ICONS: John Hazel

Icons, a web series from Swing the Fly, looks at the most influential figures in spey casting and swinging flies from North America and beyond in the 21st century. In this installment we visit with John Hazel in his shop, The Deschutes Angler in Maupin, OR, where he talks about his contributions to the sport, his spey pilgrimage to Ireland and Scotland with his wife Amy and Masters golf champion Mark O’Meara, and the importance of giving back to the resource we love.

How did your career lead to this time and place?

Every fly fisherman goes into a fly shop and thinks, “Man, this has got to be the greatest job in the world working behind the counter.”  Then they realize how much they have to know. They have always been customers of fly shops, and have heard the conversations back and forth between the staff and the customers. Then they know this is really in-depth stuff. This guy behind the counter is the real deal, right?

As a young fly fisherman in my early 20s I’d spent a fair amount of time in Montana and the West. I’d worked with Henry’s Fork Anglers, Jack Dennis’ place in Jackson, and Bud Lilly in West Yellowstone, Dan Bailey’s place in Livingston. I loved the creative part of the jobs. It was next-level stuff, but the constant staffing and training can really be a grind. I made a fair amount of money but I needed a change of pace. I was 27 years old but I’d been in it since I was 17. Those years were a very busy period of time.

I quit high school in Lake Oswego (Oregon) and went right into a culinary apprenticeship in Los Angeles under a master chef down there. From then on I worked for a series of master chefs until I was 22. The chefs’ schools weren’t as popular then. I left that business and I spent about a year and a half traveling around the West with my wife at that time and my little son who was two years old. We were trying to find a place where we could settle down along a nice river somewhere. We spent a lot of time in Montana, a lot of time in Idaho, and a lot of time in northeast Washington. We were trying to sell our house which was in Vancouver, WA, and interest rates went up to about 15-16% percent, and we couldn’t sell the house. Thank God we didn’t sell it because we couldn’t afford to buy another one, but I needed a job and so I started tying flies. 

I’ve been tying flies for most of my life. I started tying steelhead flies for Kauffman’s Streamborn fly shop. Mark Noble and Bill McMillan were two really great mentors of mine. They lived about two miles from my house. I was only working for maybe three days a week, starving of course, but I went fishing every single day I wasn’t working. I was tying only steelhead skaters at the time and charged a lot of money for them. You couldn’t get them anywhere else. Fly tying companies barely existed, and they had a very small selection of flies. Umpqua Feather Merchants had just started and it was a really cool time to be a fisherman because there wasn’t a lot available, if you were a fly angler and you needed flies you learned how to tie your own, or you’re going to use Joe’s Grasshopper and a Royal Coachman, the kind of stuff that was available behind the counter. 

I got a Washington guide’s license and I guided southwest Washington for steelhead – the Lewis, the Kalama, the Washougal, the Wind rivers and up toward Grays Harbor. Guiding was easier than tying flies and pays a little bit better and it’s more fun. I was on the water so that was great. Randall Kauffman would call me up periodically and ask me if I wanted a job running his fly fishing program out here on the Deschutes. I said, “Well if I’m gonna come and work for you for the summer to run your river operations it needs to be a full time job”. He said, “Well I don’t know about that, John”. I said, “OK when you change your mind, let me know.”

So another year went by, it’s 1979 now, and he calls me up and says, “OK I’m willing to have you on full time if you’ll run our river expeditions.” So I worked out here (on the Deschutes) and ran all the school’s guide trips and stuff in this town out of their cabin here in town from April through the end of October and then went back to Portland. I then worked in the store and did that for the longest time, and it was great. I know I had a great guiding gig. We teach school Saturday, Sunday and Monday, then we guide Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Family life suffered because they’re still living in the state of Washington and I’m out here. So it’s needless to say where that went, but yeah, that was a good gig. I spent a lot of time on the river and had a lot of time to work on the craft. 

I was guiding probably 250 days a year and there was talk at that time that they were going to put a moratorium on outfitting licenses. As soon as I heard that I realized that it wasn’t even an option to not have an outfitters permit on this river. I told Randall that I’m gonna get my Outfitters permit and I’ll still be happy to teach all the schools for you. So I ended up managing all three of his retail stores and all the river expeditions out here, and all the schools. It was a lot.

Kerry Burkheimer was working for me out here, and I worked for Burkheimer in the winter in the early 80s trying to develop graphite two-handed rods. Burkheimer was one of the first companies to do that in America. I was working with several rod companies all at the same time trying to convince them that we could design some good graphite two-handed rods. Up until then, Orvis was making a real crappy 13-foot graphite rod for like a 10-weight.

Burkheimer’s business eventually got too busy in the summertime, so I had to find a new guide. I contacted Dec Hogan to see if he would come out. At that time he was up in the Skagit Valley and he wanted to do something in the summertime because he was just doing winter fishing. So I said come on out and work with me and he did that for eight years.

Meanwhile, I met Amy at a sports show where I was working the casting pond and giving presentations. I looked over there and saw a beautiful tall young blonde that had a fly rod in her hand. It was clear that she wanted to come up and cast, and she was looking at me like, “When are you gonna get your talk done so I can cast this rod, if you don’t mind”. So I wrapped it up and she came up and cast the rod and later came back to the Burkheimer booth I was working. She said that maybe she wanted to try guiding. Dec was still working out here, but I said, “Dec, how would you feel about having a woman fly fishing guide join our team?” So, Dec and Amy and I spent either a year or two altogether out here, still guiding at that time for trout and steelhead, and then Dec left shortly thereafter.

Back then, trout fishing was what we did in between summer steelhead runs. As a guide, I felt like there were a lot of people who dabbled in trout fishing. Not that many people dabble in steelhead fishing. Having that dedication to steelhead gave me more of a sense of sharing information with them and spending time and really teaching them how to be better casters and better fishermen because they were dedicated enough. I knew I was not wasting my time with steelheaders. My steelhead clients would give it 150% every time out, and next year they’re 25% better. Then they give it another 150% the next time you see them and they’re 25% better again. Pretty soon you’re guiding really top notch anglers and they’re coming back every year. This is my family and what makes guiding enjoyable. This is my 46th year of doing this, no other no other money coming in, and I haven’t taken on a new client in over 20 years.

I hear that Trout Fest 2024 is coming up later this spring. Can you tell me if you are involved in this event and what is going to happen?

I don’t know that much about it and I’ll tell you why. My social life in Maupin is horrible because as a fishing guide for the majority of my adult life I never had time to go out and meet anybody. I literally don’t really know that many people in my opinion to be fair about the event operators. I think it was started years ago and it operated for a couple years and then it dropped. The Native Fish Society ran it for a few years and then it dropped again. Now the Deschutes River Alliance has kindled the spirit. Several nonprofit organizations were looking for conservation projects and to bring people into the Deschutes River area from the outside, and it has worked well. They’ve got a good following and it’s a fun time of year. 

You and Amy made a trip last year to the Masters Golf Tournament last year and then continued on to the U.K. for some spey fishing as a guest of former champion Mark O’Meara. Tell me about that. What rivers did you fish and what were the non-angling highlights?

Mark is a great friend of ours, and of course, he’s treated like royalty at the Masters, and as his guest we were treated like royalty. He had invited us many times before but that particular time we were able to go. And he said, “Well, to finish off the trip, why don’t we all go to Ireland and fish for Atlantic salmon with my good friend and ghillie Sean McManus?”  He wanted us to see Ireland as it should be seen by everybody that loves the salmon fishing. We fished a lot of rivers there and it was Atlantic salmon prime time in the middle of April, and every river in Ireland was in flood. And it was flood like they haven’t seen in the past 50 years. That’s a beautiful thing and just my luck. 

Sean McManus is one of the best known ghillies in Ireland. He’s 77 years old and looks like he’s 32 as he gets around the rivers. We fished or traveled to almost every great salmon stream in Ireland. We did a lot of traveling, we met a lot of great people and a lot of fine angling buddies of his. We had a great time and we caught some nice brown trout, but the Atlantic salmon were not friendly to us. The rivers really never dropped enough to make it viable.

In Scotland, I spent five days on the River Spey which is just next level. Just to be there and to meet the ghillies and listen to their stories was tremendous. Most the ghillies had worked the river from 15 to 40 years and they took over from their fathers before them. So there was so much history there that you don’t even have to fish that river to have a world class time. I can’t say enough about my experience. Which is good, because there were no salmon caught in the four and a half days we fished it. This again was prime time for spring salmon, the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th of April. The river was ultra low, about five feet lower than the normal flow for that time of year. So Ireland rivers were in flood and Scotland rivers were so low and clear you can read the date of a dime in 10 feet of water. That was crazy but we had the time of our lives and drank good Scotch and told some good stories. 

How would you describe the “State of the Nation” in terms of current steelheading?

You often hear the expression, “If you want to know what good fishing is, you should have been here 40 years ago.”  I think that applies just about everywhere in the world, including here. The world has loved salmon and steelhead fishing too much. Most salmon fishing countries in the world have made attempts to manage salmon with poor results. As a salmon or steelhead fisherman today, you just learn to lower your expectations down to the bare minimum. Today you might say to yourself, “Gee, it would be wonderful to get a hook-up this week.”  Forty years ago you were thinking, “How many am I going to get today?  In the morning???”  

I’m just glad that I lived in that period of time when the fishing was that good. I am 70 years old and my generation had the very best of everything. That’s because we had all of the fishing knowledge that our forefathers passed down to us. The fishing and outdoor writers back then were tremendous mentors and sources of information. The salmon and steelheaders of my generation read everything we could get our hands on, and we owe them a lot. In addition, the rivers hadn’t been totally screwed up yet. They were just starting to build hatcheries and we had a few issues here and there, but the runs of wild fish were still intact in the 60s, early 70s, and even up to the late 70s.

In addition to that, we had access to the rod-building technology and the flyline technology that our forefathers didn’t always have. We had good rods, good reels, good sinking lines, good floating lines, and we even had better roads to get access to the rivers. And we took advantage of every little nuance the sport could offer. And we could fish all day and would see only one or two other guys on the river. So we had the best of all worlds.

What river have you never fished that you would most like to try?

I don’t have one. I’m in a weird place in my life. I’m blessed in so many ways. I’ve probably got a chance to fish and hook more steelhead than most people could pray for. I really don’t need anything more than what I have done.

How about a favorite fly?

The first 300 fish in my lifetime came on skaters. I didn’t have any faith at all in other types of flies. Then I started guiding people who showed up with a Green Butt Skunk, Brad’s Brat, or a Purple Peril. I’m saying, “Boys, we’re not gonna catch anything on these.”  Then I would give them one of Bill McMillan’s Steelhead Caddis flies or one of those skaters that I’ve caught hundreds of fish on. And you know, 5000 fish later, I can tell you it doesn’t matter at all what you use. It’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian. That’s the bottom line. They’re the easiest fish in the world to catch. All they gotta do is be there. If they’re not there, they’re damned difficult.

Do you have a favorite saltwater fly fishing destination?

I like them all. I don’t have a favorite, just as long as it’s warm. The greatest thing in the world is waking up in the morning and knowing you’re going fishing today and not having to put on waders. That, and not having to get up at 4:00 in the morning. You spend years and years and years wanting to get up early in the morning, the smell of the air is different early in the morning, and it creates all this excitement and that’s what makes you wanna go out every day. But after a while you realize that it’s really nice to get up and go fishing when you feel like it.

What are you most proud of in terms of your contribution to steelheading?

That’s a good question and I like that question. That should be the only question of this interview, that’s the only one that means anything. I’m most proud of creating awareness among the clientele that I’ve spent time with on how important it is to our community, to our state, to our region, to our country to see steelhead flourish. It’s the easiest fish in the world to keep alive. All you have to do is not manage them. Just don’t manage them. You can’t throw in hatcheries and think you’re gonna better the steelhead population. The reason is wild fish don’t mix with hatchery fish. Dams aren’t the main problem. We’ve had plenty of good fish returns over the last four or five decades with plenty of dams in place. Some dams do more damage than others, and some do a lot of damage if there’s no fish passage. But the real reason for the decline of wild steelhead and salmon in our region is that we have too many hatchery fish in the North Pacific. That’s the bottom line.

As our runs have gotten more and more decimated, we’ve built more state and federal hatcheries. In our managers’ minds, more hatcheries equals more fishing opportunity. The hatchery fish that go out there compete against the wild fish and they all go out at the same time. They go out into the ocean, out into the estuarine environment, and they consume every bit of food long before the wild steelhead even gets out there. We build more and more hatcheries, and Asia builds more hatcheries, and Russia builds the pink salmon population. We have probably 500 times more pinks in the North Pacific than we ever had in history. It’s an 18 month return on investment and the roe goes to Asia. Highly prized roe, that’s what they’re looking for out of the pink salmon run. The meat is secondary. It’s canned and it’s used for pet food, but the roe is high dollar stuff. The pink salmon industry is one of the reasons that our salmon fishing has collapsed in the North Pacific. There are more salmon in the North Pacific now than there were when Lewis and Clark came up.

So if you ask me, that’s my gift, I think the most important is bringing awareness to the hundreds, and probably thousands, of people I spent time with in the boat. You’re gonna have to give back to the resource. If you’re gonna involve yourself in participating in a world class sport at the highest level, you have to give back. We have supported every legitimate conservation organization in the West. Some years I’ve given more money than I’ve made, so it’s a commitment. But that’s how I can stand tall and go out every day and fish for these guys, because I’m their advocate.

What are you going to be doing in the next five years?  More fishing, less fishing, different fishing?

I already do less fishing. I’ve got one artificial hip and another one coming, and two bum shoulders from rowing for 46 years. There was a time in my life where it was a big deal to sit on a rock until the hatch would start and then fish like crazy. Now I just like to walk the river and watch the fish eat during the hatch. I think spending time on the water watching stuff like that is great. But more than all that, I think private time for Amy and me to be alone is where I see ourselves in the next five years.

John and Amy Hazel.