Meet Utah Cutthroat Slam Medallion Artist Tim Johnson

Editor’s Note: When we asked Tim if he was interested in creating the cutthroat art for the species-specific Slam medallions he didn’t hesitate for a minute. Furthermore, he is contributing his art as a supporter of cutthroat conservation and outreach efforts and kindly declined offers of payment. Thank you, Tim, for your generosity and beautiful artwork. We appreciate it. 

By Tim Johnson

For an angling-addicted little kid like me, growing up in the middle of the Arizona desert wasn’t ideal. On weekends I peddled my yellow Schwinn Cruiser to every canal and golf-course pond within an ever-widening radius, fly rod in tow, looking for carp, bass, or bluegill to scratch the itch (sate the obsession?), but through the unending hours of school, church, and everything else, my ADHD-tinged brain continued to crave a connection to the warm water species of my weekends and the trout of my dreams. 

Tim Johnson, the artist behind the new Utah Cutthroat Slam Medallion artwork. – Photo courtesy of Tim Johnson

So, my inborn distractibility in every sit-down venue led to a habit (what I would later learn to call a “coping mechanism”) of doodling at every opportunity, and these doodles were invariably fishy.  It began as begging my mom for a ballpoint pen and a scrap of a paper receipt from her purse, which I would lay on a hymnal and on which I’d pour out half of my mind in scales, spots and fins. It evolved into my never leaving the house without some sanity-saving implement of art. I was always drawing.

When I say I dreamed of trout as a child, I mean that literally. In the pre-internet days, my subconscious invented to a large degree what a species called “cutthroat” or “steelhead” must look like and I can still remember very specific dreams of stalking caricatures of these fish in their cold-watered mountain homes. No, my imaginings weren’t always accurate, but they were vivid and they fed a craving to seek out what I imagined to be the quintessential quarry of any true fly fisher: the native salmonid, born wild in its home water. 

I caught my first, a diminutive stream-born Apache trout, three days horseback into the White Mountains of Arizona with my Boy Scout troop. I was the only person who had brought a rod and was specifically told that the tiny creek where we had set up camp held no trout, but my eyes didn’t deceive me, and the creek didn’t disappoint. I found him a 1/2 mile away in a 5-gallon-bucket-sized “pool”. He was no more than 5- or 6-inches long, but the colors were unlike any stocked rainbow or even wild brown I had ever seen. 

The Yellowstone and Colorado River Cutthroat medallions – Photo courtesy of Aaron Smith

The golden sides, lavender parr marks, iridescent operculum, Apache eye stripe. They all told me that the romance which for years I’d infused into this quest wasn’t unfounded; there really is something uniquely beautiful about connecting with the just inheritor of a stream right where God intended him to be. Right where the ice age left his ancestors. Right where his genetics formed him through millions of lives and deaths. He was, literally, made for this stream. 

Yellowstone cutthroat trout represented on the latest Slam medallion. – Photo courtesy of Aaron Smith

That romance has never left me. After moving to Utah and spending a couple more decades of fishing, guiding, painting, studying, starting a family, and teaching, I found that I had somehow closed a wonderful circle in my life and was returned to being just an obsessed child drawing fish. Only now I get to call it my “profession,” and people seem to accept and even respect that. 

One of Tim’s very own “Timmy Grips” of a cutthroat trout designed onto the cork handle of a fly rod. – Photo courtesy of Tim Johnson

So, when I was asked if I would contribute a piece of my artwork to the project dedicated to the restoration of Utah’s native cutthroats, I knew I would have to go further than that. I would go find these fish again, living right where God intended, and would create each of them once more from that interaction in its home. 

The fish Tim designed at home in the creek’s icy waters. – Photo courtesy of Aaron Smith

I’ll paint all of these four native cutthroat strains and will try to express in each the personal experience I’ve had in coming to love and appreciate it individually. I hope that when you receive a medallion for completing the same angling journey and see my artwork on it, you’ll feel a little of what you felt when you met that fish in water it was made to swim in, and to whose restoration you contributed directly. The Utah Cutthroat Slam doesn’t just support our only native trout; it invites everyone to have the same sacred experience I first did as a Boy Scout in the Arizona mountains.    

Over 25 years later, I still haven’t painted that Apache. 


Please consider supporting Tim by visiting his website at the Tim Johnson Galley Facebook page, or his Instagram account.

Some more of the popular Timmy Grips designed by Tim Johnson. – Photo courtesy of Tim Johnson
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