“Remembering an Early Conservationist, Author, and Friend of Anadromous Fish: Les Johnson (1933-2017)”
Written by Jack Berryman – Jack is a historian, author, and past president of the Wild Steelhead Coalition
Lester F. Johnson, Jr., 84, passed away on May 14, 2017. He grew up in Aberdeen, Washington and began fishing for salmon, steelhead, and cutthroat trout in the 1940’s with his grandfather. Les caught his first fish on a fly in 1946. He served with the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War and upon his return, earned a degree in arts and sciences from Grays Harbor College. For most of his professional career, Les worked as an artist and graphic arts director at Weyerhaeuser. Along with fly fishing in the 1960’s and 70’s, he spent time backpacking, distance running, and photographing nature.
Les began a long and stellar freelance writing career in the early 1960’s, publishing his first fishing article in Western Outdoors in 1962. Central in all of his writing from the beginning was the importance and need to protect our fisheries resources. It was during the late 1960’s that Les and his longtime friend Frank Amato began their respective careers devoted to fishing. Les became the Washington Field Editor for Frank’s new magazine, Salmon Trout Steelheader, and soon thereafter, the founding editor of Frank’s second new magazine, Western Fly Tying. In these roles, he joined other Amato authors like Bill McMillan, Bill Bakke, Trey Combs, and Steve Raymond, all on the forefront of wild steelhead advocacy.
One of Les’ s early articles was published in Field & Stream in November, 1970. Meant to be a wake-up call, “Are Washington’s Steelhead Facing Disaster?” alluded to “an awakening of people to environmental issues that are upon us” and warned that “if we blow our chances to save this great game fish at a time when it can indeed be saved, what excuse will we give to ourselves and future generations?” He published his first book, Fishing the Sea-Run Cutthroat in 1971 (Amato Publications), based largely upon his own notes and experiences. Two years later, Les began a lifelong crusade lobbying for the welfare and protection of coastal cutthroat trout. Amato published a new edition in 1979 simply titled Sea-Run. In my signed copy, Les wrote: “Release ‘em alive.” He continued publishing articles in a variety of magazines that included Saltwater Sportsman, Fly Rod & Reel, Fly Fisherman, Outdoor Life, and Fly Fishing in Salt Waters. Les, along with friends Bruce Ferguson and Pat Trotter, published Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon (Amato Publications) in 1985, a landmark in both fly fishing and saltwater angling literature. Because of his regional fly fishing expertise, the new Seattle resident and publisher of Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Pete Van Gytenbeek, chose Les to cohost in the early 1990’s, “Fly Fishing Northwest,” a very popular Fox Sports television show.
Les worked at several retail outlets including Shoff’s Fishing Tackle in Kent, the Swallows Nest in Seattle, Orvis in Bellevue, and Patrick’s Fly Shop in Seattle. The Washington Fly Fishing Club (WFFC) recognized his conservation work with their Tommy Brayshaw Award in 1999 and the following year, he moved briefly to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to edit a new online magazine and web site, Greatlodge.com. Upon his return to the Seattle area, Les was part of a small group of steelheaders to found the Wild Steelhead Coalition (WSC). In 2001, Les invited me to be one of the first trustees of the WSC and the following year, I became president. Les provided regular advice, participated in our summits, and contributed to the Adipose. At one meeting in my home, Les telephoned one of his fishing friends, Bob Young, and basically told him that he was the new WSC treasurer. When the WSC was successful in convincing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission to put a 2-year moratorium on killing wild steelhead in 2004, Les emailed me to say: “You guys did it! My hat is off to you.” And, in his customary combative way, he noted that those commissioners who voted against it, “just don’t seem to get it” and “certainly do not allow their decision making to get all hung up on facts.”
He published Fly-Fishing Coastal Cutthroat: Flies, Techniques, Conservation (Amato Publications) in 2004 and his inscription to me said: “To Jack – a good friend and great leader of WSC.” That same year, Les appeared on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s “Getaways” magazine standing waist-deep in Puget Sound casting a fly. He was the “cover boy” for “Saltwater Therapy: Beach Fishing Puget Sound Shorelines is a Prescription for Relaxation” by Greg Johnston. Les published Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon II (Amato Publications) with Bruce Ferguson and Pat Trotter in 2008 and his last book the next year with Mark Mandell was Tube Flies: A Tying, Fishing, and Historical Guide (Amato Publications.)
Les’ s extensive group of fly fishing friends paid big dividends in the fight to save wild steelhead. Van Gytenbeek was a key WDFW commissioner between 2000 and 2004 and a valued ally of the WSC, Bill Redman from the WFFC was also president of the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee, WFFC member and author Steve Raymond wrote passionately about wild steelhead, and Doug Schaad, the important WFFC conservation chair was an avid steelheader and supporter of the WSC. Les’ s ability to bring people together for a conservation “cause” did not go unnoticed. He was given the Dawn Holbrook Award by the Northwest Fly Anglers in 2002, the FFF’s Arnold Gingrich Literary Award in 2010, the WFFC’s Letcher Lambuth Award in 2015, and just before his death, he was inducted into the Washington Council of FFF’s Fly Tying Hall of Fame.
Writing this tribute to my friend Les Johnson recognizing his astonishing and dedicated career in literature, conservation, and fish protection, reminded me so much of the ancient Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Thank you Les!