Authors, Artists and Makers Volume 8: Jon Osborn
Updated: Jan 16
In the scheme of my nearly 48 years, I've only known Ozzy a relatively short time. But, in that time, we've shared quite a bit: drift boats and pickup cabs, grouse woods and river banks, porches and tailgates, pipes and bourbons and beers and lunches from a camp stove. We've shared a passion for good books and wild places. We've shared stories around the fire, the triumph of landed fish, and the failures of busted birds. We've shared plenty of laughs and even a few tears, remembering lost dogs and lost buddies.
It's the type of sharing that makes a short time seem much longer, and I'm honored to consider him among my closer friends.
Jon is one of those incredibly talented guys that's so unassuming it's easy to miss. He has several books to his name; some solo and a couple as part of a collective (more on this in the interview), and numerous articles in magazines across the country. He's a master wordsmith, a loving father and husband, a generous friend and a certified old soul – as deadly with an old double gun as he is with his bamboo rod. He's one of those people that has a true understanding of what really matters in this life and one of the few that always gives more than he takes.
I'm excited to share this interview and hope to offer a glimpse of the person behind the words. I'm better for knowing him, and I think you will be too. Enjoy.
Jon, as you know, my goal with these features is to highlight not only the work but the person behind the work of artists in the outdoor space that I highly respect. In doing so I find that it is always helpful to understand backgrounds. So, let’s start there.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Holland, attended school there, and ultimately settled in West Michigan. That choice wasn’t made lightly. I’ve travelled throughout the US and a few times beyond that, but I enjoy Michigan better than anywhere else. Call me simple (plenty of people do) but it’s the truth.
Q. I’d like to understand how you got your start in hunting and fishing and, like any good novel, I suspect there are a few main characters involved. Can you talk about that?
A: The fishing gene runs strong in my family DNA, but ironically, not the fly-fishing gene. I think it began with my dad. He’d wind down after work by trolling for walleye on nearby Lake Macatawa. Trolling must be the most boring way for a kid to fish, but I had piles of comic books and I was with my dad, so bobbing around out there wasn’t all bad. The funny thing is, as I’m unpacking these memories, the smell of the water and the motion of the boat came rushing right back like it was yesterday. Important experiences are like that, and I suspect they’ll always remain clear, even when other memories fade.
Anyway, the stern of the old aluminum boat bristled with rods. When one would bend and start jumping around, Dad would jerk it from the rod holder and exclaim, “BANGO” in triumphant excitement. But, if the fish turned out to be a sheepshead, his shoulders would slump like someone had let all the air out of him. Walleye were the prize – and it better be a big one.
Hunting was another story. As former hippies, my parents could appreciate the organic self-sufficiency of hunting , but they didn’t like guns. They weren’t anti-hunting, per say, the simply struggle to rationalize hunting overall. It was foreign to them. Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote, “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted,” and I agree with that completely. Despite my family’s views and desires, I wound up hunting even more than I fished, and for the last 25 years, I’ve carried and handled multiple guns every day. How’s that for irony?
That doesn’t really answer the question about who got me started hunting, though. My best friend as a kid was Steener, and he remains one of my best friends to this day. Steener had BB guns and air rifles, so after a lot of begging and pleading, I finally convinced my folks that I needed air rifles as well. Steener’s dad, Ed had been a bird hunter during an era when pheasants were prolific and he helped us get started.
In the end, even though my folks didn’t promote hunting, they allowed it. Although they never said, “Hey, grab your stuff, we’re going hunting,” they gave me a long leash in order to explore, so that’s how it all started.
Q. Growing up, it sounds like your parents had a pretty big influence on your love of reading and writing. Can you talk about that and maybe touch on some of your early literary influences?
A: Yeah. As I mentioned, my parents come from solid hippy stock. Mom shopped at a food co-op and bought a bunch of oddball items like peanut butter that you had to stir and carab chips instead of chocolate chips because they were allegedly healthier, even though they tasted weird. Dad grew a garden and killed a lot of fish for the table. One of my first solid foods as an infant was pureed walleye. I love eating fish, but I doubt I’ll revisit that one.
Anyway, Mom started out as a teacher and later became a librarian. Dad was a school social worker and taught psychology at Hope College. Needless to say, both of them put a lot of stock into education. Beginning at a very early age, they read aloud from Kipling, London, Wilder, Lewis, and others. Through that process, I suppose, I just learned to love reading.
Q. So, writing is a passion of yours not your “day job”– can you tell us a little about your day job and how you began writing?
A: The day-job and writing: if that’s not a dichotomy, I don’t know what is. I’ve been a cop for the past 24 years. I recently stepped down from the tactical team, which was my true passion within the job. These days, I’m more of a glorified secretary, but that’s OK, there’s an end to everything. Either way, my desire to spend time outdoors and write about those adventures directly corresponds to stuff I’ve seen and experienced while working the road.
So police work pays the bills, and I have to say, full-time writers and artists and guides deserve a lot of credit. It’s challenging to make a living that way, and perks like health insurance, pensions, paid vacations and sick time are easy to take for granted. That’s a long way of saying I’m not brave enough to make a go of writing for a full-time job. Besides, I had no idea I’d have any interest in it when I first started working as a cop. Back then, police work was dependable – consistent paycheck, pension, no shortage of excitement.
After about a decade-and-a-half, though, police work alone wasn’t enough, and the words started oozing out. I think you can bury a passion like writing or singing or painting only so long before they finally leak out. In my case, writing became a release for some of the bizarre stuff I’d seen and done in law enforcement. I’m certain there was some Divine Intervention at work there.
Q. This is a bit like asking Mallory why he wanted to climb Everest (“because it was there”), but why do you write?
A: I feel like passion – whether that means climbing mountains, sailing oceans, or writing stories –rises from a need to rationalize life. Those experiences might be major events like divorce, death, assault, or just a bunch of minor events that build up to something big.
Take fishing, for example: some of the greatest guides I know were former alcoholics or addicts. Even in recovery, their personalities are such that they struggle mightily. For some of them, a conventional job would be a disaster, but dang it, they can fish. You see that with a lot of guys in the spec-ops community, too. They do what they do better than anyone else but day-to-day life is a real struggle. Highly successful people all seem to have that pedal-down op-tempo. That white-hot drive doesn’t just emerge out of nowhere, and there’s a fine line between high-drive and obsession/addiction. In all honesty, I’m not always sure where that line is, either. Keeping the car on the road is the goal, but sometimes it just slides off into the ditch and flips over.
Q: In terms of your writing, do you have a specific process you follow or what does that look like? Where do you find inspiration?
A: I wish I could say I had some really effective process, but I don’t. My writing comes in unexpected fits and starts, and every moment is stolen from somewhere else. In other words, when I’m banging away on a keyboard at 3AM, I’m robbing my sleep and the next day is bound to suffer a bit. Same for staying up late – which I rarely do, by the way. Or, if I leave work early and burn some time because I’m feeling somehow inspired, I’m stealing it from my vacation bank. So writing is all a big heist, I guess.
I’m also very intentional about thinking “writing thoughts” during fishing and hunting trips, while running, and laying in bed at night. Or I’m processing something that happened. I guess my inspiration stems from reflection on the best of times, or the worst of times.
Something I struggle with is editing as I write, which they say isn’t the best. Hemingway broke that down even further. “Write drunk and edit sober.” I’m not sure that’s the answer either but editing while writing keeps you mired in the first paragraph all afternoon. I think a “stream of conscious” approach is more the goal.
Q: You’ve written informational books, short stories, contributed to a number of magazines and most recently have a regular outdoor column in the Traverse City Record Eagle – do you have a favorite type of writing or medium?
A: The “just the facts” cop in me struggles with fiction, but I’m working on improving that. Contemplative essays are my favorite. I really strive to keep myself on the periphery of my writing (something editor Tom Carney always stressed) but I steal a lot of inspiration from personal experiences and observations, without saying “I did this, or “I saw that.” The goal, of course, is to take the reader on a journey, and that’s tough to do well.
Q: Do you have a favorite piece or passage of your writing – one that just felt right or special – or maybe one that you are especially proud of for one reason or another?
A: One of my favorite lines ever written, by McCarthy, is how I wish I wrote:
"Once there were brook trouts in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."
I know that didn’t answer your question, but I’m having a hard time with this, so I’m going to turn it around on you and ask: “What’s one of your favorite lines I’ve ever written?”
Allen: Normally I wouldn't let you dodge a question that easily, however I do have some favorite passages from a recent yet-to-be-published piece you shared with me. Here is a short excerpt:
"Right then, what he wanted most was to slip on a pair of beat-up brush pants, lace up his far-going boots, and feel the heft of steel and walnut in the palm of his hand. He craved the scratch of weathered wool against his neck, the patched-up plaid shirt that smacked of chainsaw exhaust and gun oil. He pined for the odor of waxed cotton and pipe tobacco and burnt gunpowder hanging heavy in the winter air. He wanted to inhale the aroma of dampish leaves turning back to earth, a collection of smells tied to memories from a time when life was simpler."
Q: I find that most writers are also voracious readers – do you have some favorite authors or books?
A: Too many to count, yes. And I completely agree about writers being avid readers. I touched on the fact that my folks read to me a lot as a kid, but as I grew older, I became more and more enamored with the outdoors, and began reading Field and Stream and Outdoor Life, which led to books by Gene Hill, Steve Smith, Robert Ruark, Gordon MacQuarrie, and Guy de la Valdene.
More recently, I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy (thanks to you), Robert F. Jones, and T. Edward Nickens. And, although it’s not a book, I’m utterly smitten with the writing in the series, 1883.
Q: I assume you’ve had some mentors along your writing journey, can you talk about them a little?
A: I’ve been blessed to know some excellent writers and editors over the years who invested more time than I deserved in helping improve my writing. I’m thinking of folks like Lisa Jensen, who edited Michigan BLUE magazine, Tom Carney, editor of The Upland Almanac, Steve Smith, who edited The Pointing Dog Journal and The Retriever Journal, and most recently, his son, Jake Smith, who currently edits those magazines. Other writers, like Jerry Dennis and Tom Keer, have also graciously lent a hand at various points.
Then there are a handful of peers, guys like Chris Smith, Greg Frey, Jake Smith, and you. Trading ideas, edits, humorous gaffs among friends is vital to the process, for me anyway. I remember Steve Smith telling me about him swapping ideas over the phone with Gene Hill and Michael McIntosh. Wow. Just wow. Anyone’s writing improves with critique – and also in critiquing someone else’s work.
Q: How would YOU describe your writing style?
A: Ugh. That’s tough. Reflective? Descriptive? How would you describe it? More than anything else, I hope to evoke emotion in readers, rather than simply convey facts or offer how-to advice. Sometimes that’s inherent in the process, but it’s not my preferred style.
Q: You’re a devoted husband and father, so in your “free” time what are some of your other hobbies or interests?
A: Free time tends to be seasonal for me. In March and early April I’ll hit the rivers for steelhead, but in May or June I’ll always opt for trout fishing. In July and August, I chase smallmouth bass. When fall rolls around, I’ll always pick hunting in some form or another. By the time January and February arrive, I’m ready for a break, so I reload shotgun shells and dive into fly tying like it’s a job. On a side note, I’ve noticed that fly tying and reloading offer some immediate gratification that counterbalances writing.
I run 15-20 miles a week as well, but mostly because it’s a great bang-for-the-buck workout, and somewhat counteracts my love of cooking and eating great food. Also, it’s an extremely rare evening where I don’t read for at least a half hour before bed. Other than that, it feels like I’m working all the time.
Q: Who are some of your hunting and fishing influences?
A: I mentioned Steener and his dad Ed. Aside from them though, I learned hunting by just getting out there and making mistakes. Basically my parents gave me the free reign to go, and Ed taught us how to make a one-match fire and took us rat hunting at night with .22s, which helped get us started on the path. That’s another story for another time, but a good one at that.
As far as fishing goes, my dad and Grandpa played big roles. Later on, I met a guy named Andy Moegenberg, who showed me the ropes of fly fishing. Most recently it’s been guys like Koz, Kirk, and you. Heck, I recently tied more than 75 SDs on your suggestion alone.
Whether we’re talking hunting or fishing, It’s important to avoid reaching a point where you think you’ve got it all figured out. Always continue learning. Stay open to new ideas and new techniques.
Q: I don’t think I’m going very far out on a limb at all to say you are an old soul who is most comfortable in wool, waxed cotton and tin cloth, preferring bamboo to graphite, an old side-by-side to a semi-auto, and a good pipe with your bourbon – I went all that way to ask you about a special pipe you were gifted, can you share that story?
A: You’re correct about everything you said. Those are my comforts. And yes, I have an affinity for collecting pipes. Smoking a pipe just seems to compliment everything else you mentioned, and lends itself to a slower, more contemplative outlook on life. The legendary outdoor writer, Gene Hill, was also a pipe smoker. He and Steve Smith were very close friends, and Steve inherited some of Hilly’s pipes after he passed. One day, out of the blue, Steve’s son Chris brought some Hill pipes to one of our gatherings and gave them to us as gifts. I mean, Gene Hill’s pipes?? We kind of save those for special occasions, events like Trout Opener or “Warming of the Guns,” which is our annual kick-off to hunting season. We save some of Hill’s tobacco for smoking on those occasions, a brand called Edgeworth. We usually start out with a sort of pipe-toast, something like: “Here’s to the guys who came before us, Gene Hill, Steve Smith, Michael McIntosh…”
Q: One question I always ask is “who inspires you” – It can be other artists, musicians, whomever…
A: It sounds cliché, but I’m inspired by my family. Watching my kids analyze situations and navigate their way through life is humbling, frustrating, worrisome, and amazing. They offer views of my former self… but better versions of myself… how I wish I could be. I also love fishing with my wife and watching her realize some of the great stuff I’ve experienced in fly fishing. Some of the high points there were watching her land a few tarpon over a hundred pounds, some very large brown trout, and brook trout. It’s amazing to experience that kind of stuff together.
Faith is a big thing for me, too. I try to find God in everything, because I genuinely believe He’s there, but I’m pretty good at falling short, too. I’ve seen what life without faith looks like, and it wasn’t a pretty place. That said, I’m inspired by people who do it well. Talking that talk is one thing, but walking the walk is a constant struggle. All in all, I believe that all this stuff we’re talking about here – talents, passions, experiences – it’s all God-given, and I’m so thankful for that.
I’m also awed by artists, musicians, and craftsmen because I can’t paint or sculpt. Just ask my wife, I wreck more stuff around the house than I ever repair. I can’t carry a tune or play an instrument, although my musical tastes run the gamut from old-school jazz (especially Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington) to folk music like Gregory Alan Isakov, Lord Huron, Sarah Jarosz, to hard rock, like Guns n’ Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Some of U2’s songs are among my favorites, maybe because the lyrics are flush with double meanings and turmoil. Nothing is overly obvious. Like impressionistic paintings, their music forces you go searching for deeper meaning.
Q: Tell me about the motley crew known as the Lost Branch Sportsman’s Club.
A: Motley Crew is right. You’ve got Jake Smith, a magazine editor, fly tyer, and angler. Then you have Chris, who goes by “Boom.” He’s an artist and a writer by trade, and a better natural shooter than any deserves to be. Lastly, there’s Greg Frey, who, contrary to popular belief isn’t related to Glenn Frey, of Eagles fame. Greg teaches elementary school and guides fly anglers when school’s out. We’re all fairly normal family guys with work-a-day jobs, except Greg, who’s still contesting some serious charges in court. His probation might get in the way of us fishing together, but five years goes by quickly.*
I met Chris almost a decade ago, at the Adams Festival in Kingsly, and we hit it off immediately. Shortly thereafter, I started writing articles for PDJ and RJ magazines. The Smith brothers introduced me to Greg, and I guess the rest is history.
* Editor's Note: Greg is not actually contesting any charges, but we thought it was funny and it provides a little insight into Ozzy's sense of humor...so we left it. Sorry Greg.
Q: Your books include Classic Michigan Flies – 16 Legendary Patterns, Flyfisher’s Guide to Michigan, The Lost Branch Sportsman’s Club books – Northwest of Someplace and Another Day Afield – where can folks get their hands on them?
A: You can buy any of them on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble carries Classic Michigan Flies – 16 Legendary Patterns and Flyfisher’s Guide to Michigan, as do most fly shops around the state. I’m also happy to personalize a copy for anyone and mail it directly at a discount.
Q: Are you on social media?
A: Everything I learned about social media, I learned from you, Allen. My Instagram is @flyfishersguidemi. I have three Facebook accounts: Jon Osborn, Lost Branch Sportsman’s Club, and Flyfisher’s Guide to Michigan. You can also contact me at Ozzy0908@hotmail.com
Q: What’s next; anything in the works you can share?
A: The newspaper column keeps me jumping because it’s due every month. Mix that in with magazine articles and maybe a forthcoming book, and I stay busy. Let’s just say the book is “in the works.” I’m not sure exactly where it’s all going, but the process pretty much mirrors life. Even when everything isn’t clear, faith, hope, and love always gets you where you’re going eventually.