Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Timmy Grips
Customizing corks is one way to turn a production rod into a unique heirloom.
By Kendra Cousineau

For as long as he can remember, artist and fly-fisher Tim Johnson wanted to do two things—fish and draw. Unfortunately, nobody in his family fished. But he had an edge on the art side.

Johnson grew up in Arizona, where he would ride his Schwinn cruiser to golf course ponds and canals. He made friends with golf course managers and often was granted permission to fish after dusk for bluegill and largemouth bass. He was 12 and didn’t have anyone to teach him how to fish, until a new neighbor kid, Eric, moved in next door and showed him the ropes.

When Johnson saw Eric practicing his cast he said to himself, “That’s fishing and I have to know how it works.”

Johnson left Arizona for college in Utah, and that’s when he really started fishing and drawing. Although never formally diagnosed, Johnson uses art to ease his ADHD, a condition he recognized in college.

“I have always been drawing, and always been doodling to keep myself focused from a very young age,” Johnson said. “Whenever I’m drawing, it’s easier for me to listen. It’s easier for me to focus and connect.”

Focus and connection became important when Johnson started guiding for Falcon’s Ledge out of Altamont, Utah and learned how to use art and fly fishing as a form of therapy.

“The first time I started selling artwork was while I was in college,” Johnson said. “My mom bought me a set of watercolor paints. I painted some fish, and people wanted to buy them. It grew from there. I think everybody starts out as an artist, but a lot of people stop being an artist somewhere along the way. When (my mom) bought those watercolors, that step was the transition for me making art.”

Johnson’s mom gave him the most encouragement to make art a profession, but his dad was also a connoisseur. In fact, when Johnson was a kid his father took him to a Claude Monet exhibit in Washington D.C.

“He offered me a dollar for every question I got right at the end of the tour,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t expecting me to get all of them right!”

Although Johnson appreciates other art, he doesn’t draw inspiration from the greats, like Van Gogh or O’Keefe.

“I think I get more inspiration and influence on my artwork from the actual fish I catch versus the artwork I see,” he said. “When I catch a fish and look at it, something about it strikes me and that’s something I want to be able to show in my artwork.”

His newest and most popular creation, the “Timmy Grips”, came to Johnson almost by mistake.

“Timmy Grips”, as he calls them, is the process of sketching and hand burning custom designs onto a fly rod’s cork grip.

The idea came when Johnson’s brother took him on an all-expense paid fishing trip to Alaska. To say thanks, Johnson bought his brother a new Orvis Helios rod. Unfortunately, Johnson had the same rod and wanted to customize his brother’s. Since it was too late to customize the blank, Johnson got the idea of customizing the grip. Much like firearms and vehicles, some people are known to name their rods. So he asked his brother, “If you were to name this rod, what would you name it?” His brother Dave, inspired by films like Lord of the Rings named his rod “Dashnor.”

“So I wrote ‘Dashnor is my name. I am the salmon’s bane,” Johnson laughed.

“The first time I [worked on a cork grip] was with my dad’s old soldering iron,” Johnson said. “And then I realized, ‘Hey if I can burn words on this, then I could put anything on here. It’s unlimited of what I could draw.’”

After that, Johnson practiced on some old rods to perfect the “Timmy Grip” and gave them to guide friends. “It has just gotten bigger and bigger from there,” Johnson said.

Although Johnson struggled to name a favorite work of his own, he’s proud of an oil painting called “Reflecutt” (reflection of a cutthroat trout) and would love to work with oils again.

Unlike watercolors, oils allow artists to build up layers of color as they add dimension and depth to their works.

“When it comes to original art, it comes down to my hands and my time,” Johnson said. “Working with oil was really cool and I want to do it again, but I need to catch up (on my commissioned pieces) first.”

Right before the pandemic hit, Johnson realized that his art made more money than he could garner from his nine-to-five job as the Director of Recreation Therapy at a residential treatment center for teenage boys on the autism spectrum. So he and his wife decided to give art a full-time shot and moved back to Arizona to be closer to the artist’s aging mother.

Right now, Johnson is working on scientific watercolor paintings for a friend in Hawaii who is releasing research papers on the genomes of three different types of fish.

“It’s not quite as freeform, as they have to be scientific,” Johnson said, “but I come from a family of scientists, so these have been fun.”

As for the summer, Johnson hopes to travel a lot, sell his art, do some fishing and connect with friends.

“I am working on an opportunity to have the ‘Timmy Grips’ as an optional upgrade in a fly shop,” Johnson said. “Let’s say you went in and bought a new Orvis rod—the goal is to have a catalog of different grips that I’ve done and have (the client) answer a few questions to get theirs customized.” Although Johnson mainly has worked with Orvis, he is open to offering these customizations to other shops and rod-makers.

Getting a rod styled with a “Timmy Grips” is a highly personal decision for many of Johnson’s clients.

“I’ve gotten fly rods from people whose dad passed away, and their dads were the ones who taught them how to fly fish,” Johnson said. “They wanted their dad’s picture burned on the grips.

“It’s almost a spiritual experience to take an irreplaceable heirloom like that and start burning the cork,” Johnson said. “There’s no eraser for it. It’s a little bit intimidating. But when it works it’s an amazing thing to see.”

Kendra Cousineau
Kendra Cousineau was born in Wenatchee, Washington. Her love for the outdoors originated with her father taking her out fishing and hunting from a young age. In 2003, Kendra moved to Missoula, Montana, where she quickly realized she would have to learn how to fly-fish, or risk being kicked out of the state. She graduated from the University of Montana in 2014 with a degree in Journalism and now spends her time with two cats, Remington and Fish. She is a member of the Westslope Chapter of Trout Unlimited and volunteers as much time as she can with that organization. She can usually be found on Rock Creek or the Bitterroot River, desperately trying to become a better fly-fisher.