Introducing the Staying Afloat Series, where we take an inside look into the lives of many different fly fishing guides, shops, brands, and lodges across the world in hopes of finding out how the CO-VID is affecting them, what they are doing to help, and how we can do our part to help them.
For this feature, we interviewed Lael Paul Johnson @flygyde a steelhead/salmon guide, photographer, and entrepreneur located in the Pacific Northwest.
Flylords: Who is Lael Paul Johnson?
LPJ: I’m a former traveling surgical technologist turned fishing guide/photographer originally from Kansas, now living in Seattle for the past 15 years. In early 2005 I came out to Seattle to work at the Children’s hospital, and after a few months of enjoying the city, I decided to renew my contract to stay longer and find out more about the Pacific Northwest. If you have ever been to Seattle in the summer, you know why I stayed, its the place you don’t leave from mid-May to Labor Day, you live in a vacation area. Nightlife, bars, restaurants, and more outdoor activities than you can think of make the city an incredible place to live. All of the fantastic things I mentioned about Seattle and the PNW were enough to make me stay in the area, but fishing made the decision final.
After a few years of living in the PNW and fishing some of the rivers on the Olympic Peninsula, I visited the Olympic National Park, and it was like I had left the state and entered another world. The trees were huge, the river was big, and the landscape was wild and untouched other than gravel access roads to some of the lower parts of the river flowing through the park. Seeing this part of Washington is what gave me the drive to switch careers and pursue the life of a professional fly fishing guide and @flygyde you see on Instagram. National parks are places that everyone should enjoy and are real treasures within our fast-paced digital society, of constant connection. It may sound cliche, but for me, it was the only place where I could genuinely “unplug” from society and what I have seen in surgery. Guiding was a way for me to help others I had worked with when I was in the hospital to find what I had already discovered and also keep me outdoors.
Flylords: How has the CO-VID outbreak impacted your business?
LPJ: Knowing the impacts of COVID-19 on my business is a tough question to answer. Just like everyone else, I am still assessing the damage each day. As of right now, it canceled the rest of my 2020 wild steelhead season, quickly taking over thousands out of my pockets when I’m making the bulk of my income for the year. Also, I host a trip and guide in Alaska on a remote river for wild Steelhead. That too has been canceled due to a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entering the state. Our accommodations had to be closed down until early May as well, typically when the season is over, and I’m heading home.
Long term, I fear people may not have the income they had to visit the area I guide or be timid to travel. I know being outdoors is one of, if not the safest place to be during all of this. I hope that travelers will still get on a plane to see that for themselves when the smoke clears.
Flylords: Are you still operating?
LPJ: Unfortunately, no. Washington was given a stay at home order by the Governor, which took effect on March 25th at midnight. On the 24th, I spent a few hours on the river to give myself some peace and then drove home to Seattle. I have been on Quarantine ever since.
Flylords: Why did WA close all recreation fishing? It seems a little harsh as no other states have done so yet?
LPJ: Washington shut down fishing to stop the spread of the virus. The reason why they singled fishing out as a cause of the spread of the virus is because of the pressure it would have on the small communities that are still open for fishing during this time of year. This problem wasn’t created yesterday, and fishing pressure funneled to small towns didn’t start with the spread of the virus. Decades of poorly managed fisheries in Washington led to this problem. The virus, alongside the closure to recreational fishing, is only now amplifying that problem and putting more eyes onto something that has been brewing for years.
We have a lot of advocates/groups trying to save our Steelhead, but not too long ago in 2016; it was still legal to kill a wild steelhead. It seems insane, but that is the truth, and to fix the problem we are in right now, we need Michael J. Fox, a Delorean, and a trip back to the eighties. I applaud all people in the fight for our fish; we need you desperately. Unfortunately, our state has made it a very tough battle for those on the front line of this issue years before COVID-19. We cannot recover what has been lost, but we can do a better job of making a new future.
Flylords: Do you think it is safe for recreational fishing right now?
LPJ: If you didn’t have to get gas: YES
If you didn’t have to visit a fly shop: YES
If you didn’t have to renew your license: YES
If you didn’t or wouldn’t pick up your buddy: YES
If you didn’t have to grab food at the small town store already low on stock for their community: YES
If you are not guiding, enticing people to travel from other places that could spread the virus farther: YES
If all of these real situations were not present, then, YES, I think it would be safe for recreational fishing right now.
Now the reality is, that won’t happen, and there is no way to 100% stop all of these activities that go along with fishing. With that being said, why single out us? That’s where I and a lot of other anglers got upset by forcing us to stop fishing but leaving all other sports and outdoor activities up for grabs because we need a license to fish. Fishing is one of the only outdoor activities that social distancing is perfect for, during these times. If our fisheries were appropriately managed in the past, anglers from all areas could visit their local river with minimal travel to enjoy a day on the water. Instead, they are left to crowd the few places that provide opportunities that most anglers live two-plus hours away from.
Flylords: What are you doing to pass the time?
LPJ: I am thinking about what is next while being prepared for what is going on now.
- Tying flies in preparation for summer steelhead and Chinook Season.
- Doing all the business tasks that are usually put on hold, with me being on the water every day from sunup to sundown in March and April.
- Understanding programs that may help small businesses like mine by helping to pay me and my contractors for trips canceled.
- Staying active on social media to give me and others something to look forward to when the dust settles.
- I am thinking about other income streams that will keep me on the water and my sport alive while the world is recovering from Corona.
- Organizing & editing photos and deleting duplicates.
Flylords: Any fly recipes or food recipes you want to share with us?
LPJ: Yes, my favorite pattern and signature fly is called the Night Crawler, featured on page 38 of the latest issue of the @steelheadersjournal. It shows all of the materials needed as well as step by step instructions on how to tie it. This pattern can be changed by mixing up some of the colors to give you more variety in your fly box for different times of the day or species.
Also, in the late fall of 2019, I wrote an article for the Fly Lords for a Dry Rub Salmon and Steelhead Recipe. Very easy recipe to make at home and also on the river.
Flylords: What are some ways customers can support you right now?
LPJ: Stay positive by looking forward to the future and plan a fishing trip for this summer, fall, or winter. If our schedules are full, we can continue to work through this, possibly recovering from any wages that have been lost.
Some will have to make the tough choice of shutting down if there is nothing in the future to keep them going. The outdoor activities we all love arent going anywhere, and the guides, fly shops, and brands need you to help us get through this, so we can still be there for you.
If you are a bead fisherman or are looking for a different way to make a shoulder for your steelhead and salmon intruders with also adding weight to your tube flies visit www.baitballz.com and purchase a package. They are a soft reusable bead that has many applications and are available in 9 colors. For traditional fly fisherman and Spey guys and gals it will speed up your fly tying process and give you a perfect dubbing ball that will not collapse when in the water.
Flylords: Any advice for other guides experiencing the same hardships?
LPJ: This may be your new beginning for something better, don’t think it’s over if there’s still water in the river!
- Learn something about helping your business that you never had time for before.
- Give yourself something to look forward to by reaching out to another guide you have always wanted to visit and trade trips
- If you can live without it or haven’t used it all year, sell it. Streamline your business and cut the fat
- Network, network, network! Brand, personality, or location you have always wanted to work with? Now is your time to plan your strategy to do what you have had little time to do. Yes, it may be harder to get there than before, but that time has passed, this is now. Dreams don’t manifest out of thin air, but opportunities to get there do. Don’t waste this time!
Flylords: Positives to come from this mess?
LPJ: Appreciation should be the number one thing on everyone’s mind. The world is seeing what we have taken for granted mean to us. Fresh air is going to smell better; a hug will have more meaning, beers with your crew at the local bar will feel like a family reunion, and a visit to your parents or grandparents we will never want to end.
Flylords: Anything else you want to add?
LPJ: Good things come from bad situations because of the pressure it puts on you to be better. Don’t let the pressure bust your pipe; let the pressure make a diamond!
Cheers to Fat Tire and New Belgium Brewing for making this series possible. Throughout the “Staying Afloat Series,” we will be sending beer to people who are really in need of a “pick me up”. If you have a good story for someone who deserves some beer shoot us an email firstname.lastname@example.org.