Interview with Chris Zimmer

Photograph by Adam Klagsbrun

This interview is long overdue. Chris Zimmer supports the tenkara community with his craft. I use quite a bit of the equipment he offers and his brand rivals the best in the business for what I chose to use in my tenkara fishing. I met Chris at one of Tenkara USA Summits, I’m not sure but I think he won the fly tying contest, I believe I placed third behind him and Adam Klagsbrun. I have worked with Chris to design my version of my tenkara bag, the Kaizen and it was super easy and Chris gave me props at his site.

I know a little bit about his sewing world having worked with designers to create my hang gliding harness. The high tech cloths, the types of stitches and machines. There are huge stories about what goes on to get the quality products to end users; I’ll save that for the interview.

Adam Trahan: Welcome Chris, thank you for sitting for the interview. I want to say this right now, “I appreciate what you do.” You make great products that work, right, the first day and years later. My *Kaizen bag that you made has seen lots of changes in my tenkara, Genryu and Honryu but we got that right the first time, thank you.

“Please use this opportunity to introduce yourself or say anything you want; this is your interview.”

Chris Zimmer: Hi Adam, thank you for the invite. As you know, I own and operate ZimmerBuilt. I started the company about 12 years ago, after not being able to find the type of gear that I needed for my adventures. I saw a need for quality custom-built gear for hikers and fishermen.

Adam: I’m super stoked to be able to interview you. I’m pretty sure you know a lot about what I want to know more about, sewing and cloth. I’ve worked with hang gliding harness designers to tailor my harness here in the USA and in Italy. I’ve had the opportunity to know gifted sewing machine operators that could literally tear apart a complex paraglider with its high tech fabric and repair it and to look at the repair would be to not really know that it was repaired at all.

High tech fabrics are expensive! The machines that make them are complex and typically there is a global industry that supports the manufacture. People such as yourself bring this fabric to the masses with your craft of putting together great products and people like me are just astounded by the whole process.

“Can you describe how Zimmerbuilt came to light?”

Chris: The origin story of ZimmerBuilt is completely accidental, I never had any intentions on starting something like this. All my schooling and professional training was as a Geologist and had nothing to do with sewing. I didn't even know I could sew. At the time I was really into hiking and I enjoyed reading posts on the Backpacking Light Forum which had a section called the MYOG (Make Your Own Gear) forum. I loved looking and reading about all the stuff other people were building. After a while I got to thinking that maybe I could make something like that myself. So I went to the local JoAnn Fabrics and bought the cheapest Singer sewing machine they had in stock. I ordered some material and gave it a go. At first I made some simple stuff sacks, just trying to get a feel for the material and machine. After some time behind the machine I got comfortable enough that I wanted to try and make my own backpack. I drew up my pattern on AutoCad and measured and cut everything out. The finished pack turned out way better than anything I could have ever hoped for. In my excitement of what I had just made, I posted some pics on MYOG forum and right away I started getting requests to make stuff for people. It snowballed from there, I was able to work as a Geologist during the day and was making packs at night. I would invest my earnings into more materials and eventually saved up enough to get a new industrial sewing machine. As time went on and interest grew I was able to maintain a workload that made it possible to do this full time. I eventually left my job as a Geologist and took on ZimmerBuilt full time. Since then I have been working hard to make the best backpacks and fishing gear I can.

The backpack that started it all.

Adam: Early on in my life, I learned that I didn’t always fit in. I wasn’t strong as a child, I didn’t get picked for sports because I was strong or fast. I got sick with valley fever and just couldn’t keep up with other kids. Sports like skateboarding and doing things like riding my bike or fishing were perfect for me because I depended on myself for entertainment. This self reliance carried on into the things I was interested in for the same reasons. As a young teen, I often watched my aunt sew clothing and she taught me how to operate her sewing machine. I started cutting up clothes that fit me to make my own clothes. Not clothes like you think, my first pair of pants was an idea that I had for my ninja outfit. I sewed in multiple pockets to carry the things that I used. It was only later that I sewed normal clothing, often making a little jacket for a nephew or making bags for my equipment.

My sewing machine is now out of service. I pushed it too far trying to sew multiple layers of cloth, I adjusted the thread tension to a point where I can’t figure out how to get the tension back to where it should be.

I am looking at buying a new machine, one that I can learn more about how to adjust, maybe one that can sew thick fabrics. I’ve always wanted a Pfaff, or at least I think I want one…

So you were perfect for me, willing to adjust your bags a little and I appreciate you.

I think crafting your own equipment is paramount to being a tenkara fisher. You certainly are fulfilling that.

“What is your favorite piece of tenkara gear that you make? Do you use it the most?”

Chris: Boy I’ve been there; foam was the main killer of my first machine. Once I got an industrial machine though that was no longer an issue. Honestly, for me, each piece is or was my favorite at one time or another. I spend a lot of time with each item testing it out and seeing what works and what doesn't. Then I go back and make any tweaks or adjustments to get it dialed in to make it actually perform the way you want. I just love the process.

Sometimes things work out quicker and sometimes they just don't work out at all the way you thought. The Guide Sling is one of my favorite pieces just for that reason. There was a lot of trial and error with that pack to get all the angles and pieces to come together correctly. That is a great pack and I love using it. The HeadWaters pack is probably the one pack that I use the most though these days. That pack can handle just about any situation you throw at it and with all the accessories for the pack you can really customize it to suit your needs..

Adam: Tenkara is all about minimalism for me. It helps me get quickly to increasing my skill as a fisherman solving problems with the basic elements of it, rod, line and fly.

That’s not always the case for others.

For my last pack from you, I had you leave the rod sleeves off. My sling, I take off the binders for multiple rods

If I carry another rod, it’s inside of the pack.

I see fishers using your equipment with rod(s) stuffed in the sling or your pack with extra rods. It’s not the way for me yet I appreciate your approach towards equipment design.

On the other hand, you design cool little bags for those of us who don’t need to carry a lot on stream. Your micro pack is actually my favorite bag as it forces even a strict minimalist like me to focus more on the components that go into that bag. I’ve worked with my craftsman friends to design spools and micro fly boxes for that system. I’m nearly to the point where I don’t have anything to add or take away.

I’m super happy with that little micro pack, thank you.

I’ve bought Zimmerbuilt things that people have used and sold for whatever reason to give to my friends getting into tenkara. I think a component such as a small pack for new anglers sets that minimalism in motion.

The media, magazines, the internet when reporting on tenkara all contain advertising. Zimmerbuilt is a business and personally, I want to see Zimmerbuilt have a presence in tenkara for as long as you are willing to push cloth into a sewing machine or even beyond that.

Now is where things get sticky for some people.

Photo by Rob Lepczk

“What do you think of marketing and advertising in relation to new people to a sport?”

Chris: Yeah the beautiful part about tenkara that first drew me in was the minimal gear you needed for it. I had been using a small 3wt fly rod that only broke down into 2 pieces before tenkara. Hiking in with that long rod strapped to my pack was not always the easiest, the tenkara rod made that easy. All you need is just a rod, line and a couple flies and your set. I would urge everyone to go out and try it. You should find that you will be able to focus more on your fishing and have better success and see that all the other stuff is really not needed. It will help give you more confidence in your fishing overall. I love the micro pack just for that reason, that pack really limits what you can carry and makes you focus on just the items you need.

As for marketing and advertising, I do very little in comparison to most. I feel that if you make a quality item that works, people are going to want to talk about it. I don't want to have to convince people from an ad. I just want to make high quality items that people enjoy using and speak for themselves. I think most of my customers get it, they see the time and effort and attention to detail that I try to put into each item I make. They appreciate the attention to detail and want to support quality work. I’m sure pushing the advertising would help boost sales, but I’m a one-man operation and I stay busy.

Adam: When I first got into fly fishing a long time ago, before the internet, I read fly fishing magazines. I think it’s normal to look for media that supports an interest, whatever it is that feeds your fancy. But early on, I saw that there was advertising for new equipment and that often led to advancements in the disciplines. Years of “advancing” often had the effect of leading a sport farther away from the original point of the sport in the first place.

Or did it?

In fly fishing, over the last forty years, I’ve seen advertising change the scope of fly fishing and fly fisher people.

Do we really need all that expensive equipment?

Advertising is not a bad thing. Media isn’t the problem, as a matter of fact, the problem isn’t really a problem.

People get to be who they are, what other people do is literally none of my business.

I enjoy tenkara and I like to write about my adventures and share my experiences.

Tenkara-Fisher is a home page.

Keiichi and I craft it.

We reflect on what we do as tenkara fishers.

“What do you think about the media and advertising as it pertains to the impact it can have on a sport?”

Chris: Media and advertising are both great ways to introduce new people to a sport or get your product seen by customers. Companies can utilize both to get their products noticed so they can make sales. The more interest there is in a sport the more that sport is going to grow and develop. So, I guess in that regard, media and advertising are both beneficial. However, I would suggest just turning off all your electronic devices and hit up a stream, do some fishing. Better yet take someone new fishing and show them how to have fun out on the water. That is going to have the biggest impact on a sport.

Adam: As I get older (I am 62) I am starting to realize that I may have only 10 - 15 more seasons of tenkara. I’m probably halfway into my experience as a tenkara fisherman. I feel like I have learned quite a bit about it. I continue to keep the Japanese experience in history and in current tenkara  practice part of the way that I craft my own experience here. That is the impact on what I do, and I enjoy it.

Minimalism has always been a part of everything that I do even before tenkara but it was this style of Japanese fly fishing that really put a focus on the effect of focusing on just what I need to enjoy my time in the forest.

“Chris, has tenkara had an effect on your approach towards what you do?”

Chris: Yes, I would say it has had an effect on my overall approach. It has helped me see that you don't really need all this stuff we like to carry. I always like to overthink things and bring way more gear than I will ever need. Once I was introduced to tenkara and found out I could go out with just a rod, line and fly and have a very productive day on the water, that really opened my eyes. Now I still carry way more gear than I should but what can I say, that's just me. But knowing that I don't need something or that things will be OK if I don't have that piece has helped me simplify my gear selection. That is how the Micro pack came to be, I wanted to limit what I could bring but still have the core items at hand. A tin of flies, a spool of 5x tippet, a nipper and forceps, every time I don't have forceps, I’m sure to have a fish get hooked deep, so I always try and have those.

Adam: I was born and raised here in Phoenix. I lived in Hawaii while I was in the service and traveled East Asia at that time. I’ve traveled the West by car, and I really enjoy going places to do things with great equipment.

“Can you tell us where you have gone on your own and with Zimmerbuilt?”

Chris: I have traveled all over the US, my parents made it their goal to get my brother and I to all 50 states before we graduated high school. That was a really cool goal to have, and I am very appreciative of them for doing that. Then, as a Geologist, I was fortunate enough to get to travel all over the states looking at rocks, dirt and water. Personally, I enjoy traveling with my family to beautiful locations... Some of my favorite travel memories include taking my kids fishing. A few years ago, I was able to introduce my daughter to tenkara while vacationing in the Smokey Mountains where she landed her first fish on a tenkara rod.

Traveling as ZimmerBuilt has been a blast. I have had a great time traveling around to all the different summits and gathering and meeting all the great people out there that are into chasing fish in these beautiful streams. It is really a lot of fun getting out and meeting likeminded people and sharing the experience. You can learn a great deal attending one of these gatherings, either out on the water watching others or late at night around the fire ring. I have yet to have a negative experience at one of these events and I look forward to the gatherings ahead.

Photo by Isaac Tait

Adam Trahan: I just bought a new Subaru Forester! I’m super excited about it. I am going to use it for this next part of my life as I cut back my work and travel more to fish. I no longer fly (as a soaring pilot) and traveling by car is so enjoyable for me. I really enjoy the destination at the end of a long drive and my car and what I take with me is how I do it.

“What type of car do you drive and how does it play a role in your life?”

Chris Zimmer: I have a Subaru Outback. What can I say, the tires make contact with the road and get me to where I want to go. With Ohio not having the most trout rich waters, I do spend a lot of time driving to Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia or up to Michigan in search of trout. I just love the feeling of setting out on a fishing road trip. Your mind racing with thoughts of what you might have forgotten, or thinking about what the water conditions are going to be like. After a long car ride there is no better feeling than stepping out of the car and taking in that first breath of stream side air! The fresh air just soaks into my soul and I feel happy!

Adam Trahan: Traveling to adventure with friends is just the best feeling or taking your family on a trip and being able to explore, and to do this with your stuff, car trips are the best. 

To look at it in reverse, my little pack that I carry my fly box, spool and lines, that is what makes it a tenkara adventure, the sling pack and backpack allow me a little more comfort in the way of bringing a stove, a chair, a meal. Past that I have a backpacking pack that I overnight out of, then comes the car. Distance, budget, time, planning, the sweet spot is travel by car. When I travel by plane, I’m making decisions that are more costly in the fact that when I get to a destination, I’m having to consider lodging, further travel, do I bring my backpack and overnight gear? My point here is that the good you offer are pieces of equipment that I use to make decisions on what I’m doing. Your packs, bags, the gear you offer solve a lot of questions and I appreciate what you do.

“What goes into the process of designing your equipment? Are you solving your own questions or do your customers request solutions or a combination of both?”

Chris Zimmer: In the beginning, it was mostly just making gear that solved problems for myself. All the pieces I make are all things that I heavily used at one point or another. I didn't always need the same kit for each trip which is what led me to making items that can be used together or individually. This allows me to carry exactly what I think I am going to need for that specific trip. These days I have customers come to me with issues they are having and I try to solve those problems by either tweaking a pack I already offer or by coming up with something totally new. It is a lot of fun working with other people and trying to solve whatever problem they are having. It has helped open the door to new designs and features. I am now able to see a different way of accomplishing a goal that I was not aware of before. There is no “right way” to do any of this, just because some things are the norm doesn't mean another way won’t work as well. It's fun discovering those other ways of doing things and seeing it help someone have more success out on the water.  

Adam Klagsbrun ~ Adam Trahan ~ Chris Zimmer

Adam Trahan: I meet you at one of the tenkara summits! I know you were busy and so was I but we did spend a little time in the tying room. I think I got third, I believe you won the contest. It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed those summits. 

“Can you tell us a little bit about your tying?”

Chris Zimmer: Yeah, that was a fun night!  Klags topped us both and took first. He ties some really nice flies. I remember that was the one contest I had my eye on winning, the two top prizes were a couple sets of flies that Yoshikazu Fujioka had tied, and I really wanted one. That is a really cool set.

I love tying flies. That is what actually got me into fly fishing more than anything else really. I was 9 or 10 years old on vacation with my family and came across a fly shop and went in to check it out. I was just drawn to all the different furs and feathers and seeing all the different flies that you could tie, I just thought that was the coolest stuff ever. Today, I don't get to tie nearly as much as I would like. I always feel guilty that I am not working on someone's order. For tenkara, I use to try and match the hatch or tie some fancy looking fly but over the years I have figured out all I need is a size 14 with a peacock herl body and some brown hackle and I will more than likely have success wherever I am fishing. I love making stuff so fly tying is just another outlet for me to do so.

Adam Trahan: Any questions for me?

Chris Zimmer: On the subject of flies, are you a one fly guy or do you like to use whatever fly is in your box on your tenkara adventures? If you could only use one fly, which fly would you use? 

Adam Trahan: Great question!

When I first started tenkara in 2009, I was reading the information stream from Daniel Gahlardo. “One Fly” was his interpretation of tenkara, and subject to whatever he chose to report on. After a while, I began to see a pattern that supported the direction he took in marketing. He wasn’t lying or anything like that, he was picking and choosing content based on his interest and marketing direction. “One Fly” from his perspective was reported on as “literally only one fly” by a couple of the experts. I did not have enough intel on tenkara at that point and I could not find anything about it in old or new Japanese literature. 

I decided to try it and picked out a Sakasa Kebari and tied a few. I also had a friend tye several dozen for me. I began a year of “one fly” and ended up catching more fish that year than I ever had in fly fishing the same streams. I even went to Japan with my one fly yet when I started asking around, “one fly” wasn’t the one fly it was reported on. 

It was a minimal fly box and behind that was the methodology of tenkara.

The fly was secondary to the knowledge of where the fish were and accurate casting to get the fly to them.

I considered everything when reducing fishing to one fly. In the past I used a stomach pump on fish when I was studying entomology in fly fishing. Everything I found in that trial was about a half inch and brown. I used what I knew in studying fish vision and behavior. I looked at the history of tenkara and the rods and line I used and came up with my version of the fly that covered all the bases. Black body for outline, soft brown feather for buggy movement, a red head to appeal to the aggressive nature all on the Japanese keiru hook that was designed and evolved with nesting rods.

I have since abandoned my one fly choosing only to start with it everywhere I go. It still ends up being the most effective pattern not because of it, because of the whole of tenkara.

I still suggest trying a season of one fly to anyone because it supports the improvement on learning where the fish are and getting the fly to them. I suggest it along with the accurate casting game, the two go together.

All of that has nothing with entomology or matching the hatch being a wrong choice. That’s one of the reasons why I say that fly fishermen by far are better tenkara anglers. They already know most of the good info. Tenkara is just the method that strips away all the necessary equipment and practice that goes along with western fly fishing and gets straight to the point of catching fish, fast.

Adam Trahan: Chris, I want to thank you for taking my request to sit for this interview. If it isn’t evident, I want to thank you for all that you do. Your craft is important to the adventures I cook up and the fishing that I do. 

Please use this opportunity to close.

Good luck in your business, your family life and all that you do.

Take care.

Chris Zimmer: Hey, thanks for having me, Adam. I appreciate your appreciation! I would like to take this opportunity to give a huge THANK YOU to anyone that has ever bought and/or used a piece of my gear. I truly appreciate everyone's support and I feel so fortunate to be able to have a job this fun and rewarding. Thank you so much to each and every one of you!


*I receive no compensation for the sale of my Kaizen designed bag, tenkara-fisher is a non-commercial site.

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