Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fly Shop

I grew up in fishing country, Texas to be exact.  Every hardware store in the state sold fishing equipment, and some even sold a few tools and nails.  My personal favorite was Buddies Hardware, which was really no more than an extension of Buddies Grocery Store.  The reasons I preferred it were relatively simple.  First because it was just a few blocks from my home, and second because I could get food and bait at the same time. 

Over time stores began to appear specializing in sporting goods, but most carried only the most basic fishing supplies.  But then again, this was Texas, and serious fishing was done with just basic equipment.  The simpler the better.  I don’t recall when the hardware stores began to drop the line of fishing gear in favor of such mundane items as hammers and screwdrivers, but over time I realized that a major change had taken place.

I’ve fished with a tree branch, trimmed of excess leaves and twigs, attached to kite string tied to a bent nail with a worm from the garden stuck on it.  For a float, I used one of the excess twigs trimmed from the tree branch.  And it worked.  Sometimes I didn’t even use the tree branch.  But my grandfather had a more novel approach to fishing.

Papa had a small boat he had nailed together from old lumber he had around the farm.  It weighed about 10,000 pounds as far as I was concerned, but he was able to load it into the back end of his 1938 Ford Coupe and tie it so it wouldn’t fall out onto the road again.  We would drive to one of the nearby stock tanks (a man-made watering hole for cattle and coyotes) and go fishing.

Once we had the boat in the middle of the tank, he would unbox his “fishing gear.”  It was an old crank box telephone with two long bare wires coming out of the back.  He would throw one wire over each side of the boat into the water and give the box a few fast cranks.  Over the next 30 or 40 seconds fish would float to the surface and we could pick the biggest ones to take home for dinner.  This was fishing at its best.

One day Papa came home with a store-bought boat.  It may have been 3rd or 4th hand, but at one time it was store bought.  The boat was a 10 foot jon boat, and it was a thing of beauty.  While it was still heavy to me, I could actually load it into the back of the old car by myself, but Papa still insisted on tying it down himself.  It didn’t take long for us to try it out.

We drove out to a rather large stock tank on a friend’s property a few miles away and launched the boat.  We climbed in, rowed to the middle and tossed over the wires.  In his usual manner, Papa gave the old telephone a few quick cranks, but it was only momentum that created all cranks after one.  We realized a little too late that electricity, water, and a metal jon boat do not go well together.  In a vain attempt to remedy the situation, he tried to uncrank it, which produced the same effect.

The fish floated to the surface as they always did, but this time we just looked at them with compassion.  We saw any number of potential dinner options, but we were just too, um, stunned to take advantage of the situation.  By the time we could gather our wits about us, the fish had recovered enough to swim back to the bottom of the tank.  Our only choice now was to crank the telephone again or just go home.

It was a long five miles home.  We carried the jon boat over to where the old wooden boat lay and set it along side the old craft.  And we stood there looking at the two boats for several minutes before putting away the telephone on its shelf in the nearby barn.

We never spoke to each other about the lesson learned that day, much less to anyone else for many years.  Actually he passed away without ever saying anything about it at all.  The jon boat simply disappeared one day, and the old wooden boat rotted beyond repair from lack of use.  The lesson I learned from it was to go back to what I knew best, a string, some kind of a float such as a cork, a hook, and a worm.  This brings me back to the evolution of the sporting goods store. 
When the hardware stores began to decline from their glory days as the place to buy fishing equipment, the sporting goods stores started carrying more fishing items.  The problem I had with these stores was that no one there knew anything about fishing. 

The stores carried backpacks and camping equipment.  I could understand this since fishing could occasionally involve some hiking and quite often a few nights of camping.  I could understand the football equipment, the baseball equipment, and even the basketball equipment.  I definitely could understand the hunting equipment.  I could not understand the skiing equipment, especially in Texas.  I could not understand the specialized clothes that everyone seemed to need to ski, hunt, or fish.  I could not understand why the people working the store knew everything about skiing and nothing about anything else.

The fisherman was now on his own.  No longer could he go to local hardware store and find out where the fish were biting.  No longer could he ask for a specific size of hook and get it.  No longer could fishing stories be swapped with someone who had been there and let the big one get away.  The sporting goods stores were just a big cold place with little to offer the traditional Texas fisherman.

It didn’t take long for someone to realize the problem.  I began to see something called Tackle Stores pop up around the state.  These were much better than the sporting goods stores in that the people running them did know something about fishing, and the product line was all about fishing, but the personal relationship once developed in the local hardware store was missing.  Still it was better than nothing.

I fished for many years under the guidance of these sporting goods stores and tackle stores, largely having to figure things out for myself.  When I took up fly-fishing, I assumed that little would change in the situation.  There is, however, something I was not expecting to find—The Fly Shop.

They don’t sell nails, hammers, lumber, or chain.  They don’t have 16 year olds expounding the virtues of snowboards.  They don’t have footballs, baseballs, or basketballs.  They sell fishing equipment, albeit very specialized equipment.  This is the dream I lost when the hardware stores started selling nails, hammers, lumber, and chain. 

I was directed to one of the few remaining fly fishing stores in Southern California by the fly fishers I met at the Long Beach Casting Club.  Actually, they told me of 5 or 6 stores, but only one was near to my home, so I went there.  I walked in the door and just stood there blocking the aisle for about one minute.  That’s how long it took for someone to offer to help me.  I don’t believe I’ve had anyone offer to help me with fishing equipment in 30 years or more.  Not only was this person willing to help, but he also actually fished on a regular basis.  I walked into the store expecting nothing.  I walked out of the store having had all my dreams fulfilled.  Well, most of them.  Some we don’t talk about.

I have since been to many fly-fishing stores.  They range from sophisticated operations to small one-person shops, but in each and every one I can expect and get personal attention by someone who knows what they are talking about.  Well, at least they know more than me.  But I have never met anyone working such a store that doesn’t fly fish.  The person may be happy, grumpy, tired, bored, or something else altogether, but they all speak with some knowledge.  They know the best rivers and lakes in the area, and where to fish on them, and what to fish with.  They know all the secrets of the local area and often far beyond its borders.  They know I’m not there just to buy some flies or leaders or other trinkets, although they gladly take my money for them, they know I’m there to pick their brains about fishing.  And they give freely of their knowledge.

I’ve been a fly fisherman for just a short amount of time, but during this brief adventure, no fewer than four store closures have come to my attention with many others obviously struggling.  Can the fishing community afford to allow the Fly Shops go the way of the old Hardware Stores?  I think not.  Yes, there are many tackle shops around, and they are decidedly better than the ones of 30 or 40 years ago, but few have much in the way of fly-fishing equipment.  While fly-fishing is probably not going away anytime soon, the local suppliers may need to turn to nails, hammers, lumber, and chain to keep their doors open.

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