Soaring Eagle Lodge marks 15th year at Quality Waters

James Fenton
The Daily Times

NAVAJO DAM — In the opening of the seminal 1976 novel "A River Runs Through It," Montana native Norman Maclean writes, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing," a sentiment that Larry Johnson regards as a kind of Zen gospel.

This month, Johnson, a fly fisherman on the San Juan River, is marking his 15th year owning and operating Soaring Eagle Lodge, the only stream-side fishing lodge and fly-fishing guide service in the Four Corners.

Johnson's favorite spot to fish and take groups on guide trips is Quality Waters, a four-mile stretch of the river just below Navajo Dam. The upper tailwater is a man-made fishery loaded with brown and rainbow trout that crowd the river for two main reasons — the water temperature stays an average of 45 degrees year-round, ideal for trout, and the fish can gorge themselves on the plentiful supply of bugs.

"The trout like the water to be ice-cold," Johnson said.

Quality Waters is a cultural and recreational treasure, Johnson said, and he hosts anglers, from novices to professionals, every month of the year. More than 60 percent of his clients are repeat customers, and they come from all over the world.

Raised in New Jersey on a 350-acre farm with two streams and a lake, Johnson, now 62, began fishing with his family at age 6.

The retired Polaroid executive traveled throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East for his job, but fishing was always a calling, one that led him to suit up in waterproof waders and neoprene boots, hand-tie flies and cast for fish on rivers around the country.

Nearly two decades ago, he bought five acres of Jacquez Ranch and two miles of private water access, nestled at a bucolic bend in the San Juan River six miles downstream from Navajo Dam. Running his own fly-fishing guide service and lodge seemed the best way to make his lifelong passion for angling a reality, he said.

"Where most lodges, you have to drive to get to a river, we're right on it," he said.

But his first go at the business wasn't as smooth as the glassy waters of the river he hoped to fish daily.

He opened his fishing lodge on Sept. 10, 2001, a day before terrorist attacks upended the country's business-as-usual way of life.

"Like that, I had 30 cancellations," Johnson said. "But I didn't crack in front of the troops. And now we're in our 15th year."

'You against the fish'

Like Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief, Johnson swears by a hierarchy of emotional reactions that accompany fly-fishing.

"The first is you want to catch a fish on a fly, then you want to catch a lot of fish on a fly, then they want to catch a big fish on a fly, and then they want to catch a lot of big fish. That's the fourth," Johnson said. "The fifth (stage) is the fish. That's kind of where I'm at. I pick my day, and then I'm out and I'm looking — what they call sight fishing — so whether he's under the water and I can see him or he's rising to the surface, that's the fish I'm after. Eight inches. I'll change 10 or 15 different flies. Once you get to that stage, it's just you against the fish. I'll sit and work that fish for two hours or more."

Johnson said there's no end to the draw the river has on anglers. He likens it to therapy, to a religion, to an addiction.

"The pinnacle is to catch them on the surface 'cause you actually see them eat the fly," he said. "That gives us fly fisherman the jazz."

Fishing year-round

At Johnson's fishing lodge, there's no off season.

"We always have fishable waters for our clients, no matter what the weather events are," Johnson said. "We're the anomaly. We're year-round. The river here is such an asset."

Johnson said the fishing is ideal between March and November, when the fish food — catis flies, black flies, ants and other insects that make up the main portion of the trouts' diet — is abundant.

With no competition for the food, the trout grow to above-average size, often 15 to 20 inches long, though some grow much larger.

Johnson has fly-fished in other celebrated fishing streams around the country — the Salmon River in Idaho, the Madison River in Montana, the Green River in Utah, the Snake River in Wyoming, to name a few — but he considers the San Juan River at Quality Waters to be the jewel of them all.

Navajo Dam, which was completed in 1962, keeps the water temperature regulated, Johnson said. Quality Waters allows only catch-and-release, but five miles south of the Dam, anglers can catch and keep up to five fish.

And there's plenty of fish to catch.

Brown and rainbow trout and other fish number from 9,000 to 12,000 per linear mile below Navajo Dam, Johnson said.

Johnson said other assets to Quality Waters include the slow-moving current, the comfortable climate of Northwest New Mexico and the lack of biting insects, which can be the bane of anglers in other fishing holes around the world.

And unlike other fishing spots that have runs of fish only during certain months of the year, the fish are always biting at Quality Waters.

"The San Juan River has one of the highest fish populations anywhere, and they are there year-round," Johnson said. "Our fishing is almost epic all of the time."

Angling in New Mexico

Johnson said the state's liquor laws make serving alcohol at his lodge a non-starter. With an average price of $250,000 for a license, he has instead made offering upscale food a priority.

At Soaring Eagle Lodge, 11 cabins each hold up to three people, keeping Johnson and his regular stable of guides busy.

The lodge now has Jake's Place, an on-site eatery that offers regional and American fare. Named after Johnson's black Labrador who died last year, the restaurant is staffed by two chefs.

"I don't want to run a bar," Johnson said. "I want to generate tax and revenue for the state of New Mexico."

While leading a tour, Johnson stops for lunch at one of four picnic tables along the river at Quality Waters, laying down a fresh tablecloth with a gourmet spread of artisan bread, cheeses, sliced meat and other snacks.

The goal is to ensure a satisfying and memorable experience that brings back clients year after year.

Protecting the water

During severe downpours in past years, Rex Smith Wash, which empties into the upper San Juan River, has blanketed the stream bottom with sand and silt.

The massive amount of silt dumped into the river wiped out mass nurseries of black flies that the fish feed on. A few years ago, after years of lobbying by the fishing community, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish built a three-acre holding pond that diverted the storm water through willows on the north rim of the wash and restored clarity in the water.

Last year, storm runoff rushed down from Simon Canyon into "The Chute," a stretch in the Quality Waters.

The deluge of trees, rocks and debris still lingers in the water and along the banks, hurting the fishery and weakening the river's reputation, Johnson said.

"It was like a tsunami hit. We went from around 650 (cubic feet per second) to over 3,000, and it left a silt bed all along the bottom of the river," he said. "It doesn't kill the fish, but it kills their food."

Since the runoff, "The Chute" and "Durangler's Corner" — two prized sections of Quality Waters — have been largely devoid of trout, Johnson said.

Mitigating the potential for more silt damage to the river is an ongoing effort, but, Johnson said, leadership from state lawmakers may lead to a solution in the coming years.

Marketing Quality Waters

Johnson said he wants the state and the Bureau of Reclamation to work together more closely to enhance the river and attract more anglers, particularly women. More and more, women are turning up in greater numbers at Quality Waters, though men still make up the majority of the fishers, he said.

"We get the most amount of ladies, because we are getting the most amount of fair weather," Johnson said. "Any other major fishery would have nice compost toilets and shade areas along the river and more put-ins — real amenities that would make this place even exceed its reputation. This is probably one of the biggest cash cows for the state."

Johnson said the fishing industry generates about $40 million in revenue in the state each year.

"But right now, we have a world-class destination with no-class facilities," he said.

He grumbles at abandoned and dilapidated state Game and Fish housing along the road he takes with clients to Quality Waters, irked at the eyesore and frustrated more isn't done to clean it up.

Game and Fish spokesman Karl Moffatt said he was unable to supply a response from department officials before press time. A draft of the department's 2015 Statewide Fisheries Management Plan was released earlier this month.

Johnson also lamented that fly-fishing isn't better represented in the city of Farmington's recent "Jolt Your Journey" tourism campaign. He said it touts rafting and area state parks and hiking before fly-fishing.

Tonya Stinson, executive director of the Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, said fishing is equally represented among activities like hiking, biking and golf on the bureau's website. She added that the Farmington Branding Alliance Action Team holds meetings at the bureau each month and welcomes outdoors groups or individuals who seek support or want to raise concerns.

Ray Hagerman, Four Corners Economic Development CEO, met Johnson last year and has fly-fishing at Quality Waters high up on his bucket list.

"It's a pretty significant piece of the tourism component here," Hagerman said. "Quality Waters, all the fishing in San Juan County, is a significant contributor to the local and state economy."

Hagerman said he would push for a greater investment in the area's fishing industry, but slumping oil prices have affected the local economy, meaning fishing has gotten short shrift.

"Tourism is one of the focus areas we work on all the time, but we've been doing a lot of triage lately," Hagerman said. "Definitely, we have not given it enough credit in terms of attention and effort."

San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said he's an angler and has fly-fished many times on the San Juan River. He said guides like Johnson bring an international spotlight to the area, which spells significant revenue for the county and state.

"(Johnson's) always been a real staple with regard to the San Juan (River) and the activities that they have out there," Carpenter said. "Fly-fishing, we're talking tens of million of dollars, both direct and indirect, each year from fishing activity at Quality Waters, there's no question."

Carpenter also said Quality Waters is an "international sensation," drawing anglers from all over the world.

"The last time I was on the water, I met a man from Germany and met a family from China," Carpenter said. "You're talking about a river that it's not uncommon to have a 26-inch trout bump you in the leg while you're standing there."

'This is my home'

On an overcast Friday morning in September, Johnson rowed the entire stretch of Quality Waters, calling out to other guides who had clients in boats or were standing in waders in pools teeming with trout.

He called to them by name, asking, "Any joy yet?"

Of the 20 or so anglers in the river that morning, most called back, "Hey, Larry," or waved with a smile.

Back at Soaring Eagle, Johnson pointed out a 10-foot wooden sculpture that sits along the river, facing the cabins on his property. Created by a friend, the sculpture bears a human body, a deer head, bear legs and an alligator tail. It's a representation of Loki, the Norse god of nature and mischief, plus a nod to Johnson's Swedish roots.

The sculpture also stands as a symbol of the magical lure of the river Johnson wades into every day — either alone or as a guide — to share his love of the sport with first-timers or "fish bums" like himself.

"It's never a bad day," he said, beaming. "And this is my home."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.