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T.F.M. Interviews Vic Johnson, Jr.

Posted on August 07 2010

It really is amazing the people that I have been able to connect with while writing this blog and more times than not ends up with enriching the content that I am able to offer.

Recently I was introduced to Victor R. Johnson, Jr., author of several books pertinent to the fiberglass angler.  He and his late father wrote what is considered to be nothing short of a tome on glass rods called Fiberglass Fly Rods: The Evolution of the Modern Fly Rod From Bamboo to Graphite.    Victor was gracious enough trade a few emails and complete an interview which I am excited to post on the blog this weekend.   

What is your fly fishing history and who were some of your mentors in the sport?

Fishing has always been part of my life. I grew up in the late 1940's and 1950's in Western Michigan. My Dad was a chemist and my Mother was a school teacher. They always felt “cooped up” working inside all day so virtually all of my family’s free time was involved in hunting, fishing and camping. Dad loved to fish, and my brother and I started going fishing with him from the time we were big enough to cast a rod. We fished for all types of fish-bluegills, bass, perch, pickerel, pike and trout. We even did ice fishing in the winter!

Michigan has a lot of lakes. As I got older, I could walk or ride my bike to a number of reasonably good fishing spots. Like other kids of this era, I primarily used spinning rods with worms, minnows and lures. My favorite lure was a small, red and white Daredevil which worked well on most species.

My family moved to northwest Arkansas in 1961 which has wonderful bass and trout fishing. The White River in Northern Arkansas is one of the best brown trout fisheries in the U.S and maybe the World. Starting in high school and through my college years at the University of Arkansas, I was able to fish the White River numerous times each year. I got married midway through college and my new wife, Sarah, also began to actively fish. For college students on a tight budget, fishing was a fun and inexpensive form of recreation.

In 1967, I graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering and came to the San Francisco Bay Area. My first job was as a Construction and Maintenance Engineer with Exxon. My territory was Northern California from Fresno to the Oregon border. While on the road, I would spend my evenings finding good fishing and camping spots. I would then take my wife and two young daughters to these spots on our vacations. Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite was one of our favorite spots to camp and fly fish. I gradually changed from primarily doing spin fishing to fly fishing during this time.

What is it about fiberglass fly rods that you enjoy so much?

There are a lot of things about fiberglass rods that I like. First of all, they are tough and can take a bump against a rock or a little bouncing around in the bottom of a boat. I like to fish in hard to get to places and my rods take a certain amount of "beating" as part of this process. I can not tell you how many expensive graphite rods I have seen break due to a minor bump into a rock, etc. Secondly, I like the fact that they are not overly expensive. Somehow the idea of having to spend $500 on a graphite rod does not make a lot of sense to me. I can not see where the extra value is between a quality fiberglass fly rod that costs maybe $100 and a $500 graphite rod. Finally, I like the somewhat slower action of glass rods in contrast to the very stiff graphite rods.

I will admit that casting a fiberglass fly rod is harder for new fishermen than graphite rods, but once you get your timing worked out, this really is not a problem.

What do you think about the resurgence of fiberglass fly rods over the past several years and in your opinion why do you think it is occurring?

I think a lot of new fishermen have "sticker shock" when the see the cost of getting into fly fishing today and simple economics argue for the less expensive fiberglass rods.  For a person on a tight budget, you can buy a used fiberglass fly rod made by Fenwick and other similar manufacturers and/or a new fiberglass rod for a fraction of what a new graphite rod costs. Once you add in the toughness advantage of fiberglass, the choice gets even clearer. People are rediscovering that you do not have to have $1000 or more in basic equipment to have a great time (and a successful time) fly fishing.

Looking back to when you and your father authored Fiberglass Fly Rods: The Evolution of the Modern Fly Rod From Bamboo to Graphite are there any rod makers or companies that you wish you would have included in that book or would include now if a second edition was printed?

It is surprising but I seldom get a question about a rod maker that we did not cover in the book. If a second edition is developed, I probably will include more information on foreign rod makers of fiberglass rods.

What do you think the advantages are of fiberglass as a material offers over graphite or even bamboo to those that build and fish these rods?

I have already discussed the toughness advantage of fiberglass, which I think is very important. I also have found that a person actually lands more big fish on fiberglass rods than on graphite rods. We have been fishing in Mexico for the last 10 years or so for large saltwater fish (sailfish, roosterfish, tuna, dorado, etc.). When these large fish get close to the boat, they normally make a powerful last run that puts enormous strain on a fly rod. Graphite rods are normally very stiff and often break right above the grip at this critical time. The softer action of fiberglass allows a cushioning effect in the same situation and the fish actually gets landed.

Note: again for the sake of completeness, I think a person actually hooks more big fish on graphite rods (due to their greater sensitivity), with the trade off being that graphite rod fishermen have a harder time actually landing big fish.

What are some of your favorite and most cherished fiberglass fly rods in your collection? Are there certain ones that seem to get fished more than others and where do you like to take them? 

My favorite fly rods are the Sila-Flex rods made pre-Browning, Fenwick rods, and Scott rods. I use Fenwick fiberglass fly rods for all my Mexico saltwater fishing. Scott and Sila-Flex generally did not make a lot of heavier fiberglass rods, but I am sure the ones they did make would work equally well. I like to use this antique tackle and also older reels (Pfluegar, Fin Nor, etc) as it reminds me of my youth and does just as good of a job as the newer equipment. The money I save by using older equipment, allows me to buy more older equipment (which if truth was known, I probably do not need). A person can not have too many fly rods!

My favorite river is the Trinity River in northern California. I especially like the stretch of the river at Lewiston, California. My wife, family, and friends have fished there countless times. As I said earlier, we also like salt water fly fishing at Punta Colorada in Mexico and go there once a least once a year.

Finally, any water that my two grandsons (ages 4 and 2) and I fish on is also great (they like to fish with worms, which is also fine).

For more information on Victor R. Johnson, Jr. and his books please have a look at his website, Engineering Pathways.

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