Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

Waxing nostalgic over sporting-goods stores

This week’s column takes a trip down memory lane:

The other day, while cruising the fishing-tackle aisles of a big-box store, I found myself yearning for simpler times.

We old guys do that. Once we pass the big five-oh, the world that once seemed to pass in slow motion now whizzes by at express-train speed. Modern sporting-goods departments (there aren’t many true sporting-goods stores anymore) offer dazzling arrays of fishing tackle hermetically sealed in blister packs and festooned with computer bar codes. There’s convenience in having such variety, but there’s confusion too. When I started going into sporting-goods stores, at age 9 or 10 or so, the choices weren’t nearly as varied.

Hooks were made by Pflueger or Eagle Claw. The Pflueger hooks came in little round tins. The ones I bought contained a modest assortment of hook shapes and sizes, all meant to hold live bait. The Eagle Claw hooks I remember came pre-snelled on heavy monofilament leaders, strung on long, slender cards and wrapped in plastic.

I mostly remember the lures.

Dardevle spoons were as eye-catching then as they are today, especially the red ones with broad white stripes and green ones with yellow frog spots. I always wanted to fish with one of those magic-looking lures, but frankly couldn’t afford one until after I got out of college. By then, other lures were more in vogue. I eventually bought a couple of Dardevles, probably for nostalgia’s sake, but to this day I’ve never taken a fish on one.

Across the aisle from the Dardevles were the spinners. No tackle box of that era was complete without a couple of Abu-Garcia Reflex spinners, with their distinctive corrugated blades; Rooster Tails, with a brightly colored hackle feathers wrapped around their treble hooks; some Mepps, with their distinctive brass blades and squirrel-tail adornments; and a few plain silver or gold Hildebrandt Colorado blades with looped clasps that trout flies could be attached to.

Sporting goods stores of that era also carried a modest assortment of Helin Flatfish lures. Flatfish were inexpensive enough even for me to afford, and I spent hours agonizing over which ones to buy. I invariably chose small silver ones, mainly because they so closely imitated the minnows that inhabited the creek behind my house. I caught a lot of bass with them.

Close to the Flatfish display, stacked neatly in boxes on a shelf tantalizingly out of reach, sat the Holy Grail of artificial lures – plugs. No one called them crankbaits back then, and only a handful of purists called them lures. If they weren’t spinners or spoons, then by golly they were plugs.

They were colorful and multi-hooked and big enough, at least in a kid’s eyes, to land a whale. Their names, and even their manufacturers’ names, spring readily to mind despite the intervening years:

Topwater Hula Poppers and Jitterbugs, both made by the Arbogast Co.; deep-diving Hellbenders made by Whopper Stopper; shiny MirrOlures made by the L&S Bait Co.; and the granddaddy of them all (translation: the one I most lusted for), the jointed, perch-patterned Pikie Minnow made by the Creek Chub Bait Co.

I never could afford to buy very much, and yet the proprietors of those long-ago stores were invariably tolerant and friendly. Perhaps they knew that if they showed a financially challenged kid some encouragement, the kid might one day become a steady customer.

They were right, but they were wrong. Sporting-goods stores of that era tended to open and close within a few years, and by the time I was able to buy, the stores of my youth had closed.

It’s a pity. Those stores were infinitely more intimate than today’s big boxes, and would be infinitely more fun to shop.