Abe's Fly Shop Turns 60

Abe's Fly Shop Turns 60
Abe Chavez started his business in the desert before the construction of Navajo Dam. Now it is a San Juan River icon. Tim Oliver watercolor

They say that starting your own business is like dancing with a bear—once you start the dance, you only have two options: keep dancing, or be eaten by the bear. Abe Chavez, who founded Abe’s Motel and Fly Shop on the San Juan River in New Mexico back in 1958, has managed, against all odds, to keep tripping the light fantastic, for now on sixty years. While, sometimes a slow waltz, occasionally a fandango, a jitterbug, or even a two-step— through it all, he seems to have successfully mastered the art of never letting go of the bear. In a world where small businesses fail at the rate of twenty percent in their first year, fifty percent after five, and only one- third make it to their tenth anniversary, you have to wonder why anyone would want to take the risk in the first place. To build a fly and tackle shop in the middle of the desert next to a silt-laden river with only catfish and suckers, when there isn’t even a town yet, requires you to either be a true visionary or to have had a complete loss of your mental faculties. History, in this case, seems to bear out the former. Abe Chavez, apparently, understood the phrase, “If you build it, they will come,” long before it was popularized in the movies. His is a story that began with the love of a river that he fished as a boy with his father, and a passion for the sport that still endures today.


If you mention the San Juan in any fly fishing circle nowadays, most folks will conjure up for you an image of a small town in Northern New Mexico with its three fly shops and restaurants, all within a stone’s throw from one another. They might describe the parade of expensive, fiberglass drift boats, rumbling down through the center of town each morning and afternoon, or they may tell you about any number of bed and breakfasts, lodges, and retirement homes that seem to sprout up like the surrounding chamisa each year. They may tell you about the parking lots full of rental cars and others with out-of-state plates with the latest innovative fly rods and reels tucked under the windshields or stashed away in the fancy rod lockers overhead, the ones that seem to be all the rage these days. They’ll tell you that, because that is the San Juan as most people know it— not the one from ’58 when Abe Chavez borrowed $3,000 from his aunt to buy an old, outdated building from the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and have it trucked up U.S. 64, then opened up shop with a view of two-lane blacktop and nothing else but empty fields of sage and rabbit brush— just eighteen days after the first truck made its maiden voyage with the beginning of 26 million tons of earth and stone that would become the dam and form the river.

As one might imagine, the place wasn’t an instant success as far as recreational fishing destinations go— there was no fishing yet because of the construction, and it was well off the beaten path. There were lean times in the early days, but the young couple who had decided to open in the middle of nowhere, caught a big break when Abe’s wife Patsy became the first Postmaster of the newly created Post Office and the dam’s 700 workers started showing up to collect their mail. Help was enlisted from the extended Chavez family of aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins, and children who worked shifts around the clock to feed the workers, and the business began to grow. In 1962 the dam was completed and Abe was one of the first on the water, rod in hand, as he and his friend caught some of the first trout from the new tailwater. “We didn’t think they would be very big, but overnight they had grown to 12 inches and were fat. They looked like little bass,” he recalls.

News of great fishing tends to spread like wildfire, no matter how secretive trout fishermen claim to be. In the first few years, most of the traffic on the river was local, but as the fish grew, so did the press coverage, with the first big article appearing in New Mexico Wildlife in 1964. By then, the cat was out of the bag. Local, became statewide, and statewide became regional as fisherman from the surrounding states of Texas, Arizona, and Colorado began to hear about New Mexico’s little gem in the desert. Recognizing the impact that the increased fishing pressure could have on the river he had fallen in love with as a child; as well as the possible repercussions to his livelihood, Chavez became a proponent for the regulations that were adopted by New Mexico Game and Fish in 1966, designating the first mile of water below the dam as quality water and limiting only six fish 12-inches long or longer to be taken by artificial fly or lure only.


In 1968, Outdoor Life ran a story by Byron Dalrymple, called “Rattling Good Trout” about San Juan fish that grew to enormous size on a diet of snails and the news spread nationally and internationally, and more people began to find the San Juan. By 1971, finding himself no longer able to accompany his customers on the water due to the growth of his business, Abe helped Chuck Rizuto start the first commercial guide service on the San Juan —Rizuto’s Guide ServiceAs the fishing pressure increased, so did the regulations designed to protect the fishery, and Chavez became their supporter. He was an advocate for the Game and Fish’s extension of the quality water designation to an additional 1.75 miles downstream with restrictions of only four fish larger than 15 inches to be taken by fly and lure only, in a time when catch and release wasn’t all that popular, especially with the locals. The story repeated itself over the years as new and enhanced restrictions were enacted with Abe acting as a vocal river steward each time. In the early 80’s he worked tirelessly with his friend and former New Mexico Lieutenant Governor, Tom Bolack, to fashion a trade agreement with the BLM for an exchange for Bolack’s acreage, resulting in an additional mile being added to the quality water section, thus completing the entire catch and release section it is today.

If this was a story about a man that managed to make a living selling flies and fishing equipment in the desert for 60 years, it would be remarkable enough, but it is more than that. It is the story of a man who loved a river and fishing, and taught himself how to make a livelihood from it while pursuing his passion— a man with a larger than life personality that never met a stranger and charmed the socks off Supreme Court Justices, Hollywood actors, and notable fishing gurus like Lee Wulff, Joe Humphries, and Hank Roberts; as well as, outdoor writers Jack Samson, and Mark Sosin, to name a few. It is the story of a one-man Chamber of Commerce who became The San Juan River’s biggest cheerleader through countless interviews in every publication from The New York Times, to magazines and newspapers from Japan to New Zealand, and the film crews of ESPN. He was more than a seller of flies, he was a walking encyclopedia of all things San Juan and he shared that valuable information with everyone who darkened the door of his shop—all free of charge and all while building a 60-room motel, gas station, restaurant, boat storage, convenience store, fly shop, RV park, and guide service—in addition to raising three children, and he loved every minute of it. His family’s hospitality to traveling fishermen and his dispensation of knowledge of how to fish his home waters have probably been responsible for more memorable moments on the water than most people could hope for in a lifetime. If you’re doubtful about that last one, come to Abe’s shop on any given day, and just stay a little while. It won’t be long before you’ll hear someone ask how Abe is doing and then tell you a story about how Abe sold him his first fly rod and got him into fishing 30 years ago, or you can listen as an old, grizzled guide tells you the one about how Abe gave him his first job, when no one else was hiring. Perhaps a local will drop in and you can hear the story about how Abe Chavez pulled his truck out of the ditch one night during a blinding snowstorm, back when the town was just beginning to grow up around the business. With the age of the internet and the ease of online shopping, brick and mortar fly shops seem to be headed the way of the dinosaur, but a good old-fashioned hand shake -remember your name-  greeting, will never be replaced. Something, sixty years ago, this guy probably knew all along.

An Iconic Fly Shop Turns 60


//content.osgnetworks.tv/flyfisherman/content/photos/Abe-Chavez.jpg
Abe Chavez (left) visits with Lee Wulff (center) and Field & Stream editor Jack Samson outside of Abe’s Motel & Fly Shop several decades ago. Both Wulff and Samson are now deceased. Abe Chavez photo

They say that starting your own business is like dancing with a bear—once you start the dance, you only have two options: keep dancing, or be eaten by the bear. Abe Chavez, who founded Abe’s Motel and Fly Shop on the San Juan River in New Mexico back in 1958, has managed, against all odds, to keep tripping the light fantastic, for now on sixty years. While, sometimes a slow waltz, occasionally a fandango, a jitterbug, or even a two-step— through it all, he seems to have successfully mastered the art of never letting go of the bear. In a world where small businesses fail at the rate of twenty percent in their first year, fifty percent after five, and only one- third make it to their tenth anniversary, you have to wonder why anyone would want to take the risk in the first place. To build a fly and tackle shop in the middle of the desert next to a silt-laden river with only catfish and suckers, when there isn’t even a town yet, requires you to either be a true visionary or to have had a complete loss of your mental faculties. History, in this case, seems to bear out the former. Abe Chavez, apparently, understood the phrase, “If you build it, they will come,” long before it was popularized in the movies. His is a story that began with the love of a river that he fished as a boy with his father, and a passion for the sport that still endures today.

If you mention the San Juan in any fly fishing circle nowadays, most folks will conjure up for you an image of a small town in Northern New Mexico with its three fly shops and restaurants, all within a stone’s throw from one another. They might describe the parade of expensive, fiberglass drift boats, rumbling down through the center of town each morning and afternoon, or they may tell you about any number of bed and breakfasts, lodges, and retirement homes that seem to sprout up like the surrounding chamisa each year. They may tell you about the parking lots full of rental cars and others with out-of-state plates with the latest innovative fly rods and reels tucked under the windshields or stashed away in the fancy rod lockers overhead, the ones that seem to be all the rage these days. They’ll tell you that, because that is the San Juan as most people know it— not the one from ’58 when Abe Chavez borrowed $3,000 from his aunt to buy an old, outdated building from the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and have it trucked up U.S. 64, then opened up shop with a view of two-lane blacktop and nothing else but empty fields of sage and rabbit brush— just eighteen days after the first truck made its maiden voyage with the beginning of 26 million tons of earth and stone that would become the dam and form the river.

As one might imagine, the place wasn’t an instant success as far as recreational fishing destinations go— there was no fishing yet because of the construction, and it was well off the beaten path. There were lean times in the early days, but the young couple who had decided to open in the middle of nowhere, caught a big break when Abe’s wife Patsy became the first Postmaster of the newly created Post Office and the dam’s 700 workers started showing up to collect their mail. Help was enlisted from the extended Chavez family of aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins, and children who worked shifts around the clock to feed the workers, and the business began to grow. In 1962 the dam was completed and Abe was one of the first on the water, rod in hand, as he and his friend caught some of the first trout from the new tailwater. “We didn’t think they would be very big, but overnight they had grown to 12 inches and were fat. They looked like little bass,” he recalls.

News of great fishing tends to spread like wildfire, no matter how secretive trout fishermen claim to be. In the first few years, most of the traffic on the river was local, but as the fish grew, so did the press coverage, with the first big article appearing in New Mexico Wildlife in 1964. By then, the cat was out of the bag. Local, became statewide, and statewide became regional as fisherman from the surrounding states of Texas, Arizona, and Colorado began to hear about New Mexico’s little gem in the desert. Recognizing the impact that the increased fishing pressure could have on the river he had fallen in love with as a child; as well as the possible repercussions to his livelihood, Chavez became a proponent for the regulations that were adopted by New Mexico Game and Fish in 1966, designating the first mile of water below the dam as quality water and limiting only six fish 12-inches long or longer to be taken by artificial fly or lure only.

In 1968, Outdoor Life ran a story by Byron Dalrymple, called “Rattling Good Trout” about San Juan fish that grew to enormous size on a diet of snails and the news spread nationally and internationally, and more people began to find the San Juan. By 1971, finding himself no longer able to accompany his customers on the water due to the growth of his business, Abe helped Chuck Rizuto start the first commercial guide service on the San Juan —Rizuto’s Guide Service. As the fishing pressure increased, so did the regulations designed to protect the fishery, and Chavez became their supporter. He was an advocate for the Game and Fish’s extension of the quality water designation to an additional 1.75 miles downstream with restrictions of only four fish larger than 15 inches to be taken by fly and lure only, in a time when catch and release wasn’t all that popular, especially with the locals. The story repeated itself over the years as new and enhanced restrictions were enacted with Abe acting as a vocal river steward each time. In the early 80’s he worked tirelessly with his friend and former New Mexico Lieutenant Governor, Tom Bolack, to fashion a trade agreement with the BLM for an exchange for Bolack’s acreage, resulting in an additional mile being added to the quality water section, thus completing the entire catch and release section it is today.

If this was a story about a man that managed to make a living selling flies and fishing equipment in the desert for 60 years, it would be remarkable enough, but it is more than that. It is the story of a man who loved a river and fishing, and taught himself how to make a livelihood from it while pursuing his passion— a man with a larger than life personality that never met a stranger and charmed the socks off Supreme Court Justices, Hollywood actors, and notable fishing gurus like Lee Wulff, Joe Humphries, and Hank Roberts; as well as, outdoor writers Jack Samson, and Mark Sosin, to name a few. It is the story of a one-man Chamber of Commerce who became The San Juan River’s biggest cheerleader through countless interviews in every publication from The New York Times, to magazines and newspapers from Japan to New Zealand, and the film crews of ESPN. He was more than a seller of flies, he was a walking encyclopedia of all things San Juan and he shared that valuable information with everyone who darkened the door of his shop—all free of charge and all while building a 60-room motel, gas station, restaurant, boat storage, convenience store, fly shop, RV park, and guide service—in addition to raising three children, and he loved every minute of it. His family’s hospitality to traveling fishermen and his dispensation of knowledge of how to fish his home waters have probably been responsible for more memorable moments on the water than most people could hope for in a lifetime. If you’re doubtful about that last one, come to Abe’s shop on any given day, and just stay a little while.

It won’t be long before you’ll hear someone ask how Abe is doing and then tell you a story about how Abe sold him his first fly rod and got him into fishing 30 years ago, or you can listen as an old, grizzled guide tells you the one about how Abe gave him his first job, when no one else was hiring. Perhaps a local will drop in and you can hear the story about how Abe Chavez pulled his truck out of the ditch one night during a blinding snowstorm, back when the town was just beginning to grow up around the business. With the age of the internet and the ease of online shopping, brick and mortar fly shops seem to be headed the way of the dinosaur, but a good old-fashioned hand shake -remember your name-  greeting, will never be replaced. Something, sixty years ago, this guy probably knew all along.

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