Interview with Jason Borger
by Adam Trahan
I don’t know what to say… Wow, just wow. It is such an honor to be able to Interview Jason Borger. I’ve known him as an acquaintance for quite some time; he has contributed to a couple of web sites that I have made in the past that was more than a few years ago. But now the time is right and I am able to add him to the great list of Interviews for the book and for the site here, Tenkara-Fisher.
Many people that read this site and will purchase the book will not know Jason Borger. Introducing him is a big responsibility for me. But in the style of Tenkara, I will keep it simple yet effective. Jason Borger is the son of Gary Borger, who is a well-respected author and authority on western fly fishing. But Jason has made a name for himself, on his own. He is an author, illustrator and was one of the guys who did stunt casting/fishing in “A River Runs Through It”.
How cool is that?
What a great movie, and with Robert Redford directing? I’m pretty sure Jason has some great stories to tell about it.
Let’s get into the Interview to find out more about Jason.
Adam: Jason, we meet again, thank you for joining us at Tenkara Fisher. If you don’t mind, I want to jump right in and talk about your latest book. I’ve seen your pictures on social media, the ping pong ball reference points for illustration.
“Can you tell us a little bit about your book or what you are currently working on?”
Jason Borger: Sure. The book is Single-Handed Fly Casting and as the title suggests, its focus is on casts, mends, and ancillary skills for use with a single-handed fly rod. The knowledge base surrounding fly casting has grown considerably in the last 15 years or so, and this book taps some of that, as well as presenting my personal approach to fly-casting instruction. That last part meaning teaching oneself, not just others.
Despite the rather large size of the book, the text isn’t meant to be encyclopedic—that’s a task I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Instead, the book’s focus is on the “everyday” skills that I use in my own teaching and fishing.
The “ping pong” ball reference you made is to the 3-D motion-capture studies of fly casting with which I have been involved. It’s Lord of the Rings type of technology, just not quite on the same scale. A few grad student papers and biomechanics articles have come from the motion-capture sessions, and some of the data is being used in the book. I have also been involved in looking at fly casting with high-speed cameras (1000 frames-per-second), and I shot all of the photos for the book at a minimum of 60 frames per second (which translates to a minimum of 2X slow-motion).
As I do some work as an illustrator, and like how illustration can isolate a scene, I am converting the photography to line drawings. It’s neither quick nor painless, but the results are worth it, I think. It also provides illustrations that are “true to form,” including the shape of the loops, the pathway of the rod tip, and so on.
Interestingly, the last subject in the entire book is casting with a fixed line. I don’t devote a large amount of ink to the subject in-and-of itself, but not discussing it would a real omission in my opinion.
Adam: …and your wrist?
What’s up with that?
I see you have a cast in the pictures you have shared. I broke my right wrist about a decade ago and learned to fly cast switch, with my other, non-dominant arm. It’s almost like I was supposed to break it so I could learn that skill. I got so much better at presenting; it’s easier when you can just switch hands. But that really made me learn to focus on casting dynamics, learning to load up the rod and present accurately with the other side.
“How important is it to you to be able to cast switch? Do you think it helps to teach a student switch in order to understand casting dynamics as a whole?”
Jason Borger: As far as the wrist goes, it was a temporary cast used to study joint usage and torso stability during a motion-capture session. Compensating for lack of wrist mobility means some slightly awkward shifts in joint usage at first, but it was an interesting experiment in which to participate. No actual wrists were harmed!
As far as switching up goes, I’d call it on a case-by-case basis. In my case, I used to cast switch, including hauling. But then I had a hard bit of dirt inspection while mountain biking, and now I reserve my switch-handed casts for instructional purposes. I like to be able to feel what a new caster may be feeling, and having a (now) less tuned arm helps with that aspect. I typically use across-the-head and cross-body orientations for my daily “switch” use.
Adam: Although I have been casting fly rods for some decades now, it is not beyond me to still learn ergonomics. I’ve only been using Tenkara rods now for the past six seasons. On season 4, I went to Japan and spent a day on the river with a well-known Tenkara teacher. It was quite a show. I watched this guy move with cat like precisions, efficient movements but really sort of like watching a set of karate moves. I know he was showing off but he was good at his presentation.
At one point, it was time for me to “learn from the master” and he told my friend who was acting as an interpreter that I was using the rod like I was casting a western fly rod. I was. He said I was close to “Tenkara technique” but to move my elbow close to my side, plant it there and cast off the rod tip.
Right then and there I was reminded how some people are great casters but poor teachers and others can cast and teach others how to do it with ease.
It was a quick and valuable lesson that I was able to take home with me. It’s hard to change a technique but it’s possible with the right mnemotechnics to assist memory vs. familiar motion.
“When you are teaching, do you teach a system or do you tune an individual to what they need to know in order to cast more efficiently? Can you explain how you go about teaching?”
Jason Borger: Depends on the person or persons that I’m teaching. I do like to teach a certain approach that has efficiency and biomechanics benefits. But…If there is pain, injury, or other issues at play, then I adjust to those aspects right away. If time is short, I may also leave my “system” at the door, and work with a caster to get them needed skills without a re-working of any foundations.
The rods and lines used in tenkara may indeed encourage one to be more relaxed and condensed in one’s casting. I certainly find that the gear keeps me focused on minimalist casting moves. I often use body language when manipulating line on the water, but those movements are related to adjusting position, drift, or swing, not to guiding the fly through the air.
Adam: Are you ever intimidated by a client? I know you have done some pretty high profile teaching.
I’ve worked in open heart surgery and in the education of it. I helped develop cutting edge high fidelity teaching simulations for the heart lung machine. In that role, I’ve meet some of the best in that realm, people that where creating new technologies and techniques, I worked with them and I realized just how important that they were. I was within their realm but a little star struck.
I attended the last Tenkara Summit that Daniel Galhardo put on and it was the first time that I meet him and the other guys too. I was a bit nervous.
It happens but you get over it.
“Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you did on a River Runs Through It?”
Jason Borger: As far as your first question and clients, If someone is coming to me, they want to gain skill or perhaps greater casting comfort. I need to be focused on that, and making sure that I provide useful instruction. I certainly enjoy meeting people who are well regarded in their fields and/or are well known generally, but when it comes to casting, my interest in is proving useful guidance first and foremost.
Hard to believe that River was filmed nearly 25 years ago. I came on it right out of college (I had studied film and TV production and theory). For me, it had personal, as well as professional, relevance. Heck, I had caught my first trout on a fly rod right there in the Gallatin drainage (just a turn or two up the road from where most of the key fishing scenes were filmed).
Being a part of the film was a life-changing experience for a number of reasons, not the least of which was being able to serve as a casting and fishing double in many of the fishing scenes. That experience, and my education in film, took me to Los Angeles and the “Hollywood” production scene for a number of years. The film certainly provided a boost for me on the fishing side of things, too, but that was a long time ago.
I suppose if there is one thing that remains from River, one that thing that stands no matter how many days have gone by, is the story of family—the lives, loves, and losses, unfolding beneath a big sky and told from a poet’s memory.
Adam: I watched Brad Pitt cast, dissecting the movements carefully and he was either taught well or had some fly fishing experience on his own.
“If you taught him, you did well. If you advised the director, you did that well too.”
“What was it like to work with Brad Pitt?”
Jason Borger: It was good. He was into the fishing part of things. He wanted it to look right and to look the part of Paul (as much as reasonable given constraints of film and time). There were a number of people involved in assisting Brad as he built his “fish skills” to where they were on-screen, and that process started before I was hired on the film. In retrospect, I think that River was a springboard for him, and his career has certainly taken him on a pretty good ride!
Adam: I have read and talked with more than a few old school anglers that “the movie” was bad for fly fishing. I call bullshit on that. I think it was a beautifully well written movie that was carried out in good style. It was not much of a reach for me to enjoy. The shadow casting scene was amazing. Unless the director knew what fly fishing was, he obviously asked for help in creating such a beautiful scene that had some line handling skill. I’ve seen and done some really cool things with casting all different kinds of fly rods and I want to know more about the shadow cast and the reasons it made it into the movie.
“How did that come to play?”
Jason Borger: Well, the shadow cast scene is an important one in the novella, so it was more-or-less a given that it had to be represented in the film somehow. As it turned out, I ended up doubling for it. If I could choose only one scene to have from that film, that would be the one. It meant a lot to me personally, and it always will.
The shadow cast as an actual, filmable cast had its origins in pre-production, well before I was hired. It had its finishing touches applied while we were filming. The scene was shot in relatively short order, but the feeling of standing on that rock, arms outstretched, looping line across the Gallatin, has stayed with me all this time.
Robert Redford certainly knows fly fishing, so I think he wanted the cast to appear special, but not beyond the realm of real. The book takes the scene to a spiritual level. The film, however, remains a bit more in the dirt. The scene was longer, too, but the cutting room floor got the rest of it.
Adam: My line handling is utilitarian and if anything, from memory. If I am long line dead drifting, sometimes I’ll have line out and need to move a little and I’ll do it with the line in the air. I just go with the flow and mostly do a right and left, then a back cast and shoot. It’s nothing fancy, as I said, utilitarian.
With Tenkara, I don’t false cast. When I first start fishing, because of the fixed length, I may gauge the distance with a false cast or two, mostly at the beginning of the day, but as I adjust to the line and rod length and the height of the bank above the water, I’ll just back cast and then forward cast.
I practice at home with a Tuna can. I even have a little step stool that is sort of wobbly, I’ll set up a little Masonite casting circle with the can in the middle and practice putting the fly in the can. Tenkara is very accurate, pinpoint placement comes pretty easy. You learn the rod and it’s cool, you can set the kebari (fly) from your hand to a tiny little spot 25’ away in one motion. Practice and it becomes routine.
“Do you ever do any accuracy practice?”
Jason Borger: Yeah. I grew up with accuracy practice, and include a fair amount about it in the book. Tenkara makes things interesting since the line is fixed. I personally find that it makes me more keenly aware of body placement and movement in any presentation situation. It also means that one can practice in a way that really hones certain ranges. One thing that I tell people not to forget, though, is vertical accuracy. It’s great to be able to hit teacups, but there are times when it may be better for the fly to fall to the water from a lofted position. Being able to judge that well combined with the tea cups is another accuracy aspect to consider.
Adam: I’ve always found that the wrong fly in the right spot is much more important than matching the hatch, that’s why I focus on presentation rather than entomology. Tenkara in small streams augments that for me. Even though small stream fish are opportunistic in their feeding, I do think that matching the hatch can and is important for fly fishing Western style.
I’ve read books and articles from Gary Lafontaine and your father on the subject of properly presenting the right stage of the correct insect once you recognize what is going on in the stream. It’s quite an education and in my comparison of Japanese Tenkara, matching the hatch is not emphasized like it is in American fly fishing. That is both refreshing and a little confusing to new fisherman using a Tenkara rod to learn fly fishing.
“Re: Matching the hatch, do you have any comments on learning fly fishing with a Tenkara rod vs. a Western rod?”
Jason Borger: I’ll take the correct fly, presented well, in the right spot every time! How’s that for a weasel answer? That said, I’d take two flies to cover me for a lot of my hatch-based trout fishing: a pheasant tail nymph and trailing-shuck soft-hackle, each in a various sizes and a few colors. You can fish both throughout the water column (floatant can work on nymphs, too), and you can cover a lot of insects with them. Those flies aren’t going to let someone get his or her streamer fix on, but I think we’re just talking hatches here.
If you look in my “grab-and-go” trout box (the one without the streamers), you’ll find, among the exacting stuff, a collection of PTs, trailing-shuck soft hackles, and trailing-shuck Griffith’s Gnats in various color schemes. I carry a pair of small scissors to modify the flies as needed. If you want someone to just grab a rod and go try to catch a trout, I’d run with “it should look tasty,” and “make it move, or not move, the right way.”
Of course, being able to talk to your trout in Latin is pretty cool, too (Ephemerella for lunch, anyone?)
Adam: Jason, I’ve seen some pics of you with a unique Tenkara rod, looks like you took a blank and made the rod yourself. That would not surprise me at all. And if I’m not mistaken, you also like bamboo fly rods…
I probably should have asked this question first but I’ll just go ahead and ask it now.
“How do you view Tenkara? Is it something you do?”
Jason Borger: Ah yes, me and my “dumpster tenkara” rod…. That one really is built from junked parts, plus a tip-loop of reinforced tape. Not exactly much to look at, but I see it as an extension of some of the “make it yourself” aspects of tenkara (with a modern twist). I doubt anyone other than me would want to fish with it, though. I tolerate its crude performance and ugliness because it has found new life from unwanted scraps.
And bamboo? Yes. Although my tastes in terms of rod dynamics leads me toward tapers that most would not consider traditional.
As for how I view tenkara, I see it as another, intriguing form of fly fishing (a form with some utilitarian, but still romantic roots). While the gear and level of entry to successful fishing certainly is simpler with tenkara, I think that viewing tenkara too simply may be selling it short. To me, tenkara presents an alternate view on how I need to think about physical approach, as well as how I select and present flies. It also changes up how I think about the technical aspects of mending, for example. Those are not truly simple things.
Adam: I lost my bamboo rod shop right around the time I found Tenkara. I already had a lot of experience with small stream fly fishing. I was using zero and one weights with a large arbor reel. I was on Loop’s first team here in North America. Those guys taught me about making custom lines. I used a Sage zero weight with a Loop “Midge” reel and I had crafted a wf mono line out of fluorocarbon. The eight foot zero weight with the mono line was close, but not Tenkara. The line was too coiled, even with the large arbor reel. I gave up after a couple of sessions; the zero weight line was so much nicer than the coiled mono line. So when I got my first Tenkara rod, the bamboo fly rod making ground to a halt. The zero weight got put away and Tenkara took over.
It’s damn near perfect for a small stream.
But I’ve come to know myself and I know I get quite focused on something that captures my interest.
Anyway, I put together a solo trip to Japan where I visited their mountain streams and caught the three indigenous trout. In short, it was amazing. I brought a small bundle of Tenkara rods; I left my fly rods at home.
It’s been 6 + years now and I’ve done about a week of fly fishing the salt with my 8-weight. I love fly fishing the sea. So for me, it’s Tenkara in small streams and my 8-weight off the beach. I have many many days on the river at Marble Canyon doing long line dead drifting for huge river rainbows. I miss it but Tenkara and the occasional salt water trip are doing it for me.
“What does it for you?”
Jason Borger: If I had to choose two scenarios like you’ve mentioned here, I’d have to take trout for both of them. Not because I don’t enjoy fishing for other species, but because trout offer me certain things. The first scenario would be sight-fishing the shallow margins of certain lakes, both here in the U.S. and abroad. I don’t mean standing there and casting, I mean the “trout bonefishing” experience. That’s walking, spotting, up-very-close-and-personal casting, coupled with the hatches, the relatively delicate gear, and the mountains that I love. The second is rock-hopping and criss-crossing small streams with my wife. Could be anywhere, from a “fairy-tale” forest to the edge of the desert. There are a couple of very special places in particular, but I’ll leave the names out of the conversation.
Adam: I love traveling to fish.
Jason, this Interview is about you but you have quite the story with your father.
I learned to fish from my Grandad in the ponds on our farm in Tennessee. He taught me with a cane pole, a piece of monofilament and a gold Aberdeen hook. We would catch grasshoppers and thread them on the hook and do a little cast to catch bream. Add in a split shot and a quill bobber and some Charlie bait and now you are going for catfish.
“Who taught you to fish and how?”
Jason Borger: That would be my father, primarily. But I also had other influences growing up. For many years, my father ran fly fishing schools in various parts of the country. I basically had “how to fly fish” drummed into me from my earliest grade-school summers. Whether it was from my father or from other instructors who taught with him, I got a strong education. In certain places I was also allowed to roam reasonably free and fish solo at a young age, which provided a lot when coupled with the formal “how to.” You can’t truly assimilate angling knowledge until you just get out and do it, and I was able to do some serious doing! I was allowed to succeed—and fail—on my own. Taught me a lot about fly fishing, and taught it to me early.
“Do you have any fond memories of fly fishing travel from your youth?”
Jason Borger: Honestly, far too many to list. But, if I had to pick a few from my youth, I’d have to go with summers at the Vermejo Ranch in northern New Mexico, fishing some very special water in England, and my first trip to New Zealand. The first defined every angling July from when I was 5 until I was out of college. The second was on a couple of different occasions, on water, and during hatches, that were simply extraordinary. The third was when I was 13, and I ended up spending a semester on the South Island. My first taste of heli-fishing was on that trip, and I got more than a few life lessons in those four months, too. Wouldn’t trade those times for much of anything, really.
Adam: I see that you are somewhat plugged into social media. If you have done any online searches for fly fishing groups, forums or written articles, you have seen that fly fishing has changed quite a bit from when you were taught as a child. Fly fishing techniques have become more specialized, the equipment has too. I remember back in the 90’s, it was a couple of guys that did all the distribution for a couple of the companies. If you wanted a certain rod, more than likely, it was passed through this distribution.
As I get older, I don’t look at it like “I don’t like what young people are doing with MY sport.” Nothing like that, I embrace change and respect diversity, and I think it is important to healthy development yet I also know who I am.
I went through a head hunting phase, I wanted that largest trout in the smallest stream and I found many of them.
Now I don’t care, I just go fishing.
I see many fly anglers go through stages and head hunting seems to be one of them.
Jason Borger: Do what you love, the way you like to do it. And maybe don't worry too much about everyone else.
Adam: I must say that it is an honor to have had the opportunity to Interview you. I’m proud to know that you are available. I’ve seen your pictures at conclaves and you are just so nice, thank you and my hat is off to you, sir.
As with most of the Interviews that I do, I would like to offer you the opportunity to just say anything that you want.
Thank you again Jason Borger, I really appreciate your participation here at Tenkara-Fisher!
Jason Borger: Thank you for the kind words, Adam. Best wishes for your own fly-fishing journey.
This interview was originally published on January 5th, 2016