A swarm of fluttering caddis arose as I push aside a brushy tree limb and discover a long, slow, stretch of the San Juan River before me.
Over by the far bank, telltale rings appear on the surface of the calm water.
There were trout holding in a shallow riffle just a few feet upstream of the deep cover provided by an overhanging Russian olive tree.
I slip into the river in a crouch and slowly make my way out across the wide expanse of open water, laying out line in the air as I gauge the distance.
Tied to the end of my long leader is one of several size-16 elk-hair caddis flies that I had whipped up just that afternoon.
It was the first fly I ever learned to tie and back then, on long summer days, it was the only fly I ever fished.
It was easy to see, floated forever and did the job, time and time again. After all, it’s a bug found in damn near every western stream and a basic staple of most trout diets.
And when they hatch in huge numbers on rivers like the Arkansas in southern Colorado and the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, serious anglers drop everything and head for the river.
But the caddis hatch on the blue ribbon waters of the San Juan River is not what this river is usually renowned for, mostly because it occurs well downstream of the famous public water, where trophy class trout are routinely caught on miniscule, midges.
Soaring Eagle Lodge owner Larry Johnson, however, is out to change that reputation, especially among his clientele who have access to two miles of private water flowing past his riverfront lodge, a place where guests can literally cast out their front doors to rising fish.
And unlike the heavily fished public waters of the San Juan, down here, in the private waters surrounding Johnson’s lodge, one can find that ever elusive solitude that most anglers yearn for.
Here an angler can slip into the tail end of a deep run formed by the convergence of two back channels and cast under the shade of towering cottonwoods.
Downstream, an inviting stretch of water beckons where the side channel rejoins the main.
And further upstream, anglers will come across a deep, wide, pool at the tail of a long riffle where one might expect more trout to be hiding.
And they are, here in the “honey hole,” as it’s known to the Soaring Eagle Lodge’s guests.
But back at the far bank, I let my line fly and watch as it settles well above the feeding fish.
It slowly floats towards them as I mend the line, take up the slack and prepare for a strike.
A snout appears and engulfs the fly. Then the water churns as the trout thrashes about it, realizing it’s been hooked.
The rod leans heavily as I struggle to lead the fish out into the open water, away from her home and kin.
I quickly get the net under her and admire a stout, lengthy, brown trout, patiently waiting as I quickly slip the barbless hook and set her free.
I wait a moment, blowing on my fly, and then I go back for the others, sensing the rush that only dry fly fishing provides, that triumph of stealth, presentation and the right fly.
Later while supping on pork medallions, sweet potatoes and braised spinach in the lodge’s cozy dining hall, my guest, fellow journalist and avid fly fisherman, Thom Cole, and I talked enthusiastically about our day here in early June, 2010.
He too was impressed with the privacy, scenic diversity and quality of the fishing to be found on the lower river around the lodge. The excellent accommodations, well-stocked fly shop and superb dining simply made it all that much better.
It is without a doubt, though, that the enjoyable experience of staying at Soaring Eagle Lodge is heightened by the personal attention of its owner, Larry Johnson, and his infectious enthusiasm for fishing.
Sawing at the wheel of his aging Ford Bronco while bouncing down a dirt road, Johnson, 57, tells us more about himself as we take a tour of the lower river.
Born and raised in the rural farm country of New Jersey, Johnson got his start in the hospitality industry at an early age, reared in the family restaurant along the shores of Lake Lakawanna, a popular summer resort outside of New York City.
“I remember stacking bottles in the basement when I was five,” Johnson says. “It was a great place to grow up.”
It was your typical vacation community with a golf course nearby, numerous lakeshore homes and only 50 miles, but a world away, from the bustle of the big city.
Johnson’s father, whose name he carries, Lawrence Wilford Johnson, was an enterprising man who maintained the family’s 350-acre farm and the house built by his father, a Swedish immigrant.
Johnson’s grandfather, Victor, was a tool and die maker in New York City and father of seven kids when he fled to the countryside as an influenza epidemic swept through the city.
Johnson says his father was a custom home builder, just like his father before him, but also an entrepreneur.
At any given time, Johnson’s dad ran a family restaurant, tavern, golf course and built numerous gas stations throughout the area while also putting up summer homes on the lake.
His father’s very first real job though was as a mathematician working for IBM on the earliest of computers. The elder Johnson quit that position to join the Merchant Marine at the start of WW II and would later transfer to the Navy where he fought in the Pacific theatre.
“My dad was a savvy guy,” Johnson says with a wink. “A great businessman.”
Johnson is one of five kids. He has a twin sister named Teresa who everyone calls “Candy,” an older sister named Carol Ann, a younger brother named Paul and an older brother, Freddy, who was killed in Vietnam during that war.
“And I’ve also got something like 54 first cousins,” he says with a grin. “The holidays are just great.”
Johnson first learned to fly fish from a neighbor at Lake Lackawanna, a Catholic priest, who owned a nearby farm and installed fish habitat along the section of Lubber Creek that flowed through his property.
“He was the best, he married off everyone in our family, and we weren’t even Catholic,” Johnson says.
The priest, Father John Dericks, taught Johnson how to fish with with a bamboo cane rod and the large #10 spinner and May flies used back East.
Johnson would later go on to fish many of the regions’s better known rivers like the upper Delaware and the Beaverkill while also pulling many a fish from the depths of Lake Lackawanna as a youth.
The family farm was in Byram Township, located four or five miles from the lake and on the stream that fed it, Lubbers Run. Johnson attended the regional high school, Sparta High.
“I was too little for football but I went out for it and got my ass kicked, same thing with wrestling,” Johnson says of his high school days. “But I made it onto the varsity ski team and that was when the hormones kicked in.”
Girls had replaced fishing as Johnson’s primary form of entertainment and would continue to do so for years to come.
Johnson graduated high school in 1971 and enrolled at the Nichols College of Business in Dudley, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1975 with degrees in business administration and marketing.
Luckily for him the college went coed during his first year there, otherwise he thought he would have gone crazy.
“It was the kind of school where we actually had to wear a tie to class,” he says. “But at least we had eight, very ugly, but, very popular, girls there.”
After graduation he got a job working at a ski lodge in Vermont until his older sister’s husband, Tom Yerke, who had landed a job with Polaroid in California, could lure him out West.
Yerke asked Johnson to drive his wife and 10-year-old daughter out there.
Johnson jumped on the opportunity as did Johnson’s twin sister, Candy. And with three girls in tow Johnson climbed into Yerke’s brand new Buick La Sabre convertible and headed west.
The road trip turned into an epic two-month adventure with stops in Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, as well as the Dakotas, Mount Rushmore and the Rockies. Along the way they stopped for numerous family visits, which made for a memorable summer vacation.
And when they finally hit the beaches of California, Johnson realized there was no turning back.
“Beaches, blondes, bikinis,” Johnson says wistfully. “No humidity, no bugs, great weather. I rented an apartment with my sister and found a job.”
Johnson’s new gig was in sales for an oxygen equipment manufacturing company. He was their new western regional manager responsible for Hawaii, California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.
“I did a lot of traveling and flew into Albuquerque and rented a car on occasion,” he says. “I loved it here. There’s something about the sky, the wide open places, and the long, lonely roads.”
His brother-in-law told him he needed to have at least five years sales experience under his belt before he could think about getting him on board with him at Polaroid, a very successful instant camera company and inventor of polarized products.
“Those were the days of the corporate culture,” Johnson says of Polaroid. “Three-piece suits and solid ties, 46,000 employees worldwide and pensions. You went to a company like that and stayed till you either died or retired. I wanted in.”
Johnson finally applied and was hired by Polaroid for a sale position out in California where he would meet his first wife.
“Her boss was an aerial photographer, we sold him film and he invited me up to his fishing camp on the Owens River near Bishop. I hadn’t been fishing in years so I went and there she was,” Johnson said. “I thought she was his daughter, but she was so nice that I had to ask her out.”
The two would meet later for drinks at the Red Onion bar in Newport Beach and before long were married.
Johnson then transferred overseas where he would oversee the sales of Polaroid’s polarized products, things like anti-glare high-contrast computer screens, polarized sun visors for Ferrari sports cars and commercial aircraft and even polarized sunglass lenses for manufacturers such as Ray-Ban.
Johnson spent the next 15 years working in Europe, spending time in the Netherlands, Germany and then London.
Part of his job required courting clientele with dinner parties and other perks and it was then that Johnson renewed his love affair with fly fishing.
As part of Polaroid’s sales incentive programs for customers, the company rewarded top clients with outings to exclusive auto and horse racing events or tennis and golf tournaments.
Johnson added fly fishing trips to the program and ended up taking trips to exotic fishing locales like Iceland, Russia, Ireland, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
“Some of these trips I did on my own and on others with clients who knew I liked to fish and took me along,” Johnson said.
His most memorable trip was to Iceland where he fished for Atlantic salmon and caught a 41-inch long, 30-pound fish that awed him with an impressive display of leaping and tail walking that rivals anything he’s caught since.
But the party with Polaroid would soon be over, coming on the heels of Johnson’s own realization that the business was doomed by emerging digital technology.
Johnson was on a Tarpon fishing trip in the Florida Keys in 1991 where he met a young doctor and ended up having dinner with him and his family.
At some point the doctor pulled out a digital camera and his daughter began squealing with delight, “let me see, let me see.”
As the doctor began showing off his pictures on the camera’s LCD screen, Johnson realized with dread that Polaroid’s flagship product, the instant camera, was doomed. Within ten years the company was in bankruptcy.
But Johnson, having seen the writing on the wall took full advantage of a lucrative early retirement program offered by the company as it began to downsize. The proceeds of which someday would be used to help bankroll his eventual purchase of the Soaring Eagle Lodge.
Johnson ended up in New Mexico while tending to a family situation involving his mother-in-law who moved to Farmington in the late ‘80s to be near her son, Bill, an audiologist.
Johnson and his wife had been visiting her in New Mexico at least once a year since the mid-1980s and while he was there, Johnson always took off to fish the San Juan River and stay at Abe’s legendary motel and fly shop.
“It felt like my new home water,” he says.
Johnson was back in New Mexico again in 2000 after having left Polaroid and just ended a two-year stint with a venture capital company out of Reno, Nevada. He was moving his soon to be ex-wife into a house in Farmington when he decided to take some time off and just become another trout bum kicking around on the San Juan.
It wasn’t long though before Ray Johnston at Navajo Dam’s Float and Fish Fly Shop snatched him up and put him to work as a counter clerk. It was while Johnson was tending to Johnston’s business that the Soaring Eagle Lodge came on the market.
Johnson had been mulling over his next business move and was definitely interested so he put together some financing, made an offer and took over the operation on Sept. 11th, 2001, the day of the deadly attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
“My first day on the job and I had 30 cancellations and ten people stuck here,” Johnsons says. “They ended up staying an extra week. “
Johnson put his sales, marketing and publicity skills to work and has since turned the lodge into a fly-fishing destination resort, the kind of place for those seeking a complete vacation package.
And it has thrived in the last nine years under his and fiance, Lesley Jedrey’s, direction.
“It’s because we can take care of everything,” he says. “We provide clean, comfortable lodging, excellent food, great guides and a fabulous location.”
Many of Johnson’s clients are busy, out-of-state business men and women who want to make the most of their vacation time while pursuing their favorite sport on the legendary San Juan River.
“And they keep coming back year after year because the San Juan is such a productive fishery,” he says.
And when the summer begins to loom and first reports of caddis begin to trickle in, anglers would be well advised to inquire with Johnson about fishing the lower stretch of river that runs through his property.
For more info including rates, seasons and fishing reports, check out Johnson’s website at www.soaringeaglelodge.net , friend them on Facebook or give them a call at 1-800-866-2719.