Barely into the New Year and the word comes from afar that there’s a new member of Prairie Creek’s haunt of ghosts, people I suddenly remember whenever I see a place along the creek where momentous things have happened involving the embodiment of that person.
As I got it by telephone on Jan. 13, Dennis Johnson was found on the 11th, slumped over his computer in his condo in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, dead at 58 of an apparent stroke or heart attack.
For more than 30 years Dennis lived constantly with and by his computers, dealing for, editing, designing, budgeting, and promoting the books for which he won countless provincial and national awards, mostly for Red Deer College Press, later Red Deer Press.
I first met Dennis when he took me to lunch in the early ’80s and persuaded me to sit on the board of RDC Press which he had just agreed to try to rescue from imminent death deserved by a publisher of bad poetry.
I served with a remarkable board through most of the best years of the press. His obituaries detail that major part of Dennis Johnson’s productive life, but make no mention of what a loss his death is to outdoors people.
At yet another of our many lunches and dinners I persuaded Dennis to incorporate Full Court Press and use it to make some retirement money by helping people self-publish their own books. Shortly after that, he took over Gorman Publishers and at yet another lunch, because he was an avid photographer, I showed Dennis some of my aquatic insect — flower pictures and was startled by his enthusiastic insistence that we “do” a book, right now.
Thus, my The Phenological Fly became the first book published by Johnson Gorman Publishers, and just a year later Dennis published my Good Old Guys, Alibis and Outright Lies, an award winner and a Canadian best seller.
Very quickly Johnson Gorman Publishers produced some of Alberta’s and Canada’s best outdoors books: Jim McLennan’s The Blue Ribbon Bow, and his Trout Streams Of Alberta, Bruce Masterman’s Heading Out, The Essential Guide to Fly Fishing, by Clive Schaupmeyer and Fly Fishing Canada, From Coast to Coast to Coast by many of the country’s best fishing writers.
Dennis decided that if he was going to be editing fly fishing stuff, maybe he should actually try some fly fishing, and wondered how he could get started. I suggested my very short course, whereby I usually took a person, in one session, from never having held a fly rod, to catching trout on flies.
Prairie Creek? He and his then significant other, Pat, arrived at our Stump Ranch out there on a fine early summer day. Immediately things got blustery when Pat shut the Jeep door, busting Dennis’s new fly rod.
I soothed things by saying lesson one was never have a set-up fly rod in a vehicle, a lesson it took me only twice to learn, by pointing out that the rod had a no-fault replacement warranty, and that I had lots of rods.
So we strung one up, clambered down to the creek, and waded across to the little island beside the Cabin Pool. Usually I start beginners casting unweighted wet flies downstream and across, because the current straightens wonky casts and the fish generally hook themselves. But this time I decided Dennis would do something much more difficult: cast a big, weighted stonefly nymph under a strike indicator upstream onto and along a usually productive current seam.
There were the usual several incidents of the ungainly rig hanging up on the back cast in the island alder and Dennis insisting on warping and woofing it out of there by himself.
With the upstream strike indicator, I explained, you have to hook the fish yourself by “hitting” every slightest hesitation, yaw, or blip it makes on its float back towards you. But Dennis was oblivious to several of such likely indications, probably nibbling whitefish, I thought. Finally there came a good yaw and I yelled “hit it!” so startling Dennis that he reared back and hooked a good fish, which proved to be a brown trout of about 46 cm.
Dennis held his first fly-caught brown trout a tad gingerly for the mandatory grip ‘n’ grin shot — just one — before it shocked him by giving an almighty slippery heave and squirting from his hands and out of the frame.
Simultaneously, the federal and provincial government ended some programs and took other initiatives that made it impossible for many small publishers like Johnson Gorman to survive. Dennis had plans he had to abandon for many more outdoors books, including one he had under contract with me, a sequel to “Good Old Guys . . . .” He did not like my working title for the book, and imposed one of his own, partially taken from its first chapter: “How to Grip ‘n’ Grin, Secrets of the Dark Woods and Deep Waters.”
Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.