Meet Lael Paul Johnson, a fly fishing guide based in the Pacific Northwest that specializes in guiding two-handed fly fishing for anadromous fish like steelhead and salmon. Lael is an extremely passionate guide and angler that has a never-ending drive to pursue hard-to-catch fish like the elusive steelhead and salmon of the Pacific Northwest. We decided to head to the state of Washington to spend a couple of days with Lael and experience the rivers he guides firsthand.
Flylords: How did you get into fly fishing specifically fly fishing with a two-handed rod?
Lael: Honestly, it grabbed my attention as nothing else in fishing had done. It’s sexy, the casting, the equipment, and the places most anglers choose to utilize the technique. The exact moment where I was like, “Oh, I gotta do that!” was in 2010 or 2011. I was floating down my favorite river on the Olympic Peninsula with two friends, and we had a fish on using gear. As we fought our fish, a guy standing in the water had a steelhead on using a spey rod, and all I wanted was to be that guy! Even with the oars in hand and my buddy having a fish on, I still wanted to drop anchor and watch this guy using the spey rod fight the fish.
Swinging flies interested me because, at the time of getting into spey fishing, it seemed like such a challenge. It’s still challenging at times and has a steep learning curve, but that’s what attracts me. Swinging a fly to a fish that is already difficult to catch lit my fire for discovery. Picking up a spey rod let me begin my journey as an angler all over again. Other methods allowed me to connect with fish much easier, and because of this, I lost interest in the chase; I only had expectations for how many I should catch.
Flylords: What does your guide calendar look like?
Lael: Each year I guide anywhere from 200-220 days on the water, weather depending. Steelhead, salmon, and steelhead-sized trout are what I’m after pretty much all of the time. If we have a good weather year, I am on the higher side of those numbers, and if we have high water temps and low water conditions in the summer with a lot of blowouts in the winter, the number goes down. One option that helps me stay on the water is that I fish in two different areas separated by 6 hours of driving time, it gives me different weather systems and river conditions. It sometimes allows me to switch river systems to stay on the fish and cancel fewer trips due to weather.
I also host travel fly fishing trips, I’m planning on expanding to more locations, but my focus has been in Alaska, British Columbia & Patagonia for a few years now. Alaska is my favorite and the most sought-after-hosted trip. I am the host and the guide for steelhead in an ultra fishy location. It’s great because it lets me extend my steelhead season for another month when the rivers in Washington close down.
Flylords: When did you realize you wanted to be a full-time guide?
Lael: I wanted to be a guide when I was a kid. Of course, I didn’t know what that would entail at 5 or 6 years old, but I knew I wanted a job (whatever that meant at the time) chasing fish and enjoying the outdoors while doing it. When I began guiding almost ten years ago, it wasn’t full-time, and I was balancing working at the hospital and guiding on my days off from the hospital. After a year of bouncing back and forth with no real days off, I had to decide, and we know how that went….
I knew I wanted to give all of my attention to fishing because it was all I thought about and still do even now that I can guide and fish full-time. Not just about the catch, but everything that goes into making it happen, from tying flies, gear prep, and planning where I’ll go. There are limitless possibilities of making that happen, and so many species you can target, you will never catch them all. I knew if I ever got the chance to pursue the childhood dream of being a fishing guide, I was going to jump at it. When I decided to give it a shot, it felt like I had finally figured out my path, and that feeling hasn’t gone away and is why I’m almost a decade in and still thrilled to do it.
Flylords: What is your motivation for getting on the water every day?
Lael: Finding a fish that is going to change my or someone else’s life after I wake up. It’s not something that happens every day, but I do have the opportunity every day; that’s enough for me to set the alarm at 1 AM and hit the road if it will get me to that goal. The fish doesn’t have to be a monster (although I would like it to be), and a fish of any size can spark interest in someone that lasts forever. Next thing you know, they are buying every rod, reel, fly, boat, trying to keep making that happen. Seeing that take place for the many people I’ve met while on the water or just talking about it in a coffee shop or airport is incredible and is what keeps me looking for the next fish!
Flylords: For the most part you are a swing only (spey fishing) guide. Why is that?
Lael: Because that’s what I like, and if you’re not that into it, you shouldn’t be guiding it. I fish and guide other techniques because “all water isn’t spey water,” but I always want to get the spey rod back in my hand after a day or so from doing something else. The thing that gets me tuned up about spey is the grab, of course, but I also enjoy its detailed teaching aspect and then letting the angler I’m guiding understand what it means to feel the water with your fly. Guiding someone to that point is badass, and that’s the moment the guide and angler click and then really get on the hunt. This is where it gets fun, and you get to hunt fish in different areas in the river aggressively because you know what’s up. When we were at this point were locked in, and we weren’t shocked when we hooked up; we expected it!
On day two of us meeting, we had a moment like this, and watching the whole scenario play out was epic and one for the books.
I was in the middle of a run casting at a log and saw a pod of fish splashing while coming up the tailout. Ben, our photographer, had just laid down to break for a moment, and before he got comfortable I said, “be ready to jump up!” because I knew we were going to get into a fish. I waived you (Pat) to come down below where I was, and you were into a king salmon in less than ten casts. Moments like this happen when the guide and angler are figuratively speaking the same language. I was able to communicate with you where the fish were and what I needed you to do. You made it happen and connected!
When I have new anglers who want to get into the sport, it will take time to develop that relationship, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen on the first day. That is all dependant on the situation and what may be asked of them. Some days it’s easy, and you can make a simple roll cast with T-11 on the seam of some fishy water; others, I might need a 90 footer with T-17 to get past some boulders that will fish the bucket on the other side of the river. It is all situational, but as long as I can communicate what needs to happen with my guests and we both understand what needs to be done, we have an opportunity for success.
Flylords: When we fished together, what type of fish were we targeting?
Lael: We were targeting Chinook (King) & Coho (Silver) Salmon.
Flylords: We were lucky to find some fish, what went into our success this day?
Lael: It was being able to adapt! When we initially spoke about logistics, I was on a river, not on the Olympic Peninsula, and I planned to stay there to fish for Chinook and Coho. River conditions were dialed, but the Chinook we were near the end of their spawn, and that would not allow us to connect with the intended species, so I decided to switch to the coast.
On our first day, we had some action on a river that gave us beauty and solitude, but the grabs from Chinook and Coho were scarce, with not many fish in the system. We hooked a couple of bull trout looking for salmon, and a coho grabbed my fly when striping my line in but got off pretty quick, and that was all of the targeted fish action we had that day.
For day two, I decided to switch rivers on the coast, and we launched late. Three hours later than usual, but it paid off quickly by letting the other boats get way ahead of us, and we got into a nice fish in less than an hour. Thinking outside of the regular game plan when things don’t work out initially made all the difference for our trip.
Flylords: What kind of gear do you use to guide with, specifically what type of boat, size rods, lines, and flies? Can you run us through your setup this time of year?
Lael: Yeah, no problem. I’m floating down the river in a drift boat, and my are spey rods 13′ to 14′ feet long paired with large arbor reels, Skagit heads, heavy sink tips, strong tippet, and large flies with stout hooks. That’s a super basic description, but here are the specifics:
BOAT – 16ft Clackacraft Big Eddy fiberglass drift boat. It’s designed to navigate rivers using oars powered by the rower and has a shape that allows for a lot of maneuverability. Really stealthy when approaching fish and can get you into places a boat with a motor can’t.
RODS – G-Loomis. I typically use two different lengths. 13′ 3″ 8wt NRX+, 13′ 3″ 9wt NRX+, and 14′ 9wt G-Loomis Asquith. Most of the time, I use the 9wt NRX+, and the Asquith comes out when I need some distance on a larger river. They are each set up with different sink tips and flies, so when I move from spot to spot, I only have to change the rod and not the entire setup, and it lets me spend more time on the water fishing than changing gear.
REELS – Islander Reels – 4.0LX & 4.5LX Bulletproof, well-made, strong drag. Cork drag system that starts up smooth when you get into a screamer and is easy to clean after going through salmon and steelhead season. They sound damn good when you’re into a fish too!
RUNNING LINE – 47lb Varivas. Competition shooting line that casts a mile. Crazy Strong and feels good in the hand when your stripping line in with cold fingers. Floats too which is a plus for pulling out of the water easily on a cast and has very little memory that goes smoothly through the guides
LINES – Next Cast Coastal – Full Floating (FF) and Light Intermediate (F1). They are built like most Skagit heads, but they have a longer taper that lets it cast easily. Also, they are longer than most Skagit heads, load the hell out of any rod it’s on, and help new anglers not blow their anchor when learning to cast due to the longer length.
SINK TIPS – RIO In Touch Level T. I spey fish a lot, so it makes sense for me to buy 500ft spools of T-8 – T20 that I cut into 10 or 12.5 sections. It’s great because I can make my own tips, which I TRUST! Also, I can cut them to whatever length I need for the rod I choose. Most of the time, I use T-14 or T-17 because I want the fly to hit the water and get down in front of the fish fast. Choosing the tip to use isn’t typically based on the depth; its water speed makes that choice.
TIPPET – 20lb Seaguar or 25lb Maxima Ultragreen – Has held onto trophy fish, abrasion-resistant if you hit bottom. All swing leaders are tied looped to my sink tips using a bimini twist. It helps act as a shock absorber if you get ripped by a good grab.
FLIES – Mostly tubes & a few Bunny Leeches on shanks. I rotate four color patterns throughout the day depending on sun position and water clarity. Black, Blue & Pink, Chartreuse & Blue, Orange & Pink, and Pink. The Night Crawler is a fly that I won’t leave home without.
I’m always creating new patterns and had just whipped up a new fly before our trip, now named “The Humpty Dance” after its success. It has a chartreuse cone, black marabou body, and a lot of magenta and blue flash out of the back covering the hook.
It’s a loud, obnoxious fly that just pisses off fish to make them bite to get it out of their face. It stuck both fish that were landed on day two and has now proven itself to make a move to being a regularly used fly; if it gets a name, it will be fished!
Hooks – 1-0 Olympic Peninsula Skagit Tactics. Just the sharpest, thickest wire fly fishing hook that can be bought for salmon and steelhead. These hooks have put near 40-pound kings in my net and the biggest steelhead I’ve ever seen that pushing near the 30-pound mark.
Flylords: You are an avid fly tyer, specifically tube flies. Why do you prefer tube flies over traditional flies?
Lael: I fish tubes for three reasons:
- The way the hook sits on the backend of the fly. When I tie a hook onto a tube, it’s on a loop knot, and I make sure that the hook does not touch the tube. This allows the hook to rotate and move. We do not know what direction a fish is coming to attack your fly, so hook placement that allows maximum movement will give you a better chance of the hook staying put.
- When you tie a fly on you have used 1000 times; you can easily use a new hook every time. Tubes stop you from getting lazy and using a dull hook already attached to trailing wire or a fly tied directly on the hook itself.
- Tubes last longer. Usually, the fly slips away from the fish, and then you are only fighting them with hook and line, not the tippet tied to the fly. Tubes generally have no metal in them unless tied on a metal tube and don’t rust after getting used multiple times or after getting left in the fly box wet.
Flylords: With pacific salmon and steelhead returns declining in recent years on certain river systems, how are you adapting the way you guide?
Lael: I have to do a lot more moving around from system to system than in the previous years to find unpressured fish that will take a swung fly. It’s putting some miles on the truck, but that is just part of continuing to work harder for your guests. I can’t change the runs, but I can always step it up a notch.
Spey fishing itself is a technique that typically has you sacrifice numbers for the quality of your experience. You have to work harder to get one on the swing, and in turn, when you connect, it is a really sweet feeling. With the level of difficulty, as a by-product, my guests and I catch fewer fish than I did in years prior using other techniques. Swinging is not what you want to do if you’re trying to play the numbers game. I didn’t start swinging with intentions to catch fewer fish to not be as impactful on a now troubled resource; I did it because that is how I wanted to catch them from now on, and if I had to sacrifice catching ten another way versus one or two on the swing, I’ll always take the swing.
Lastly, being more actively involved with the decisions made for the fisheries is part of what myself, other guides, and anglers are responsible for now. Currently, I am working with conservation groups to gather more support, votes, funds, and awareness for the decline of salmon and steelhead runs. Being an angler on the chase isn’t enough anymore if we want to keep doing what we love. If the voices die for the sport, our opportunity will go right with it, so we have to get involved, speak up, and help MAKE things change.
Flylords: What makes it so special to be able to guide a client onto an anadromous fish like a king salmon or steelhead?
Lael: The amount of anticipation and excitement before the grab! It’s a technical game with many moving parts to align the stars to put one in the net; when that happens, it’s epic, ALWAYS! There is nothing like it for the angler or the audience. If we took that level of difficulty away from the accomplishment (and I mean no disrespect to those who choose not to swing), it’s just another fish for those who do.
Swinging a fly is a game of chess against an excellent opponent, the river. The steelhead and salmon are simply pawns in the game. If you can beat the river, the pawns will fall as well, and checkmate is the grab.
What you learn while you search for a pull is another reason why it is so special. When you’re swinging, you usually stand in the water, feeling the water speed on your legs. Being in this position helps you decide what equipment, cast, and casting angle you should use. Being able to feel what the fish feel is absolutely eye-opening, and once you understand what they have to go through you, you gain more respect for the fish, or at least that’s what it did for me.
Flylords: If you could give a beginner spey angler one tip, what would it be?
Lael: Find out where your fly is at in relation to the river bottom throughout the swing. A fish travels near the bottom in rivers, and if you do not know how deep the water is, you can’t make the correct fly line, sink tip, and fly choice. Understanding this is a critical step to becoming a successful angler, no matter the technique but life and death for the spey game. Those who can figure out where your presentation is at all times will consistently be able to catch fish if they are there.
Flylords: What do your days look like when you’re not on the water with clients?
Lael: I have two types of days when I’m not guiding, research and playdays. Research is a grind, and it is daylight to dark to figure out what I need to do for my guide days ahead. The rivers on the Peninsula change so much after each big rain, so I have to figure it out all over again if a huge tree gets dragged down the river, changing the runs or buckets. If I stay in one run and fish it slow repeatedly, I won’t learn anything about fishing the entire river. Obviously, I want to catch a fish, but covering water and studying how the river as the whole is set up is more important.
Playdays are what they sound like; just have fun doing my thing. It’s usually at the end of the season or when I have a system so dialed that I can call a fish in a couple of different places. These are the days I’m there to be a guest in my own backyard with a couple of my friends. I don’t get as many of these as I used to, as my guiding schedule is pretty full, but they are essential to reminding me of why I wanted to go through the grind of doing this in the first place. “All work and no play makes you a dull guide.”
Flylords: Why do you like Costa sunglasses? And which pair were you rocking when we were out on the water?
Lael: I am a HUGE fan of their 580G glass lenses! They are in a class of their own. I wore another brand for a while because I had a pair of their snowboard goggles and stuck with it because I knew what I was buying. A few friends and many other guides had told me about the Costa’s, and when I broke an arm off the other brand, I bought some Costa’s to replace them. You don’t know what you’re missing until you try the glass. Absolute game-changer for the glacial water I am typically fishing, and the fit makes you forget they are on.
I wear the Spearo’s on the water and while driving almost all the time. Classic cool guy beach look that doesn’t push down on the top of my ears and nose when I’m wearing a hat. The medium fit also works well for my face shape and stays in place when I’m looking over the boat’s edge, looking at the structure, and trying to spot fish.
Flylords: One piece of gear you will not leave the house without for a day on the water?
Lael: I need a lot of pieces to make it all come together for a successful day, but my camera is the one thing I will turn my truck around to go back home for. Capturing the moment the best way possible is why I am out there in the first place, so not having it feels weird. Also, the “pics or it didn’t happen” is real. Not just in the sense that someone may not believe that you caught a fish to prove it, but you may forget a memory just by not being able to step back into it again. I’ve looked at photos from years ago and completely forgot I even caught a fish but see it, and all the memories of the road trip, gear used, hookup, and grip & grin come back. That clear look back into the past is priceless.
Flylords: What’s next for Lael?
Lael: I want to create a space for community-based environmental responsibility that transcends far beyond anglers and outdoor enthusiasts. My love for the outdoors won’t protect it in the future; it will be put on the shoulders of those watching what their parents and we are doing now. Building that space while still being an active guide is what I want to focus my efforts on, which I believe will genuinely have an impact on what we have in the future. Catching more fish is great for a guide, but assisting with allowing others an opportunity to catch one or even stand in a river where I once did when I hang my rod up for good, is more important.
Lael has been a friend of Flylords for some time as he has shared some stories like “A Passion for Steelhead,” “The Bad Apple – Tube Fly for Chinook & Steelhead,” and “Dry Rub BBQ Steelhead and Salmon Recipe” on Flylordsmag.
All photos by Ben Matthews, check out more of Ben’s work on his website. Interview by Flylords’ Pat Perry. Also, thanks to Costa for supporting our guides, and making this series possible. Stay tuned for more “Behind the Guides” features.