Trout Bum of the Week LXVIII: Tim Johnson

Listening for the “bloop,” Tim landed this beauty while fishing blind.
Photos courtesy Tim Johnson

Welcome to our series called “Trout Bum of the Week,” in which we highlight some of the folks living the good life. . .of a sort. (See the bottom of this post for a link to the previous installments.) Most of the subjects are guides who have turned their passion into a vocation, spending their time in an outdoor “office” that may include a drift boat, gorgeous mountain scenery, and crystal clear water. Others do have day jobs but manage to spend every other available minute on the water with a fly rod in hand. Whether you aspire to one lifestyle or the other, it’s illuminating to explore the different paths these men and women have taken on their way to achieving “trout bum” status. 

Tim Johnson is a guide at Falcon’s Ledge—in Altamont, Utah—and he is also becoming increasingly well known as an artist and fly designer. To see more of Tim’s artwork, visit Tim Johnson Gallery, and check out the video at the bottom of this page to see the cool fly-rod-grip commissions he’s now doing, as well.

1. When did you start fly fishing?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to fish more than just about anything else. The earliest request I can remember making for a birthday party or present was asking my mom to find a way to take me fishing. She got a fishing pole and took me to a desert river with a can of worms and some marshmallows, I think. She even brought an inflatable raft. She tried hard, but neither of us knew what we were doing. Even though I have five older brothers, I was the only member of my family interested in fishing back then, and living in the middle of the desert in Mesa, Arizona, didn’t make access to fishing easy. I learned from everything I could read and fished wherever I could pedal my yellow Schwinn Cruiser. For the most part, that meant ninja-fishing golf-course ponds at night (with permission) for bass and bluegill or hitting concrete irrigation canals for catfish and carp. There was never a time that I wasn’t hooked on fishing.

When I was 11 or 12, a new neighbor moved in next door. He was divorced and had a son in high school, Eric, who lived with his mom in Phoenix, but would stay next door with dad probably every other weekend. One Saturday morning, I saw Eric false-casting on his front lawn. I had never seen anything like this before, but immediately knew I needed some. I probably stood there awkwardly staring at him until he let me have a try. That was it. He became my intermittent, but very exacting—“Timmy, you’ve regressed”—fly-casting sensei until he left for college.

Tim has pretty much built his life around fly-fishing, from his day job to his artwork.

Soon Eric upgraded to a new rod and CFO reel, and he left his old one for me to practice with, as he was just not around nearly as much as I needed to cast. (I actually lost that rod after filling my waders and nearly drowning on the Provo during high water a couple springs later.) He helped me tie my first fly (a Hare’s Ear Nymph) and went way out of his way to take his young apprentice to Arizona’s Canyon Creek and Lee’s Ferry, and the San Juan in New Mexico. But for the most part, he was in Phoenix, and I was left to figure out the rest of fly fishing on my own. This was before everything on Earth was available through the internet, so that meant magazine subscriptions, buying books (including Tom Rosenbauer’s Guide to Reading Trout Streams), and even calling every fly fishing company I could find to get free catalogs. Jack Dennis’ Western Trout Fly Tying Manual helped me continue to learn the basics of fly tying on a Thompson A vise that I got for Christmas.

It wasn’t until I moved up to Utah that I really started to learn from others directly again. I met Grant Bench at a local fly shop and eventually started guiding with him at Falcon’s Ledge, where I met other former Trout Bums of the Week like Spencer Higa and Bryan Eldredge and all the other great guides up there. These relationships have put me in a position to fish with and learn from some amazing anglers. Grant and others also helped me develop as a fly tier. If the Falcon’s Ledge guys hadn’t challenged me to enter an Orvis guides fly-tying contest I wouldn’t have won and wouldn’t be a fly designer for the company now. People are definitely still teaching me and helping me to stretch myself.

2. What’s your favorite water?
It’s very hard for me to choose “favorites” in just about anything. That might be because I crave variety more than familiarity. If I have an amazing day on a given water, I’ll love it and want to repeat it, but inevitably I’ll want to try something new. That said, I do have some “home waters” that I absolutely cherish. I don’t want to get too specific, but one of them is a tiny brookie-filled creeklet in the wilderness near my family’s cabin in Southwestern Colorado, on which I’ve seen a bear, elk, and deer, but never another human being. Another is a river we guide here at Falcon’s Ledge. I’ll add a story about the latter in the “most memorable” section.

3. What’s your favorite species to chase with a fly rod?
Another “favorites” question. Ugh. I’d probably say cutthroats, but again, it might be because I crave diversity and there is so much variety within the species. Even an individual Colorado River Cutthroat will look completely different from season to season. I’m smitten by them visually, which is no small thing to an artist. It’s no coincidence that I chose a CRC as the subject of my first oil painting attempt. But if we include other subspecies, I also get bruisers like Lahontans and Bear Lake cutties.

“CR Cutt Reflections,” an oil painting by Tim Johnson.

4. What’s your most memorable fly fishing moment?
I had just finished a guide day at Falcon’s Ledge and Jeff, another guide buddy of mine, invited me to go hit some water with him. We had set off a little later than we wanted to, so by the time we reached the stream, there wasn’t much light left. We hiked up stream to a friendly-looking hole and found some rising browns, but it quickly got dark enough that we couldn’t see our flies, the rises, and eventually not even the line on the water. We had to switch senses.

I was using the first rod I’d ever owned, a 5-weight that I really learned to fish on, so I knew how it flexed and could feel pretty well how much line I had out. The water in this hole was relatively flat and quiet, and the browns had very large mouths, so even though they were not aggressive takes, if we listened closely we could hear the intermittent “bloop” of their rises. I would wait to hear an eat and then feel out a cast (sweeping for the angle and feeling timing and bend for distance) just upstream of where it sounded like it had come from. The flat, nearly-even flow would let me get away with using only one immediate mend, and then when I heard a “bloop” again where my fly should be, I set. When the line came taught and all Hell broke loose, I felt like a fly-fishing shaolin monk! Landing the fish was not easy, since it was done by feel too, and underwater obstructions were invisible, but I ended up with several big browns that night, theee of which ranged from 21 to 24 inches. Oh, I also caught a bat!

5. What’s your most forgettable fly fishing moment?
I was fishing Ascension Bay on the Yucatan with my brother. We were both first-timers on the flats, but I had been a guide for several years by now, which gave me some confidence and also the wisdom to know that I should actually listen to my guide.

The guide we got was a very young local kid who spoke very little English. My faith wavered a little when he wasn’t sure what fly to use, and opted for me to tie knots because he thought they might be stronger. Did they send me out with the noob? But he could pole and point, and I could cast, so we got along fine. I knew that these were his waters, so I wasn’t going to make the mistake of not listening to my guide.

We had caught a few small-but-lightning bonefish when I spotted a permit cruising along. I pointed it out and lost sight, but he could still see it from his elevated poling platform. I grabbed another rod that I had all rigged-up with a crab fly I had tied in the weeks of anticipation leading up to this trip. It was all coming together. I was going to get a shot at the holy grail on my very first time on the flats! He pointed the direction and said “Tweenty meeters,” in his smooth Mexican accent. OK, sixty-five feet. No problem. I laid out a cast and he said, “Yeeeeess… Gooooood… wait.” So I waited. “Ok, estreep.” So I stripped. “Estreeeeep… estreep, estreep…” I stripped and stripped again timing the speed and length of my pulls to the length and cadence of his voice. We were in the zone. We were like one uber-angler. Then he said, “Yeeees, yeeees! oh…. Ummm… (this pause is probably about three seconds, but feels like eternity as I grip the line way up by the stripping guide, muscles tensed in anticipation of that one magic word from my guide) …ummm… SET!” With adrenaline-primed reflexes bordering on pre-cognition, I strip-set… but there’s nothing there. He laughs and says, “Sorry, I forget the word. ‘Set’! He eat it, but I forget the word. Is OK, we see another.”

Seriously?! Is not OK. We won’t see another. I know I was lucky to get one shot. Even more lucky to get an eat. But my guide, in whom I had trusted, had forgotten literally the only word a guide absolutely must know, and instead said, “uhhh…ummm…” My hands were just itching to set! I was a steel trap with a hair trigger. If he had shouted anything, I would have set. If he had just coughed loudly or accidentally farted, the set would have happened. …but no, I’m not bitter!

Tim is always ahead of the curve, predicting that tweed would be cool again.

6. What do you love most about fly fishing?
To be honest, I think my primary love is simply fishing. Fly fishing just happened to be the most enjoyable way to do the thing I enjoy most, so I got more and more into it. I love learning and developing new skills, and I’ve found that there simply is no ceiling to what there is to learn and master in fly fishing. Can you cast? Sure, now I want to learn to cast like Hutch Hutchinson. Can you tie flies? Sure, but now I want to tie like Grant Bench. Now I want to invent new flies that are totally different. Now I want to tie flies that people see in a catalog and buy. Do you know bugs? Sure, but now I want to know them like Robert Younghanz. I want to know what they do and when and how fish react. Painting. Working. Dreaming. Everything pours into fly fishing for me somehow, and there just isn’t a bottom to any of it, no matter how far down the rabbit hole I tumble.

7. What is your favorite piece of gear?
I should probably say one of my H2 rods, because I do love them, but the first thing that came to mind was actually my Safe Passage Carry It All case. I’ve got that thing filled with about 5 rods and 8 reels and spools at any one time, and can throw it in the trunk of whatever I’m driving any day. So if I cross a tiny creek on my way, my 3-weight Helios Ion is in there. If I’m near Utah Lake and want to target some carp, my 9-foot 8-weight Helios 2 is there. My 10-foot 4-weight Recon is ready to Czech-nymph the Provo. Plus, there’s a 6 weight streamer rod with floating and sinking lines spooled up. It mitigates insecurities.

8. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?
I hope this doesn’t sound self-serving, but my Candy Crane pattern that Orvis produces now has become my go-to. I first tied it because I learned that cranefly larvae are huge and live everywhere, but they are translucent and none of the patterns in existence were. So I made it and immediately slayed on it. Now I use it as a lead fly more often than not when I’m nymphing. It just keeps working everywhere, and I think cranefly larvae are the most under-fished organism there is. I just don’t think fish see fake craneflies very often. It feels like a secret weapon that I use all the time.

Tim shows off a gorgeous Utah brown trout from on of his home waters.

9. What was your favorite fly fishing trip?
When we’re talking about a “trip,” I find more and more that my enjoyment has more to do with the people I’m with. My best fishing buddies are all with me when we roll up to the Orvis Guide Rendezvous every year, so I think that has become my favorite trip. That said, if we could all roll to New Zealand or Costa Rica together, I wouldn’t hate it.

10. How do you define the difference between someone who loves fly fishing and a true trout bum?
Tough question. I think the true trout bum is affected (afflicted?) by fly fishing in ways that a healthy lover of fly fishing is not. He changes his life to accommodate fly fishing or else the parts of his life that people would usually place as being more important than a beloved “hobby” are changed by fly fishing itself.

This can come in many different forms, maybe the most obvious of which is the guy who devotes himself professionally to fly fishing by guiding full-time. He sacrifices wealth, relationships, and usually personal hygiene because he has to be close to what he loves more than others do.

There are other manifestations of trout bum as well, of course.

If I’m a trout bum, it’s not because I spend all of my time on the river. In fact, I haven’t been a full-time guide for a number of years. Being a father of four didn’t prove to be conducive to being at the lodge for days at a time. But trout bumness has demonstrated a different set of symptoms that are, arguably, equally pervasive. In fact, just about everything I do either grows out of fly fishing or is fundamentally changed by it:

  • Part-time guide
  • Contract fly designer
  • Professional artist, who only seems to paint fish and flies
  • Licensed Recreation Therapist, who found the profession volunteering to help disabled veterans learn to tie and fish, and currently uses fly fishing to help kids on the Autism Spectrum.
  • Adjunct Professor at the local university, teaching fly fishing and Recreation Therapy.

If I wrote music, it would be fishy. If I ever wrote a book, it would be about fishing. It seems to drive everything I do. So I think you can be a trout bum because you dive into it fully in one aspect, like a guide, or because you’re like me… a fly fishing jack-of-all-trades trying to grow into a fly fishing renaissance man.

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