I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago. Fishing consisted of bait under a bobber for whatever happened to be nearby. I can’t remember a point in my childhood where I became aware of fly fishing. There really wasn’t any reason for me to. No fisheries capable of sustaining trout longer than the cooler months. No Trout in the Classroom. Nothing.
On a recent trip back to the Midwest, I began to wonder if I would have gotten involved in fly fishing if I’d never moved east. And if, then how? A friend who learned from a grandfather? A chance encounter with someone at a neighborhood pond? A morning out for breakfast, parked in a lot across from a fly shop?
If the latter was the case, then the only shop I would have encountered in the last few years would have been the DuPage Fly Fishing Company.
A mile or so off the major east-west interstate in Naperville, Illinois, DuPage Fly Fishing Company shares frontage in a strip mall with a tanning salon, a tutoring center, and a pancake house. If only there were as many fly shops in the greater Chicagoland area as there are pancake houses…
I stopped in just a few days over the two-year anniversary of the shop’s opening in March of 2014. Even though the heritage seems brief on paper, there is a much more established lineage for the store. Chicago Fly Fishing Outfitters, the premier industry outpost in the city, owns the Naperville store. Jeremy Spaccapaniccia, partner and manager of DuPage Fly Fishing Company, walked me through the shop’s short but notable history. “I’d been guiding in Colorado for a while, since I was out of college. I began trying to get it to happen since 2010. A few years later, when the industry and economy was on the upswing, it finally happened.”
Choosing a location was also a combination of familiarity and circumstance. “Naperville was growing – is still growing,” Spaccapaniccia says, “both economically and literally spreading out.” It is true. An older, bedroom community of Chicago has really come alive with housing growth and a vibrant downtown. “It is a place that can support specialty retail, including fly fishing gear.”
But the western suburbs of Chicago are considered by locals a fly fishing desert. No native or wild trout can really shape people’s perception of a place. “But we’re right in-between the two branches of the DuPage river,” explains Spaccapaniccia. “It isn’t trout fishing like out west, but there are all sorts of fish. Smallmouth are in there. And fly fishing is fly fishing; it is all about how you go about it.”
To the west, the wide Fox River has just about every warm water fish that swims living in it. Smallmouth, largemouth, panfish, carp, musky, and more live in the essentially urban waterway. The Kankakee River is similar. These days, you’ll see as many carp and musky as you will see trout on magazine covers and Instagram. If there was ever a time to cater to what have long been considered fringe fish (or worse), it is now.
Aside from these local fisheries Naperville is only three hours southwest of the Driftless Region in Wisconsin; two hours away from steelhead tributaries, and, depending on traffic, a short ride from the city’s Lake Michigan shorefront. Sitting at what is essentially the central point of the Chicago suburbs, that provides a very attractive set of options for local anglers.
“And our staff is well traveled,” added Spaccapaniccia. “I’ve fished all over, and the other six guys have fished across this country and across the world. That’s good for this shop, but it is also helpful for a community that is pretty well traveled.” A customer may be stopping in for some poppers to hit their subdivision ponds, or to get a new pair of Simms waders for an Alaskan expedition. Taking that aspect of the business a step further, destination trips are one of the areas that DuPage Fly Fishing Company is working on adding in the near future.
Another facet of the shop that they plan on growing is their fly tying section. Already an incredibly robust and well-stocked department, the shop has to supply the increasing number of tyers – both individuals and groups. Between the Oak Brook and Elliott Donnelly chapters of Trout Unlimited and local tying groups like DRiFT and NIFTY, there are organized crowds that need threads, feathers, and hooks. And DuPage Fly Fishing Company provides every size, color, and type in a brick-and-mortar, hands-on storefront.
Offering that tangible shopping opportunity for the solo fly fisher or the assembled angling group sets stores like this apart. Without an online shopping presence, the store has survived and thrived. “The industry is changing,” says Spaccapaniccia, “but people will always want somewhere to go and get what they need.” The challenges of a shop in an internet age, a suburban environment, and a “fly fishing desert” are mitigated when the necessities are provided. Casting a rod, feeling the materials of flies, and personalized direction are necessary.
Assuming in that hypothetical timeline where I didn’t move away I’d still become a fly fisherman, I like to think that this would be my shop. I’d get to know the guys, have a few requisite pieces of gear to drool over, and bring my sons in to pick out a few flies. Regardless, it is good to know that kids and adults in my hometown have a place to go and get what they need. Even if their exposure to fly fishing and the DuPage Fly Fishing Company begins on their way to the pancake house.
If you’re in the Chicago area, stop by the DuPage Fly Fishing Company store at 1512 N Naper Blvd #136, Naperville, IL.