They'll fix your reel, tell you their secrets, and tack up your hero shot by the counter. These ten stores are the antidote to Mega-Mart nation - and when it comes to fishing, they mean business.
By Kirk Deeter
I grew up a tackle shop rat. Wherever my family lived from Allenwood, Pennsylvania, to Racine, Wisconsin, I'd always be at the local store, hanging out and spending my allowance money. Call me nostalgic, but I've always felt that the best tackle shops are much more than just places to find fishing stuff. A great one is the angler's ultimate resource - part classroom, part museum, and the part safe house for the angling-afflicted. Some tackle stores have evolved into regional icons. Others are unofficial research laboratories where new methods and ideas are improvised., gossiped about, and tweaked long before anyone reads about them in a magazine. But all great shops recognize their roles in linking fishermen to their home waters - and these 10 are well worth a visit.
[ MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASSACHUSSETTS ]
Coop's Bait & Tackle
If home is where the heart is, and fishing is what you love, why not put a tackle shop in your house? That's exactly what Cooper "Coop" Gilkes I I I did in 1982, when he hung a shingle on his place on West Tisbury Road, just outside of Edgartown. The shop is easy to miss. It shares a driveway with a lumberyard and doesn't have the neon trimmings of most retail outlets. But you'll abandon the "bigger is better" line of thinking the minute you walk in and see the floor-to-ceiling stacks of conventional and fly fishing gear, specifically meant to handle any sport fishing challenge presented by the tricky and volatile waters along this part of the American coastline.
"We started this shop with two rods and a well of live eels," says Coop, "We do a bit more than that now, but it's still a labor of love."
If you're lucky, you might strike up a conversation with Coop, who earned his stripes as a commercial fisherman. When it comes to finding the bite, he can put you on the blue fish, the false albacore, and especially the striped bass. His ability to find stripers in the rips or off the beach is reputed to be uncanny.
HOT SELLER. Coop's own floating sand eel flies, some of the best striped bass patterns ever made, come in six colors and are tied right in the shop.
LOCAL ADVICE. You can fish your way across Martha's Vineyard and hit the same falling tide conditions at four different prime striper spots. Coop can tel I you where to be and when.
LOOK THEM UP: 147 W. Tisbury Rd., Edgartown, MA; 508-627-3909
[ EAGLE RIVER, WISCONSIN ]
Eagle Sports Center
The best place to get the scoop on northern Wisconsin fishing action is a small coffee table in the corner of Eagle Sports Center. It's called the "Guide's Table," and if you buy the coffee and have a seat, you're sure to get in on some local secrets. Eagle Sports Center is a classic "up north" tackle shop, stocked with a wide range of homespun flies and lures that have no names and cannot be found anywhere else. The region is considered one of the most diverse fishing areas in America, with waters that hold perch, walleyes, trout, and trophy muskies. And owner George Langley says that in the past few years, anglers have seen a small mouth renaissance. "The fishery has always been there, yet nobody really paid attention to it," says Langley. "Then a bunch of local guides started focusing on the bass, and when we saw the numbers and size of the fish they were catching, we all slapped our collective foreheads and said, 'Good grief, this might be one of the best bass fisheries in the country."'
HOT SELLER: In August, it's bass plastics, especially flavored ones from Berkley Gulp! and Power Bait.
LOCAL ADVICE. Get a local lake map. When newcomers ask where to fish, a staffer will show them by taking a marker pen to it.
LOOK THEM UP: 702 Wall St., Eagle River, WI; 715-479-8804
Mark's Outdoor Sports
The numbers alone say a lot about the bass fishing expertise at Mark's: in operation for over 25 years, nearly 650 cumulative years of outdoor experience among 23 shop employees, and over 13 million plastic worms sold. But the stat that puts Mark's in its own league is this: more than 1.5 million bass fingerlings stocked in regional lakes.
Mark's coordinates the annual Lay Lake Open bass fishing tournament, an April event that attracts nearly 1,000 entrants. In doing so, owner Mark Whitlock has devised a program that involves each competitor's releasing a bag of bass fry on the morning of the competition. The approach has paid dividends, not only in terms maintaining one of Alabama's best fishing resources but also in positioning
Whitlock and his employees as stewards of the environment and promoters of the sport.
"We do more than sell fishing tackle, explains Whitlock. "We promote fishing, and that all starts by giving back to the resource."
HOT SELLER: Mark's goes through up to 600 bags a week of NetBait's Paca Craw plastic trailer baits in the hot new color, key lime pie.
LOCAL ADVICE: By "swimming" jigs with trailers just below the surface, particularly in grassy water, you can provoke violent response strikes from big bass.
LOOK THEM UP: 1400-B Montgomery Hwy., Birmingham, AL; 877-979-6275
[ REDDING, CALIFORNIA ]
The Fly Shop
The Fly Shop's billboard on California's Interstate 5 is a local landmark, but that's not the reason the store is considered one of America's best. First, it has $1 million worth of flies under one roof; second, its staff coordinates 2,000 annual guided trips on some of the country's most complex trout rivers; and third, it's the preeminent source for adventure angling travel, from Chile to Russia, accounting for another 2,000 days on exotic guided trips worldwide.
To have a say-only-what-you-do name like the Fly Shop, and to send anglers across the planet, you'd better know your stuff. These folks do. If it has anything to do with flyfishing, anywhere, they invented it, carry it, or know a lot about it.
"Great shops are built around great people," says owner Mike Michalak. "Everybody sells pretty much the same stuff, and you can find it all on the Web. The key to our success is finding good talent and keeping it here."
HOT SELLER: Fox's Poopah, a caddis pattern created by the Fly Shop's Tim Fox, works on everything from trout to Atlantic salmon.
LOCAL ADVICE: On high-traffic rivers, drop your fly pattern size down two notches, say from a No. 14 to a No. 18.
LOOK THEM UP: 4140 Churn Creek Rd., Redding, CA; 800-669-3474
[ PANAMA CITY BEACH, FLORIDA ]
Half Hitch Tackle
The Half Hitch Tackle story began in 1965, when Capt. B.J. "Put" Putnam moved his family from Alabama to Panama City, Florida, so he could start a charter-fishing business. The endeavor evolved to include tackle sales, and today, Put's son Tom heads a veritable tackle empire involving four retail locations.
"Shops that don't have the inventory on hand aren't of much value," says Tom Putnam. "Those days of 'we can order that for you' are gone forever, because most anglers realize 'I can order that myself.'"
Inventory at Half Hitch is not a problem. The staff recently counted over 1,200 different rods on the sales floor of its main store at Panama City Beach alone. And as a warranty service center with four full-time reel repair experts and a sonic cleaner, Half Hitch can return your old gear to its original condition.
Offshore fishing is a specialty here, and you'll want to ask the staff for insights on local options, including one of the country's best speckled trout and mackerel fisheries.
HOT SELLER. Marlin Man Panhandlers are high-speed trolling lures built locally to catch tuna, wahoo, and mahimahi.
LOCAL ADVICE: Always have fresh line. Down here you don't know when you'll get a chance at a once-in-a-lifetime fish.
LOOK THEM UP: 2206 Thomas Dr., Panama City Beach, FL; 850-234-2621
[ LYNNWOOD, WASHINGTON ]
Ted's Sports Center
Ted's is a key stopping-off point for anglers headed to Alaska or beyond. The western Washington store is as diverse as the waters in the region, with a 4,000-square-foot showroom offering tackle for chasing anything from salmon and steelhead to halibut and sturgeon. Ted's can also set you up for more atypical pursuits like smelt jigging, digging razor clams, or catching "do-it-yourself calamari" when the squid migrate close to shore in Puget Sound.
"You can't be focused on one species in this area because you're cheating yourself if you do," says Mike Chamberlain, who founded the store in 1968. "We have so much, from ocean fishing to mountain trout fishing, you can dedicate a year to fishing and not see it all in 365 days."
The guide staff has an open-book policy regarding where to fish and what to use, so be ready with questions. Chamberlain's personal specialty is open-water salmon fishing. He's fished Alaska since age 8 so has lots of insights on the fickle whims of fish that migrate between fresh and saltwater.
HOT SELLER: Point Wilson darts - lead minnows for salmon fishing - are built by a local manufacturer for Ted's.
LOCAL ADVICE: The staff's line for steel head newbies is that you're not entitled to hook one until you've been fishing for them every weekend for two years.
LOOK THEM UP: 15526 Highway 99N, Lynnwood, WA; 425-743-9505
[ ISLAMORADA, FLORIDA ]
Florida Keys Outfitters
There isn't a single trout fly at Florida Keys Outfitters. That's because Sandy Moret's store is one of the world's most specialized shops: It only covers saltwater fishing, and only flyfishing. Moret learned long ago that comparing trout flyfishing with saItwater flyfishing is like comparing golf to hockey.
Florida Keys Outfitters is located between the famous Cheeca Lodge and the Lorelei, and not far from Bud In Mary's Marina-landmarks now synonymous with the local lore involving the gritty guide culture in the Keys (most of those stories -burning threats, and about fistfights, boat tarpon turf wars are true).
A fly-by-nighter couldn't make it here. Moret is an eight-time grand champion of Islamorada's Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament and known as a pioneer in the semi-insane realm of chasing permit with a fly. In 1989, he established his Florida Keys Fly Fishing School, the one-and-only school focused on the subtleties of ocean fishing with flies and the long rod. The shop evolved from there.
"You could say we did it backward," says Moret. "A lot of shops open up and start learning about the local water. We fished here for years, then started the school, and the shop seemed Iike a logicaI progression. "
HOT SELLER: Spaces in Moret's Saltwater Fly Fishing School, with a faculty including Flip Pallot, Chico Fernandez, and Steve Huff fill up quickly.
LOCAL ADVICE: If you want time with a hot guide, book in the summer. The fish are still here; the- tourists are not.
LOOK THEM UP: 81888 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, FL; 305-664-5423
[ HOUSTON, TEXAS ]
Fishing Tackle Unlimited
Doing its part to prove that everything is bigger and better in Texas, Fishing Tackle Unlimited claims to be one of the world's largest independent fishing tackle operations. What began over 20 years ago as Cut Rate Sporting Goods in a 1,200-square-foot store now has two sites comprising 45,000 square feet.
Owned by brothers Joe and Dan Meyer, Fishing Tackle Unlimited sells a huge range of gear to meet many angling challenges, from tempting tuna offshore to roughhousing with largemouth bass in the Lone Star State's legendary lakes and reservoirs.
"As an independent business, we really have to focus on service to stay competitive," says Joe Meyer. "And that not only involves servicing products. It means servicing the interests and skill levels of our customers."
The stores stock gear for salt- and freshwater, in- and offshore, conventional and flyfishing. This includes 13 different rod brands, 8 or more brands of reels and lures from over 25 manufacturers.
HOT SELLER. Three lines of sea kayaks, many of which are fitted with depthfinders, rod holders, and trolling motors, are the hot new rigs for exploring tidal lakes and flats.
LOCALADVICE. Don't forget your sunscreen.
LOOK THEM UP. 12800 Gulf Freeway, Houston, TX; 281-481-6838
[FRIDLEY, MINNESOTA ]
Thorne Bros. Custom Rod & Tackle
Up the highway from the Twin Cities, Thorne Bros. Custom Rod & Tackle has carved out a reputation as the "muskie palace" of the upper Midwest. Its hallmark is a collection of baits (bucktails, crankbaits, jerkbaits, jigs, spoons, spinnerbaits, suckerrigs, etc.), as well as custom rods, reels, lure components, lines, and leaders.
"Our mission is to get rid of the rumor that a muskie is the fish of 10,000 casts," says Josh Roundsley, who co-owns the store with Bill Fiebranz. "With a little knowledge and experience, and the right gear, most people can get hooked up easier than they think."
And the staff at Thorne Bros. will help them do it. Roundsley says that his employees are "obsessed and over-the-edge" anglers who are more than willing to educate would-be muskie hunters on the latest approaches and rigs.
In addition to its muskie inventory, Thorne Bros. offers hard-to-find lures, jigs, and other tackle for walleyes, trout, pike, and panfish. The shop claims to carry the largest selection of flyfishing gear in the Midwest. It also sells shelters, augers, and heaters. This is, after all, Minnesota.
HOT SELLER: Thorne Bros. specializes in building custom rods to match different body types, fishing styles, and bait preferences.
LOCAL ADVICE: If you're new to muskie fishing, start with bucktails, which are effective, all-purpose, virtually mistake-proof baits that cover a lot of water and can be fished deep or shallow.
LOOK THEM UP: 7 500 University Ave. N E, Fridley, MN; 763-572-3782
[ NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA ]
Professional Sport Shop
Professional Sport Shop is known to local anglers as "the place that can fix the unfixable." Many a captain has visited the shop just to find Stephanie Chatiller, the Reel Lady.
"Stephanie cradles a reel the way a mother handles a newborn. She can tell you what's wrong with that Mitchell 300 with a few turns in her hands," says manager Scott Blachier.
Chatiller does all repairs in-house, finding parts in the "boneyard," an entire floor of antiquated gear used for components. You might also spruce up an old rod with the help of Billie Jean Hutchins, who hand-wraps custom rods and restores weathered ones.
Family-owned since 1980, Professional Sport Shop carries the full spread for Louisiana's fresh- and saltwater diversity-which includes bayous, rivers, brackish lakes, marsh flats, and some of the country's best offshore and rigfishing. And it's all packed into a converted historic warehouse in the heart of downtown New Orleans.
HOT SELLER: Professional Sport Shop carries a range of custom Joe Yee lure heads for offshore marlin and tuna fishing, and the staff will skirt them up for you.
LOCAL ADVICE: Pay attention to the weather when you're fishing Louisiana's shallow lakes and flats. Passing storms can quickly whip up waves large enough to sink fishing boats.
LOOK THEM UP: 920 Julia St., New Orleans, LA; 504-522-3771
August 2005 Edition of Field and Stream Magazine