These days, when Joe Bruce talks wistfully about the ones that got away, he doesn't mean fish.
The customers who used to hover in his tiny Catonsville shop each spring and summer, searching for the perfect trout fly or fishing rod, dwindled to a handful last year, prompting Bruce to close his 15-year-old business, the Fisherman's Edge.
Like hundreds of other mom-and-pop operators of tackle shops nationwide, Bruce has learned the painful lesson of being a small store in a big-box pond.
But it's not just the big-box stores squeezing independent shops out of the market. Anglers are getting older, and fewer youngsters are taking to the sport. Internet sites sell deeply discounted gear. Real estate prices in waterfront towns are rising.
"They all take a little slice," says Bruce, a well-known fishing guide and nature photographer. "It's a Wal-Mart economy now. People don't expect service, and they don't get any."
Johnny Marple closed his doors in 2003 after a half-century on Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County. Wally Vait decided it was easier to be a fishing guide than to run his On the Fly shop on the Gunpowder River. Mark Hoos and Jerry Sersen moved their Fishin Shop from Pulaski Highway to less-expensive real estate in a strip mall. In January, Ray and Joe Fletcher walked away from their family's 145-year-old tackle and boat rental business on the Potomac River in Washington.
The decline began in the mid-1990s, "and it will continue," says Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association. "We tend to be sensitive to the mom-and-pops because we know them as people. Selling fishing tackle is a very competitive business. The profit margins aren't great. There's not a lot of money left on the table."
Fishing tackle is big business. In 2001, 34 million Americans went fishing, and they bought $17 billion worth of equipment, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That same report said 701,000 residents and visitors fished in Maryland and spent $495 million on gear and trip-related expenses.
Federal and industry studies show that although sales of fishing gear nationally rose 14 percent from 1991 to 2001, the number of license holders dropped 4.2 percent. In Maryland, license sales fell 10 percent.
Like the giant home-improvement centers that led to the decline of local hardware stores, the big-box outdoors retailers that dot the region gobble up customers. By buying in bulk or manufacturing their own gear, they undercut prices that independents must charge.
"Damn it, they shouldn't do it, but they're doing it and they're not going to stop," says Tony Tochterman, owner of Tochterman's Tackle Shop, an Eastern Avenue landmark since 1916.
"I don't blame the customers," says Charlie Ebersberger, owner of Angler's Sports Center just outside Annapolis. "I go up there to Bass Pro Shop myself to see what they've got."
Despite his prime location on U.S. 50 by the Bay Bridge, Ebersberger says, business is declining at Angler's and he doesn't know how to stem the tide.
"You can't fight back with price-cutting because you'll go out of business," he says. "I have a nice candy store, but they have a bigger one."
No one keeps statistics that show the rate of decline. Mom-and-pops aren't included in state or federal business censuses. But suppliers say they feel the loss.
"For every 15 new customers, we lose 16," says Steve Fifer, director of sales for Henry's LLC, one of the nation's largest tackle distributors dealing exclusively with independent stores. "What you're seeing at a more accelerated rate is Darwinism. The strong survive ... but I don't think we're ever going to see the number of people being successful that we have in the past."
Bruce knew his selling days were over early last June, when a friend taught an acquaintance to fish with gear purchased at the Fisherman's Edge. After the lesson, the novice bought his first rod and reel for $89 at one of the big stores.
"That was the hammer," Bruce says. "I came in that Monday and said [to his employee], 'Howard, I'm quitting. I'm closing the door June 30.'"
It has never been easy for independent shops. Before the current chains, there were Two Guys and Sears, which sold rods and reels endorsed by baseball Hall of Famer and avid angler Ted Williams.
But the pressure has never been as intense, local independents say. The squeeze began in earnest when Bass Pro Shop opened in Arundel Mills in September 2001. Two years later, Cabela's opened in Berks County in Pennsylvania, less than a two-hour drive from Baltimore. Customers can also choose from Modell's, Dick's Sporting Goods, L.L. Bean and Wal-Mart.
"People don't understand. If they don't support their local tackle shop, we'll be gone," says Sersen, who services what he sells to keep business flowing. "We care about you as a customer. The big stores care about you as a dollar bill."
Bass Pro Shops has heard the complaints before, in almost every place where it has opened for business, says Larry Whiteley, manager of corporate public affairs.
"The mom-and-pop stores can say, 'Oh, woe is me, I'll be forced out of business.' Yep, they are. Or they can say, 'Man, what an opportunity. I'll sell what they don't. I'll service rods and reels.' he says. "The mom-and-pop that finds a niche is going to have business. We're helping to enhance the market."
Some local shops aren't ready to run up the white flag.
In North East, Herb and Eleanor Benjamin have been running their combination tackle shop and barbershop for 41 years, with no signs of slowing down.
Clyde Blamberg opened Clyde's Sport Shop in Lansdowne in 1957 and still provides fishing advice and services what he sells.
"You fight back with knowledgeable personnel, customer service and better hours," says Ebersberger, who opens before 5 a.m. in peak season.
Tochterman says his strategy is to sell customers "what they want, not what I have."
The shop with the green fish over the doors is packed with fishing gear, and Tochterman plans to open the second floor.
"My plan is to run this store until it's 100 years old," Tochterman says. "That will be Feb. 8, 2016, and I'll be 66."
The genial owner grew up in the family store and collected his first paycheck at age 12. His father, Thomas Jr., is still on the premises, his ashes in a fishing rod case behind the counter.
Customers help Tochterman unload delivery trucks and sometimes build their own lures with the owner's equipment.
"I'd rather give my business to a local guy than a corporation," says Tochterman customer Anthony Mattera of Riva. "You can't just walk in a big store with 30-foot ceilings and 300-foot aisles and start up a conversation."
Tochterman says he stays in business because he and Dee Taylor, his companion of nearly 13 years, are two-thirds of the staff and don't draw paychecks.
"Independents, no matter who they are, have to quit feeling sorry for themselves," he says. "Whatever it takes to stay in business, you do."
The closing of a small tackle shop is more than just a blow to the local economy, says Herb Moore Jr. of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a national education and lobbying group.
"Almost more than the loss of a local friend is the loss of fishing knowledge," Moore says. "A lot of shops are like social clubs. You get a fishing report. You hear who's catching what, where."
Bruce says he still has breakfast with some of his regulars but that it isn't the same.
Recently, he says, he saw the movie You've Got Mail, in which the owner of a small bookshop is forced out by a chain store.
"That hit me hard. It was what I went through," Bruce says. "Am I bitter? Hell, it was me, it was my shop. I had a dream and lived it and breathed it for 15 years. Now, it's gone."