Hook + Gaff Watch Company sat down with Jeff Johnson, charter captain and guide who runs Fly Fish Rockport in Rockport, TX and First Cast Outfitters in Craig, MT. We recently caught up with Jeff to ask him about an epic trip to AK chasing Northern Pike and the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in his native Rockport, TX.
1. Jeff, you fish for a living. Tell us all about this trip! Why Alaska, who’d you fish with up there and describe the day to day action. We want to know everything!
This trip just kind of happened I guess? Ha. I mean, as a guy that guides over 300 days each year, I hadn’t really given a thought to heading North for a vacation. But when this trip came up, I couldn’t say no.
This all came together as an opportunity to do some filming for a short video chasing northern pike on the fly. In Montana, I am the only outfitter that offers pike trips. Mainly, it’s a ton of fun. I love catching them and enjoy talking people out for them as well. So I have dedicated portions of my time in Montana hunting these fish, along with the usual trout fishing on the Missouri River. So when the Alaska thing came along, how could I resist? Most pike fisherman know that the largest pike we see are typically coming out of that area. Another bonus, having been to Alaska many times for fishing and snowboarding, I had never been to the interior part of the state.
We fished with Midnight Sun up in Alaska. Their program is pretty unique and completely awesome. You fly up to the middle of nowhere. Then take a boat ride for a couple of hours to THE REAL middle of nowhere, where you find the houseboat you will be living on for the duration of your trip. We were somewhere deep in the heart of Alaska on the Yukon River. Other than the 5 guests on the boat, and 4 guides, there was not another soul around. It was perfect.
The program on the boat was great. Breakfast was at 9am. You geared up and hopped in your boat to go fish at the crack of 11 each day. Perfect! With the longer days up there, we fished from 11-8 most days, which was great. By the time you got back to the houseboat, there were appetizers and cocktails ready to roll. Shortly followed by dinner and more cocktails. Very easy program and the guides were great. They took care of all the cooking, cleaning, etc. for us. So we just got to chill and enjoy ourselves.
As for the fishing… it was pretty remarkable. I knew, heading up to Alaska, that we would see a bunch of fish. And even a bunch of big fish. I mean, it’s Alaska, everything is big up there. Even still, I was blown away. It was hands down the best northern pike fishing I have ever seen. And I can’t imagine much of anything being a close second. It really was amazing.
2. Did y’all target any other fish while you were up there?
We had every intention of targeting sheefish while we were there pike fishing. People call them the “tarpon of the North”. So we figured we should check it out. They are known for going completely ballistic once you hook them. Running, jumping multiple times and pretty much just going nuts. The time of year we were there, it would be common place to find 40” and 20lb sheefish moving upstream. So that would be a fun fight on a fly rod.
Since we had so many days of clear skies and calm winds, we opted to stick with the pike fishing. The sight fishing was just too much fun to pass up. Also, the video footage we were able to get with this great weather was awesome as well. So we will have to save the sheefishing for next time.
3. While you were up there in Alaska, your hometown took the brunt of Harvey. What did you guys see upon returning to Rockport?
When I headed North up to Alaska, this storm was barely a blip on the radar. Ten days prior, it simply looked like a slight chance of rain and some clouds that weekend. No big deal at all. I had some boats scheduled to fish that weekend, in my absence. So I went ahead and notified the clients that we should reschedule as it looked like it be a bit too cloudy to see fish out on the flats. With that, I vanished off into the middle of nowhere Alaska for the next couple of weeks, assuming all was normal.
I flew out of the backcountry on the Monday following hurricane Harvey hitting land. So I had no clue what had happened to this point. As our small bush plane landed in Anchorage, I turned my phone on for the first time in almost two weeks. I thought my phone was going to blow up, there were so many emails, texts and voicemails coming in. It was unreal.
The very first text I opened, as I exited the plane, was from a client in Texas who sent an image of the radar as the eye of the storm went right over my home in Rockport, Texas. You can imagine the horror that came with that. From there, everything was pretty much a blur of text messages, emails and phone calls trying to make sure all of my friends, captains, families, etc. were safe and accounted for. It was tough. Waiting to hear back from folks. Not knowing if everyone was ok. Not knowing where anyone was or retreated to. Just not knowing much of anything.
Mixed in with all the messages, were many from friends, clients and sponsors in other parts of the country as well. Lot’s of thoughts and prayers sent our way. Lot’s of offerings to help and all with words of encouragement and love. That was amazing. With everything going on and racing through my mind at the time, it was awesome to know that others were hurting right along with us and offering any help they could. How lucky am I/are we, to have such great friends around us. And let me point out, that Michael here at Hook and Gaff was one of the many to offer up support right away. Greatly appreciated, as things seemed to be looking grim.
Our home of Rockport, Texas took the brunt of the storm, which hurt. The town experienced a huge amount of damage. 60-70% of the buildings in the town will need to be rebuilt entirely. Many others have major damage that could take a considerable amount of time to repair. Lots of business owners are in a tough spot, not even knowing if they will be able to open again. So it is a tough thing to see in a small community that we love and have grown to be a part of.
But one thing I have learned, spending all this time in Texas, is that Texans are tough. Also, Texans are stubborn as well, with an overwhelming sense of pride in their state and home. So you can be sure that no Texan is going to take this lying down. The rebuild efforts began almost immediately. People came from all over the state to help in our coastal communities. What an amazing bunch of people! So things are getting better day by day, and will continue to do so moving forward.
As for myself and Fly Fish Rockport… We were very lucky. All of our friends, Captains and families are safe and unharmed. That is what matters most. Yes there was some property damage to homes. But most is minor and can be fixed easily. We were also fortunate in that all of our boats were spared. Many boat storage facilities were damaged in the storm, but ours came away unharmed. So all of our boats are in perfect condition without a scratch on them. Again, we were very lucky.
With everything going on after the storm, I felt it appropriate to cancel all of our trips through the month of September. At that point, fishing just didn’t seem that important. Instead, we focused on helping our community and helping our neighbors in the recovery effort. We vowed to return to the water as soon as it felt like the right thing to do, to continue to help our community. So as of the first of October, we were very excited to be able to get back out on the water. That is truly where we want to be every day.
I believe that one of the best ways to continue to help our coastal communities is to let folks know that we are ok. Rockport is ok and getting better. As are our coastal neighbors. The fishery is going to be just fine. The beaches are going to be just fine. And there are still plenty of restaurants and lodging options for those looking for a weekend on the coast. If Fly Fish Rockport can help relay that message to the rest of the world, by way of being out on the water with clients and encouraging folks to come fish, then we will do that. We want people to come fish and stay in our town. Tourisms is a vital part of our economy here. So we will do our part to encourage guests to come and fish. Maybe even get a meal or two at one of our local restaurants that would really appreciate the business these days. So we are back on the water and looking forward to getting folks out there with us.
4. How do you think the storm will affect the Rockport fishery this winter? What are you seeing so far?
So far, all indications are that the fishery is just fine. As of today, we certainly aren’t 100% back to normal just yet. But getting better by the day. As many people may know, one of the things that make fishing around Rockport, Texas so unique is our water. We are blessed with crystal clear water every day of the year. This is something we have become known for and makes us different than many other redfisheries.
Currently, we do still have some off colored water in a few of our bays. Most of these are the smaller bays, lakes and marshes located further inland and away from the ports. These areas, due to the storm, are still experiencing pretty high water and have not had the opportunity to flush out just yet. With the water this high, the tides alone aren’t doing the job just yet. What we need is a nice little storm from the North to blow through and help push this dirty water out. It appears that we are going to get a little help by way of wind this week. So that should go a long ways in helping these more remote areas.
The remainder of the system and bays are just fine. The water is still high, but not off color at all. The fish are there and acting as normal as ever. So we have had solid fishing as of late. As we continue to move into the cooler Fall weather, I would expect the fishing to continue to get better and better, per the usual.
One of the driving factors in this storm hitting our area are the unusually high water temps out in the gulf this year. This created or altered a few of the currents wich drew that storm into land and Rockport, Texas. As we continue on closer to winter, we will be watching the water temps to see how they are dropping. Many of our shallow water flats, where we spend most of our days, could cool off quicker than the waters in the gulf. This should draw lot’s of fish into our bays and marshes in the coming months. We are already seeing a big influx of larger fish, which usually happens a little later in the fall. But many of these bull reds are being seen and caught already. So this could lead to great fishing for these Fall and Winter months.
We are encouraging everyone to come and fish still. We understand the hesitance many are feeling, following all that has happened. But our area is doing well and getting better and better each day. We still have plenty to offer those looking for a weekend away on the coast. The fishing is going to be great, as usual. And we have plenty of lodging and restaurant options, as many have grown accustomed to. We will continue to have coffee in our mornings, fish during our days, and have beers with our neighbors at night. We are Rockport strong!
5. We are hurting for everyone affected by Harvey and Irma and we want to tell people about Flyfish Rockport and your other charter business, First Cast Outfitters. How can people get in touch with you and what kinds of charters are you running?
I spend about 8 months of my year in Rockport, Texas where I own and operate Fly Fish Rockport. We pride ourselves on being THE premiere fly fishing guide service on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Myself, and my Captains, operate on over 100 miles of the Texas coastline. We fish the waters ranging from Matagorda Bay all the way down South to the Upper Laguna Madre and Baffin Bay. Our home of Rockport, Texas is centrally located and allows easy access to all the waters in between including Port O’Connor, Rockport, Port Aransas and Corpus Christi. We fish 12 months a year in Texas for redfish, trout, drum, tarpon, jacks, sheepshead, Mahi and pretty much anything else that swims by. You can reach us at:
During the warmer months of the year, you can find me up North in Montana where I have been an outfitter for many years one arguably the best trout stream on earth; the Missouri River. While my Captains continue to host clients in Rockport, Texas, you can find me and First Cast Outfitters, in the drift boat in search of rising trout near the town of Craig, Montana. I began fishing the Missouri way back in the day during college, and still enjoy returning each summer for a few months. The Missouri River in Montana is hands down the best dry fly fishing I have ever seen. So I enjoy the change of scenery and challenges that come with a technical tailwater fishery. In addition to trout, you might also find me with clients in search of northern pike on the fly or sight fishing for carp as well. There is plenty to offer during the summer months up North. During these warmer months, you can reach me and First Cast Outfitters at: