Mom and pop fishing supply business left languishing

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PORTLAND, Ore. - The days are gone when Kay and Ralph Steele sold
chartreuse green and silver-winged and polka dotted spin n' glows from the
deck of their own boat while they were out fishing the Willamette River.
"The spin n' glows can have wings like bugs and they're all different
colors and got spots and stripes," said Steele with a chuckle. "Anything to
attract the fisherman - not so much the fish, but the fisherman."

At first the little propeller-like things people put on their terminal
tackle (on their hooks to vibrate and attract fish) were a specialty that
owner of Lure Me Tackle and Fishing Supply, Kay Steele stocked up on
because hardly anyone else had them. "But then, the state closed the season
on us," Steele said, "so we didn't sell our inventory." The other problem
was that everyone started getting them in. All the chain stores that can
sell well below the prices of a mom and pop outfit had them.

In the tackle business since 1993, member of the Siletz Tribe and former
registered nurse, Kay Steele thought she had a modest retirement secured.
But the trips to Canada to fish that she and her husband used to take
aren't in the cards anymore. Since the bottom went out of the sports
fishing industry over the past several years, Steele has had to cut back to
just doing mail orders, and she's liquidating the inventory that used to
fill her shop on eBay. Even the auction is a tough proposition, though,
given the long reach of big corporations' arms and their ability to
undercut pricing from the smaller fry.

Still, if you're coming to the Pacific Northwest to fish, Kay Steele and
her husband Ralph are the ones to see if you want someone who will take the
time to give you the inside scoop. "My husband has always liked unique
things so we specialize in tackle that's unusual. That's one of the reasons
our customers come back," Steele said. "We have a lot of friends that are
guides so we stay well informed, and we just pass that information along to
our customers. Ralph spoils everyone - talks with them and makes sure
they're fishing with the right stuff and doing the right things. We have
people that come to find out where to go to fish and what lures are being
used."

Lure Me Tackle started when Kay lost her plug while they were out fishing
in 1993 and missed the day's bite because there was nowhere to get a new
lure. So she started the business with $1,000 capital and nothing more than
her dining room table. "Most of the wholesalers we worked with did COD so
our inventory was always our own, and I didn't have to rely on a line of
credit or anything." From there it was word of mouth and the annual
Sportsman's Show, a five-day confab of people in the trade and fisher
people themselves where the latest equipment makes the rounds. The Steeles
did the show for nine years, but aren't going this year. "Because of all
the fishing seasons getting cut off," Steele said, "we just don't have the
capital any more."

What was once a sport fishery on salmon that started up in January and ran
until April is now an "on again, off again" thing. State fishery
departments keep careful counts of returning fish and open and close
seasons in response to the runs. "Last year they closed the spring salmon
season a week and a half after they opened it. But then all these fish
started coming back so they opened it up for another week and a half,"
Steele said. "The thing is fishermen aren't going to spend a bunch of money
if they aren't going to be able to fish like we did back in the 1980s."

The good news is that Kay Steele did not invest heavily in fixed costs. In
the late 1990s when Lure Me Tackle outgrew the dining room table, the
Steeles built a pole barn in the back of their property for their inventory
and a shop front. Other than that, they don't have to absorb extraneous
costs now that they are downsizing.

A conservative approach to growing the business might have something to do
with gender. "One thing I noticed was that being a Native owner put me in
the minority in the world of selling fishing products - especially being a
minority lady," Steele said. "I'm the owner. My husband does the
purchasing, but I'm the owner and make the decisions. So at these shows we
go to, when they only talk to Ralph and don't even look at me, I just tell
my husband that I don't want to do business with them. If they want to pass
me off as a short, fat Indian lady, they can. But I know that I should have
the same respect as any man working in the field."

As far as a word to the wise goes, Steele said, if anything, her experience
shows how important it is to try and think ahead about both the future of
your market and your competition. "When I first did my business plan and
things, I checked on numbers of fishermen. At that time they were selling
250,000 resident fishing tags a year in Oregon. Now not too long ago it had
dropped clear down to 72,000. Also the cost of the licenses is going up,"
she said. "And then there's the huge new Sportman's Warehouse that came to
town. That even hurt one of the bigger businesses, the Fisherman's Supply."

Still Kay Steele has hope. "We haven't thrown in the towel yet," she said.
"We still have our connections to the wholesale world and will continue to
serve our regular customers. They tell us that even though we have to sell
our things for a little more that they'll keep coming back. Like one man
said, 'I get a good enough deal, and besides I like Ralph's stories.'"

To contact Lure Me Tackle and Fishing Supply, call (503) 762-1273.