Fly Fishing the Spectacular San Juan with Larry Johnson
Not too far from southern California is a river that is world famous . . . world famous, that is, among fly fishers. In the northwest corner of New Mexico is where the San Juan River flows out of Navajo Dam, and there are very few fly fishing waters that can compete with this stream for numbers, size or the strength and fighting abilities of these trout.
The San Juan is a tributary of the Colorado River and became famous as a trout fishery after the Navajo Dam was built, which made the San Juan a tailwater. Construction began on this earthen dam in 1957 and was completed in 1962, originally designed for water storage in the newly created Navajo Lake. It is 402 feet high and more than 3,600 feet in length. Before the dam, the river was a relatively small one in the arid western foothills of the Rocky Mountains with not much to attract hordes of fly fishers.
But after the dam was in operation, with water flowing at a constant temperature of 42 to 44 degrees year-round, and the initial stocking of brown trout, the world began to take notice and for good reason. The trout average 17 to 19 inches, with many much larger. The fish took to the San Juan perfectly and the stocking of browns actually stopped 25 to 30 years ago so the browns are now considered wild. (These days some rainbows are stocked.) The pristine water below the dam runs for about 20 miles, with the fish numbering an incredible nine to twelve thousand per mile. This desert setting is indeed a unique one for a trout fishery, with the fish of the San Juan holding in pods, scattered in many of the riffles, as well as in back channels. The primary food source is midges, with the trout also taking mayflies, blue-wing olives, caddis, stoneflies, terrestrials like hoppers and ants and more meaty food such as worms, (yes, where did you think the San Juan worm got its name), leeches, snails and scuds.
You can drive to the river, or you can fly into Albuquerque, which then leaves you a little more than a three hour drive to the northwest, or you can fly into Durango, Colorado, which is one hour north of the river.
Larry Johnson has been fishing the San Juan for years. He loved it when he first fished it in the mid-80s and that love has steadily increased during the last 14 years that he’s been living on the banks of the river. The southwest was a new experience for Larry. He was born and raised in New Jersey where his family had a restaurant along the shore of Lake Lackawanna – yes there is a Lake Lackawanna -- that has been a summer resort 50 miles outside of New York City since 1911. Larry is one of five children born to a man whose first job was a mathematician working on what would become a new invention -- called a computer -- for IBM. Then Larry’s father went off to fight in World War II.
Larry learned to fish from a neighbor at the lake, a Catholic priest whom Larry describes as being a family friend and a good fishing teacher who was the person to first put a bamboo rod in Larry’s hand. Larry describes Father John Dericks as a man his family loved so much that he married everyone in the family . . . and they weren’t even Catholic.
Larry graduated from Nichols College of Business in Dudley, Massachusetts in 1975 with degrees in business administration and marketing. After graduating, he worked at a ski lodge in Vermont until his brother-in-law convinced him to come out west to California. After a few years of working in different sales positions, Larry was hired by Polaroid where he spent more than a decade working for that corporation in Europe. In 1991 he was on a fishing trip in Florida where he had dinner with a doctor when this doctor showed him a new-fangled invention – a digital camera. Larry is a smart man and almost immediately realized that the Polaroid camera was doomed. He took early retirement and eventually wound up in New Mexico where, in 2000, he decided to become something of a trout bum on the San Juan. He actually took a job working behind the counter in a fly shop and, a year later, when Soaring Eagle Lodge came on the market, he bought it. He lived through some rough spots, like the actual day he took possession of the lodge. It was September 11, 2001 and by early afternoon, he was flooded with cancellations. But his skills at sales, marketing and publicity have proven invaluable and his investment paid off. He loves the San Juan, he loves guiding on the San Juan and he loves all the people who come there to fish.