Events Interviews

Tenkara Angler Interview: Jim Vandagrift

Interview with Jim Vandagrift

Interviewer’s Note: In July 2017 I had the pleasure of attending the Tenkara Bug Out, a tenkara-themed fishing get together in Oakridge, Oregon organized by Jim Vandagrift. The event was not only fun, but moderated by such an enthusiastic tenkara angler, I needed to learn more about Jim, his style of tenkara, and fishing in the Pacific Northwest.


Michael Agneta: Jim, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to agree to this interview for the readers of Tenkara Angler.

Before we dive into the recent Tenkara Bug Out, please tell us a little bit more about yourself. I know you as a tenkara enthusiast from Oregon. What’s your (fly) fishing background, and how did you get interested in tenkara? What kind of waters do you fish, and for what species?

Jim Vandagrift: Growing up my dad took me out to explore the rivers, lakes and forests of Oregon. I don’t recall exactly when a fly rod was first placed in my hands. What I do remember is fishing with my dad, me with a Fenwick rod in my right hand while my left hand held tight to my dad’s hand as I dangled in the swift current trying to find purchase on the mossy rocks below. In much the same manner, he encouraged me to follow him across downed trees that created natural bridges way above the fast moving water of the stream. For an eight year old it was an amazing childhood; there was always a challenge, always a bit of danger and definitely adventure to be had.

Through my teen years and into my early twenties I fished all over; full blown rivers, small spring creeks, the biggest deepest lakes in Oregon to the smallest ponds. It didn’t matter to me what ended up on the other end of my line, whether it be a twenty-five pound salmon or a sunfish the size of my palm.

From my early twenties and through my early thirties the opportunities for fishing were sporadic at best. I spent most my days working to pay the bills, changing diapers and wiping snotty noses. 

It wasn’t until about eight years ago, when my kids got a little older, that I found time to return to the water. During the first three years of this newfound freedom, I was hitting the river from dawn to dusk, about twenty times a year.

This is the point in time when tenkara and I crossed paths. That year I found myself plagued with tennis elbow, carpal tunnel and trigger finger; all brought on by the daily repetitive motion that my job demanded of me. Not willing to hang up the fly rod, I kept fishing but the trips to the river got fewer and shorter as fishing became more painful.

Then it happened-I was looking through a catalog of fishing book titles and the word “tenkara” jumped out at me. I had no idea what tenkara was so I turned to my trusty friend Google for help. It didn’t take too long for me to see how I could trade in my heavy rod and reel with its long line to manage and all the pain my body felt when fishing with it for a lightweight tenakra rod. No line to manage and no pain, at least, that’s what I was counting on.

With renewed hope, I took a chance and ordered an inexpensive tenkara rod and hit the river. My first day out on the river I spent trying to figure out how to cast that crazy rod. On the following days and weeks out, I discovered the strengths of tenkara and how I could use those to my advantage on the smaller mountain streams that I enjoyed exploring and fishing. For the first time in a year I could fish all day without pain.

It’s been five years since that discovery, these days I spend most my time fishing fixed line rods on the streams and creeks targeting redside and cutthroat trout. Occasionally I’ll throw a line in for some warm water bass action but in truth, I prefer the cold streams and rivers of the Cascades Mountains.

MA: People love to learn about other people’s gear preferences – what rods, lines, and flies do you fish? Do you have a favorite combination?

JV: I’ll fish about any fly that resembles an insect. Last winter I tied up about 300 flies ranging from size 6 Yellow stoneflies dry flies to size 22 pheasant tail nymphs. I like to fish my nymphs in a double nymph rig set up to dredge the big fish that won’t budge from the safety of the bottom of the river and who can resist watching a trout swim from the bottom of a fifteen foot deep hole to devour a large top water bug.

I currently have eight fixed line rods that I use for different types of waters. My go to rod for the last four years has been the Iwana by Tenkara USA but this year I wanted to try something different so I picked up a Black Beauty 375 by Tenkara Tanuki which I like for totally different reasons than I like the Iwana. When it comes to fishing small tree tunneled creeks, I am totally in love with my Nissin Fine Mode Kosansui 270. When I want to nymph with a two beadhead nymph setup I find that the Amago by Tenkara USA puts the nymphs where I want them and handles the larger fish even in heavier current.

I haven’t really experimented much with lines, I started fishing with level line and really haven’t ventured to any of the tapered lines. I tend to use a #3 level line in different lengths depending on the rod, water, and fly type.  Probably my most used combination is a 360 or 375 rod with 16 feet of #3 level line and about four feet of 5x tippet. I’ll use this line for top water flies as well as subsurface flies and find it’s perfect for where I fish.

MA: There’s a saying that tenkara has “10 Colors,” and can be interpreted or practiced in many different ways? Do you have a particular tenkara “style” – be it minimalism, more Western, one fly, many, etc…?

JV: Well, you can call it one of the 10 Colors of tenkara or one of the 1000 Colors of tenkara but in my head I’m just doing my thing. I tend to adopt the aspects of fly fishing that bring me joy and give the fish the best chance of surviving the encounter, given the circumstances. So, depending on my mood I might choose a “style” that targets the biggest fish in the stream or I might be trying to find the tiniest fish in the smallest creek. Both are satisfying and both give me an excuse to get out of town and find a bit of down time.

MA: Where did the idea for the Tenkara Bug Out come from, and how long did it take for you to get everything planned & organized? I have to say I thought your website promoting the event was one of the best I’ve ever encountered for a get-together. I’ve always wondered how long it took to take something like this from concept to reality…

JV: The stream that the Tenkara Bug Out took place on is my go-to water and for the last five years I would fish the stream and think to myself, “This would be a great place to hold a tenkara event; this stream holds lots of fish and is easily accessed along the majority of its length.”

It wasn’t until a few local tenkara anglers mentioned to me that it would be great to get some tenkara anglers together and fish for a weekend that I decided to put some of my time and energy towards what was soon to become the Tenkara Bug Out.

That was in mid-March of 2017 and by mid-July I had put over 200 hours of my time into it and had everything in place to make it happen. I focused on two guiding principles as I organized the event; what would I want from an event like this and how do I make this an enjoyable experience for all attendees.

MA: It was extremely impressive with how smoothly things seemed to run (at least from an attendee’s point of view), are you planning to host another Tenkara Bug Out in the future? If so, I know it’s probably early, but are there any details you’d like to share?

JV: After this year’s event I was glad to put that project down for a few months and enjoy the rest of my summer. I haven’t really put a lot of thought into the details of the Tenkara Bug Out for next year but you can expect a good portion of the event to be dedicated to getting on the water and fishing like this year. To me, this is the heart of the event. I feel the attendees would benefit from a few changes next year but you’ll have to wait until this winter for those details! I’m planning on putting the new ideas out there for the tenkara community to give their input.

Jim Vandagrift Interview - Tenkara Bug Out

MA: You read a lot online about Colorado being “Tenkara Perfect,” and while it may be true, tell me why somebody should consider Oregon for their next tenkara adventure?

JV: Oregon offers many types of waters to fish within a day’s drive. Every time I get a chance to fish I have to decide whether I want to head West to one of the coastal streams and catch sea run cutthroat trout. Or I could head south and fish for smallmouth bass on the Lower Umpqua, or brown trout and rainbow trout on the North Umpqua. Then there is east, I could head that direction where I can venture into the Cascade Mountains and go tromping through cold, boulder strewn, micro current braided streams-the streams that are home to three species of trout including the elusive bull trout. That’s all obtainable in a there-and-back day trip and all fishable with a level line rod.

Now that’s just my little corner of Oregon, if you head over the Cascade Mountains and into the high desert of Eastern Oregon, a whole other world of possibilities opens up.  Wherever you decide to go, at whatever skill level you are, there’s a stream ready for you.

Jim Vandagrift Interview - Tenkara Fishing

MA: I have to ask – have you ever seen a Sasquatch? Those forests in and around those rivers we were fishing looked seriously “squatchy!” 

JV: I have yet to lay eyes on the mythical creature. But, there have been those times when I am way up a mountain creek past all the roads, where to forest floor duff is two feet thick and the tree moss hangs near to the ground. In those places I often find myself pausing from fishing for just a moment, wondering what’s that smell and why the hair on the back of my neck raised.

The Bigfoot folklore runs deep around here and considering the seclusion of some of the mountain creeks that I fish; it wouldn’t surprise me if I ran across Bigfoot catching his evening meal with a tenkara rod.

MA: Believe it or not, Oregon was one of my “bucket list” fishing destinations, as personally living in Florida it seemed so far away. Is there anywhere special on your bucket list?

JV: With all the great places around the globe to fish I would have to say a trip to the Spanish Pyrenees. For me the combination of the natural beauty, great fishing, delicious food, welcoming culture and romanticized literature references puts it at the top of my list.

MA: What are your interests away from fishing? I find that many of the people I’ve encountered through tenkara have a pretty diverse set of passions.

JV: When I’m not fishing you’re likely to find me gliding over the water in a sailboat or on the dance floor finding amazing human connection through Argentine Tango.

MA: Jim, I really appreciate you doing this interview. If there’s anything else you’d like to add in closing, feel free, the floor is yours…

JV: Well, I know that it takes a lot of time and commitment to make a magazine come together and be successful. I would just like to thank you for making it happen. It knits our community together and strengthens the developing tenkara culture we have here in the US.

Jim Vandagrift Interview - Fine Mode Trout

Jim Vandagrift is a lifelong angler and the organizer of the Tenkara Bug Out. Jim found tenkara seeking a low-impact alternative to fly fishing and now explores the many streams of Oregon with his tenkara rod.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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