Captain Jack, ‘king of kokanee’ at Shaver Lake, has died. He loved helping people fish

For many Shaver Lake visitors, a “Captain Jack” sighting was a special treasure on any trip to the mountain oasis above Fresno.

Jack Yandell, a colorful fishing guide who later opened a tackle shop next to the town deli, had a passion for sharing fishing tips and tales with friends and strangers alike.

A fishing guide who followed in his footsteps, Dick Nichols, fondly recalled the commotion whenever people saw “the captain.”

“They would all run to the side of the boat waving – I’m talking about kids, everybody,” Nichols said. “He’d wave and wave back. He glowed like the sun. … He was flashy. He was flamboyant. And, of course, the name Captain Jack was like Geronimo. It was just symbolic.”

This legendary beloved figure of Shaver Lake, dubbed by friends the “king of kokanee” salmon and unofficial mayor of town, died March 19 of prostate cancer. He was 84.

About 15 years ago, Yandell and Nichols founded the Shaver Lake Trophy Trout Project, which plants large, trophy-sized trout at Shaver Lake twice a year. The group also helps fund a Trout in the Classroom program in some area schools, youth fishing derbies, and two scholarships at Sierra High School – one of them named after Captain Jack.

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Jack Yandell outside his Shaver Lake shop, Captain Jack’s Tackle, holding a string of kokanee salmon. DICK NICHOLS Special to The Bee

Roger George, The Bee’s longtime fishing columnist, said Yandell started a kokanee fishing “revolution” and “craze” throughout the region about 25 years ago.

“There’s been an incredible upswing in the amount of people who love to kokanee fish and are set up to do it,” George said, “and they got started because of Captain Jack.”

Yandell moved to Shaver Lake after retiring in 1990 as a manager at Rocketdyne, a rocket engine design and production company. His work there included manufacturing aerospace engines used on NASA’s Apollo space program.

Yandell later used his engineering skills to manufacture fishing tackle, including “Super Hoochie” and “Fat Bug” lures, that he sold at Captain Jack’s Tackle.

The pink meat of a freshly-caught kokanee salmon in 2007 at Shaver Lake. TOMAS OVALLE Fresno Bee archive

Nichols thinks it was his way of connecting with fish out of something he designed.

“I honestly think he knew exactly what a fish was thinking of,” Nichols said. “I think he studied fish psychology and he developed his tackle around fish psychology.”

Yandell also liked educating people about how kokanee salmon were created and grew – changing from slim silver-and-black fishes to green-and-red humpbacked creatures with large jaws.

Kokanee salmon sits in Jack Yandell’s cooler at Shaver Lake in 2007. TOMAS OVALLE Fresno Bee archive

He routinely gave well-attended fishing lectures in the central San Joaquin Valley.

“He was bigger than big,” Nichols said. “As a kokanee fisherman, he was an entertainer, he was a lecturer. He talked about the fish. He made the trip such a pleasant trip that people yearned to come back to him.”

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Jack Yandell with family members beside his fishing boat, JoAnn, named after his late wife. Special to The Bee

Yandell’s support of youth fishing derbies was the only competitive fishing he was interested in, Nichols said. His focus was educating children and giving families the best and most personable fishing experience possible.

The locals loved him, too. He was a regular country singer at a karaoke night in Shaver Lake.

“When you went out with Jack, there was no dull moment,” Nichols said. “He’d have you in hysterics.”

Children working at the deli next to his tackle shop used to take turns bringing him a sandwich, chips and Coke each day for lunch.

Yandell became a fishing guide in 2000 – the first at Shaver Lake, Nichols said – and retired a handful of years later to take care of his late wife, JoAnn, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease and died in 2008.

Later, he opened Captain Jack’s Tackle, which he operated for several years until his health declined.

Jack Yandell at Shaver Lake in 2007. TOMAS OVALLE Fresno Bee archive

Many in the town proudly don Captain Jack hats that Yandell gave them.

“He was just an old country boy, you know what I mean?” Nichols said. “But he grew to be a legend.”

Yandell convinced Nichols not to name his guiding business Sierra Sports Fishing.

“He said, ‘No, you are going to call it Dick’s Fishing Charters.’ … He said it’s so important that the people know who they are fishing with. Not Sierra Sports Fishing, but Dick, and he proved it right so many times.”

George described Yandell as an illuminating, amiable, iconic figure.

“People would always ask me, ‘Do you know Captain Jack?’ And they always had something good to say,” George said. “He was part of the lake.”

Yandell spent his retirement years in a log house that he built, fittingly, on Kokanee Drive. It became a magical destination each Christmas for his daughters, grandchildren, and later, some of his great-grandchildren.

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Jack Yandell with his children and grandchildren during a family reunion at his Shaver Lake cabin in 2017. Special to The Bee

“The house was just full of kids and laughter and love and lots of presents,” granddaughter Kandice Ligonde said. “The memories I have up there are just something I’ll cherish forever. Lots of making snowmen and sledding.”

Yandell’s daughters were at his side when he died in hospice care at a facility in Fresno.

One of his close friends, Robert Bernier, a fellow Shaver Lake Trophy Trout Project member, said Yandell was still very alert and joking back and forth with him a few days before he died.

Bernier described him as a “much admired” man with many friends.

“He was a happy, pleasant guy,” Bernier said. “I can never remember seeing him extremely angry or at odds with anybody.”

Yandell’s grandson, Kellen McLaughlin, interviewed his grandpa four days before he died.

Some words of wisdom gathered: “Always tell the truth. Liars never win. Always do your best.” Also: “You gotta’ do it when you are thinking about it. Don’t wait for tomorrow.”

As for fishing secrets, Yandell shared this gem: “Always use a Captain Jack Super Hoochie lure.”

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Jack Yandell talks with daughter Teresa in his fishing boat on Shaver Lake. Special to The Bee

Jack Levi Yandell

Born: Sept. 21, 1934

Died: March 19, 2019

Residence: Shaver Lake

Occupation: Retired Rocketdyne manager, fishing guide, and tackle shop owner

Survivors: Daughters Denise Putnam, Teresa McLaughlin, and Lori Kent; brothers Jim, Richard and Donald; nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

Celebration of life service: 11 a.m. May 11, Shaver Lake Community Center, 41344 Tollhouse Road, Shaver Lake.

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.