The Colors of Tenkara: Matt Sment and Mike Lutes of Badger Tenkara

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A little while back I posted a review of the Badger Tenkara Classic tenkara rod. At that time I also did a Q&A with Mike Lutes and Matt Sment of Badger Tenkara. It’s taken a while to get it posted but I’m happy to present this as the second installment in The Colors of Tenkara series. In this series I’m exploring the tenkara colors of various anglers. I’ve always been much more interested in tenkara as it is practiced by individuals than in any sort of tenkara dogma. I figure there’s plenty more ways than one to skin a cat.  I also posted an earlier Tenkara Colors Profile of Dave Southall. 

I always looked at tenkara as a sort of chance to sort of “reset” my fly fishing – a fresh start with fresh eyes. In the early days here in America there wasn’t much tenkara info to go on. You just had to go out and do it and figure it out on your own. As a result there is a nice variety of style, personal and maybe even regional. Do I do everything “right”? Probably not. But I am having fun on the journey. And I think many others are too. I really do not look forward to the day when there are lots of American “tenkara experts”  – the grassroots learning, experimenting and sharing is just too much fun. Also on a side note – though I am now selling rods over at Three Rivers Tenkara – I am more than happy to be friends with my “competitors” and I am glad that these particular “competitors” feel the same.  Thanks Matt and Mike!

So here’s the interview – enjoy.

Anthony Naples (AN): So I bought a tenkara rod in late 2009 – but really didn’t get much chance to fish with it until the next season. It was a Tenkara USA Ebisu (now sadly discontinued but seemingly much loved by others as well as myself). At this time there really wasn’t much in the way of a “tenkara community” yet, and I had no notion of becoming a “tenkara angler” – purist or otherwise – I just looked at the tenkara rod as another rod among the western rods. But because tenkara was working for me, and because it was totally sufficient unto my particular streams and fish – it just took over. I found myself picking up the tenkara rod almost exclusively. It was a natural thing – not any kind of conscious decision. So the question: What’s your tenkara origin story? When did you first pick up a tenkara rod? And how did it affect your fishing? Did you know you wanted to be a tenkara angler when you got the rod or was it just a thing you thought you’d try out?

Mike Lutes: I first heard about tenkara online, and I really don’t recall exactly how I was exposed to it. At the time, I was getting frustrated with fly fishing as there seemed to be an emphasis on stuff that  just made it too complicated and ungraceful: strike indicators, split shot, nymph rigs etc. The appeal of tenkara was clearly the simplicity. I also got into fly fishing because it can be beautiful. Tenkara is beautiful in its simplicity.  I still use a “regular” fly rod sometimes, but certainly tenkara has changed the way I fish. I’m still not a “one fly” guy. I guess I like the phenology of fishing too much to stick to just one fly. I don’t consider it “complicated” to carry more than one pattern of fly. Now, I don’t carry dozens and dozens of patterns with me, but I probably catch the majority of trout on roughly 6 patterns, with a few assorted flies throw in now and then for fun.

Still, I don’t think I really understood how important the drag free drift is catching fish until I started fishing tenkara, and how much easier that is to achieve with tenkara vs western fly fishing.

Matt Sment: Like a lot of people that enjoy the outdoors, I’m what you might call a “gear hound”. I’d been working on reducing the base weight of my backpacking equipment for some time, while also trying to squeeze as much practical application out of it as possible. Mike brought up tenkara as a candidate for adding an ultra-portable fishing capability to my kit, and offered to show me some local water so I could give it a try. We went out during the early catch and release season and hit a few creeks that are the closest thing we have to “traditional tenkara” mountain streams around here – and I was instantly enthralled. I think we saw a few fish that day, but I caught nothing. The next day I ordered my own rod and a starter kit, and the next week we went again. This time I was able to get two brook trout to charge my fly; they only bumped it and moved on. But I SAW them test the fly – and even though I caught nothing that day, I knew right then that tenkara offered an experience I wanted in my life. From there, I started reading everything I could on tenkara, water analysis, and the biology and habits of different fish species. My job had me on the road for several weeks at a time, but when I was home, or when I had time while traveling, I hit every bit of water I could find. Rivers, lakes, ponds, ditches, wild fish, stocked fish – I adjusted my equipment and technique to whatever limitations or advantages I found along the way, and focused simply on methods that caught fish, which allowed me to have fun while I did it. Every step of the way, tenkara has felt like a natural extension of my relationship with the outdoors.

AN: I find that I’m much more interested in the differences among tenkara anglers rather than the similarities. The notion that there’s one “right” way to do things is kind of boring to me. I really find that I’m intrigued by how an angler’s personality, temperament, life experience, fishing environment (i.e. the kinds of water and species of fish that you target), regional traditions, etc. affect the tenkara style that they develop. Can you speak to this in your own tenkara development?

Mike Lutes: When I first started fishing with tenkara, it was mostly on a couple of freestone streams in the area that are our closest mimics to the “mountain stream fishing” tenkara is known for. Still, being a pragmatist and a bit of a tinkerer, it was only a matter of time until I started using tenkara to fish other types of creeks and still water. It was pretty easy to adapt to pond fishing for bluegills and bass, then came stream and river smallmouth bass. It took a while to crack to our Wisconsin spring creeks with tenkara, but eventually we did it (I say “we” because Matt and I bounced a lot of ideas off each other while we sorted it out). I am really impressed as to just how versatile a platform it can be.

On the free stone streams, I try to use a dry fly on tenkara as much as possible just because I love catching fish on dry flies, and the brookies in those streams will usually take one. If we’re going for bass, it will typically be a streamer of some sort. If it is panfish, it will be a dry, a nymph or a small streamer, depending on the day. On the spring creeks, that’s where the phenologic approach comes in. There are different strategies that will work better during different times of year, water conditions etc, yet on most days a drag free drift with a nymph will get you into fish.

Matt Sment: My philosophy on outdoors equipment in general is that it should be lightweight, modular, and relevant to the broadest range of potential use cases as possible. This carries over into the way I approach tenkara. While I sincerely enjoy “traditional” tenkara, and love to practice it on certain streams that have an ideal structure for it, there is too much “other” water for me to be comfortable only fishing one way. We have a really wide variety of water and fish here in Wisconsin. The Driftless region is full of crystal clear spring feed creeks, and our warm water fisheries are teaming with bass, pan fish, pike, and carp. Since Mike and I both have a predisposition for adventuring, we don’t restrict ourselves to certain types of water, fish, or equipment.

I like to tailor my gear choice to a given task, but I also really like to haul around as little as possible, and make as few changes to my equipment as possible when preparing for a trip. This has driven my tenkara style in that my focus is to develop the most broadly applicable, small, lightweight equipment set I can manage. I enjoy the challenge of adapting my equipment and knowledge to different conditions, and the process of discovering new techniques. My goal is to be able to catch just about any fish, on just about any water, within the physical limits of what the line, tippet, and rod will withstand.

This means a lot of experimentation! We’ve tested many types of western flies – dry, wet, and streamers. I’ve tied on a weighted crappie jig and successfully caught bass and pike, and even spent a few weeks last summer using the inner strands of para-cord as line. (For the record, it casts well, but becomes waterlogged quickly. As a backup option when no other line is available it will do nicely – just cut your length a few feet shorter than your rod to avoid constantly having your line sink). As far as environment effecting my style, I’d say the primary example of this with me is that I typically use 5-6 feet of tippet. You need all the reach you can muster when chasing spooky brown trout on spring creeks!

I’ve found that with a few different line choices, and about a half dozen fly types, I am getting to the point where I can reasonably apply my kit to most of our local fish and water types. I’m sure that my perceptions and experiences will drive further evolution in my style, but that journey is part of the fun!

AN: Okay some specifics – what type of line do you use? And why? Or does it change depending upon location and/or conditions?

Mike Lutes: Well, I can tell you what I don’t use a lot of, and that is level line. I just can’t stand the line memory and frankly I don’t like the way it casts all that much. It is great for keeping line off the water, but that is really about all I like about it.

I love furled lines for the delicate way they deliver a fly. Precisely dropping a dry fly with furled line in a tight little spot and landing a brookie may be my favorite part of tenkara. What I don’t like about them is that eventually they water log, and then will drag.

I really like our Badger lines. To me, they are the best all around line I have found for tenkara, and I have tried a lot. I am a bit of an incessant tinkerer when it comes to tenkara lines, though, so I’m always looking to improve the line. I am testing a new line that I really like that I hope to debut on Badger Tenkara once I have the opportunity to test it some more. So far, I love it.

Matt Sment: I love the precise, delicate casts you can deliver with furled lines, and typically fish one that is about equal with the rod length. In subzero temperatures, on windy days, or when chasing fish that are less spooky, I’ll rig up with the floating Badger line. It’s a great all around performer that casts easy in most conditions. I like to fish a tippet that is longer than most people prefer – usually 5-6 feet of 5x. I don’t pay much attention to fluorocarbon vs nylon, because if I want to sink a fly, I rely on the fly itself being weighted. Mike and I both like to save our tippet for trout, so when fishing for bass or panfish, we often substitute cheaper 4-6 lbs test mono fishing line. We also test a lot of lines – Mike is forever in search of the ultimate “do it all” line that combines every advantage from differing materials, so it’s not uncommon to be testing one of his prototypes on any given day.

AN: One fly guy? Kebari Nomad or something in between? And your thoughts on that subject.

Mike Lutes: As above, definitely not a one fly guy. I have a lot of respect for guys who practice that, and I get the philosophy, but it is not for me. I don’t like the trend in tenkara of the one fly guys looking down on guys like me. I mean, are we going to re-invent the dry fly purist vs the nymph fisherman argument again? One of the things I like about the tenkara community is the general inclusiveness of tenkara fisherman. Ever look at the message board for The Drake magazine? Yeah, let’s not be like those guys. Matt and I have tossed around mottos for Badger Tenkara and the one I keep coming back to is “Noobs welcome”.

I also think it is quintessentially American to take something from another culture, welcome and embrace it, then change it to make it uniquely American. Let’s face it, they probably don’t eat Philly rolls in Tokyo, but boy are they good. Maybe it’s not tenkara anymore once you start using goofy lines, streamers, bead head nymphs and (gasp!) poppers, but it sure is fun, and tenkara is easier to say than fixed line fly fishing. And shorter.

Matt Sment: Definitely NOT a “one fly guy”. Assuming it is unlikely to damage my rod, I’ll tie just about anything on and give it a throw. While I’m not a “match the hatch” guy either, I do think there is wisdom in matching the water zone where the fish are feeding, so I carry a few choices for each zone. If the fish are not obviously feeding the surface, I will go straight to using a fly that will drop down to the bottom zone. This is usually a bead head killer bug, or bead head wooly bugger.  On top, elk hair caddis and small BWO are my go-to western flies, but I also love foam beetles and hoppers when conditions are right. As far as wet flies go, killer bugs and woolly bugger / leech patterned streamers are my favorites. I’ve also been fishing the “Pass Lake” a lot this season, and have been very impressed with how versatile and effective it is.

Bios:

Mike Lutes is a happily married father of three, a health care professional and an aspiring trout bum. He lives just outside Madison, Wisconsin and enjoys an embarrassment of riches when it comes to fishing opportunities near his home.

Matt Sment: I’ve spent most of my life seeking adventure outdoors. Frequent camping trips with my parents really allowed me to explore “the woods” when I was younger. I started bait fishing on spin cast rigs pretty early on, and did that on and off until my discovery of Tenkara. Back in the 90’s, I trained at Outward Bound’s North Carolina school, where I took a 55 day Outdoor Leadership course that included land navigation, backpacking, climbing, paddling, and backcountry first aid. Then, I spent a few years working at youth camps, running high ropes courses and leading backpacking trips. While do so, I earned an NRA firearms instructor certification and spent a summer running the shooting sports program at a Boy Scout camp. In 2001, I enlisted in the US Army as a Cavalry Scout and Paratrooper. During this time I took an opportunity to earn certification as an EMT-B, although I never used it in the civilian world. My professional focus after that has been on training military, law enforcement, and emergency response personnel. I’ve earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Homeland Security, and I’m now pursuing a second degree in Marketing. Currently, I am really enjoying the adventures we are finding through Badger Tenkara!

5 Comments on The Colors of Tenkara: Matt Sment and Mike Lutes of Badger Tenkara

  1. An excellent interview, Anthony. I know a good interview question when I see one,
    and yours are excellent. You draw out the interviewee without injecting too much of yourself. Best of all, the answers expanded my Tenkara universe. Keep ’em comin’.

  2. Great interview guys! Agree with Paul. I hate it when the interviewer makes the interview more about themselves than the person they’re supposed to be interviewing. Good questions Anthony.

  3. HOO AHH great interview!

  4. Excellent article, helped me get a feel for what tenkara is to others, when the tenkara police aren’t monitoring what is said. I am going to have to look at Badger equipment. Again thanks for this article, really like the comment about the jerks at the Drake forum.

what say you?