It was lunchtime on opening day of the general firearms deer season years ago.
With little activity and the need for a break, my son Nicholas — who was 12 at the time — and I decided to check out of the woods for a brief spell. On the agenda was a quick trip to hit the town’s local bait and tackle shop. It sounds uneventful, but for me, it is far from it.
I wasn’t going to keep this special event from Nicholas. As we pulled into the shop, I saw the excitement in my son’s eyes. We may not have had a deer to check in, but we were excited to be pulling into the lot regardless.
As we chatted with other hunters, a grin spread as I watched my son race anxiously to each truck that pulled in to see what lay in its bed and listening to stories of as hunters recounted their morning’s events. Watching Nicholas’ excitement as he eagerly peered into each truck bed parked near the scales took me back to my younger self.
When I was his age, I used to jump at any chance to ride a bike to my favorite local bait and tackle shop. The distance was probably about a mile, and I pedaled as fast as I could go in anticipation of what was going on.
When you walked into that shop, you immediately felt accepted. You had a sense of belonging, a purpose. When I was a kid in the 1980’s, hunting was not popular as it is now. It provided me a really good feeling as a youngster.
During deer season, I especially loved heading to see who got what. If one was fortunate enough to harvest a deer, it was a much-celebrated event. It seemed almost like pulling into a race-car drivers winner’s circle.
Several friendships were made at that shop and many fishing or hunting trips were planned while sitting around the stove as the sweet smell of cherry wood wafted through the store. Every time the door swung open, everyone would spin his or her head around to see who walked in. It was akin to when Norm strolled into the bar on “Cheers.”
Trying to find a shop like that these days is next to impossible. Most of them did not make it through the ups and downs of the economy. There is also no way a local shop can compete with the large retailers found in nearly every town. Well, they can’t compete on pricing — but if you are interested in service and knowledge the big retailers can’t compete with the local-owned shops. The ease of online ordering also took its toll on these fabled mom and pop local businesses.
Another blow to these once thriving businesses comes in the form of game check-in. Several deer processors also became state deer check-in stations over the last couple of decades. It makes for convenience as hunters can check in animals and drop them off for processing simultaneously.
Perhaps the biggest blow came once states introduced online game check-in. Sure, it is much easier to simply check in a deer or turkey with a few quick clicks of a mouse rather than haul it to a town check-in station. The few remaining local shops, however, depend on any business they get. When hunters brought animals to check in, it got people in the door, which is half the battle for local shops’ survival.
That’s a shame. My hope is they will never disappear completely. They are still the only place to get certain, specific items such as soft-craws, shiner minnows and leeches, for example. But they also serve another purpose — as a place for outdoorsmen to gather and enjoy in each other’s successes and console one another in times of failure.
Kids today won’t have the types of memories or friendships forged through such establishments. But I am doing my best to make sure my son does while I still can.
Every time we drive by a local mom-and-pop shop and he asks, “Dad, can we pull in there?” we usually do. And I make it a point to let him purchase a few things. We need that atmosphere, that nostalgia, that feeling that you can only get when you walk through the doors of such a place.