PRIDE OF SPORTFISHING: Don Hansen, Dana Wharf Sportfishing founder and fisheries advocate, remembered

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DON HANSEN, founder of Dana Wharf Sportfishing, passed away Jan. 5, 2022 at the age of 87. The landing owns or manages 17 sportfishers and whale watching vessels. PHOTOS COURTESY OF DANA WHARF SPORTFISHING
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BY PAT McDONELL

Special to Western Outdoor News

DANA POINT – Commanding the respect of people on both sides of a political issue is difficult, but for Don Hansen it seemed to come easy, as he treated everyone with respect even when he did not agree with them.

The measure of a man is how many people along the way he affected, and for Hansen it would be hard to gauge that impact in his decades of running boats, owning a landing, introducing fishing to generations of kids and public service.

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Don Hansen, whose family came by train to San Clemente in 1939 from Iowa during the Great Depression when the young city had only 478 residents, passed away Jan. 5 but left a sportfishing and public service and family legacy that spanned more than seven decades.

Hansen’s life was a composite of family, a lifelong love of fishing, four years of service to his country in the Coast Guard (two years based at Guam during the Korean War), and who returned to attend college and obtained his captain’s license at age 23. He eventually brought the landing then based on the San Clemente Pier in 1966 to the new Dana Harbor. He built it into a 17-boat fleet of sportfishers and whale watching boats based at Dana Wharf Sportfishing.

Captain Don Hansen

In fact, when Dana Point Harbor was built, Dana Wharf Sportfishing was the Harbor’s first tenant in 1971, Hansen moving into the new digs with his four boats, the Clemente, Sum Fun, Reel Fun and the Sea Horse — the Sea Horse is the only original pier boat he owned still not in service at the landing. It was sold in 2002 when the landing’s flagship 95-foot Dana Pride was built by his oldest son, Michael Hansen, who relocated to Washington to oversee the construction. In all, seven boats are currently owned by the landing, the other 10 in the fleet are managed by the landing operated by his daughter Donna Kalez and son Michael.

A video blog of Don as he appears on his son Capt. David Hansen’s website www.YourSaltwaterGuide.com  is enlightening with many great stories by Don.

The link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZMx7IjIEvI

Hansen was, above all, an astute businessman who knew full well the future and fortunes of sportfishing were in the new marinas, not coastal piers where customers would climb downstairs to a deck and hop onto a sportfisher that had been moored nearby. A skiff kept under the pier would take crewmen to the boats, which in turn came to pick up passengers. Wind, waves and tides made it tricky. Anyone now in their 60s remembers them.

At one time, the pier was home to 10 boats moored off the pier, fishing Easter to Labor day, the boats sent off for the winter to Newport Bay, Oceanside or San Diego. The “calm” months still posed issues for pier crews.

“When the weather was snotty, sometimes we ran the boats to Newport Beach and bussed them back to San Clemente,” recalled Hansen in a blog on yoursaltwaterguide.com. “It happened only four times that I recall in all the years, but that pier could get exciting.”

Yet, Hansen’s second home as a young man would be the San Clemente Pier for 25 years. His family knew of San Clemente through an aunt who lived there, and they visited the year before the family moved west. His father found work as a butcher and his mother waitressed. He began his fishing career at age 12 while attending La Palmas Elementary School when during the summers, pulling a wooden red wagon out to the fishermen. “I was a pest,” he said, and he would offer to haul their catch back from the end of the pier and up to the parking lot for the price of a tip, ranging from nickels, dimes and sometimes quarters.

“It was a great job for a kid… the boats came in and went out and you did your job. It got to be a little competitive.”

ASIDE FROM HIS MANY ACHIEVEMENTS in business and marine management, Hansen’s philosophy surrounding fishing and whale watching tours he popularized in the state was “Daily adventures, life-long memories.” PHOTO COURTESY OF DANA WHARF SPORTFISHING

By 1952 he had worked his way into a deckhand role at age 18, but joined the Coast Guard for a four-year stint during the Korean War. For two of those years he was based in Guam, in the South Pacific. When he took his honorable discharge, Hansen took classes at Orange Coast College and by then had earned his captains license in the Coast Guard, So at age 23, he returned to the sea and the pier and ran the Mustang for owner Bob Miller and eventually worked for Nelson Cook and other owners at the pier landing known as San Clemente Sportfishing, helping build and run the sportfishers over the next decade.

In 1966, with the help of a customer who loaned him money, he bought the landing and rarely took a day off, starting his day at 4 a.m. and said he “loved every minute of it.” Meanwhile, he kept an eye on the harbor construction a few miles to the north, and put in a bid to move his business there in 1971. The rest is…. Well, more hard work. But it sure paid off.

The landing and tackle shop and marina at Dana Point now serve more than 50,000 fishermen and whale watchers a year.

He also helped jumpstart Dana Point’s Christmas Parade of Lights, and later created two marine education programs for kids: Dana Wharf Kids Club and Dana Wharf Kids Fishing Camp.

Each year during the holidays, Dana Wharf hosts military members and their families and gives Santa rides that benefit local charities.

“When I first started, I’d ask him why we have trips for free,” his daughter Donna Kalez said. “He said, ‘That’s how we give back.’”

While sportfishing was what drew Hansen to the sea, whale watching became a huge part of his legacy. Hansen is credited with introducing whale watching to the state and the sportfishing industry as a whole.

As Kalez pointed out, whale watching as a business in California was founded on the San Clemente Pier through the fleet. Hansen saw the thrill people had on fishing trips when they spotted grey whales on their annual migrations past the Dana Point headlands and mentioned it to local high school teacher and friend Phillip Grignon, and they began offering free trips to high school kids. They were so successful Hansen expanded it to paying customers to supplement the fishing business, and when he moved to Dana Harbor he started the Whale Festival, the longest event in the world, which in 2021 celebrated its 50th year. The center of the celebration and honors at the Harbor was Hansen.

“The family was so happy to see all those events for the 50th and to see him get those honors,” said Kalez.

“There’s just been an outpouring of love from the communities,” she said. “Right now I’m working with the city and county to make sure that dad’s services go well. It will be a huge crowd.” One personal touch at the event is every attendee will receive a copy of Donna’s children’s book, The Amazing Adventures of Captain Don. He did indeed have many adventures and successes on so many levels.

Hansen’s personal involvement ranged into public service on a local and national level, particularly in fisheries management.

DON IS PICTURED WITH his daughter Donna Kalez and his son Michael Hansen who manage the family business at Dana Wharf Sportfishing. PHOTO COURTESY OF DANA WHARF SPORTFISHING

To that end, Don turned over the reins of the business to Donna and oldest son Michael in 2010. Kalez said her father remained active to the end. No. 1 on his list was family.

“He was awesome as a father and grandfather and checked in on everyone constantly, every day by phone, with his kids and with all of his 15 grandkids, calling them every day. We always spent his favorite holidays together, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we had lots of big gatherings despite Covid,” said Kalez. “We were so lucky to have him with us through the holidays. That’s just how we have always celebrated. My dad also loved listening to Let’s Talk Hookup (co-hosts Pete Gray’s and Rick Maxa’s radio show on 1090-AM Saturdays and Sunday mornings) on the weekends and he loved his football like no other. He was so happy his beloved Rams were doing so well. He was a huge Rams fan.

His son, Capt. David Hansen, is a regular Sunday how-to expert/contributor by phone to the radio show Let’s Talk Hookup. Hansen until recently ran a charterboat business in Cabo San Lucas. The sport yacht he ran was recently sold, he told WON, but he continues his wildly popular and financially successful website www.yoursaltwaterguide.com.

David said his dad would always call after the show, saying hello and usually offering a critique.

“It meant so much to me, every call,” said David. “Sometimes or most of the time he called to correct me, but I knew it was just a reason to call.”

Several of his blogs at   www.yoursaltwaterguide.com are interviews with his dad on his early days. They are filled with great stories of the early days, including his playing a dime slot machine with his tips on one of the boats he crewed on. It’s a funny story. Spoiler alert, he never won on that machine. No one did.

Some other things Don Hansen enjoyed were video poker, and golfing, said his daughter Donna.

“He was a scratch golfer at one time and he played for 30 years every Wednesday morning,” Kalez said. “In his last years, the golfing buddies would have a text chain and they kept him up on the news with his group at the course.”

That San Clemente municipal course near his home is affectionately called the Pride of the Pacific, which was about right because he loved San Clemente and lived there from when he arrived with his parents at age 6 from Iowa until he died. In fact, his family named its biggest sportfisher the Dana Pride, a 95 footer built in Washington in 2002 at the urging of his oldest son Michael, who relocated near the shipyard to supervise its construction.

If there is one thing Donna is most certain of about her father, it was his love of San Clemente, and its iconic pier where he began his fishing career and fostered a burgeoning whale watching business, and Dana Point and its harbor where he relocated his four boats at its grand opening in 1971.

“San Clemente is his who is,” said Kalez. ”Most of us live in San Clemente and it has our hearts as a family and it’s where he launched his career, so while we always argue which is better, more beautiful, this or that, Dana Point or San Clemente, we know we have the best of both worlds, living in San Clemente where we grew up and where we work in Dana Point.

She added, “My dad was such a big supporter of both communities. He was always part of the ongoing San Clemente Pier Pride program, always wanting to keep the pier looking beautiful, and he worked with the harbor on many events and projects.” She said it’s sad her father did not live to see the construction for long-anticipated revitalization of the harbor he helped plan with city, county and state officials, “and the building of the parking structure they are dedicating to him.”

While he stepped down from the sportfishing landing business side back in 2010, Hansen hardly retired. It just gave more freedom for public service, Kalez said.

From the very beginning, back in the ‘70s, Hansen was a community leader in San Clemente and then in Dana Point. He served on dozens of local community and hospital boards and committees, and after his retirement from running the landing stepped up his involvement in fisheries management as chairman of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) for six years and was a commissioner for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, a special appointment he received from the governor. His final fisheries work for the industry was his role as commission on the National Inter-America Tropical Tuna Commission, for which he was appointed by President Obama.

It should be noted Hansen was not just a supporter of groups and issues that only affected his business. He was a community volunteer from start to finish. He was San Clemente’s Citizen of the Year in 1970, and earned a “Lifetime Achievement award from the city 35 years later. His final public recognition came in October of 2021 when the Coastal Conservation Association of California awarded him its highest honor, the Anthony Hsieh Conservation Award, in recognition of his decades of work and dedication to improving California’s sportfishing industry.

DON HANSEN with an early-years marlin.

He was a sportfishing advocate for sure, but his was the voice of reason for any discussions, on any board or committee.

“His greatest ability was his affable personality and his ability to listen and understand differing viewpoints. His was often the most respected voice in any room, using his sense of humor to dissolve tense situations, to put thing in perspective,” said Dr. Gus Gialamas, in an interview with Don Kindred of the San Clemente Journal, which profiled Hansen last year. Dr. Gialamas served with Hansen on two hospital boards over the past 30 years.

Ken Franke, president of the Sportfishing Association of California (SAC) was among hundreds of friends, family, government officials and captains and crew who paid their respects at the news of his passing.

“His passing… was a blow to the sportfishing and whale watching industry. We are all speechless with this loss,” said Franke. “Don loved this fleet and spent his life defending and promoting public access to the ocean. His leadership never slowed, his humor never dulled and his caring never stopped.

“Don provided service as vice-president of the Sportfishing Association of California, Chairman of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, Chairman of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, and on the boards of many other organizations including his local hospital. The phrase “provided service” does not do justice to the decades he spent in each position and the effort that he put forth to better our lives and our fleet. I worked daily with him, right up to his passing, on important issues facing live bait, stock assessments, Coast Guard Regulations and finally, the looming CARB Proposed Harborcraft Rule.”

Franke said that Don was always so proud to work with his daughter Donna and son Michael in the family business.

“He cherished what they built together,” said Franke. “It has grown to include sportfishing and whale watching in both Dana Point and Oceanside Harbor. The Hansen team has been active throughout their community under Don’s leadership. Charitable works, volunteerism and helping the community were all pillars of his identity. His ethics and integrity gave him a seat at tables throughout NOAA, the Council, State and local arenas. His voice conveyed sincerity and resolve to do what was right and reasonable. Don received many awards and words of recognition for his… tireless work and dedication to improving California sportfishing and making angling accessible to everyone.”

Franke continued, “Most importantly, Don loved his family. He was so proud of them. Our hearts and prayers go out to his children and his grandchildren as they mourn his loss.”

Capt. Merit McCrea and Wendy Tochihara, national sales manager with Izorline and part of the fisheries management process for many years, issued a joint statement, touching on Hansen’s astute abilities in dealing with volatile issues, especially fisheries management, where the battlefield can be unseemly.

“We’ve heard now from folks at the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, how much he’s meant to that process and that he’ll be sorely missed,” said McCrea. “It’s incredible the number of lives he’s touched in his time. In his time on the council he was instrumental in making sure folks’ voices were heard, and we all understood each constituencies perspectives and challenges — helping us not make unproductive sacrifices and focus to see productive options instead. May we all continue to channel his spirit. Ask yourself: ‘What would Don do?’”

For weeks now, social media has been rife with hundreds of comments about the passing of Don Hansen. Far too many to recount here, but there were many stories from young and old, fishermen, longtime friends and fellow public servants, and of course, his family.

Bob Fletcher saw Hansen’s dedication to fishing and fisheries management and they became lifelong friends. Fletcher is also one of the giants of the sportfishing industry. He is a former California Fish and Game Deputy Director, sportboat captain and owner, and the retired president of the Sportfishing Association of California.

“I first met Don in the late 1970s when I joined the SAC Board of Directors, representing charterboats,” began Fletcher. “I soon learned that Don was a unique individual and was known throughout Sportfishing in California. Thus began a friendship that would only grow stronger through the decades until he passed away.”

Fletcher said Hansen was simply, “driven to be the ‘Voice’ for Southern California Sportfishing,” and loved to gather the latest info on sportfishing and commercial fishing from Mexico to Alaska and east to Washington DC.

“He spent years on the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC) and Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission (MAFAC), advising the Secretary of Commerce on fisheries issues, just to name a few.”

Fletcher said Hansen was always the voice of reason. He would listen, and when he spoke, it was with an understanding of both sides of the issue, which is why he was so welcome on so many panels and committees and councils.

“Don loved to travel to fisheries meetings to get together with fishermen and share information,” said Fletcher. “Don later became Chairman of the PFMC, and did such an outstanding job the Council hired him on as an advisor after his term expired to help them resolve often difficult fisheries management issues.

THE EARLY YEARS of Dana Landing, which at the time was called San Clemente Sportfishing before Hansen moved his four boats to Dana Harbor in 1971 when it opened. Hansen bought the landing at the pier in 1966.

“During One particular evening after a meeting of the PSMFC, Don and I sat in the bar drinking a glass of wine and talking about the Sportfishing Association. At that time the current president, Bill Nott, had had a heart attack and had to retire. Don was the vice president and wanted me to become the new president. Over the course of several hours and several bottles of good wine, Don told me why I needed to accept the job. Well, Don paid for the wine and I took the job, and for the next 20 years I listened to Don complain to people that he had still not completely paid off the credit card bill for that wine!”

Fletcher said Hansen loved people and was thoughtful.

“Don was always asking about my two boys Rob and Nick, and how their kids were doing. He was sometimes gruff in nature, but he had a heart of gold. During my 20 years as president of SAC, I could always count on Don to be there to bounce ideas off and explore ways to keep the fleet on the water. This industry owes a huge debt of gratitude to Captain Don Hansen for his decades of selfless service to the health of sportfishing. We will all miss him, but will remain thankful for his service and chuckle at the many Don Hansen stories.

As is the case in all of sportfishing, and sportboats, there are those who nurture talent. Hansen was one of those and he was wildly loved and respected by those crewmen and captains who came up the right way, “learning the ropes” as he did.

Capt. Todd Mansur ran sportboats and yacht charters out of Dana Wharf and is now a partner and captain for Boardroom Charters based at the landing. He said, “We lost one of the biggest influences in my life, a man that loved me and treated me like family. My heart is broken. From the time I was born Don Hansen was there for me. In fact, I’m sure he had to start off by changing my diapers. He was my mentor, my guidance and my inspiration. One of the most brilliant human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I’m going to miss you Don I love you with all my heart. Rest in peace.”

In a recent feature on Hansen by writer Don Kindred of the San Clemente Journal, old-timer Dave Peter recalled Hansen back in 1961 when Peters was just 10 years old and he used to hang around the end of the pier until he could talk someone into a “buddy pass,” which would allow him to go fishing for free.

“The second run of the day was called an ‘albacore run.’ It generally left about 1 p.m. in the afternoon but got us home by dinnertime. After I had made it aboard,” he says, “Captain Don Hansen announced that he had some good news and some bad news. He asked us, ‘Who has to be home at 5?’ Probably 10 of us raised our hands. ‘That’s the bad news’ he said, ‘The good news is there are a whole bunch of albacore out in the channel, and we are going to be a little late.’ Then he asked again, ‘Who has to be home at 5 p.m.?’

“Not a hand went up,” said Peters. “The boat would end up with its limit of 200 large tuna, caught so close that they never lost sight of the pier. My dad was waiting by my bike when I made it back to shore, he was pretty angry … ‘til he saw that sack of fish.”

Bob Lohrman, 73, of Laguna Niguel was a former captain of the Clemente for three years back in the early ‘70s after serving in the army in Vietnam and who retired from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department after 30 years but who still works on the environmental side of things  (“I fish for science now”) with a business partner in Seaventures on the Dana Harbor-based Vega. He’s on the water, every day. It’s a life Don Hansen gave him 60 years ago.

“I guess I’m one of the handful of people who have known him from way back and is still alive,” he said. “I met him through a school friend. I was 13 and lusted going on the boats moored off the pier and started going down and cleaning the new Sum Fun — that was in ’61, and the next year I was a pinhead and worked two summers, seven days a week, 12 hours a day on boat when Don was 27 at that time. I’d fall asleep on my dinner plate I was tired but I couldn’t wait to go the next morning. “

Lohrman remembers Hansen as being tough and gruff, but fair.

“I got fired and rehired many times, but it didn’t matter.” said Lohrman. “He was always there for you.” In those days Bob worked the boats based at the pier, took reservations and even babysat the two young boys David and his older brother Michael before Donna was born. The early days.

“And we kept up our relationship over the years, and in the past few years we had breakfast a few times every week. It was not like losing an old boss — we had a relationship for 60 years, and he was like a father to me. He brought me in at a time of my life as a young teenager to that group of people at the pier where you worked hard and kept your mouth shut and earned your respect. In these last years, I would try to tell him how much he meant to me, and he’d just push me off, saying, ‘Hey, I didn’t do anything.’ But he did.”

Lohrman went on, “There were a lot of stories, too many to tell, but one was way back when we had a crew trip on a little charterboat still running out of the pier, going after albacore with lift poles. Capt. Todd Mansur’s dad John Mansur (owner of John’s Fish Market) was among them.  The bait tank would often get plugged with anchovies and despite cleaning them out they would still clog the drain and it would overflow. And they did, during a full-tilt albacore bite, four guys on the back lifting-poling albies. Then the scuppers filled up with the fish and soon there was a foot of water in the boat, and one of the poles pulled in a mako, and it was swimming in a foot of water around us. “Don said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just keep chumming.’ So, we never stopped fishing. It was crazy.”

The fishery was different back then. Lorhman recounts the afternoon half-day where they had 197 albacore in less than an hour within sight of the pier. Then there was the launching of the Clemente in ’65. In Newport Beach at the launch it was festive, and true to tradition, the crew had to jump in the water, but it was February and a skinny young crewman resisted, struggling mightily as he took four people into the cold water with him. Soon, more people were pushed and then everyone jumped in like lemmings. “Later we all got warm at the bar. It was a real scene, one of many great memories of working there.”

Hansen was married twice, to Linda, who died of brain cancer in 1991, and to Anne, who after 25 years, died of pancreatic cancer. He is survived by his 6 children and 15 grandchildren: Three sons, (spouses in parenthesis), David Hansen (Kelly), Michael Hansen (Deanna), Jeff Jonas (Elizabeth); three daughters: Jenifer Gressett (David), Jane Graff, Donna Kalez (Mark), and 15 grandchildren: Zac

Hansen (Talia), Sean Hansen, Jake Graff, Jason Graff, Alexis Persons (Blake), John Gressett, Erik Gressett, Shannon Herrera (Christian), Shane Hansen, Christine Jonas, Bennett Jonas, Cameron Jonas, Tess Jonas, Julia Kalez and Emily Kalez.

A celebration of life will be held at 11 a.m. on Jan. 29 at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, and burial at sea will follow at approximately 2 p.m. (by invitation only), with an armada of landing boats participating in the spreading of ashes.

In lieu of flowers, please make donations to any of Don’s favorite charities: Fish For Life, Captain Rollo’s Kids at Sea, Coastal Conservation Association, Gray Whale Foundation.

On Jan. 23 a two-hour tribute to Hansen was scheduled on Pete Gray’s and co-host Rick Maxa’s Let’s Tackle Hookup radio show on the 7-9 a.m. on the Mightier 1090-AM with Hansen’s son David and Ken Franke, director of the Sportfishing Association of California (SAC) joining the crew. The Let’s Talk Hookup app features full archives of the show.

Pat McDonell is the retired editor of Western Outdoor News, a tenure that spanned 34 years, and is now a Carlsbad-based freelance writer.

FRIENDS AND FAMILY were everything to Hansen, and he had lots of both as he built his landing into a sportfishing and whale watching center at the harbor and began the Festival of Whales and educational programs and camps for children through the landing. He was also honored for his work with the Pier Pride program by the City of San Clemente. Don was an avid golfer (as well as a loyal Rams fan), and he is pictured with his extended family of children and 15 grandchildren. In another photo he is sitting with Capt. Todd Mansur and his daughter Donna Kalez, who has managed the landing with her brother Michael since 2010. The attendees of the memorial service Jan. 29 at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point will be given a copy of Donna Kalez’s children’s book, The Adventures of Captain Don.

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