Jump to content

Book Review - "Big Trout!" by Ray Johnson

Recommended Posts

I have a large case filled with nothing but books on fishing.  They've been accumulating from all the way back to my childhood.  Most are somewhere between how-to and storytelling.  But there is one title that is so singularly odd that I thought I would talk about it here.




"Big Trout!" was published by Ray Johnson in 1980, distributed by the Peton Corporation.  Ray was in his early thirties at the time.  He chronicles his fishing adventures in Utah's Flaming Gorge Reservoir, offering fishing and camping tips that are specific to that body of water.  Nothing too unusual about that.  But reading the book makes you become really curious about the man that wrote it. 


Big Trout! has never been seen by an editor.  Or perhaps the editor committed suicide upon skimming the first chapter.  Because you have never seen a more disorganized compilation of advice, pieces of stories, blurry photographs, crudely drawn cartoons, and boastful non-sequiturs in your life!  The structure and use of punctuation and bold typeface can only be described as "creative". There is absolutely no sense of order to the thing, even from paragraph to paragraph.  There will be a tip about trolling speed and direction, followed by a list of his favorite foods, followed by criticisms of the Utah fish and game management, topped off by a description of two thick white hairs that grow from the middle of his eyebrows!  Reading Big Trout! can be exhausting, ricocheting your mind in so many directions. 


By reading the whole thing you can piece together the background of the author:  He was a Mormon from somewhere around Salt Lake City whose father died in his arms when the author was 17, in a construction accident.   Ray evaded the draft during the Viet Nam war by emigrating to Finland.  Upon returning, he was imprisoned for some time.  He married three times, the first two wives dying of cancer.  (the book is dedicated to a daughter that died in infancy.)  It doesn't say what Mr. Johnson's career was, but somehow he managed to camp on the shore of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir for 3 months every winter so he could fish full time for giant brown trout during the most productive months.  Every angler's dream.  Supposedly he had some kind of professional job the rest of the time.  Ray invented his own line of minnow bait, called "Real Minnow Lures".  The entire book is peppered with sales pitches to the same, without telling you how you could obtain one.  According to Big Trout!, Ray was in many television fishing shows, and has had articles published in all the major sporting publications. 


At that time and place, the Flaming Gorge Reservoir had a sportfishery that could spawn hardcore anglers like the author.  The target fish were brown trout, and they weren't considered big until they topped 20 pounds.  In a book filled with numbers, wieght and length statistics, they seemed to top out about 30 pounds.  Certainly sizes that would engender some extreme tactics.  R.J.'s extreme tactics involved camping through the middle of the winter, breaking skim ice while trolling in the dark while holding the rod in a bare hand, sleeping in caves along the shore, and bathing in freezing water.  Many paragraphs are devoted to describing the great physical misery he was willing to go through to catch trophy brown trout. 


There is no doubt about Ray Johnson's being an accomplished, hardcore fisherman.  But he wants you to know this with such vehemence that it leaves you scratching your head.  The shameless bragging never stops.  We hear all about his superlative exploits, not just at fishing, but at hunting (complete with a list of everything he's ever shot), his mastery of checkers and chess, his grace on the dance floor.  Whenever other people are included in his stories, it is usually as a foil to show the author's angling superiority.  He sought state record fish, got some, and tells the reader redundantly throughout.  The man actually stops, in the middle of his own book, to self-congratulate:


            From the author about this, his, book:  "I've never read a book I enjoyed more-

            I've reread it, again and again, and chuckle and laugh all the way through, reliving

            it all over again."


Can you imagine!  R.J. fancies himself as a renaissance man, being a writer, photographer, artist.  Yet I've already described the quality of his prose.  And the photos that are actually in focus are usually so poorly lit that you can barely make out the shape of a man or a fish from among the shadows!  And the drawings?  Why don't I just show an example:




In virtually every illustration, each element is labelled in case you can't make out what it is.   (Picture the Mona Lisa with "girl" written across M.L.'s chest and "hills" written by the background.)


It is strongly hinted by the author that many people do not like him.  There are anecdotes involving threatening notes under his wiper blades, antagonistic game wardens, fellow fishermen who try to scare his fish or cut his line.  R.J. constantly alludes to rumors about himself involving poaching or illegal fishing methods or guiding without a license, denying it all.  During these complaints, there is not a word of self examination as to why he finds himself unpopular to so many.  The following excerpt might offer some explanation:


            While fishing with a paddleboard for macks, I like to throw the board to someone      else in the boat, when I hook a fish, to have them help keep me just the right          amount of loose copper line coiled in the bottom of the             boat...............Unfortunately, those unaccustomed to this practice of mine often       think I am merely kidding when I say that I am going to throw the paddleboard to      them when I get a bite and hook a fish, and many are not watching or prepared for it, when I suddenly do get a bite and 'throw' the board behind me, to them       (expecting them to catch it).  "They get hit in the head, in the chest, in the hand,     and in the leg," anywhere they are facing me with.  It's too bad - it hurts - and I don't mean to do it (but they ought to be watching, hadn't they!).


Can you imagine?  How long would you put up with that before the trip devolved into feigning a strike every five minutes so you could aim your own paddleboard at his noggin?  There is another practice of Ray's that he employs against guests aboard his boat:  the "tooth bite".  R.J. felt that, while trolling, a rod should be properly held in hand, always ready to rear back when a fish suddenly takes the lure.  Should a boatmate's attention flag, should they be caught daydreaming rather than constantly bracing themselves for a fish, Ray would bite off their line, leaving them to return from their reverie to find themselves trailing nothing but monofilament!


It might be easy to dismiss Ray Johnson as a churlish, self-deluded crank who self-published his conceited ramblings.  The thing is - I would like to meet the guy.


For maybe fifteen years of my life, You could describe me as a hard core fisherman.  Chasing lake-run fish from the Salmon River to Ohio, married-wing flytying, bamboo rodbuilding, vacations in northern Canada, memorizing latin names of the fly hatches.  I know serious fishing and the people who do it.  Fishing draws guys of a certain temperament that is tough to describe but unmistakable upon meeting them.  A certain staunch individualism.  A measure of testiness.  Creativity.  An intense personality that can both fascinate and grate. Spend enough time on the Oak Orchard, the Salmon River, or in the Catskills, and you will know the type well.  These guys have spent more time on the water than you, have way more fishing experience than you ever will.  They do not balance fishing with career and family.


If you really want to learn as much as you can about fishing, you should meet such people.  They may or may not have a guiding license, but they can teach you a great deal.  You can accept or reject whatever lessons they give, but their sheer volume of knowledge is undeniable.


I would also like to meet Ray Johnson because there can be a big difference between how somebody comes across on the page and how they are in real life.  I would like to interview Ray to fill in the blanks of his book.  What career allows you to take 3 months off?  If you are so unpopular, how did you manage to court and marry 3 women by the time you were 32?  How did you deal with your grief and remarry so soon each time?


Figuring somebody who purports as much fishing fame as Mr. Johnson ought to have some web presence, I googled him.  Turns out some of his weight and line class records still stand.  There aren't too many links to be found, considering he predated the internet by decades.  But a certain "utahboy37" pops up on Youtube, who turns out to be an aged Ray Johnson still fishing the Flaming Gorge.


The number of uploads isn't huge, but a certain eccentricity does come through.  Most videos are of lake trout, either gasping in the bottom of a boat or held by somebody at the boat launch.  The camcorder is zoomed in extremely close, giving a slow, shaky pan view of each fish from head to tail and back.  You wonder if the camera is malfunctioning or something, but if you study the videos you conclude that filling the frame with nothing but flank and scales is exactly what Ray was shooting for.  Folks posing with their trophy are asked to state their name, town they're from, and the tour from snout to caudal fin commences.


The boasting remains.  We are shown freshly caught fish with the RealMinnow lure in its jaw, hear how "They just looove  that  luuurrreee!".  A little girl we may assume is Ray's granddaughter poses with a fish, reciting a memorized pitch for grandpa's innovation.  She pauses and catches herself, struggling to make it through her lines without prompting.  I looked, but could find no welts from a tossed paddleboard on the child.  It seems like R.J.'s talent at videography and salesmanship is right on par with his writing, illustrating, and photography skills.  At the time of this writing, Ray's videos have recieved a few dozen hits each, after being up for a few years.   How strange for somebody that sees himself right up there with Roland Martin.


So you get the feeling that the Peton Corporation was a service for writers who chose to self-publish.  Big Trout! had only one edition.  The copies are rare enough that they can only be found on Amazon for over $70 apiece!  I'm hanging onto my copy, though.  it's just about the most unique fishing book in my large collection.

Edited by Pete Collin
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have read this book many times and I thank Mr. Collin for his review. Yes Ray Johnson is not a natural writer and yes I questioned many of the same subjects noted by Mr. Collin. However I did learn about tenacity individualism and how important it is to use a long light line for as natural presentation as possible. I appreciate the reference to Mr. Johnson being on youtube, it completes my picture of him. However I am not prepared to live in a cave.

Sent from my iPad using Lake Ontario United mobile app

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 years later...

Sorry to resurrect an old thread.  I worked with Ray Johnson over the summer of 1994 in Logan UT.  He was a brick mason by trade and an interesting guy to say the least.  I was telling my kids stories about him and his book and found this thread.  The review of his book is spot on.  I have an autographed copy.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...