Bags of Bran


Nothing About Fishing (a story not about fishing)
August 19, 2012, 1:02 am
Filed under: Biography, Destined to get me in trouble

I would know precious few factoids about fishing poles beyond which end to hold for combat, but if I began to seriously consider the fishing lifestyle in all its glory, I would make haste for a pro shop. Preferably one where the proprietor is named “Bill,” for a man named “Bill” has likely caught a few fish in his day, if for no other reason than the virtue of his Christian name.

Bill’s pro shop, Timber Creek Bait and Tackle, certainly had the air of a legitimate pro shop: the rods and reels on the shelves were top quality, attractively if modestly arranged, and competitively priced. There were no “entry-level” rods anywhere, since the philosophy Timber Creek was originally founded on ran like this: fishing is a commitment worth an adequate investment in gear. The trophies on the walls were locally-caught, and the staff was strikingly competent.

Until a couple of years ago, Bill had a couple of assistant managers who were avid fishermen, men who slept in vests and had bright metal hooks clamped on the bills of their baseball caps. You’ve met such men, no doubt: they spend 200 days a year on the water, their kids could all tie palomar knots before they could count, and their boats are worth half again their mortgages. Bill was graced with two stellar examples: let’s call them Kyle and Bob. Kyle and Bob had been instrumental in laying out the groundwork and philosophy of the business; in attracting the original customer base; in selecting the lines of gear that the shop would stock; and in getting out a good name for Timber Creek Bait and Tackle. For his part, Bill was a shrewd businessman, and understood the mechanics of fishing reasonably well, but he was more than happy to have Kyle and Bob around for that phase of the business plan, for they were dedicated and industrious. Mediocre fishermen came into Timber Creek, and their fishing improved markedly.

After a few years, inevitable changes begin to take place at Timber Creek. Kyle made the difficult decision to follow his dreams and pursue the professional bass fishing tour. He packed up his family and moves to Tennessee where he could navigate more easily to the bigger tournaments and still be home with his family. Both customers and staff  were extremely sorrowful that Kyle was gone, for he stood among the most knowledgeable bass fishermen in the state at least, and exceeded most in his ability to guide fishing trips. His wife, also, was very clever at driving their metal-flake blue bass boat, and the two made a potent team on the water. It was a sorry day for Timber Creek when his big Suburban towed the sparkly, blue boat out of the parking lot for the last time.

After Kyle had left, Bob was asked to assume the duties of Sales Manager without pay. Bill, in his conversations with Bob, began to openly voice his desire to cater to other types of customers than the sincerely committed fisherman. He had lately been poring over the latest magazines and had come to the conclusion that Timber Creek was not very profitable. Certain brands of fishing equipment are inherently more expensive and less profitable to sell, and only cater to discerning fishermen. Bill, convinced that committed fishermen are a rare breed, began to put pressure on Bob to bring in merchandise that will appeal to “casual fishermen,” a term that chills Bob to his marrow to this very day. Bob, being probably the most chivalrous fisherman you would ever care to meet, gravely and politely offered his resignation as sales manager rather than sell cheap, shoddy wares that would betray their customers in the heat of battle.

Understand Bill’s predicament: his reputation is tied to the labors of Bob and Kyle and others like them, whose lifeblood is fishing; who demand only the best equipment; and who disdain and eschew inferior wares. Bill, for his part, does not really like fishing: when he goes, he goes alone or with his wife and uses budget gear. He does not even take his children fishing with him except at public events, and they clearly have no savor for the activity.

Furthermore, all of Bill’s close friends in the industry are corporate men: John manages the sporting goods department at Save-a-Ton; Rick works at Cold River Outdoors, an outdoor lifestyle clothing store that sells a few fly rods; and Todd manages the fishing department at the local National Recreation Outfitters, a national chain that sells everything from dog toys to kayaks, snowboards to mountain bikes, clothing, etc., etc. Oh, and they also sold entry-level fishing gear.

John, Rick, and Todd all respect guys like Kyle and Bob, but would never hire them, and would not even want them as customers. “Zealots,” grumbles John. “They drive away the casual customers by walking straight over to the most expensive stuff in the store. I slowly quit stocking that stuff to get rid of elitists like them.” Rick concurs: “They have no time for the newest technology. Their ancient boats and campy lures are hopelessly out of touch. How do they expect to keep up with current trends in fishing if they won’t even be bothered to crack an up-to-date magazine?”

Todd can barely hide his distaste for Kyle and Bob. Kyle had been a faithful, if guarded, customer at National Recreation Outfitters before moving to Timber Creek. Additionally, Kyle had received guide certification training at National Recreation Outfitters’ guide academy, as sound an institution as one could hope to find during the season Kyle had attended. Bob also had attended the guide academy and had worked under Todd. It was difficult to actually dislike Bob, but Todd managed to poke ignorant fun at the entire spectrum of principles that Bob held dear.

So Bill was a man torn: his friends in the industry had stores that were easier to manage; sold rods, reels, and lures that were advertised in magazines and on TV fishing shows; and had much more traffic from “casual” customers who often came in to see the lovely displays and buy snack food. On the other hand, his own clientele at Timber Creek had come to appreciate quality gear, especially when Bob could show them how to use it properly. Further, avid lovers of fishing sought Timber Creek out when they moved to the area because of the reputations of Kyle and Bob. Truth be told, Timber Creek was like a second home if you loved fishing, but was rather unappealing if your heart was elsewhere. Bill wanted to change that and become profitable.

One day Bob came in to work beaming like a lighthouse with a piece of unbelievable news: while he had been content to work as the sales manager with no pay, he had received word that a golden opportunity had blossomed within his grasp. He had been accepted to receive further guide training, with the hope of becoming a Master Guide himself! Bob loved fishing so much that he thought there was nothing more noble than to be a Master Guide, teaching hopeful guides how to lead fruitful fishing expeditions that would create lifetime memories. He could not believe it, and neither could we! But the date of his departure came all too quickly, and soon enough, both Kyle and Bob were gone, and the future of Timber Creek was decidedly more difficult to prognosticate.

Bill began ordering stock for the store, and immediately brought in a line of cheap, flashy lures decorated in the colors of professional sports teams. They had been recommended as “terrific sellers” by his friend Rick over at Cold River, but they did not really catch anything but the most unwary of fish. Bill doubled down on this decision by bringing in a line of floating boat anchors from the same company because his friend Todd had told him “they are impossible to lose due to the exclusive feature, that they never get snagged under branches or rocks.”

After a hearty advertising campaign, Timber Creek began, predictably, to draw some casual fishermen, though the specters of Kyle and Bob were still haunting the establishment in the most unexpected of places. Bill one day wanted to sell a trolling motor to a casual customer, only to find that the most frugally-priced one in the store was marked at $499! The casual customer pulled out his smart phone, did what rudely passes for “research” in a day of smart phones, and discovered that he could go over to Save-a-Ton and get a trolling motor for $150. Had Bob been there, he would have perhaps been able to explain to the casual customer why the trolling motor at Save-a-Ton was an inferior piece of plastic garbage, but Bill was completely at a loss, and deeply humiliated. The very next day, I walked into Timber Creek and Bill was shaking hands with a sales representative from a disreputable company, and the trolling motor rack was stuffed to the gills with motors marked at $169.

Some of the customers notice that I don’t show up at Timber Creek Bait and Tackle as much as I used to. I still love fishing, though it has become more of a chore than in previous days, when I would often fish all day for the sheer joy of the activity. I used to take pictures during my fishing trips, and to write about them in my journal. Now, I go to Timber Creek, wade through the ever-growing displays of cheap, ineffective, celebrity-endorsed gear to get to the stuff that has stood the test of time, which is often out of stock. I often march out again empty-handed without hardly pausing to talk to the staff or other customers, many of whom had been like my second family. Things have changed.

For my part, I could pick up any catalog from a corporate sporting goods retailer and say “in five years, Timber Creek will look like this.” I dare not breathe a word of it among my fellow customers, nor among the new crop of assistant managers, some of whom had labored at Timber Creek alongside Kyle and Bob during the formative years. I struggle putting the differences into words, and my fellow customers, if they are sensible to the changes, will have to struggle for their own words. I am familiar with Bill’s ideal: that’s where I used to shop years ago. There’s a whole list of reasons I don’t shop at those places anymore.

I’ve looked around at other tackle shops in the area. Some are much closer geographically to the lake where I usually fish, but are owned by such money-grubbing populist tycoons that I could not bear to spend a dime there. Others are so crowded with people who don’t know which end of the rod to hold in combat that one can scarcely turn around without being poked in the eye. Some are owned by decent men but managed by bad men, unbeknownst by the owners, whose decency falls short of goodness by the degree of discernment it takes to recognize a bad man when confronted with one. Anywhere I go, I’m sure to be associated with Kyle and Bob, or at least with their mentor, a man named Greg who teaches at National Recreation Outfitters Guide Academy. I could only hope to merit such association, but in the eyes of the corporate angling machine, such associations are not desirable.

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