.
For me, tenkara can be focused but doesn’t have to compete with western fly fishing and they can both compliment each other.
Adam: I believe tenkara has a broad spectrum appeal, more of a calling card to the outdoors, I think there are a lot of people that try tenkara because it is an easy way into fishing. It is much easier to learn for the masses when it comes to actually doing it. Of tenkara’s own method, I think it provides a much less frustrating experience for those new to fishing and the outdoor experience than say fly fishing or even conventional angling.
My view comes from a long history of fly fishing, working in a fly shop, creating online forums and teaching people to fly fish and then quitting fly fishing and doing tenkara only. I’ve spoken to quite a few, new to fishing enthusiasts about fly fishing and tenkara. l know quiet a few fisher people that use the method as a specialized tool in their fly fishing tool box.
I’ve always said that fly fishing is hard to learn, easy to master and tenkara is easy to learn, hard to master. I’m simplifying it in a sentence, both are really effective forms of fishing and the course of the experience of an angler has definite comparisons.
You have new people starting tenkara and you have people doing it that do fly fishing.
“What do you think John? What’s best for tenkara to grow? Is it better for tenkara as a complete method on it’s own to grow that way or as just a niche of fly fishing?”
John Lawrence Geer: Since I’ve been working for Tenkara USA, I’ve seen it grow in both of those ways, what Daniel calls tenkara as a method vs. tenkara as a tool. We (Tenkara USA) have tried very hard to tell the story of tenkara’s history in Japan and share those methods without telling people how they “should” fish. My personal love of tenkara is mostly for fishing on mountain streams with a kebari on the end of my line, but it’s also very rewarding to me when a parent or grandparent emails us about how much they’ve enjoyed taking their kids/grandkids fishing with our rods on a bluegill pond for the first time. That type of fishing was such a big part of my youth (of coarse not with a tenkara rod) that I’m always glad to hear we’re helping other people have those experiences.
I think it will continue to to grow organically in both ways, and I’m happy with that. I hope people will remember where it came from, but enjoy their rods with the opportunities that are available to them. I also think that some of those kids that start out catching bluegill on warm water ponds will end up exploring mountain streams later in life. That’s how it worked out for me, anyway.
Adam: Thank you for taking my call the other day, which leads me into my next question.
“Do you do anything else besides fly fishing and tenkara?”
John Lawrence Geer: You’re welcome. I tend to be pretty obsessive about my hobbies, but I can also drop them. Fishing is the one I never dropped, at least in my adult life. I used to be a fairly competitive pool player. I’m a Star Wars nut. I like reading about the Old West. I was very into archery at one point and decided to pick that back up this year. I can go down a lot of rabbit holes, but trying hard not to add too many new hobbies that require me to accumulate a lot more stuff.
Adam: I am getting older, I have less enthusiasm and place much less effort into other new to me activities. I’m a creature of habit too. When I found out about the minimalism in tenkara, I started to look at minimalism in other things, activities, life. I also play disc golf. I started with a larger bag when filled, carried 20+ discs, and then settled on a golf pull cart that holds a large bag that holds up to 20. That minimalism is creeping in to my disc golf and I’m starting to see a trend and I’m getting better at it. I may have to try carrying a little bag of just a few discs, just what I need.
“Has tenkara or a minimalist view helped you in anything else? Did you discover this minimalism from tenkara?”
John Lawrence Geer: For sure, as I mentioned I think it’s really helped my western fly fishing (when I do it). I’m trying to view archery through that lens as I get back to it. This time around I really want to get competent at shooting a simple traditional bow (non-compound). I played with that before, but really want to get competent with my recurve this time around.
Adam: John, is there anything you want to ask me?
John Lawrence Geer: How’s the trout fishing in AZ in February? It’s friggin cold here.
Adam: I know you have spent time in Apache Junction which is still down in the desert, an outlying town of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Up in the mountains above 5,000’ we have a lot of trout streams. Above 9,000’ in the winter, much of our streams are beyond gates that close in the late fall due to snowfall and roads that are not maintained. We have fishing in other areas but just like you, it’s cold. We get snow, hard freeze but the moving water of our streams, we have fishing in the winter, you just have to get your hook down to the fish. They are moving very little, the water temperature drops, there is less light available and fishing slows down.
Adam: I studied the history of tenkara early on. I started out with a rod from Daniel and I fish a Tenkara USA rod today. I’ve been to Japan a couple of times now and have met the guys that Daniel introduced us to and have fished in many streams all over the central mountains of Japan.
With this overview of tenkara, I honestly have to say that it just isn’t necessary to visit Japan in order to learn a lot about tenkara. Yes, the rods came from Japan, much of the finer points of tenkara are from Japan but actually, those things can be learned on your own. English language books written by people outside of tenkara’s country of origin can also teach you about tenkara, the method. Daniel’s book for example, it’s a super good book to learn tenkara with.
You haven’t been to Japan, you learned tenkara as I did before I went and I’m sure you are pretty good at it.
“Do you have plans to go to Japan on your own or is that even a thought?”
John Lawrence Geer: Yes, I’d really love to go to Japan. I’d love to fish tenkara there and get to interact with and learn from some of the fisherman there. I’ve fished with Dr. Ishigaki quite a bit in the US, and would really like to see him fishing his home waters. I consider myself to basically be a student of his tenkara, largely passed down through Daniel, who’s thought me the most about it directly. I almost always pick something up when I fish with him, or at least become aware of something I should work on.
I’d also just really love to see Japan. I don’t know anyone who went there that didn’t have a wonderful experience, regardless of their reason for the trip. I think I’d want to spend some time doing touristy stuff besides just fishing, to be honest.
Adam: Make no mistake, I love sharing the history and I really enjoy sharing tenkara with my Japanese friends. For me, tenkara is a great way to bridge the gap to the fishing community in Japan. But it goes beyond fishing for me. I travel there for tenkara but my trips are mostly about Japan as a country, as a society. I learn more about the people than I do about tenkara. Japan is an amazing, beautiful country and the society just seems how it should be, very respectful of the individual and the individual supports the society by respecting the human experience. It’s such a cool place, everything from people being helpful, orderly, respectful, clean and taking your shoes off in the house, the onsen, the aesthetic nature and coexistence of people and nature.
Christophe’ Laurent is interviewing me at this time and some of my questions will overlap here with his interview, my thoughts there.
“Where do you see tenkara growing the most?”
John Lawrence Geer: It’s hard for me to say. It just seems to keep growing, more than I expected when I first saw it. I don’t trust my intuition, but guessing it will continue to grow as it has, some getting very into the methodology and others using tenkara rods as a handy, fun tool.
Adam: I know you represent tenkara at the trade show circuit.
“Do you have any stories from those experiences?”
John Lawrence Geer: Neither Daniel or TJ or I are wild partiers, so no really great stories. I have a lot of vivid memories, but I’m afraid I’ll have to save those for when we’re sitting around the dinner table after an event like the Summit last summer.
Adam: I learned tenkara on my own with the help of Tenkara USA videos. Compared to a western fly rod, a tenkara rod takes a certain technique on how to deploy it otherwise you have a mess with the tip sections slipping back inside of the larger butt end sections and then jamming the rod when you try to fix the problem without taking the rod apart.
As a customer service rep, do you have any first day advice to new tenkara anglers, as far as keeping their experience good without making a mess of the rod?
I know it’s a simple question but I teach and I know there is a good answer and a story here.
John Lawrence Geer: YES! Mostly relating to what you just described. Learn to set up and open and close the rod before you go fishing with it. It’s not hard, but it can be frustrating if you’re new to tenkara and trying to do it when you’re excited about fishing. I don’t have a specific story, but most people I’ve spoken who got off to a bad start would have benefited from this.
This is especially true for experienced fly fisherman. When they hear tenkara is a simple method of fishing, they assume they have nothing to learn. If they can set up the rod and open and close it properly, an experienced fly fisher can probably take it to the stream and catch fish, but they do need to learn at least that. There’s a whole new world for them if they’re open to it, but at least learn the set up.
Adam: We are quickly approaching a decade of tenkara in America. I’ve learned quite a bit about it and now I’m using tenkara as an adjunct to my travel. This summer, I’ll do two types of adventures with tenkara connecting them both. I’m fishing for rainbows in Kauai and I’ll packraft in Marble Canyon, upstream from the Grand Canyon.
“John, do you have any travel plans that are connected to tenkara?”
John Lawrence Geer: Well, Daniel and I are headed to Texas for a show in February and we’re spending a little extra time to fish some streams in the Texas Hill Country. I’m really looking forward to that. They have some beautiful clear streams that look almost like a mountain stream or a spring creek, but have warm water fish I’m them. Also, I’ve made a lot of friends in Texas that I’m really looking forward to seeing.
I’m guessing that at some point this year I’ll be back to Colorado for work or an event, and we don’t usually have to beg the boss too hard to get him to take us fishing when we’re there.
Adam: I would like to visit Christophe’ in France. As I’ve said, I learn a lot about the culture, the people when I travel to foreign countries. In France, I want to visit the mountain towns of Chamonix and Verbier. These mountain towns have always captured my interest.
I like Teluride, Silverton, Paonia, I really like Nederland (thanks to Steve and Kristin) and I want to spend more time in Boulder.
“Are there any mountain towns here that you want to visit?”
John Lawrence Geer: That all sounds like fun to me too, and I think Christope would be a lot of fun to fish with.
I’m ashamed to admit that with all the time I’ve lived in MT, I’ve never made it up to Glacier National Park. I really want to go there, both to fish and see that country. They do have a lot of beautiful mountain streams that friends of mine have told me are tenkara perfect. So, not really a town but a National Park I’d like to visit.
I always love going back to Boulder and Colorado in general for work. If I had to leave Montana, my first choice to move to would be Colorado’s Front Range. Even though I lived there for a while and have fished there quite a few times since I started working for TUSA, I’ve only scratched the surface of the mountain stream fishing there.
Adam: I want you to know I appreciate you. I appreciate your kind demeanor, you, TJ and Daniel make quite a team. I’m proud to be associated with you and I just wanted to say that in public.
I would like to close the interview like I do with all the others with a opportunity for you to say anything you want in closing.
John Lawrence Geer: Thanks Adam. I’m very glad to be working with you, also. You’ve put in a lot of work for tenkara since the very early days of it here, along with just being a very experienced angler with a really cool history to draw experiences from. Your insights are always welcomed.
I’d like to thank all of the Tenkara USA customers for supporting us and allowing me to have a fun job. Of coarse, I’d also like to thank Daniel for bringing tenkara here and for giving me that job and allowing me to be part of this whole tenkara movement. I have to thank TJ for being such a great coworker since I started. We’ve had a few people help us out at Tenkara USA, and they’ve all been great. We’ve been very lucky in that regard and I’m thankful for all of them, also.
I’d also really like to thank all the great ambassadors out there that have helped share tenkara with others. One of the things I’ve been most impressed with in the tenkara community is the generosity of spirit. There’s so many people that have helped others get on the water and enjoy fishing for no real compensation other than their own satisfaction, and I’m always very impressed by that. I can’t say that I’m so generous.
Thanks again for asking to interview me. I hope it wasn’t too boring.