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Western Thinking

An interview with Terry Johnson

and review of the new TL Johnson fiberglass fly rod

By Joe Cornwall

 

Click Above For The Fly Fish Ohio Rating System

 

 

On the final day of the 2006 Fly Fishing Retailer trade show in Denver I was strolling along for the first time without an agenda.  My wife had just about had her fill of all things fly fishing and was looking for a comfortable seat where she could catch up on developments in her world via her Blackberry.  The nearby TL Johnson booth had a table and a couple of unoccupied chairs, so Dee decided to move in.  Terry extended his welcome and, as my wife worked, we talked.  I have no recollection of how the conversation turned to glass rods.  One minute I'm looking at these beautiful graphite sticks and the next minute Terry and I are talking in hushed tones.  "This is the first one I've made" he said as he handed me a breathtaking golden olive eight-foot five-weigh two-piece glass rod. "Want to cast it?"

 

If you've ever watched children on Halloween then you pretty much know what my reaction was.  I grabbed greedily for the the rod and hastened to the indoor casting pool.  I remember tossing a mumbled "thank you" over my shoulder, but my lack of manners was not indefensible.  I'd gone into the same world of self-indulgence as those trick-or-treating kids!  New 2006 glass, serial number 1 - and it was in my hands!  What would you do?

 

 

On my return to Cincinnati I began to report on the things I'd seen at the show.  I had about 100lbs of literature, dozens of pictures, and more story ideas than I could follow-up on in two lifetimes.  I made the following post on the Fiberglass Flyrodders forum board: "I visited the T L Johnson Rod Company booth at the Denver Fly Fishing Retailer Show. They make some amazing carbon rods with a fit and finish beyond reproach. I was bowled away by a rod that was slipped into my hands at the end of the presentation, though. An 8 foot 5-weight glass rod. beautifully finished and ready to fish. Made from S-Glass over a carbon fiber scrim, the rod was very light in the hand and very delicate to cast. I took it to the casting pond and found it could lay a fly on the water at 20' with all the delicacy of an errant feather floating from the sky. Then, with a single back cast and a haul, this same rod could shoot that 20' line to a 60' target without complaint and without loss of feel. Amazing."  

 

It's pretty obvious the rod left a strong impression on me.  Fast forward two months.  There had been a flurry of emails between Terry Johnson and I regarding his new glass stick.  An offer was extended to test-fish the rod and I jumped on the offer like a hungry bird on a fat bug.  Weeks later I came home from my "day job" to find a package on my doorstep.  It was the very same serial number1 rod that I'd cast in Denver.  In the natural light of the setting sun the rod absolutely glowed.  The florescent lights of the Denver Convention Center hadn't really prepared me for the rich color and spotless attention to detail lavished on this rod.  I've neither fished nor handled Russ Peak, Claudio or other rods of the Rolls Royce class.  In my gut I felt like this was my first exposure to a world I didn't know existed and couldn't afford anyway.  The interesting thing is that I knew the retail price of the rod was set to be $395 and that was definitely in the attainable category for me!

 

I've since fished the rod on the wide open spaces of the Ohio River, in the intimate confines of Ohio's only spring creek - the Mad River, over the rocky ledge pools of the Stillwater River and along the rip-rapped face of Harsha Lake.  Nothing I've experienced with this rod in hand has dulled my initial enthusiasm.  If anything I've become a bigger fan of both the TL Johnson glass rod and of western rod actions in general.  That last statement is loaded, so before I go on about the rod perhaps an interview will Mr. Johnson will help set a table of context.  It certainly did for me!

 

[Editor's Note: You can read a review of the newly released 7-foot 4-weight TL Johnson rod here.]

 

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Terry, thanks for taking a bit of time to talk with me today. How's life in Colorado?

 

Well, weíre in the middle of moving to Wyoming.  Weíre expanding.  Weíre expanding our blank operations.  A lot of things are happening. Weíre moving for the better.

 

When you say your expanding your blank operations, what do you mean? Mark Steffen rolls blanks and Iím not sure of who else does so.  What's your source? Do you roll your own blanks?

 

ďSure we do.  We roll everything in-house.

 

I know Steffen rolls blanks, but I didnít know you did too.Ē

 

Yah, he does.  I know Mark.  When I started in the business, back when I had Fish Creek years ago, when I left G-USA, I went to Mark and he was going to have him build graphite blanks for me temporarily.  We gave him the designs and he was going to do the work for us. That was clear back in í93.  But Mark was small, even at that time he had his brother with him and he had a couple guys working with him.  But that kind of fell by the wayside and I ended up going back with Dick Kantner.  But that's history and Iíve moved on since.  Weíre partners in Graphite USA.

 

Right after the Fly Fishing Retailer show you sent me a sample of your new glass.  Straight up,  love your rod.  The workmanship is excellent, just everything about it...

 

One of the things Iíll tell you.. Tom (Morgan of The Winston Rod Company - ed.) when he ran Winston, that's when they had the best quality they ever had.  He and Glenn were guys that really put quality into their rods, and thatís how we do our workmanship. Weíre like Winston in the old days.  We take a lot of pride in quality.

 

So how did you get your start?

 

I started with Teton, wrapping rods.

 

When was this?

 

Mid to late 80s after I got out of the military.  Joe (Fisher - ed.) offered me a job with them, they were rolling the blanks for Teton.  I started rolling blanks for them - for J Kennedy Fisher. Iíve been in the business for a little over 20 years now. I worked for them till 92 or 93.  About four or five years 

 

From Fisher you went to Graphite USA.  What did you do with them?

 

Same thing. Then I started my own company in the mean time.  It was going to be Fish Creek by Graphite USA, but that kind of fell through.

 

So when did you start the TL Johnson Rod Company?

 

I started that in 2002. 

 

And you roll your own blanks now?

 

Graphite and fiberglass.  I donít know if you know this, but we also have hired Chris Bogart of Shenandoah rods and heís building our bamboo.  We have our own tapers.  They originated off of the EC Powell tapers.  We modified them.  We semi-hollowed them from the butt to the tip.  We took one taper and modified it.  We swelled the butt section.  That was something EC Powell never did.  That gives it a unique look and a unique sense of power.  We wanted a very crisp rod.  These tapers are unique to TL Johnson.

 

So your glass rod uses a graphite helix.  How does that work, where did that come from?

 

Stephen Pratt, now out of New Zealand Ė was with Graphite USA and Composite Developments of California.  Marty Johansen took Composite Developments and where that came from was he and I bouncing ideas off each other.  And Dick Kantner who was one of the pioneers doing boron rods back in 80 or 81 Ė because the materials and resins had changed to where theyíre lighter Ė things today need to be super light. So thatís where it all started.

 

Why fiberglass, why now?           

 

I think thereís a resurgence of classic actions.  Iím not talking just about glass, Joe.  Iím talking bamboo, you know.  And IM6 with the traditional actions that Winston had, and even Scott had with the old original G series.  That slower, I guess you can call it a presentation dry fly action rod.  Thereís a ton of ultra-fast action rods. We make them because we have a clientele that want that ultra fast rod.  But for every one weíre all of a sudden seeing a resurgence of people going back to the old school stuff.  Its kind of came full circle now.  Youíre seeing people who wonít want glass, they might want a graphite rod.  But they want the feel of glass.  Or they want the feel of bamboo.  Or of old traditional graphite.  I knew that I needed something to set us apart, but I knew that those customers werenít going to buy a $600 glass rod.  Itís not going to fly.

 

I personally think, and you may disagree with me, but when you start adding sections you change the actions. You add weight.  Iíve cast the Diamondglass and some others.  It (multi-section rods) just didnít give me the feel I was looking for.

 

So, youíve  got one glass rod in the line-up. Thatís the one Iíve got now.  Are you introducing more models in glass?

 

Weíre going to do a seven, seven-and-a-half and an eight foot.  Weíre going to do a four, five and Iím looking at probably a six weight.  These will be kind of stock rods, but a customer can call and get a lot of things about the rods customized.  Starting retail is $395 regardless of the length. 

 

The rod Iíve using now, Iíd call that a six.

 

Because of that graphite in there, the graphite helix, that rod has a lot of power.  It has a lot of strength and can do what you ask it to do. Are you using a double taper?

 

Iíve cast it with a 5 and a 6.  Iíve used double tapers, weight forward and even bass bug lines.  Itís a freakiní cannon! Hereís what Iíve found.  If I was using this as a five weight in a Western river and I was casting stoneflies, big dry flies fifty or sixty feet Ė that rod is absolutely all over that.  But where I fish, you know a fifty foot cast on a smallmouth streamÖ well youíd be insane to do that all the time.  Why wouldnít you just move closer, get a better lie and angle, you knowÖ

 

Of course.  Youíd be passing over fish otherwise.  Itís different.  Itís different fishing in the East and in the West.  One of the things we could do is double designating the rod, leave the final choice up to the user.  A lot of us put the length and weight, but what if I want to use a silk line, you know?  Itís variable, of course.  And I want to mention this because itís important.  We want to do these glass rods as custom.  If someone wants agate guides, we can do that.  If someone wants the rod to say 6wt, then we let them decide.  Itís a production rod, but then itís more than that.  This is something more custom.  What it says on the rod should be driven by what the customer wants in the rod and what they want it to do.

 

The rod you sent me, Iíd call that a smallmouth bass rod. Iíd put that out there as a six weight and you might have the perfect Midwestern smallmouth bass rod.  Call it a ďmodel rodĒ and let the customer decide on the options.  But the TL Johnson still, it has what I describe as a western action. Your rod couldnít be more different than, say, a Lamiglass or a Diamondglass.  Your rods have a different feel.

 

I imagine those rods feel a bit softer. You hit the nail on the head, Joe. Thatís an eastern action. Weíre a western action. A lot of guys that are using glass or softer action graphite or bamboo are not out there to catch twenty-inch fish all the time. Theyíre out there to have a good time with a thirteen or fourteen-inch fish. You donít need to be there with this real super powerhouse rod. Theyíre out to feel the fish. Theyíre not going to yank its lips off. Size of fish isnít in the equation. Itís going out and just enjoying yourself. And thatís why I think thereís been such a resurgence of the softer action rods and glass is because, you know, a lot of guys.. well, itís like you just said. When it comes to fast action, we do it, Sage does it, Winston does it, Loomis does it, Scott does itÖ everybody makes a heavy-duty, super-fast graphite rod and you can get lost in that equation.

People using bamboo and glass are a different groups of guys. Theyíre looking forÖ just to go out and fish the remote streams. How many fast action rods, how many nine footers, are you going to use out there? A softer action glass or bamboo is perfect. You can really feel the fish on there.

Out here, above ten thousand feet you can get into a lot of fish. Youíve also got tough conditions so you need to feel the rod load, but you need power, too. Now if you take one of my high-end fast action graphite rods, or a Winston B2X or a Sage TCR or XP and you wonít feel as much of that fish on there. And with shorter casts you wonít feel the rod load. Unless youíre looking at the rod, you wonít feel it load I wanted to build a rod that has a lot of power, but I want you to be able to feel that rod load. Thatís the western action, power and feel combined. You canít just put a blank together thatís super stiff, but it doesnít have feel. You canít feel it load. Some of them have tried to take a competition casting rod and make it a fishing rod. You canít do that.


Whatís new this year? What should we look for from TL Johnson next year?

Weíre doing a switch rod, a ten-and-a-half foot. It should be perfect for the Ohio steelheaders. Weíre doing high end and a mid level. You can overhand cast or spey cast with it. Weíre doing a medium Spey rod and a high-end Spey rod. Weíre doing some ten foot six, seven and eight weight rods. Its about being different. Itís about having a multitude of actions. We have the XLS for extreme line speed action and the Synergy Light series for more moderate actions, but they all have that sense of feel. A brand new one weíre coming out with is a mid-modulus ten foot helix rod that should be perfect for Erie steelheaders.

 

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Power and feel is what the rod delivered in my hands.  As you might have picked up from the interview, the TL Johnson glass is designed for a double taper line.  It's important to realize that most rod manufacturers, when they rate a rod they do so for a DT line.  Tradition has it that you go up one line size for a WF.  Thus, a 5/6 is most at home with a 5DT and a 6WF.  Why?  Because those line ratings are based on the first 30-feet of fly line.  If you false cast 40-feet of DT you'd be over-lining slightly, where with a WF you'd be into the back taper of the line.  40-feet of double taper weighs more than 40-feet of weight forward.  70-feet of double taper weighs a LOT more.  The only company that rates its rods based on WF lines is Orvis.  An Orvis 5wt is comparable to another manufacturer's 4wt.  So the TL Johnson is accurately marked as a 5wt rod, and I liked it best (actually I love it best) with a WF 6 bassbug taper line. 

 

I tried a couple different reels.  A mint mid-70's Pflueger 1494Ĺ DA reel was a bit too light to balance the rod perfectly.  An Orvis Battenkill 7/8 did  much better job. Thought I don't have one, I suspect that a large arbor reel would be perfect as they are just  tad heavier than a traditional narrow spool fly reel.  In any situation, this is not rod that demands nor even particularly likes the lightest fly reel you can find.  Balance it so it is just slightly "tip up" in the hand and you'll find yourself holding a magic wand. 

 

I did try a number of different fly lines.  I cast Rio and Scientific Angler double taper lines in 5, 6 and 7wt.  I also tried long belly and traditional weight-forward lines from S.A. and Orvis in 5, 6 and 7wt.  Finally I used a Teeny T200 and a Teeny 6wt mini-tip line.  Although it was clearly overloaded, the TL Johnson handled the T200 with aplomb.  A gentle roll cast to bring the line to the surface, a smooth acceleration to sudden stop on the back cast and that heavy head just loaded that rod to the core.  An equally smooth acceleration to a sudden stop on the forward cast and this 5wt glass fly rod shot 75 feet of line with the same ease as my 9-foot mid-flex Orvis 6wt!  The Johnson handed the mini-tip like it was part of the rod - a la page, so to speak.   I simply couldn't ask the rod to deliver too much power, and in that regard it was nearly unflappable. 

 

At the end of the day I found the best match for casting flies from size 12 to 4 for smallmouth and white bass was a WF6 Scientific Angler.  I also found good results using a DT5 Orvis Wonderline 3 on the few occasions I took the rod out for trout using small nymphs under the colorful autumn skies.  My Teeny mini-tip handled all subsurface activities and, if I weren't going to fish ponds and lakes, this would be the only sinking line I'd need for this outfit.

 

The cork grip is near flawless and perfectly sized for my mid-size hand. Guide wraps show an almost obsessive precision in size, density and finish.  The tip-over-but ferrule fit with no play. The maple reel seat insert provides lovely contrast and nickel silver hardware completes the package with understated elegance.  In short, fit and finish are first rate.  The rod is painted a rorborant golden-olive; a color of which any true smallmouth bass fanatic will approve.  It is possible that Terry wasn't actually thinking in terms of bronze battlers when he made this rod?  I'm thinking there is some kind of weird Freudian thing going on.  Perhaps Mr. Johnson has really had enough Rocky Mountain trout and his subconscious is driving him to join us here in the flatlands in pursuit of Micropterus?..

 

In conclusion I can only say this. Terry, I know this rod was sent for evaluation.  I know you expect me to send it back at the end of the review.  I know you expected the review to take a little less than six months (hey - it was winter!).  How can I put this delicately?  How about this... It's mine now!  Just send me a bill, dude.  You're not getting this one back!  Anyone want to buy a lovingly cared for but well-fished Orvis 906-4 TLS?  It's just been replaced and I won't be needing it anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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