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Utah’s most famous angler still catching lunkers after 60 years

Utah’s most famous angler still catching lunkers after 60 years

(Mark Christensen)


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FLAMING GORGE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA — Ray Johnson is Utah’s most famous angler. He’s been inducted into the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, holds multiple state and international angling records and has been featured in dozens of national publications. At times, he has also drawn less positive attention due to a complicated past that includes a prison sentence for going AWOL during the Vietnam War, as well as his involvement in a fatal boating accident in 1986.

Johnson is a storyteller who doesn’t filter his tales. Spend a day with him and you’ll learn all about his angling accomplishments. You may also get harrowing accounts from his time in prison or hear the sadness in his voice when he recalls the tragic moment that the boat he was fishing in with friends capsized in frigid water, resulting in two deaths. One thing is for sure: He’s lived an unusual life.

Born in Salt Lake City, Johnson was drawn to fishing as a child and invented a minnow-imitating lure at the age of 11. He’s spent the past five decades refining this original creation, which he calls the Real Minnow Lure. It comes in a handful of sizes and colors, and can be purchased at select stores and at legendlure.com.

Utah fishing records held by Ray Johnson:

  • Species: Yellow Perch (All tackle)
  • Year: 1984
  • Length: 15 1/8"
  • Weight: 2 lb. 11 oz.
  • Location: Yuba Reservoir
  • Species: White Sucker (All tackle)
  • Year: 1992
  • Length: 19 1/4"
  • Weight: 2 lb. 8 oz.
  • Location: Flaming Gorge Reservoir
  • Species: Tiger Muskellunge (Catch and release)
  • Year: 1998
  • Length: 53 1/4"
  • Location: Pineview Reservoir
  • Species: Kokanee Salmon (Catch and release)
  • Year: 2004
  • Length: 26 5/8"
  • Location: Flaming Gorge Reservoir
  • Species: Lake Trout (Catch and release)
  • Year: 1998
  • Length: 46 1/2"
  • Location: Flaming Gorge Reservoir
  • Species: White Sucker (Archery)
  • Year: 1992
  • Length: 18 1/2"
  • Weight: 2 lb. 7 oz.
  • Location: Flaming Gorge Reservoir

I’ve known about Johnson’s angling records for years, but met him for the first time when we fished together earlier this month. While Johnson has fished on lakes and rivers around the world, I visited him on his undisputed home court: Flaming Gorge.

Covering more than 40,000 acres, Flaming Gorge Reservoir holds trophy-sized lake trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, smallmouth bass and more. Its rugged terrain and hidden coves make it the perfect place for an enigmatic angler like Johnson to thrive. In fact, it was his exploits at the Gorge that helped him first break onto the national fishing scene. In 1981, People magazine did a feature on him. While it may seem odd to read about a fisherman in a celebrity gossip magazine, the editors at People couldn’t resist running a sensational story about the Utah hermit who lived in a cave.

Yes, you read that correctly. Johnson spent part of the ‘80s living alone in a cave on the shores of the Gorge. According to the article, this was his daily routine:

“Johnson awakes at 3 a.m., often to a 30-below nip in the air. He dons three pairs of socks, three pairs of pants, thermal underwear, three down snowmobile suits, two down jackets and an orange Dayglo cap emblazoned with his local nickname, "Flaming Gorge Hermit." Setting off across the open water in his 14-foot aluminum boat, he wears no gloves, so he can feel even the slightest tug on his plastic minnow lure. ... He's back at camp by dawn and sleeps by day — without a fire.”

People magazine went so far as to call Johnson the “world’s greatest brown trout angler,” claiming that he had caught more than 10,000 brown trouts in his lifetime. It’s no wonder that the unusual article created such a stir.

These days, Johnson has traded his cave for a house in the lakeside town of Manila, Utah, where he lives with his wife. Now in his mid-60s, he still goes out fishing before dawn, six days a week.

When my dad and I met up with him for our recent fishing trip, the three of us were the first anglers on the water. A chilling wind whipped through the boat as we made our way to one of his favorite bays. I kept my hands in my coat pockets and shivered uncontrollably. Johnson wore a bulky snowmobiling suit, but just as reported in the People article, he wore no gloves on his hands.

We’d only been fishing for a few minutes when the first lake trout struck. Johnson carefully netted it, removed the hook, then released it back in the water. His hands now dripping wet, he carried on, unfazed by the cold.

Over the next couple of hours, about 15 boats joined us in the bay. A few of the anglers shouted greetings to Johnson. I saw a total of four fish caught by the other fishermen all day, and none of those fish were larger than three pounds. It was clearly a slow day at the Gorge.

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But fishing with Johnson and his Real Minnow Lure, we caught more than a dozen. My biggest lake trout topped 10 pounds. A true perfectionist, Johnson was disappointed by our tally, saying it was the fewest he’d caught all week. He even referred to my 10-pounder as a “baby,” which I guess makes sense coming from a guy who has caught several lake trout over 50 pounds and had boated a 43-pounder only days earlier.

On our way back to the marina, I offered to help him load the boat onto the trailer. Johnson politely declined, saying that he’d done it by himself so many times that it’s easier for him to do it alone. For him, it seems that two people is often too many cooks in the kitchen.

Who was I to argue? Johnson has spent more time on the Gorge than anyone I know. He’s refined every element of his fishing and, more often than not, he’s done it alone. He may not live in a cave anymore, but Ray Johnson will always be Utah’s most enigmatic angler.

Fishing Flaming Gorge: If you want to take a shot at breaking some of Johnson’s fishing records at Flaming Gorge, now might be a good time. The lake-trout fishing is going fairly strong and other species are also being caught consistently.

There are a handful of lodging options in Manila, starting with the Brownings Flaming Gorge Motel and the Villa Inn, which both have rooms for less than $60 a night. For a bit more, you can get a cabin-style suite at R Hideout. We stayed there on our last trip to the Gorge, and our room had two flat-screen TVs and free WiFi. Better yet, it also had a fridge and microwave, and there were gas grills outside, so we could cook all our meals there.

To learn more about fishing the Gorge and exploring the surrounding area, visit flaminggorgecountry.com/fishing.

Grant Olsen joined the ksl.com team in 2012. He covers travel, outdoor adventures and other interesting things. Contact him at grant@thegatsbys.com.

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Grant Olsen

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