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The Wisdom of Solomon & Big Box Stores

There is an appointed time for everything.” That is how the second chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes begins. What follows is the list of things for which there is “a time.” A list, if you weren’t the Sunday School type, you may know from The Byrd’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

Thus concludes the sermon/music history portion of the post.

I think that we can all agree on the concept of there being an appropriate time for most things. Yet in the fly fishing community there are a few items that fall into the “questionable” category. In a decidedly particular bunch, it is no surprise that there are some pretty strong opinions on things like strike indicators, spinning gear, and outdoor megastores.

The last item on that list is a polarizing topic. On one hand, it is the outdoor enthusiasts’ version of the mom-and-pop vs. WalMart debate. Sociologists, economists, and most people with an opinion have wrestled with and weighed in on this issue. “Big box” stores certainly monopolize a lot of smaller stores’ business, but many smaller stores struggle to cater to rapidly changing consumers. You can parse the differences in products offered (affordable vs. quality), employment options (jobs vs. careers), and aesthetics (construction vs. revitalization).

Here is the big difference between Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, and all the other chain outdoor stores and WalMart: you don’t go to Bass Pro to buy bread and milk. Superstores that offer the essentials fill a completely different niche in communities than large specialty stores, so the comparison isn’t exactly apples-to-apples.

Let me say it clearly: I believe that anglers should primarily support the local stores with first-hand knowledge of the fisheries.

What if that is a Cabela’s?

I’ve had experiences that run the gamut: Employees of big box stores have been exceptionally helpful by letting me cast rods, offering up fishing information, and being incredibly engaging. I’ve also had small fly shop workers and owners that wouldn’t look up from their newspaper, balked at my purchase of only six flies, and expressed their great displeasure at my wanting to take a rod outside to cast. And, of course, the opposite has also been true.

I frequented one large outdoor retailer for a number of years because there wasn’t an indigenous fly shop. The staff was highly knowledgeable, longsuffering with folks that were just wandering and whipping around $600 Sage rods, and made up of pretty great tyers. But aside from a small bin of local flies, a couple of books, and a fishing report, the fly section of the store was pretty homogenized. I knew that if I wanted some more specialized gear that I’d have to drive for a bit – which was okay. But for a few beads, some tippet, or a package of Moon Pies, the megastore was more than adequate.

Again, I’m all about supporting local shops. I love stores that are literally on the water, filled with people that are familiar with the neighboring streams, and sell gear that is thoughtfully selected to cater to the needs of fly fishers in the region. The charm and nuance of such shops is practically impossible to replicate in the corporate confines of a big box chain. Thankfully many shops have survived some tough economic stretches in the last few decades, and are embracing the new technologies that will keep them relevant going forward.

But there is an appointed time for Bass Pro and Cabela’s. I wonder how many lip-rippin’ bassers have paused to inspect a nine-foot eight-weight on their way to the spinnerbait aisle? It would be interesting to know the long-term effects of kids with birthday money that wander into these stores’ fly sections. As corporate policy dictates at least a small segment of floor space be given to a token fly fishing department, are anglers in areas without fly shops being exposed to the sport for the first time?

Millions of people (including not just non-fly anglers, but non-outdoors people) walk into these woodland-themed retail/museum/restaurant/arcade buildings every year. There is either an introduction to getting outside, or (for profit) reminders of the kinds of fun that being out in nature entails. For a small segment of those people, that means the first taste of fly fishing.

I know that there is a fine line as to whether a trip to Gander Mountain, Field & Stream, or one of the aforementioned chains is due to necessity or convenience. I’d encourage any and every one who can shop local to do so. Not out of some crunchy “no fly shops, no fishing” mantra, but with the culture that quality shops cultivate in mind. I’ve lauded the virtues of this kind of establishment before, and I’ll continue to do so.

Some of the onus falls upon fly shop owners. As mentioned earlier, a sterilized environment with the slightest modicum of know-how is a lot more palatable to the novice than a homegrown store reeking of head cement and perceived ascendency. I’ve worked in a shop, but I haven’t run one. I can’t begin to understand the detailed nature of managing a very seasonal and focused business. But I am aware that customer service will, more often than not, build a reputation that has an impact on the kinds of folks that can really make or break a store. Give the shops that demonstrate that kind of attention your business, and support the up-and-comers that are trying to figure it out.

But if you were given a gift certificate to a big box store, go without feeling like you’re slinking into some shady establishment with blacked out windows. If you want to expose your kids to fly fishing, hunting, camping, and conventional angling, it is a great way to spend a few hours. Don’t let certain segments of the fly fishing community’s propensity to superiority and ivory tower convictions make you feel ostracized. Everything has its appointed time.

One comment

  1. Bill Knouse says:

    I can see both sides of this argument. We have been lucky to have people like Bob Clouser and other local experts come in to tie at our local Bass Pro. I can spend my paycheck at a local store and support “#flyshopsmall” or load up on discounted materials at megastore prices. It’s a no brainier sometimes. However, there are days that I get frustrated when the bass department covers down and the clerk doesn’t know what a size 16 sulphur is but recommends maybe using a size 10 Chernobyl hopper on the breeches because “it has cool colors” or when I have to wade through hoards of children because Santa is there that day. Sometimes you go to the fly shop to sit down, have a cup of coffee, and complain about the stream being high. You don’t always get that at a Cabelas or Bass Pro Shop. Very cool insights though and a great read.

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