As I reach back into
tenkara’s past to report on, I think it is important to also look at the
future. Recently, I exchanged texts with Chris Stewart, he suggested that I
“interview the young people, they are the future of our sport.” I agree with
Chris more than I disagree so I began to research just who is sharing their
enjoyment of tenkara, making their content available to a wide range of
enthusiasts. All roads lead to Tristan Higbee. His videos are telling of his
interest and skill in tenkara fishing. You only have to pull up YouTube and
Tristan’s channel starts populating. Try watching one and can certainly see
that his edits show how effective tenkara is. Without going on too much about
Tristan and his video channel, let’s get into the interview.
Adam Trahan: Tristan, thank you for being here. As you can see from my reporting at tenkara-fisher, I am interested in the history of tenkara and I am also interested in the future which I see has changed quite a bit in my own short time practicing tenkara.
With all the interviews that I do, the opening question is what it is.
“Please feel free to write anything you wish…”
Tristan Higbee: Hi Adam. Your website was one of the first I came across back when I was initially into tenkara and consuming everything I could find on the subject, so it’s fun to be part of it in a tiny way. Thanks for the work you’ve done here.
Adam Trahan: I have a spot on YouTube where I place snippets of what I do from video taken with my phone. In high school, I used a Super 8 movie camera and a splicing mechanism to edit my films. As I progressed to video, the sports that I did were balance oriented and a big video camera was difficult to attach to a hang glider or film while surfing a powder filled mountain gulley. The technology of cameras had not really caught up in size and affordability, quality or editibility. Even the Internet which started to gain popularity in the late 90’s didn’t have applications which interfaced with phones and many didn’t have cameras. Technology has changed so much in the last 25 years.
“Tristan, can you tell us a little bit about how you go about producing your videos?”
Tristan Higbee: For the Tenkara Addict videos, it’s pretty simple. I strap a GoPro to my head and go fishing. I’ve used a GoPro Hero7 Black for nearly all of my videos, but I now have a GoPro Hero10 Black that I’ll be using going forward. (The 10 can film in stabilized 4K resolution in a way that the 7 can’t, and that’s the main reason I upgraded.) I’ll occasionally also film with my phone (Samsung S10e), my big camera (Canon M6 MK II), my backup camera (Sony ZV-1), or my drone (DJI Mavic Air).
I don’t fish much in the winter, and spring is hit or miss. In winter, it’s extremely difficult to access the small mountain streams that I prefer to fish, and in spring, creeks tend to be either full of snow still or in runoff. Plus fishing in winter where I live (eastern Idaho) is just really cold and unpleasant. At that point, I’d rather go ice fishing. As a result, I fish tenkara a lot in the summer and fall to get me enough footage to continue to publish videos weekly throughout the winter and much of spring.
Adam Trahan: Thanks for that. It’s a labor of love for sure.
“Have you worked with anyone else in producing your own content?”
Tristan Higbee: As far as the actual content goes, I do all of the filming and editing myself. I learned how to do it through watching free tutorial videos on YouTube. I have no background in video production.
Occasionally a viewer or company will send me something to use in a video, but I’m not affiliated with any tenkara company.
Adam Trahan: I always want to learn more, I want to explore the world of the experts and get better at tenkara myself, that’s the primary reason why I do what I do here. The site evolves organically to the subject. When I started, my focus was on particular Japanese anglers, experts in their own experiences. When I started to practice tenkara, I went on to make friends in Japan and travelled to meet with the family of the rod company that I was using. I went fishing with friends, the anglers I interviewed. For me, it was an education and I wrote about it on this web site. What you see here is my tribute to these individuals. I appreciate what you do, our interview here should reflect that.
“Can you tell us why you make your videos? What is the primary reason you create content?”
Tristan Higbee: I initially started making tenkara videos because I was just so excited about tenkara, and I needed a way to vent that excitement. For years I’d shared various hiking, climbing, and travel adventures through my blogs and ebooks, so I was used to sharing personal narrative content online. Since I was already making SUV RVing videos (more on that below) when I got into tenkara, it seemed natural to make videos rather than write a blog.
I think it’s useful when starting a new creative endeavor, especially one that you’d eventually like a large audience to enjoy, to ask yourself some questions: “What can I offer here? How will I be different? Why should people watch/read/listen to my stuff versus the stuff that’s already out there?” I didn’t have good answers to those questions as far as blogging was concerned, but I had a few ideas about videos.
I’d watched a lot of fishing videos, including a lot of tenkara videos. I was (and still am) a big fan of the Teton Tenkara and Utah Tenkara YouTube channels in particular, but the exact kind of tenkara video I wanted to watch didn’t really exist. Namely, instead of hearing a voiceover, some music, or just the natural sounds of the stream and nothing else, I wanted to hear someone casually talk to me (the viewer) as they were fishing. I noticed that’s what the super popular bass fishing YouTubers were doing, and I liked that style. I don’t really care about bass fishing, but I still watch some of those guys because the videos are just entertaining, and I’ve gotten to know those anglers through their videos. Fast forward to today, and I know there are people who watch my tenkara videos who have no interest in tenkara. They just like watching the videos.
Another goal of mine was to publish a video every single week and to do it on a specific day at a specific time so that people would get into a routine of watching the videos. I started publishing videos on Saturday mornings at 7 am Mountain Time. It’s now 160+ weeks later, and I’ve never missed a week.
I continue to create tenkara videos because I still really enjoy tenkara. Because of my “day job,” I’m able to travel to a variety of amazing places, and that leads to fishing a variety of beautiful streams. I’d say that I fish at least 40 different and new-to-me creeks a year. I understand that I’m in a unique and privileged position in this regard, and I take that seriously. I consider it almost a duty to share these places with those who can’t fish a lot due to time concerns, geographic limitations, or mobility constraints.
One thing I’ve realized lately is that I also continue to create tenkara videos because it forces me to go fishing. Fishing time is relaxing for me, even when I’m filming. It’s “me” time. But if I weren’t filming, it would be hard for me to justify going fishing as much as I do. I’d always say that I have more important things to do. By having a rigid weekly video publishing schedule, I have a good excuse to force myself to get out and go fishing instead of doing less healthy and less interesting work on the computer for hours and hours at a time. It’s better for both my mental and physical health.
Adam Trahan: I love to travel. For me, tenkara is a mountain valley trout stream fishing pursuit. I heard that Kauai had wild trout in Waimea Canyon, one of the rainiest places on earth. I wanted to catch trout there so I put together a plan, researching the area and I did it and reported on it right here. I learn quite a lot about tenkara through travel.
“Please tell us about your travels? Do you have any interesting stories?”
Tristan Higbee: Travel has been one of the primary constants in my life. I lived in Kazakhstan and China with my parents when I was a teenager. I was a Mormon missionary in Ukraine for two years. I met my wife in Cambodia. I now make travel videos for a living and visit every state in the western US at least once a year.
As far as tenkara and travel together are concerned, it’s tricky. I usually plan out an SUV RVing trip and then figure out where I might be able to go fishing along the route. Occasionally, I’ll do it the other way around and have a fishing goal in mind (to fish for a particular species or in a particular area, for example) and then plan an SUV RVing trip around that. But for the most part, I need to film SUV RVing videos first, and then I fit in the fishing when I can.
I’m not a very good storyteller, so I don’t know if I have anything earth-shattering to share. I’m better at showing my adventures than telling people about them. But I was thinking just the other day about something that happened when I was in Ukraine. It has nothing to do with fishing, but it still makes me smile. We were talking to a very drunk man in his apartment. He was telling us about how people were after him for his money, and that they would do anything to get it. To illustrate his point, he grabbed the power cord of a nearby vacuum cleaner and proceeded to wrap it around my neck and strangle me with it. It took my companion a good 10 or 15 seconds (which, believe me, was an eternity in the moment) to wrestle the man off of me. As I sat in my chair, hunched over and gasping, the man continued chatting along like nothing had happened. Being an awkward 19-year-old and not yet having a solid enough grasp of the language to say, “What is the #%&* is wrong with you?!” I also continued on chatting and pretending nothing had happened (once I’d caught my breath). After that, we gave his apartment a wide berth whenever we were in the neighborhood.
My favorite fishing-related incident occurred when I was fishing a river in Utah soon after I got into tenkara. It was mid-winter, and the temperature was far below freezing. I was fishing one of the first flies that I’d ever tied myself, and I got it stuck high up in a tree behind me. I tried to retrieve it, but the tippet snapped at the hook’s eye, and the fly remained firmly lodged in the tree. I was disappointed both because I’d lost one of my precious self-tied flies and because I now had to take my gloves off and tie a new fly on with numb fingers. Oh well. At least I didn’t have to tie on new tippet, too, right? So I tied on a new fly and kept fishing. I was fishing this slow, deep section of river, and it took me a while to cover it all. On one of the last casts into the pool, about ten minutes after losing that first fly, the new fly I’d tied on also got stuck high up in the same tree. After a few tugs on the line, I managed to free the fly, and it fell back to within easy reach. To my amazement, I saw that the first fly was stuck on the hook of the second! I’d managed to get the second fly lodged not into the tree but directly into the first fly, which I’d then been able to dislodge!
I wouldn’t believe it if it hadn’t happened to me. If I had a thousand lifetimes and a million casts, I’d never be able to pull that off again if I tried.
Adam Trahan: Traveling by plane is my favorite. Often, I’ll get on a plane with minimal equipment. For my Kauai trip, I took a single rod, no replacement tip, just a single rod. At this point in my own pursuit of tenkara fishing, I’ve paired my equipment needs to one series of rods by Gamakatsu. I choose three zoom rods ranging from three to five meters. When I go fishing, I choose one of these rods or if I travel to fish, I take all three. I have two Nissin rods for incidental fishing as a part of my EDC pack. The three Gamakatsu rods are what I use for all tenkara. The two Nissin rods are just so compact that it’s no problem to carry them wherever I go. I have used them many times for trips where no fishing was planned but I ended up fishing and having a blast. No fishing, fishing trip rods is how I describe them. I sometimes use the little Nissin Tenkara Mini as a calling card, “Check this out, I happen to have a rod with me!” and I pull it out of my bag. That’s what the engineers at Nissin designed the rod for, inside of your bag but behold, they are quite serious fishing rods. On my last trip to Japan, I used a small quiver of three and the 3.6m as my primary rod. It worked really well. When I fish it, there is nothing that points to it as a small and compact tenkara rod until I am finished with it and then it basically disappears inside of my pack or bag.
“Tristan, what is your
view on equipment? The equipment that you use. Do you collect rods and fish
your favorites? Can you explain your collection of rods or your choices? What
is your view of tenkara fishing rods American vs. Japanese?”
Tristan Higbee: I get a kick out of trying new rods. It’s always fun for me to try out something new, and it makes for an easy thing for me to talk about in a video while I’m fishing. I also much prefer having first-hand experience with a rod versus relying on what other people have said about it.
My quiver is currently at around 43 rods, depending on how exactly you define a tenkara rod. I will continue to buy more. I currently have rods from Dragontail Tenkara, Zen Tenkara, Tenkara USA, Tenkara Rod Co., Tanuki, Nissin, Suntech, Daiwa, and more.
To me, having so many rods to choose from does not make tenkara any less simple. It’s not like I pull up to a creek, look at my rods, and wring my hands anxiously while trying to choose the perfect tool for that creek. I look at the size of the creek, see how much overhead cover there is, think about the size of fish I’m likely to catch, and then choose a couple of rods that will work for that situation. I fish with one and keep the other strapped to the side of my backpack as a backup. It takes less than ten seconds.
I’ve gravitated toward smaller triple-zoom rods made by American tenkara companies. The Zen Tenkara Suzume, Dragontail Mizuchi, and Dragontail FoxFire are examples of this. These rods perfectly fit the kind of fishing I do, that being small creek fishing. I find zoom rods not terribly useful at longer lengths but very useful at shorter lengths.
I own several Japanese rods. It’s clear to me that in general, they cast better and feel better than Chinese-made rods from American companies. But casting isn’t everything. There comes a point for me where a rod’s casting is good enough. I really value having three different lengths in one rod to work with when fishing those very small creeks. When I’m using one of those rods on a stream, I don’t often change the line length, but I very often switch between one rod’s different lengths. There’s a tree overhead here? Better go down to the shortest length. There’s an open beaver pond there? I can go up to the longest length. To me, that can be more valuable than having a rod that casts like a dream (i.e., a Japanese rod).
Also, if you regularly fish the same water and know every inch of it, you know exactly the length of rod that will work best there, and so you don’t necessarily need something like a triple-zoom rod. Pick the right Japanese rod for the job and go to town. But because I fish new creeks much more often than I fish familiar old creeks, and I never know what’s coming up, a small zoom rod tends to make life easier. I appreciate the utilitarian convenience.
That said, every tenkara angler needs to own and regularly fish Japanese rods. A good Japanese rod will make you feel wonder in a way that a good American rod won’t. I appreciate a good American rod, but I love a good Japanese rod. My current favorite is the Daiwa Sagiri 45MC. It’s not actually even a “true” Japanese rod because it was made in Thailand, not Japan. But it’s so long, so light, so slow, so soft, and so sensitive. It’s a joy to use. I was recently able to get its little brother, the Daiwa Sagiri 39MC, but I haven’t used it yet. I don’t think the Sagiris are being made anymore, unfortunately. Other recent Japanese tenkara(ish) rod acquisitions of mine that I haven’t had a chance to fish yet are the Nissin Pocket Mini V3 300, the Nissin Air Stage Hakubai 240, and the Suntech Kurenai HM33R. I also have a Tenryu Furaibo 39TA incoming. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of those becomes a new favorite. I’d also like to try one of the Nissin Pro Spec 320 rods, as that seems to be as close as Japanese rods get to the smaller American zoom rods that I like using.
Japanese rods—or at the very least, our ability to easily purchase those rods—seem to come and go more than I’d like. I have some Japanese rods that are basically impossible to get spare parts for, and that’s a shame. I currently have the luxury of having a ton of rods to choose from, and so it’s not a big deal if I break a rod section. But for people who fish a lot with just one or two rods, there is real value in buying from an American tenkara company and being able to get a replacement section in a few days and for $20. I had to sell the first Japanese rod I ever bought (a TenkaraBum 40) because the bottom-most section (the one with the grip) broke, and I couldn’t really afford to fix it at the time. I’d rather have a fishable American rod than a broken Japanese one.
Overall, I enjoy fishing with anything, whether it be a $6 AliExpress rod or a $500 Japanese rod. I like having that kind of variety in my fishing life. I’d be bored if all I fished were expensive Japanese rods.
Adam Trahan: I keep a small quiver of rods for a reason. I want to keep things simple, efficient and more importantly, consistency is important to accurately casting the way I practice tenkara. With a minimal quiver, I get to know the rod, how it imparts action on the line. I think accurate casting is an important aspect of tenkara fishing. Line control is more important but it’s easier to describe that the expert’s skill in tenkara is to be able to pinpoint cast.
I am a mountain valley stream admirer and being a fisherman is the reason why I chose the method of tenkara. It’s not gear laden, it does not require a lot of decision making. It allows me to be in the moment rather easily. I guess I could get the same feeling from hiking and along with that, the same type of experience but I like fishing and eating my catch.
“Tristan, do you eat your catch?”
Tristan Higbee: No, I’ve never once eaten a fish that I’ve caught. I didn’t grow up eating fish, so I never developed a taste for it. I try fish frequently—fried catfish in Missouri and fish tacos in Mexico are two examples from the past few months—but I’d just rather eat something else if I have a ready alternative.
And your point about casting accuracy being linked with rod consistency is interesting, and that’s something I’ve never considered. It makes sense. I’m not an especially accurate caster, and I’m sure that sticking to a small number of rods would make me better in that regard.
Adam Trahan: A long time ago, I was talking to a nurse, she asked me what I was doing this weekend and I told her about fly fishing in Glen Canyon. She said that sounded like so much fun. She asked me how I cook my fish? I told her I was strictly catch and release. That I enjoyed trout but only ate it from a restaurant or I would buy it and take it home and prepare it. She said why would I do that? Why would I harass the fish? Don’t you kill them fishing. I wanted to quit fishing right then and there. I didn’t realize it but here some 25+ years ago, that kind woman completely changed my outlook.
Every once in a while, I feel obligated to eat my catch. If I do not, a feeling begins to build in me. My trips to Japan, fishing with friends there, reading Headwaters, watching Japanese fishermen prepare trout sashimi, shioyaki, I learned how to prepare trout in a way that is tasty! Now my fishing makes sense. And every couple of years, I prepare kotsuzaki. This is an almost ceremonial behavior of a shioyaki meal, then a subsequent soaking of the bones of the trout in warmed sake. The small community of tenkara fisher people in Japan helped make sense of fishing for me.
Tristan Higbee: Catching a fish is, at best, stressful for the fish. At worst, it’s fatal. I think that if we’re honest, there is something grimly gladiatorial about it. We’re causing stress or pain to another creature for our own sport and enjoyment. There is zero benefit to the fish. When looking at it like that, it’s hard to justify, and yet, here we are. We’re lucky that fish are kind of dumb and kind of ugly. I don’t know if many of us could catch and release puppies or chimpanzees knowing that we’d probably kill one every now and then.
Whether it be catch and release or catch and cook, all of the fishing we do is self-serving. For me, occasionally eating a fish wouldn’t change that, and I think the fish in question would prefer to live if it had any say in the matter.
Adam Trahan: On the subject of hiking, you like to hike and
you enjoy the mountains.
I enjoy hiking to a summit.
Again, the Japanese people have influenced my hiking. A special summit to me is hatsuhinode. A hike to a prominent summit in the early morning of January 1, before the sun rises. To watch the first sunrise of the New Year. That is very special to me when I climb by a headlamp and prepare for that sunrise.
“Please tell us about your hiking and or climbing.”
Tristan Higbee: The mountains are where I feel the most awe, and that’s why I keep going back. Over the last couple of decades, the exact way I choose to immerse myself in the mountains has changed. I used to be unhealthily obsessed with rock climbing. I climbed 4 to 6 days a week for years. When I ran out of interesting things that I could climb nearby, I started establishing new rock climbs. I ended up putting up more than 200 “first ascents,” culminating in my first ascent of a nearly 2,000-foot rock climb in Utah called Squawstruck. It took me 2.5 years to establish. I climbed it once and will likely never climb it again.
I don’t climb as much today as I used to, but I think I still love rock climbing more than anything else I’ve done. Mountains in general are beautiful, but rock climbing takes you to the most beautiful places within the mountains, and if you’re on the right climb, it’ll take you to the most beautiful part of that most beautiful place within those inherently beautiful mountains. That is hard to beat.
The main issue with climbing is that you need someone to do it with. For a person like me who prefers being alone in the mountains, that’s always been a little bit of a struggle and a paradox. So by default I’ve gradually turned more to hiking, which I can comfortably (and comparatively safely) do alone. I’ve hiked several of the shorter long-distance trails (John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, Wonderland Trail, etc.), but my knees and hips aren’t in good enough shape to do any of the truly long trails like the Continental Divide Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Appalachian Trail.
These days, I prefer hiking up to a summit whenever possible. I’m currently slowly working on climbing the highest mountain in each of the 50 states. I’ve only done 18 (36%) so far, but that includes all of the ones in the contiguous West, and those are the hardest ones (not including Denali in Alaska, which is THE hardest). I also have a goal to fish in every state, but I’m currently only at 13 out of 50. I’m hoping to increase both of those by at least a few this year.
Tenkara is now obviously another excuse for me to go to the mountains. It opened up a part of the mountains that I knew nothing about, and that novelty appealed to me. I found that stepping into a stream on the side of a mountain is like injecting yourself directly into the mountain’s veins.
Adam Trahan: I live in Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix is now a huge metropolitan city in the Southwest. Our climate is a desert but we have 5,000’ and taller mountains and ranges two hours by car. We have “sky islands” in that we have isolated mountains that have an alpine environment but are primarily surrounded by lowland scrub. Arizona is quite a diverse state but the capital which is Phoenix has little in the way of trout fishing. In the winter when the nighttime temps drop in the 40’s and 50’s, the water temps in urban ponds can sustain trout for a few months out of the year. We have a desert river tailwater 30 minutes by car that is stocked with trout but in the summer, the water flow is reduced which ends the trout fishing. If you want to practice tenkara in the mountain valley, you have to travel.
“What’s the fishing like in the area of your home?”
Tristan Higbee: I live in eastern Idaho, the same general area that Tom Davis (of Teton Tenkara fame), Dragontail Tenkara, and Tenkara Rod Co. call home. My wife, dog, and I moved here a couple years ago for my wife’s schooling. Rexburg, the town I live in, is on what is called the Snake River Plain. It’s relatively flat. There are hills and small mountains nearby, but the real mountains are around 45 minutes away. If you’re a mountain creek angler like I am, the fishing isn’t great in the immediate vicinity (i.e., inside those 45 minutes), but the fishing from 1 to 3 hours away is unreal and could fill multiple lifetimes. I’m 50 minutes from the Tetons and 1 hour and 20 minutes from West Yellowstone. Within 3 hours, I have all of eastern and much of central Idaho, much of western Wyoming (including the Wind River Range, which is probably my favorite place in the country), most of southwestern Montana, and a good chunk of northern Utah. It’s hard to think of a better region to call home as a tenkara angler than eastern Idaho. And because the population density out here is so low, there are far fewer people in the mountains compared to states like California, Colorado, and Utah.
We’ll be in Idaho for another year and a half or so, and our plan after that is to move to Butte, Montana. It’s a rough-and-tumble old copper mining town in the mountains. At one point in the early 1900s, it was the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco. If you can get over the grotesque (and toxic) open pit mine that is clearly visible from everywhere in town, it’s a really beautiful place, and there is plenty of fishing nearby to keep the restless tenkara angler busy.
Adam Trahan: In my state, I’ve caught trout at nearly 10,000’ In comparison with more Northern latitude mountain states like Colorado, California and Idaho. Arizona does not have the rain and snowfall in watershed areas as other mountainous areas do. As diverse as our state is, you have to work at catching trout and you have to work harder, much harder to catch our native trout. Yes, we stock Gila and Apache trout in easy access streams. Native as in a stream that has never been stocked. The trout have been surviving on their own accord, no introduction, since by nature, migrated and evolved there.
In the 90’s, I use to write a lot of letters. The internet and e-mail was not readily available to the entire population. Back in the 90’s, Robert Smith, wrote a book on native trout. I used to exchange letters with him, he was a pilot and flew his plane to different native trout regions and subsequent streams in his pursuit of the different native trout.
“Can you tell us a story about your pursuit of catching native trout or stocked native trout in a particular region?”
Tristan Higbee: I like catching native trout. It just feels… right. Native fish belong both to and in the place. They’re as defining a feature of the landscape as the mountains and streams themselves. I’ve caught around 13 different native trout species, and I’m hoping to bump that up by a few more this year. My favorite is currently the Yellowstone cutthroat trout just because they’re my “home range” native fish. It’s a rich yellow-gold color, and it grows to be surprisingly large in surprisingly small streams. Those fish—and native fish in general—are a brilliant reminder that there is still unmolested, unpredictable nature not too far away if you know where to look for it.
I’ve completed a couple of official native trout “slams.” Wyoming and Utah both have them, put on by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, respectively. The idea is to catch all of the native cutthroat trout subspecies in these states. Both states have 4 subspecies in this program. (Wyoming also has westslope cutthroat trout, but they’re only in a sliver of the extreme northwestern corner of the state in Yellowstone, and they’re not included in the slam.) Being highly goal-oriented, I love things like this. They also give me a good excuse to go visit certain areas that I otherwise might have passed by. I’m always looking for any reason to visit places I haven’t been to yet.
Idaho doesn’t have any kind of official program like this, but the state’s native salmonids include the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout (a Yellowstone cutthroat trout subspecies), Bonneville cutthroat trout, westslope cutthroat trout, Columbia River redband trout (a rainbow trout subspecies that includes both anadromous steelhead and smaller, non-anadromous, creek-dwelling fish), and bull trout (a char closely related to Dolly Varden and Arctic char). I’ve caught all of them on multiple occasions.
I think that Idaho is the most underrated state in the West, and the quest to complete the unofficial native trout list does a great job of highlighting why. It’s just gorgeous here. Fishing for Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the eastern part of the state will take you to into the heart of the Rockies. Bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout inhabit central Idaho and its millions of acres of untouched, roadless wilderness that include thousands of fishable streams. Bonneville cutthroat trout are down in southeastern Idaho. The fishing (along with the landscape, history, culture, etc.) is essentially an extension of northern Utah. (I once read an author say that the best fishing in northern Utah is in southern Idaho.)
You asked for a particular story, and one of my favorites involves redband trout, which are out in the southwestern Idaho desert. The streams there have carved startlingly deep gorges into the earth (do a Google Image Search for the Bruneau Canyon Overlook), and road access points to the bottom of those canyons is limited. Driving to the canyon rim and then hiking down to the water is an exercise in being comfortable in remote places, and once you’re down there, you feel like the canyon might just close back up over the top of you at any moment. I’d done some research about a specific creek there that was reported to have redbands in it. It was a long, slow drive on dirt roads to get out there, and then it was a careful, knee-buckling hike down to the creek. I didn’t know anyone who had fished this creek, and I had no idea what to expect. I caught a a fish on one of the first casts, and I caught an additional 65 (!) fish in the next couple of hours. There were no other people around, anglers or otherwise. As icing on the cake, it was exactly one year to the day that I’d first picked up a tenkara rod.
The best thing about fishing days like that is that they don’t happen all the time. If they did, they would no longer be special. I’d gotten skunked on a creek not too far away just the day before. I think that more than anything, it’s that rush from unexpected encounters that drives me in my fishing, and that includes the quest for new creeks, new gear, and new species. In reality, my seeking out the native trout species is really just a means to an end, a structured way of rushing headlong into the path of new experiences.
For the record, Nevada and California also have official native trout slams. Other states like Arizona and New Mexico have official fishing challenges that include non-native fish. For other states that don’t have official slams, you can still make it your own personal quest to catch ‘em all.
The Western Native Trout Initiative has multiple levels of multi-species, multi-state slams to complete. They have a series of great maps that are excellent resources for people getting into catching native trout in the West: https://wafwaprojects.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=4253ebc93204460e915b6ab8f5ab7d52
Adam Trahan: My grandfather taught me to fish. He was not a fisherman but he knew a boy should learn how to fish. He taught me to fish a cane pole in the farm ponds in Tennessee. I graduated to a spinning rod then was taught fly fishing in streams at about 10 years old. My progression in fishing included travel very early on.
“Who taught you to fish? Please tell us a little bit about that.”
Tristan Higbee: I first met Cassie, my future wife, in Cambodia. I eventually moved to Ogden, Utah (where she was living at the time), to date her. I was still really into rock climbing back then, and so I set about trying to find someone to go climbing with. I don’t remember exactly how we initially connected, but I eventually went climbing with a guy named Alex Marsden in May 2016. We had a good time climbing together, but life gets in the way, and we didn’t get around to climbing again, even though we’d planned to.
Fast forward to September 2017. I was hiking in the hills above Ogden and ran into Alex while he was there with his college geology class. We chatted a bit more, and he mentioned that he wasn’t climbing as much because he was into tenkara. I’d heard of tenkara. I think I first became aware of it around 2013 on the Backpacking Light forums. I told Alex I was interested in trying it, but for whatever reason, we still didn’t get around to climbing again or fishing that year, either.
I didn’t grow up fishing. I’d never caught a fish before in my life. But the seemingly austere simplicity of tenkara was what appealed to me when no other form of fishing ever had. It was the same thing that drew me into ultralight backpacking and minimalism in general. I liked that tenkara had hard limits, and I liked that it was best done in the beautiful, solitary places I was already visiting.
Another year went by, and I kept thinking about tenkara. I somehow instinctively knew I’d love it before I’d even tried it, so I bought a $100 Wild Water tenkara starter rod kit on Amazon. It was the cheapest beginner’s kit I could find. I then messaged Alex about it, and I think that helped convince him I was serious about my interest in the sport. We finally went fishing together in October 2018. He took me up to some beaver ponds along a small creek, and it was there that I had a proper introduction to tenkara and caught my first ever fish, a native Bonneville cutthroat trout.
I loved it. Casting that fly into the water was like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. It gave me direct physical access to this other world that was completely foreign and mysterious to me. I was amazed that I could wave my arms and then suddenly be holding a previously unseen wild animal in my hands. I’d never experienced anything like that. It was magic.
I have an addictive, obsessive personality (if you couldn’t tell). So does Alex. He told me on that first day that tenkara would take over my life, and he was right. I had dreams about fishing literally every night for months after that. I read and watched everything I could. I designed and sewed my own tenkara pouches, nets, and backpacks. I was already making SUV RVing videos at this time, and so making fishing videos was an easy next logical step. I neglected other, arguably more important things in my life as I immersed myself in tenkara, and that’s where the “addict” part of Tenkara Addict comes from. (I believe I’ve since reached a healthy level with my tenkara addiction, by the way.)
Alex was a fantastic teacher and is still a great friend. We continue to fish together a couple times a year. We text back and forth whenever one of us gets a new rod or fishes a great new creek. All good fishing habits I have are from him, and any bad ones are of my own doing.
Adam Trahan: That’s a question I ask quite a bit. Many times there is a nice story behind it.
I started out doing odd jobs as a young man, joined the Army as a medic and then when I finished my term, moved to cardiovascular surgery, helping run a college of cardiovascular medicine and now I am finishing my career in cardiology. I am a technician, my wife is a nurse and we have three great boys, two on their own and a son of 14. We are able to live a comfortable life. I’m grateful for being able to take care of people and to be able to travel and fish, then write about my adventures and share with others as I am doing here. I’ve participated in other pursuits and I have been very lucky to have survived many experiences in those disciplines. But I’ve always fished and now at 61, I have quite a lot of experiences to draw from.
Pretty much, that is my story.
“What do you do for a living?”
Tristan Higbee: Believe it or not, I’m a full-time YouTuber. My primary channel is called SUV RVing. I go on various outdoor adventures across the western US, camp out of my SUVs, and make videos about it all. I have a 2011 Toyota RAV4 and a 2001 GMC Yukon that I’ve converted into mini RVs, complete with fridge, fans, solar panels, and more. My wife and dog occasionally come with me, but usually I’m alone. I make money through the YouTube channel directly (from ad revenue) and the associated things that go along with it (ebooks, a membership site, affiliate income, etc.). The channel now has 133,000+ subscribers, and my videos have been viewed more than 21 million times. It’s not a huge channel in terms of the broader YouTube ecosystem, but it does well for being about such a niche topic.
It’s weird. I never had any interest in making videos. I wasn’t one of those kids who made little home movies with his neighborhood friends. I’m a linguist by training, and I was a writer before I made videos. I started making SUV RVing videos in an attempt to sell more copies of the SUV RVing book I’d written. It didn’t take too long for the videos to take on a life of their own. There were several people back then making videos about vanlife, truck camping, overlanding, etc., but no one was really making videos about doing it in regular SUVs, and no one was making the kinds of videos I wanted to watch. I saw that I was filling a need and decided to keep going. Five years and nearly 400 videos later, I’m still at it. At first I was extremely uncomfortable with being on camera, but you do anything 400 times and it gets easier.
I didn’t start the Tenkara Addict YouTube channel to make money, but it’s finally starting to get to the point that it’s somewhat worth my time financially. I also make a little bit through the FlyTyingYarn.com store that I run with my wife.
Pro tip for the reader: If you want to work for years before making any significant amount of money while also having no guarantee that you will ever make any money, YouTube is the career path for you!
Adam Trahan: As a healthcare worker for now most of my lifetime, it seems we are caregivers. People that work in the medical field care for others. That’s not a hard belief for all of us but it is mostly true. That caregiving pair of googles also filters other parts of my life and interests. My peers, I used to really care what they thought of tenkara. In the beginning we were quite small and learning about this new type of fishing equipment and the history behind it. We learned about it and we were also marketed to. Marketing often bends the truth depending on which marketing you are being targeted by.
I’m fortunate in that the content that I was reading, listening to and enthused by was honest and true by my own standards. Daniel Galhardo’s company reported on his trips to Japan and included many of the old tenkara anglers there. In my case, Daniel gave me leads into my own research and that was enough for me to realize that yes, I wanted to spend my own money to find my own experiences in Japan.
Anglers there approached me for help, we developed friendships and I made my first trip and discovered that tenkara in Japan was quite small. Soon, outside of Japan tenkara was much much larger than the community there. I studied the old books, I spoke with the Sakura family, I travelled with fly fishermen and I learned on my own, the history of tenkara and the players there that were creating content for the small community there.
I reported what I saw and started seeing individuals in our own community that voiced their own opinions, which were quite inaccurate. I think the best approach is education, information that is accurate and widely accepted. So I dove into books, the current media and reported so others could simply search for the truth on their own.
Sadly, I’ve learned quite a lot about people.
So to not go on too much about people, I saw that I needed to stop caring about others and start caring for myself. I could still report on the community but I learned enough to trust myself that my reporting was accurate and true. Of course, it’s my own point of view but anything I report on is backed by research and references.
Without going any further down that path…
“Can you tell us about the way you interpret tenkara?”
Tristan Higbee: I’m interested in what other people do with their tenkara rods, but I like to fish small mountain streams for trout. This happens to be more or less what many people consider “traditional” tenkara. I’m not doing it because it’s traditional tenkara or “best” tenkara; I’m doing it because it’s what I enjoy doing most.
While I’m interested in how other people practice or interpret tenkara, I don’t get wrapped up in what they’re doing or how they do it. What they do or say about tenkara has no bearing on how I enjoy it. Similarly, I don’t really care if the fishing techniques I use come out of Japan or not. If it works for me, it works for me, regardless of its pedigree. I’m also not too concerned about Japanese tenkara knowledge that I’m not tapping into. I respect Japan and tenkara’s origins, but I enjoy tenkara as I currently understand and practice it. If I never go to Japan and never learn from Japanese tenkara masters, I’m 100% OK with that. I’m not saying that I don’t care at all about improving my fishing or learning more about tenkara, or even that I’ll never go to Japan, but neither improvement, knowledge, nor Japan on their own motivate me.
Some people just want to go fishing, you know? I think it’s OK for the average person to eat a grilled cheese sandwich without knowing the history of grilled cheese sandwiches or studying under the world’s top grilled cheese sandwich makers.
I’m very aware of how various people in and out of the tenkara world interpret tenkara. I get more negative comments on the Tenkara Addict videos than I do on the SUV RVing videos, which get something like 5–10x the number of views. And I’m not just talking ratio-wise but in absolute terms. I’ll get non-anglers wondering how I can torture little fish like that for no reason. I’ll get traditional fly fishers saying how stupid tenkara is, or how stupid I am for fishing with a tenkara rod, or how stupid it is to fish such small creeks for small fish. I’ll get tenkara anglers hating on me for being too traditional or not traditional enough, or for sharing too much about a location or not enough about a location. And for literally the same video, I’ll get people praising me for my good fish handling skills and also crucifying me for my terrible fish handling skills.
C’est la vie. You can’t please everyone. Live and let live, fish and let fish. Certain people thrive on constantly being a hair’s breadth from outrage. They are free to feel that way, but I am similarly free to be indifferent to their outrage.
Adam Trahan: I’m staying in my lane. There are so many awesome people out there that practice tenkara in way that I choose not too. That is ok. The world is a better place because of them. I’ve learned along the way that it’s also ok for me to make choices in how I interpret my own practice of it.
In my case, I like what I have learned from the Japanese community. About 95% of my tenkara is sourced from equipment and techniques from Japan, the rest is my own solution. The Japanese have many many decades of experience and they are masters of improvement. In my twelfth season of tenkara, I am still learning more about it but more from my own practice of it.
I respect your viewpoint, period.
That’s what feels good to me and it has nothing to do with the way I choose to go fishing.
“I use tippet rings, ha ha ha, people get so worked up about them. Do you use them?”
Tristan Higbee: I don’t use tippet rings. I did at first, but I had a bad experience when a tippet ring from a well-known company kept cutting my tippet. I now use a figure-8 knot tied in the end of my level line, and I use a slip knot of some sort (usually the Tenkara USA “One Knot”) in the tippet to go around the level line and get snugged up against the figure-8 when pulled tight. I’m not morally opposed to tippet rings.
Adam Trahan: I use a net made by Mr. Yoshimura. They are beautiful and I enjoy the fine balance of them. I’ve watched a few of your videos and I really like that measuring net you choose. I like the bag, the size, I like everything about it. If I didn’t have a beautiful quiver of Japanese tamo already, I would get one like yours because it seems to do the job so well and in many ways.
A while ago, I shopped for a larger tamo and choose one that was made for Ayu fishing. It’s a type of fishing done with a very long rod in rivers and the nets are larger because they are sort of used as a catcher’s net. Not so much sized for the fish size but larger because in Ayu fishing, you use a fish with a harness of hooks to catch another fish and then swing BOTH of the fish in airborne! It’s a very interesting way of landing the catch.
In my pursuit of honryu or, river tenkara or mainstream tenkara, I use a clear line. I’m adapting other pieces of equipment for my tenkara. Honryu tenkara is an even smaller portion of the small tenkara community and choices in Japan. I’ve seen that specialists in honryu in Japan also adapt their own equipment as well. I think there are only a dozen dedicated honryu rods made in Japan. Shimano and Dr. Ishigaki have made one recently and I’ve seen some press out of Japan about it.
Dr. Tom Davis and I use a Gamakatsu rod for honryu. It’s not popular but is used by specialists and enthusiasts in Japan and now here in America.
As far as I know, there are only two of us that have found and use that rod.
Tristan Higbee: The net I use that you refer to is the medium Measure Net with the rubberized net bag. It’s such a great net. Alex, my friend who introduced me to tenkara, used that net, and so that’s what I bought too. (And as a side note, he also bought a Gamakatsu rod last year, the Suimu 4.5.) The fact that I can measure fish with it is great, and it gives me a leg to stand on when YouTube haters say that the 13-inch fish I caught was actually only 7 inches long at most (while also calling me an idiot, a fish killer, and so on). But more than that, it’s just a great net. I love the rubberized coating on the net itself, and I love that the holes are small enough that there’s no way a fish could ever accidentally escape through them. It’s also relatively lightweight.
I do like the look of the handcrafted tamos, but I can’t get over the functionality of the Measure Net. I think my ideal would be to have a beautiful tamo on the wall in my office but a Measure Net with me on the stream.
“Tristan, I know you come across larger water in your travels, do you fish rivers with your tenkara technique and can you tell us about it if you do? If not, are you interested?”
Tristan Higbee: I’ve probably crossed or come within striking distance of every well-known trout river in the western US, and I live within 15 minutes of both the South Fork of the Snake River and Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. Both have huge trout and attract anglers from around the world, but I struggle to get the motivation to fish them. Fish size doesn’t motivate me—small creek aesthetics do. I just find small, high gradient mountain streams to be much more beautiful and interesting than larger waters. If I can’t fish a small mountain creek, more often than not I’d rather just not fish at all. I’m not opposed to fishing larger rivers if or when I feel moved to do so, but rarely have I felt moved to do so. I keep meaning to buy and try out a 17- or 20-foot rod to take out onto the Snake River, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Again, in practice, the motivation is somewhat lacking.
The number of other anglers on a water body also plays into why I fish small creeks. I’d much rather have a mediocre little creek all to myself than share a world-class river with strangers.
Adam Trahan: Let’s slowly wrap up the interview.
“Is there any questions that you have for me? Please feel free to ask anything you choose.”
Tristan Higbee: What are two places that you’d love to fish at some point in your life but haven’t fished yet?
Tristan Higbee: What are you currently excited about as far as your own fishing is concerned?
Adam Trahan: I am excited first and formost about learning the San Juan River with my Suimu rods and after that, I still have friends in Japan that I want to go fishing with. I have friends in Japan that I'm going to go visit. I still have a few trips to Japan in me.
Tristan, I’m sure this interview will turn out delightful. You are a kind individual and I appreciate you. I print the interviews verbatim, exactly as I receive them. I know you are a nice guy and I want you to know that I appreciate what you do for tenkara. My choice in creating this interview is my proof. It has taken me about 4-5 hours to craft the interview alone and a couple of hours in watching your videos and researching your social media.
Feel free to answer, not answer or ask me privately anything you want before we go live with it.
Thank you again, I hope we get to fish together one day. Maybe this summer, we are trying to plan a trip to Ketchum.
Take care my friend.
Tristan Higbee: That’d be great. Thanks Adam! Happy fishing.