24 May Guide Profile: Lael Johnson
Lael and I met each other for the first time at the Dallas International Airport. Islander Reels, had invited us on a trip to Argentina, along with Vancouver Island based rod builder Andy Sneddon. Lael was posted up at the airport bar, he had just flown in from Seattle and I had arrived late from Vancouver.
From the moment I met Lael I knew I was gonna love this guy. Three weeks of trekking through Argentina, jumping buses and planes, fishing our way through the country, only compounded my appreciation for Lael. He encompasses all the attributes any outstanding fishing guide (an human) should have. He is a passionate and knowledgeable angler, he has more hustle than 99.9% of the people I’ve ever met and he’s just an all around fun ass dude to hang out with. It was like we’d been buddies for years. With times being tough over this COVID-19 deal, I’ve been catching up with Lael a bunch to bounce ideas off each other on how to weather the storm. Here’s how a guy from Topeka ended up being one of the most respected fishing guides in Washington state.
Our latest guide profile starts now…
HOW DOES A GUY FROM TOPEKA KANSAS BECOME A STEELHEAD GUIDE ON THE WEST COAST?
I had always wanted to be a person who fished for a living, I didn’t know what it would entail, but I wanted to do it. It’s kind of like when a kid wants to be a fireman without really knowing what to do to be one. When I moved to Seattle over 15 years ago for a surgical technologist job, I did not realize I would have a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream, but when it came, I jumped at it!
Growing up in the Eighties, there was a TV show called Marty Stouffer’s Wild America that I watched with my family. It showcased different animals, where they live, what they do, and in various locations around the United States, with some pretty solid narration. The episodes that I paid particular attention to were those featuring vast forests with flowing rivers, elk, bears, and fish. I had no exposure to what I was watching on this program but liked it so much that it became my idea of the “outdoors.”
This show is where my idea came from (mixed in with Bill Dance & Roland Martin Bass fishing shows) to become a guide. Bass were cool, but I wanted the forest, Steelhead & Salmon, if I was going to do it for real. Something I found out a couple of weeks ago while searching online is that my favorite episode was entirely dedicated to the Olympic National Park. A very surreal, “No Way!” type of moments, but I guess some things are meant to be!
ANYTHING YOU MISS ABOUT LIVING IN THE MIDWEST?
Most of my family still lives in Kansas, so not being around them as much to have a large family gathering is missed. Also, thunderstorms, when we get a big one in the Midwest, it just stops time. Power goes out; the air smells different, thunder cracks, and life slows down until it’s over. It doesn’t last that long most of the time, but it helps to have a built-in life timer telling you to take a break.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR OPERATION IN THE OP
In the past two years, I have developed a technique for Euro Nymphing to catch steelhead. Euro Nymphing has gained popularity, and angler requests for the technique led me to figure it out. Its performed out of a boat with typically a 7wt 10ft rod and a nymph or bead. No indicator is used, and one of the presentations needs to be heavier than the other, so it contacts the bottom at all times, which “checks depth. Your other offering is 18 to 24 inches above the heavier nymph/bead consistently in the strike zone. Because your fishing at river speed without the use of an indicator, the takes are vicious! It brings a bit of excitement to those who choose this option and is pretty fun to watch when a fish comes out of the water you would think impossible to catch one in.
The bead referred to earlier is a product I developed a couple of years ago, called Bait Ballz. It’s a soft reusable bead that sinks at the same rate as a natural Salmon or Steelhead egg. The added weight helps it stay in the strike zone, and with it being soft, fish hold onto it longer than hard beads. It was a key component to making the Euro Nymphing system I developed work.
YOU TAKE AMAZING PHOTOS. WHAT’S YOUR GO TO CAMERA GEAR?
I’m a Sony guy, and the bodies I use are the A7Rii and A7Riii. Exceptional cameras with a small size that travel well. I have three Sony lenses that help with different perspectives from landscapes, portraits, and closeups. The Olympic Peninsula creates endless photo ops, so it’s great to have good gear to showcase what I see.
AND WHAT MAKES A GOOD FISHING PHOTO?
That depends on what you are trying to showcase. What I try to highlight is three things: environment first, fish second, and angler last. I love taking pictures of fish, but I would take landscapes over all other styles if I had to choose. When I nail an excellent casting or grip and grin with a killer background, I’ve won in my mind.
HOTTEST GEAR FOR 2020. ANY NEW STUFF YOU’RE REALLY DIGGING?
Yeah, its a backpack and a box…lol…from Yeti. Simple stuff, but as you know, organization is everything in guiding. The Yeti Panga backpack lets me carry my camera gear anywhere without worry of it getting wet and makes rainforest life a lot easier. The Loadout GoBox is my boat tote to keep all my heads, flies, and tippet sealed up on dusty OP dirt roads. Not super sexy high tech gadgets, but I’m jacked about anything that makes my life in the outdoors easier.
CAN YOU GIVE US A RUNDOWN OF YOUR ULTIMATE OP SPEY SETUP?
For sure, down to the good stuff! First, it’s my Clear Islander 4.0 LX. Easily my favourite reel, and it’s stopped some OP fish that were headed back to the ocean after the grab. I paired it with a 13′ 6″ 8136-4 G-Loomis Asquith and a 630 grain Next Cast Winter Authority. It’s a setup that doesn’t fish very deep, so it’s not ideal for chinook, but chucks lasers to winter steelhead in ideal to low flows.
HOW ABOUT CONVENTIONAL GEAR, WHAT ARE YOU GENERALLY FISHING?
I use a 10′ 6″ G-Loomis IMX 1262-2S STFR spinning rod and a Shimano Stradic 3000 loaded with 40-pound braid for steelhead. It’s a lightweight set up with enough power to control large OP Steelhead and make it a fun fight until they hit the net. The length of the rod also makes it ideal for keeping your line off the water when float fishing.
THE BOAT WRAP IS SWEET, WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND IT?
The boat I’m pretty jacked about. The design came from what I see in the Olympic National Park and was put together by Don Melendez, a phenomenal graphic designer, and a good friend. It’s also great camo when floating near fish. If you look closely into the design, you can see some birds, elk, and a Sasquatch hidden in the background. The wrap turns heads driving to the river on the highway, and kids get a kick out of it too!
BEST MEMORIES OF OUR TRIP DOWN TO ARGENTINA?
The best fishing memory of our trip was an afternoon at Sea Bay. The trout bit everything we could throw at them with some pretty good wind to battle at the same time. Pablo, our cameraman, was in a great mood getting all the footage he wanted, and our Islanders got a solid workout.
The best non-fishing memory was seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier when we were in El Calafate. Being that close to something so immense was humbling, and we got some killer photos. The road trip with our buddy Carlos was a blast on the drive to the Glacier, and he was a super cool cat to hang with that we just met. He got us there in record time before it closed and drove like he was trying to outrun a tsunami!
DO YOU HAVE FUTURE PLANS TO GO BACK TO ARGENTINA OR ELSEWHERE?
Totally, the trip to Patagonia was epic, and the interest we have for the trip is great! I have a hosted trip back to Estancia Laguna Verde’s Jurassic Lake in October from October 17th – 24th, which is followed by a visit to the Golden Dorado River Cruiser as well. I’m teaming up with Chromer on the third trip to ELV in January from the 16th to 23rd.
The other trip I’m looking forward to is in Florida with Lion’s Tale Adventures for Tarpon and Redfish November 22nd – 27th. Guide Lionel James has got himself and guests into some big ones down there and has a solid operation consistently putting people on fish. The area around Destin, FL, where the trip takes place is beautiful and is close enough to sneak Louisana, so I might be able to visit New Orleans at that time.
WHAT ARE THE MAJOR HURDLES OP STEELHEAD AND SALMON ARE FACING?
The major hurdle I believe that the Olympic Penisula Steelhead and Salmon have is this, in my opinion. Those who are trying to save them are attempting to do it in different ways. I believe all have good intentions, but without everyone coming together to address one particular issue, no real decisions can be made.
As an analogy, I would use to explain it is like this. Who gets to cook their recipe if you have five cooks and only enough meat from one source? The meal could be great if all cooks could decide on what recipe to make and give input during the cooking process to make it better. But if everyone is trying to cook their recipe independently, no one gets to cook, and the meat spoils on the table.
AND WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT?
I surely do not have all the answers, but I do believe that we need to come together to agree on the system (recipe) we should use. Where should we direct resources, what rivers are at more risk, and how can the system be implemented? The issues affecting OP fish are apparent, but we need to take them on, one at a time, as a focus to make real change.
GIVE ME A FEW EXAMPLES OF THINGS THAT CLIENTS DO THAT DRIVE GUIDES CRAZY?
Most of the daily stuff that guides encounter is expected, so getting upset about it would be counterintuitive when helping people. It’s only one thing that gets under my skin, and its when a guest doesn’t believe in themselves to make their day on the water better. It bothers me because until my guest thinks its possible, I can’t help them, and that is why I started guiding. I rarely get someone like that on board, but it’s easily recognizable and can make for a challenging day. I’ve never had a person make it off the boat feeling that same way at the end of the day, and if extra innings are needed to get the job done, so be it!
COVID-19, WHAT’S IT DONE TO YOUR BUSINESS?
Oh boy, that’s a biggie. At first, Washington was closed to recreational fishing for a month. That upset many people, including me not being able to fish, especially when everyone else could. We are now allowed to recreational fish and guide in Washington again, which is great. The significant issue I think we have yet to find out is how travel will change? A lot of my guests come from other states and countries, and not exactly knowing how comfortable they feel to travel is a bit unsettling. Concerns have been raised for sure, but only time will tell to get an accurate assessment of the future.
WHAT SHOULD FOLKS WANTING TO COME FISH WITH YOU ON THE OP KNOW?
You’re coming to have a great time! A few days of fishing on the Olympic Peninsula is a World-Class experience and stays with you for a lifetime. After your flight into Seattle, you will be in the fishing area after a beautiful 2 1/2 hour drive. Most of it is on the famous Highway 101 through the National Forest. Depending on where you will stay, a drive by the ocean to see some iconic Pacific Northwest beaches may be part of your trip as well.
Rods and reels are provided for any technique, so you don’t have to travel with equipment if you’re not the person that has to fish with their own. Wader rental is available as well if you don’t want to pack your boots.
If you are coming in the Fall for some Chinook on the fly, pack your 9 or 10wt, you’ll need it. Large flies are great for glacial water, but bring some smaller stuff if conditions ask for it. Steelhead over 30 pounds that swim in the Olympic Peninsula Rivers. If you are lucky to tangle with one of the giants, you want to have the right gear to dance, so bring a stout 7 or an 8 or 9 wt. As far as flies go, bring a selection of midsized stuff along with some larger profiles. Our weather can change in a blink, and you’ll need to switch things up if the rain changes our plan.
WHAT ARE YOUR SOCIALS AND WHERE CAN PEOPLE FIND YOU?
About the Author
Yos Gladstone is the owner operator of Chromer Sport Fishing, a guiding company and booking agency based in British Columbia, Canada. A full-time salmon & steelhead guide, Yos spends 200+ days a year on the water fishing, guiding and hosting trips.