I can remember getting butterflies in my stomach at the prospect of going tackle shopping. Not only did it mean that a fishing trip might be in the offing, but I was well on my way to "coming of age", having now been invited on one of these ritualistic excursions.
In the small Southern Ontario town of Welland where I grew up, there were not all that many places to buy tackle.
There was Whelan's Marine down by the river that while specializing in outboard motor parts and repairs did carry the odd bit of tackle. McCrae's on Main Street had tackle, and something really special for the grown ups that was sold out of the back room, away from the prying eyes and big mouths of us kids, and of course we had a Canadian Tire.
None of them had much in the way of stock, but every store had plenty of atmosphere, character, and a particular odor that was unique to each of them.
Before they turned all of the stores into mini Wal Marts, our Canadian Tire smelled like - well - tires. Whelan's boasted the distinct odors of river, dust and used oil, and you got a whiff of the stale cigar smoke that permeated McCrae's Main Street store while you were still two blocks away. You could have taken me into any of those places blindfolded, and I would have known exactly where I was.
Back then buying tackle was not a spur of the moment activity. It usually involved some serious deliberation before embarking on a buying excursion, because unlike today, your choices were limited, and while basic hooks and sinkers were affordable, most other things were not all that cheap.
Except for the Canadian Tire, none of the stores were what we would today call self-service. The majority of items were behind the counter, or locked up in glass display cases, and if you wanted a closer look, someone brought it to the counter, and then would spend as much time as needed - well maybe a bit more - talking fishing and helping you with your purchase.
Whelan's was somewhat of an exception, because Mr. Whelan didn't really know where anything was, so everyone had to pitch in to look for that bit of tackle, he swore was under one of the many piles of dusty/oily rags and outboard motor parts scattered around the store.
In the early 1960s there was a buzz around town that one of the stores might be getting a Rapala. Not several dozen in each of the many styles, sizes and colours that are available today - but a single, minnow shaped Rapala. Rumors about this amazing Finnish made lure had been swirling around for some time, but to the best of my knowledge, other than some pictures published in a 1962 Life magazine article, no one had actually seen one, let alone fished it.
This revolutionary lure was said to be so effective, that to avoid being mauled by the fish, you had to tie it onto your line either under cover of darkness, or while hiding behind a tree. Good thing it was so effective right out of the box, because as I found out sometime later, all of the instructions and fishing tips were in Finnish.
When a tackle store managed to get one or two, long line-ups ensued and bidding wars were commonplace. While it retailed for around $2.50, which was pretty steep to begin with, we heard that people were willing to pay as much as $20 or even $30 for a single lure - a lot more than most of us would spend on groceries for an entire week.
Marinas, small tackle shops and guides would rent them out by the day, and even the hour. Not only that, it came from Finland - wherever the hell that was.
So which store would it be? No one knew for sure, until one Saturday morning when my dad received a message from an unnamed caller, and after checking to see that my mom was otherwise occupied, I was quietly told to get a move on and hop in the car. When I asked where we were headed and why, he gave me one of those "don't ask" looks. As we pulled up in front of McCrae's, I blurted out, "Did they get one?" My question was answered with a knowing wink, followed by a solemn nod.
A thin, light blue cardboard box with a hard plastic cover was produced from behind the counter, and with the occasional furtive glance over his shoulder; my dad carefully examined the contents.
While not allowed to touch it, I did get a good look at the mysterious, silver and black minnow shaped lure. There was a great deal of hushed, but animated conversation between the man behind the counter and my dad, but he didn't make the purchase, because I remember my mom coming home with a load of groceries that afternoon.
We eventually did get one in silver and black, and some time later, a second in the only other colour being offered - gold and black, neither at the expense of putting food on the table if my memory serves me correctly.
With the possible exception of the Rapala Shad Rap when it first hit store shelves in the early 1980's, I can't recall any fishing lure being cloaked in more mystery, or generating that kind of excitement, since the introduction of the Original Floating Rapala.
It seems that new lures are being introduced every other week, and for the most part, they are variations on an existing theme - so it's really not that big of a deal.
Many of today's massive outdoor equipment stores carry thousands of rods, reels and lures in every shape, size and colour imaginable. Only the most expensive tackle is kept behind the counter, sadly not because it's particularly special or unique, but rather to discourage those few people, who might inadvertently forget to visit the cashier when leaving the store with their "purchase."
You now have to personally search the shelves in most of the larger stores to find what you need. Not in, or under piles of dusty/oily rags and outboard motor parts, and not because the owner misplaced the item, but with such a vast selection to choose from, and a scarcity of knowledgeable staff to help out, you don't have much choice.
There are some custom fly-fishing and general tackle stores remaining today that continue to provide personal customer service, but for the most part, that type of store and tackle shopping experience is a thing of the past.
The tackle business has undergone significant change over the years, and a good many of these changes have been positive ones.
Selection is huge, and because most tackle is mass-produced, the prices have come down accordingly. Rods are stronger, lighter and extremely sensitive, and most reels have smooth effective drag systems together with more ball bearings than the space shuttle.
But if the truth be told, I would gladly trade all of these changes and innovations for a tip from an unnamed caller that would send me off in search of something that is truly new and unique, and perhaps just a little bit mysterious.