The owner of Turneffe Flats Lodge is an environmental powerhouse in the Caribbean.

On arrival for my first visit to Belize’s Turneffe Atoll, I stepped off the boat a little dazed, partially from a long day of travel from the West Coast, and partly from the six or so Belikin beers I’d consumed en route. After fishing my laptop out of the drink (a result of those aforementioned Belikins), I shamefacedly shambled toward the main lodge where I was greeted by a short, trim gringo with a soft voice and even quieter demeanor—Craig Hayes, Turneffe Flats’ proprietor.

2013 Angler of the Year

Hearing of the miscue, Hayes had already procured rice and advised that I cake my computer in it. The procedure worked, and I had my first look at how efficiently Hayes solves problems.

After giving the lodge overview, Hayes informed all anglers that the lodge strongly supported catch-and-release, and that we could show our own support by adding a modestly priced conservation tag to our tab. “It’s not mandatory,” he made it clear, “but it would be great if you did.”

All of us did, which was another small victory for Hayes’ quiet persistence, a perseverance that was rewarded in fall 2012 when the Belize government declared Turneffe Atoll a marine reserve, bringing special protection to 325,000 acres that the Oceanic Society has described as “the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in the Western Hemisphere.” And that’s just one of the reasons why we chose Craig Hayes as Fly Rod & Reel’s 2013 Angler Of The Year.

To those who knew Hayes as a kid, while growing up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, his environmental work and his choice to spend 95 percent of his time in Belize came as a surprise. Ditto for Hayes.

“My big focus as a kid was athletics,” Hayes recalled. “I was out playing ball every day. Wrestling was my best sport—I was the state champion in my class (145 pounds). I was also an all-state football player and captain of my high school baseball team.” (Hayes was later inducted into Aberdeen Central High School’s Hall of Fame).

When he wasn’t on the playing field, Hayes could be found helping out at his father’s print shop, or hunting pheasant. “Aberdeen is known for its pheasant hunting,” Hayes continued. “Ducks, too. The only fishing I did then was for walleye. There was no fly-fishing around. I found walleye fishing boring. I was much more a bird hunter than an angler.”

Hayes’s wrestling skills earned him a scholarship to South Dakota State, a Division II wrestling powerhouse. After two years on the team, he decided to concentrate on his education. “I studied engineering, then math, then phys. ed., then chemistry,” Hayes said. “In my third year, I decided I’d apply to medical school. When I went in for my interview, the first question was, ‘What will you do if you don’t get in?’ I replied, ‘I’ll probably be a coach.’ When the interviewer asked what coaches I admired, I said ‘Vince Lombardi.’ The admissions guy was from Green Bay. Though I only had three years of college, I got in.”

Hayes finished his medical degree in Massachusetts (Tufts University, ’75) and returned to the Black Hills region of South Dakota, practicing first in emergency medicine and then in a family practice. In 1977 he visited Belize for the first time.

“A good friend from my high school days, Doug Moore, called and said out of the blue, ‘Let’s go to Belize.’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go. By the way, where’s Belize?’ We found our way to Caye Caulker. It was a sleepy little island, no TVs, no vehicles, only one telephone. I remember calling back to Rapid City after two weeks’ vacation and asking one of my partners if he could cover for me so I could stay down another week. I returned to Caye Caulker for several years. On one of those visits, Doug and I and a few other pals were hanging out at the bar, and someone said ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to start a business here? It would be an excuse to come down more often.’ We decided that it should be a tourism business—we could see the region’s potential.”

I have the sense that Hayes and his cronies enjoyed a, well, spirited vacation lifestyle back in the day (it was the ’70s, after all), but they quickly got down to business. To be in the tourism game off the coast of Belize, you’d need a boat—so they had one made, and named it Further, a tribute to Ken Kesey’s bus.

“Once we had it financed, we talked to a local boat builder to get it done,” Hayes added. “I’m sure he thought that these young gringos would never pick it up!” But they did, and using Caye Caulker as a base, discussed options.

“Turneffe was a place that kept coming up in conversation,” Hayes said. “The local fishermen talked about it. You had to cross some blue water to get there, the weather had to be right. We tried several times to go and eventually made it. We stayed in a lobster shack. It turned out that the fisherman’s brother —Juni Marin—had leased a piece of property on the atoll from the government, and wanted to do a tourist business.

“Right about this time, a story had come out in Sports Illustrated about bonefishing in Turneffe. We asked Juni if there were any bonefish around the property. ‘Oh yeah,’ he said. And he took us over to Grassy Key and we saw the bonefish. I flailed away at them for a while. I can’t recall if I caught any. After that, we made a deal to form a company. It was 1981.”

Turneffe’s appeal is not hard to understand—even if you’re not much of an angler. Located 30 miles east of Belize City, the atoll’s hundreds of palm-fringed islands, endless mangroves, clear lagoons and unbroken reefs comprise an idyllic picture of unspoiled Caribbean beauty. There’s a delicious sense of isolation—though on the flats and in the lagoons, visitors find constant company in the shape of ever-present bonefish, frequently cruising permit, and in the later spring and summer, migratory tarpon. (There are snook up in the mangroves, too.) In the early days at Turneffe Flats, the original fish camp became the main lodge. The guys hammered together a few bare-bones cabins to accommodate four to six guests. Karen Krietlow (now Karen Hayes), who Hayes had met in Deadwood, took over the reservations desk in South Dakota. The boats were moored at a small earthen dock. There was a little 4,000-watt Yamaha generator that supplied power from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM. The lights were on.

Over three decades, Turneffe has slowly evolved into one of the finest and most sustainable fly-fishing operations in the Caribbean, thanks largely to Hayes’s dedication . . . though given a chance, he would decline any credit.

“We have a great team working with us now,” Hayes admitted, “though the original team disintegrated pretty quickly. Juni and Doug didn’t get along, so Juni left. Doug wasn’t really a managerial sort of guy, and he left. Still, Karen and I kept putting any extra money we had into the lodge, and slowly built up the systems.”

A short list of innovations Hayes brought to Turneffe include a rainwater collection/storage system that gathers 150,000 gallons of fresh water a year, which takes pressure off the desalinization system; a state-of-the-art gray-water recycling system; and an aggressive composting/recycling program. Plans are in place to integrate wind power into Turneffe’s off-the-grid power, too.

“I’ve known Craig for more than 20 years, and have watched the lodge grow from an outpost to what it is today,” said noted photographer Brian O’Keefe. “Turneffe Flats grew slowly, at a nice pace. Maybe it comes from being a doctor, but Craig’s such an even-keeled guy, with a good head on his shoulders. He makes good, calculated decisions. A lot of the guys who went down there in the early days still go down. We all kind of evolved together.”

By the late 1990s, Hayes was becoming tired, trying to run a medical practice and a lodge. Doctoring drew the short straw, and he and Karen made Turneffe their primary residence. That was when Hayes was able to throw his still wrestling-ready frame into conservation.

“About the time we moved down to Turneffe, Craig [Matthews] and Yvonne [Chouinard] started 1% for the Planet,” Hayes said. “I have great respect for both of them, and I loved the idea of supporting conservation in your own backyard. At that point, we decided to make a substantial financial contribution (over $300,000 to date) to support those efforts, and we formed Turneffe Atoll Trust to receive our donations and others. Our first big effort (along with Belize River Lodge and El Pescador) was to lobby for catch-and-release sportfishing in Belize. The Trust underwrote the economic study, and legislation was enacted in January, 2009.”

“Were it not for Craig’s passion and persistence and his personal contributions to get a true dollar value assigned to each bonefish, permit and tarpon, this victory might never have materialized,” said Ken Morrish, co-owner of the Oregon-based Flywater Travel. “Craig brought lots of different parties and players together to make meaningful and lasting contributions to the area and subsequently to the sport of saltwater fly-fishing.”

Hayes’s next goal was to gain protection for the atoll.

“A poorly managed commercial fishery and large-scale, destructive development both threaten the region’s delicate ecological balance,” Hayes said. “Commercial fishermen frequently keep undersize catch, and fish out of season. There have been several incidences of individuals dredging flats, chopping down mangroves and filling the land with the dredge. Historically, there’s been no one to effectively monitor or enforce such activity.”

After several stalled efforts, Hayes formed the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Council, bringing all stakeholders together. Over 2 ˝ years, the council developed a 300-page management plan for developing the atoll in a sustainable manner; the plan took 10,000 man hours, underwritten largely by the Turneffe Atoll Trust. Thanks to the plan, Turneffe Atoll was designated a Marine Reserve by Belize’s Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, Hon. Minister Lisel Alamilla, on September 27, 2012.

“Establishing the reserve means nothing if we don’t have a firm idea of how it will be operated,” Hayes, ever the pragmatist, opined. “I believe it needs to be run by the stakeholders—commercial fishermen, private landowners, scientists. Enforcement is a big issue. We estimate it will cost $750,000 a year to maintain the reserve. The government of Belize doesn’t have the resources to operate the reserve. We have to raise it ourselves. Our efforts getting the reserve designated will be for naught if we can’t create a model for the whole Caribbean. The work has just begun.”

These days, you’re more likely to find Craig Hayes coalition-building in Belize City or tinkering with the gray-water system than casting on the flats, though he still finds time to chase permit.

“I can go out all day and feel pretty good about getting a half-dozen good shots,” he said. “I’ve also circled back to trout fishing. I’m a latecomer, but I really have a bug for it. I like to dryfly fish. I don’t care if I go hours without catching fish. I really want to explore the rivers of the West. That’s one reason we made Bozeman, Montana our stateside base.

“I never set out to be in the fishing industry, but now that I’m here, I wouldn’t choose any other industry to be associated with,” Hayes continued. “Fly-fishing people are generally interesting people. They enjoy challenges and love the outdoors. People from so many different walks of life—from the trout bum who doesn’t have two nickels to rub together to the rich and famous—come together over their love of the sport. There’s something magic in that.”

And Craig Hayes, Fly Rod & Reel’s richly deserving Angler Of The Year for 2013, seems happy to be part of it.