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Tim Johnson


The most rewarding part of opening AZ Fly Shop has been the gift of meeting all the amazing members of the fly fishing community. I have admired the artwork of Tim Johnson for many years. He has an amazing gift to create art. I love having Tim Johnson around the shop, he brings a joyful spirit, great conversation, and a wealth of fly fishing knowledge. He has an amazing family and is truly an amazing human being. Tim Johnson Is a gift to the world, and I am truly blessed to have crossed paths with him.

– Chris Rich, AZ Fly Shop Owner

What does fly fishing mean to you? What about fly fishing offers you most satisfaction?

Years ago Phil Monahan of Orvis asked me some questions for an article in which I was called the “Orvis Trout Bum of of the Week”. One of them was what it means to me to be a “Trout Bum”.  I think my answer to that question explains a lot of what fly fishing means to me personally.

If Phil was right to call me a “trout bum”, it’s not because I spend all of my time on the river like some of my friends do. In fact, it’s been over a decade since I really supported my family as a guide (Being a father of four didn’t prove conducive to sleeping at the lodge for days at a time). Nevertheless, fly fishing has become perhaps even more pervasive in my life. In fact, just about everything I do either grows out of fly fishing or is fundamentally changed by it.

Some of those facets are more obvious, like my continued intermittent work as a part-time guide, or the contract fly design I do with Orvis and Fulling Mill. Other roles might not seem as obviously connected, but beneath the surface almost all of them are:

I worked for years as a Recreation therapist, but I found the profession by volunteering to help disabled veterans learn to tie and fish, and then spent a decade in work and research into using fly fishing and other modalities to help them and kids on the Autism Spectrum.

I spent a few years as an adjunct professor at BYU, but even this was to teach the same use of recreation (including fly fishing) as a therapeutic modality. I even helped teach the university’s fly-fishing course.

And now that I’ve finally evolved into the world of full-time professional art, fly fishing is, of course, the theme of each and every piece.

It’s safe to assume that if I wrote music, it would be fishy. If I ever wrote a book, it would be about fishing. So when I step back and take a wide view, fly fishing seems to drive essentially everything I do. It has become ubiquitous in my life. It’s been that way since “fly fisherman” became one of my primary self-identifiers as a 12 year-old, and almost 30 years later, there’s no reason to believe that it won’t just get worse.

So when I ask myself what “fly fishing” means to me, I think that it defines who I am and who I have been as well or better than just about anything else.  I’ve changed from child to young adult and middle age. I’ve identified at different times as a student, a football player, a therapist, a professor, and an artist. I was a son, a friend, a husband and now a father. But through all that change, through each evolution, one thing that has always been a central part of who I am is “a fly fisherman”.

What does having AZ Fly Shop in the community mean to you? What do you like about AZ Fly Shop?

It seems to me that the only real difference between passion and fanaticism/monomania may be whether and how it is shared with others.  Community.

As a little kid, addicted as I was to fly fishing, my thoughts were inward thoughts, my passion wasn’t shared. With no one around who fly fished, I was mostly left to figure all of this out on my own while friends wondered why I was so obsessed with this weird kind of fishing. For a preteen in Mesa, that meant nearly the entirety of my fly-fishing experience was riding my bicycle to look for bass and carp on canals or to ninja fish golf course ponds alone after sunset. It meant saving lawnmowing money for subscriptions to Fly Fisherman and American Angler, and calling companies to ask them to send me free catalogs; I was always in search of information and indirect mentorship.

Things have changed rapidly since then. The internet created a resource of websites, then message boards, and more recently social-media communities where people can share their interests and available information is nearly unlimited. Even so, humans weren’t made to connect and commune through screens alone. There is no substitute to looking another angler in the eyes, shaking a real hand, communicating verbally and nonverbally in person and in real time.

This is what the local fly shop is and (if we’re wise) always will be. The inimitable hub of real community, where individual fanaticisms flow together into a confluence of shared passion. This is where we tell our stories and hear real laughter in return. Where we jiggle rods, and nod, and pretend we know how they’ll cast on the water. Where new and old ideas are shared without the snark and flex of an anonymous keyboard warrior.

In a time when so much of our interaction is virtual, the local fly shop represents the place we can meet in reality. It’s the hub of our actual community, from where we can venture out onto the waters together.

In some ways, the fly shop isn’t just in the community. It is the community.

Tell us your most memorable fly fishing story

I’ve been asked this many times and I think I choose a different story each time. But here’s an early one:

I was probably about 14, and still not a very good fly fisherman by any measure. I’d been taught the fundamentals of fly fishing and fly tying by a high-school-aged neighbor, Eric, but had only fished on rivers a handful of times when Eric took me on a two-day trip to the San Juan River.
After the first cold day spent breaking through ice on the bank to fish the “Quality Waters,” and an evening of experimental fly tying that yielded some promising-looking midges, Eric woke up the next morning with a nasty throat infection. We went to an urgent care and then he decided to spend the day healing up at Abe’s while I fished the river alone. So Eric dropped me off at the Texas Hole parking lot with a small box of smaller flies and even let me borrow his brand new Simms fleece fingerless gloves to stay warm. I promised to meet him back at the parking lot at our predetermined time and then set out to find some rainbows.
Most of that day was pretty frustrating. I knew there were big fish all around, but I couldn’t seem to get them to eat. It got to the point that near the end of the day I could even hear a couple fisherman across Texas Hole making fun of the little kid struggling to fish on his own. I’m sure their voices carried further across the flat water than they thought, but I could hear the comments and if I’m honest, it made me feel pretty out of my depth.
It was time to meet Eric at the parking lot, but I decided that before I gave up I wanted to at least try out a new fly I had designed the night before. It was part disco midge, part annelid, with a little peacock for good measure and red glass bead as the cherry on top. Exactly what a 14 year old would concoct as his first original fly, a little bit of every midge that had worked the day before. My favorite part might have been the name I gave it: Timmy’s “Disco Inferno”.

So I tied on a Disco Inferno without much expectation… and it worked! In fact, it slayed! I don’t know if I can give the Inferno all the credit; it’s just as likely that I finally set the right depth on my indicator and got my mend right, but regardless of what the secret combination truly was, I became the King of Texas Hole for the next half hour.
After landing and releasing several fish from 17 to 19 inches, I knew the guys who had caught nothing since they finished teasing the little ginger kid were having a different conversation. I also knew I was very late to get back to the parking lot, and vacillated in turns between feeling bad for making Eric wait there with his throat infection, and being certain he’d want me to catch these big rainbows while the fishing was hot. After a few “last casts” I set into a fish that almost immediately ripped me into my backing as he made his way across the hole. I suspected (correctly) that this was going to be the biggest trout of my life to that point if I could land it, but that excitement was tempered by a desperate desire to look cool and calm in front of the two punks across the way. As the battle continued the two somewhat-humbled anglers made their way over to me and arrived just in time to see me slide the barbless hook out of the jaw of a dark-red 23″ buck as it rested in the net. The biggest trout of my young life.

One of the pair offered to take a photo of me with it for me, but I wanted nothing more than to make these guys feel stupid for having teased me:

“Wow, nice fish! Want me to get a picture of that for you?” he asked, motioning to the one-time-use camera I had.

“Nah, that’s ok. I mean, if it was a big one maybe, but this guy’s probably not worth it,” I lied with all the nonchalance I could muster.

Their eyebrows raised somewhat as they watched me release him without a photo or further comment back into the green depths of Texas Hole. Then they stood somewhat awkwardly in front of a tiny little kid for a moment as each seemed to want to wait for the other to ask the question they both wanted the answer to. I knew what they wanted to know, but I wanted to hear one of them say it:

“Sooo… uh… what’d he eat?”

“Oh just something I threw together last night.” I said with a blasé toss of the hand. Then going into my little fly box and extracting a couple, “I call it the Disco Inferno, it’s been pretty good for me today. Here, give it a try.”

I handed one to each and they returned sincere thanks. Then knowing well that I was now super-late to meet my ailing friend, I decided to twist the knife just a little bit further. “Hey, you know what? I’ve caught a lot of fish here, guys. This is a good spot. Why don’t try that fly right here. I’ll head out.”

Having made quite a few perfunctory refusals, these seasoned, self-assured anglers finally accepted the invitation of this maybe-5-foot-tall kid to fish his fly, in his spot as he walked away immediately after he dispassionately released what they didn’t know was the biggest fish of his life.

I didn’t look back to check (because, you know, coolness) but I like to think they had to shake their heads in bewilderment and watch as the little kid waddled up the bank in oversize waders toward the parking lot.

That was the first time I ever caught a fish on a fly I’d tied, let alone a fly I came up with myself.  But those milestones were nothing compared to it being the first time I’d fished well-enough to put a couple pompous elitists in their place.

Is there any advice or quotes that you feel everyone should hear?

In the eternal words of Bill and Ted, “Be excellent to each other.”

In my opinion, there’s enough room for everyone in fly fishing, but maybe not for everyone’s ego.

I’ve met a lot of people in fly fishing and I’ve liked almost all of them. I love beginners and experts alike, those willing to learn and those willing to teach. Some of my favorite people are the ones who have spent their lives dedicated to fly fishing, have amassed a lifetime of knowledge and expertise, and are happy to pass it along to anyone without any pretense or ego. As happy to listen to a novice as they are to instruct a masterclass. People like Dave Whitlock and Tom Rosenbauer. Universally known and respected, but able to make anyone feel comfortable and welcome.
Tom, for example, has studied everything from entomology to the physics of fluid dynamics in streams, and has literally written the book on most of it (one book or another, anyway), but he will be the first guy to hear a suggestion, reinforce a line of curiosity, or if I’m just overthinking things, remind me that, “It’s just fishing, Tim.”

On the other hand, I’ve run into people who seem to see fly fishing as an easy means of practicing elitism. Who want to prove their superiority by at best ignoring and at worst diminishing others. They get a little bit of expertise (or in some sad cases, a lot) and immediately try to use it as a way to big-time someone else. This is only more tragic when that person is genuinely expert, as the net loss to the community is greater.

So if you’re a beginner, don’t be shy in asking for help. If you’re avid, connect with the awesome people around you. And if you’re an expert, be constantly willing to share it with anyone you can help.

Fly fishing is for everyone. You’re not too big or too little for anyone else. If you think you are, get over yourself.

It’s just fishing.

Is there anything else you would like to add or share with the community?

Buy my art! My kids gotta eat! 😉

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