“You would be amazed at how many people come here to go fishing but then just fall in love with Maupin . . . with the whole feeling you get when you come over the mountain and all of a sudden you’re in the sunshine and life slows down and your cell phone doesn’t work in a lot of places.”~Amy Hazel, Deschutes Angler
In true Maupin fashion, I first learned a little about John and Amy Hazel’s origins over a beer at a barbecue. Amy was telling me about how, after a two-year, 19-country solo fly fishing trip in 1997 and 1998, she ended up being finagled, in a roundabout way by John, into buying a drift boat at a trade show. John had certain ideas about Amy from the start, and that drift boat deal turned into the beginning of a successful 21-year partnership.
I was fascinated by Amy’s story, so I followed up with a visit to Deschutes Angler, their destination fly shop next door to my office in Maupin. The first thing that struck me when I walked in was: Wow. How do you get a fly shop this big in a town this small? And according to John: “That’s the real story; it doesn’t happen in many places, and its kinda’ cool that it happens here, because it kinda’ puts Maupin on the map as a true destination area.”
But it didn’t happen by accident. John first came to Maupin in 1978 as a guide out of Portland. He was part of a movement in the early 1980s responsible for bringing the two-handed spey rod to the western United States. He spent a lot of time doing clinics, trainings, videos, and traveling to teach, building his reputation as an expert in the industry. He recalls that in those days guys would come out to Maupin to fish with the wrong supplies and equipment. Despite frustrations with limited local retail options, he continued guiding in Maupin for a couple decades.
Enter Amy, in 1998. After her solo, round-the-world fly fishing trip, she knew she wanted to work as a guide, but she didn’t realize there were restrictions on permits for guiding on the Deschutes. When John met her at the trade show and covertly secured her drift boat purchase, he saw real potential. He invited her to come to Maupin and hired her to row drift boat and learn from him. Pretty soon she was the first female guide on the Deschutes River. His instinct – to employ a female guide that would open the doors for other women to learn the sport – paid off. Bringing Amy on board took his business to the next level: “Women would come and fish and not feel intimidated. She increased the breadth of the company and the style and the image that John Hazel and Company had.”
As the business grew, so did the opportunity to outfit their clients with fly fishing supplies that the Hazels endorsed, so in 2003, John came off the river, walked into a building on Deschutes Avenue, rented it, and the couple opened their own fly shop. Back then, the Hazels occupied about 1/4 of their current space and worried about having too much room to fill. Since then they’ve expanded a few times. Now it is one of the largest fly shops in the state of Oregon. They make sure they carry a large inventory to serve their clients’ needs in the moment. John reasons: “It doesn’t do anybody any good to tell them we can get it for them by Tuesday. They’re going fishing now. They want it now.” Amy chimes in with what she considers their motto: “We have a big city selection with small town service. You don’t get that from Amazon.com.” And it’s true. Their customer service is unparalleled both in-store and on-line, which they’ve been offering since 2003.
John goes so far as to claim that the store wouldn’t exist without the internet. “If you’re gonna’ live in a town of 300 people, you’d better have a Plan B when it comes to retail. And our Plan B was the internet.” On-line sales offered them solid forecasting and accountability in retail sales. Now they sell to those who’ve come to Maupin, fished with them, and remain loyal to the experience as well as those who seek them out based on their combined reputation and credibility in the industry. And those customers buy again and again, to the tune of annual increases in internet sales of 5 to 8%, because they get world-class expertise and a hand-written note, often coupled with a follow-up phone call offering advise or tips. “We’re not just trying to shove stuff out of the store. We’re trying to help people get the right things they need. And then to help guide them into whatever else would work with that,” says Amy. “All our fly-tying materials are available on line, and most stores don’t do that. So we’re both a destination shop as well as a full-service, on-line shop. Plus we give back to the industry: We donate to fly clubs, Scouts, and schools. It’s not just about the money.” For John and Amy, it’s about the total experience that people have when they come to Maupin, when they fish local waters, and when they purchase goods and services from people they trust.
And that experience is truly a unique one. They offer year-round guided trips on the Deschutes in Maupin for trout and in the fall (July-November) for steelhead as well as spring and early summer trips on the John Day River for bass and for steelhead in late fall and into winter. The John Day River is a world-class big-mouth bass fishery and one of the only rivers left in the western U.S. that’s all wild fish. “That has huge appeal to catch-and-release fishermen,” says John.
The couple also leases a number of private lakes from ranchers around Wasco and Sherman Counties which offer outstanding still-water fisheries. It’s nice to have this option because there are times when someone has booked a three-day trip but realizes after the first day just how difficult the Deschutes can be to wade, their skills aren’t quite up to par, or they may have health issues that preclude them from three days on the river. They can easily shift to a private lake where they can sit and catch a bunch of big fish in a float tube. “It’s like a Lazy-Boy chair,” says Amy. Who wouldn’t love that? This diversity adds nuance to Maupin as a destination fishing vacation area. When people come to Maupin now from all over the world – and they do – they expect great food, a nice place to stay, and access to quality goods and services. And they get it.
Another impressive aspect of John and Amy’s business model is their dedication to the success of the Maupin community. There was a time when Amy would guide all day and then go home and make meals for the following day’s trips. Now, the team buys almost all their food from the Maupin Market. In addition, they purchase all their fuel from Rod at Richmond’s Station and get Henry at the deli to do all of their shuttles. They could easily hire their own employees to do much of this, but it’s nice to be able to pass the money through town. They encourage their clients to book their rooms here and book early and to take in all the local business offerings and events. John and Amy know the reality: “You take one business this size in Maupin: If it goes away, the grocery store takes a hit; fuel service is down; Henry’s shuttle service is negatively impacted, so everything begins to collapse.” In a town the size of Maupin, a successful business plan includes reciprocity.
While John might be looking at slowing down, Amy is working toward growth. Amy is a noted fly tier. She stays current, and virtually every book that’s published on fly tying includes a contribution by Amy Hazel. “Last night while John was sleeping in his chair, I was in the closet making videos of myself tying flies.” She makes and markets her videos using materials they carry in their store. She ties cutting-edge flies that aren’t a “dime-a-dozen” variety – flies that people haven’t even heard of yet. Or new styles of fly. Amy’s videos are available on Vimeo (for its high video quality), Instagram, and Facebook.
When I ask Amy what her vision is, what growth looks like to her, she has an immediate response: “I would like to just get the health of the river back. That’s how we’re going to get our growth, and that’s what we’re fighting for through our Deschutes River Alliance action.” For a couple who has built an entire life and a successful business on the river, it’s only natural to get excited about a decline in the health of that river. It’s a sentiment echoed daily in Maupin. If we don’t get the health of the river back, if we can’t “get the powers-that-be to recognize that what’s going on upriver is really impacting not only our economy but also the entire economy of Maupin and South Wasco County,” we could be in real trouble, stresses Amy.
Deschutes Angler also offers guided fishing trips to world destinations, including British Columbia, Honduras, Belize, Mexico, and Christmas Island.
Amy is leading a women-only trip in October of 2020 to Christmas Island, which is plenty of time to work it into your budget! Check out their website: www.deschutesangler.com; find them on Facebook at Deschutes Angler Fly Shop and follow them on Instagram at deschutesangler.