The bait was irresistible.
One by one, the anglers were lured by the close-out sale at Fishermen’s Hardware in Long Beach.
On a recent afternoon, they made their way past the open wooden-frame glass door covered with fish stickers. A cacophony of squeaks from the overly scratched floorboards filled the room, as the old fishermen wandered along the walls of dry-scented baits, colorful jigs and long fishing rods.
There’s the furniture too: the empty showcases, the dented file cabinets, empty fishing pole racks, a well-worn fridge and gray copy machine that were slapped with sheets of paper that read “Make a bid on it.”
For 25 years, this family-owned store at Anaheim Street and Temple Avenue served as a repair shop for broken rods and a popular hangout for fishermen to share tips or swap fish stories.
On Saturday night, the store closed, the victim of a sluggish economy and a decline in fishing in a town once known as a fishing haven.
“The fishing days are gone,” shop owner Robert Salamon, 80, said. “The economy has changed the core of customers that are no longer available.”
Sixty years ago, the store sat two blocks west of its current location. The Marine Hardware store, as it was known, opened just a few years ahead of Los Alamitos Bay Marina and catered mostly to boat owners. Eventually the store moved next door to Joe Jost’s, a historic tavern. By 1986, Salamon took over the business and turned it into a fishing tackle store.
He mounted giant fish sculptures on the store’s blue walls: a pair of marlins, a great white shark, a wahoo and a wild black sea bass. As generations of customers grew, so did the store’s photo collection of jubilant fishermen with their catches. The bulletin board in the store also served to maintain a log of the daily catches.
But by 2008, the store began to feel the financial pinch from California’s recession.
Fishing tackle sales that were built around a blue-collar clientele, from construction workers to plumbers, dried up. The store also lost the occasional doctor and lawyer who could afford high-end fishing gear. Soon, daily traffic at the store dropped from 60 to 40, then to 20 and then to 15, Salamon said.
He lost customers to bigger retail stores and to websites that can sell fishing gear at lower prices.
“It wasn’t getting better, and the outlook didn’t look better either,” Salamon said.
This story line appears to be playing out elsewhere in the state.
In Alameda, 400 miles north of Fishermen’s Hardware, a 60-year-old bait-and-tackle store is struggling too.
Even though the Central Avenue Bait & Tackle Store is minutes from the Ballena Marina, customers are disappearing, including the loyal ones, according to shop owner Koui Saechao, 53.
“People can’t fish if they don’t have jobs,” he said.
On average, Saechao’s store makes about $50,000 to $60,000 annually, but he says he’ll fall short of that this year.
In Hemet, about 90 miles east of Long Beach, Megan Merchant, the owner of Last Chance Bait & Tackle, can sympathize with small tackle stores.
“For a while I had customers coming in daily telling me they got laid off,” Merchant said.
In the last three years her store has faced a series of financial challenges, ranging from the temporary closure of a nearby lake to a bad fishing season. Most of her customers fish off Mexico’s water and reserve fishing trips through her store.
“Last year I had 14 trips scheduled and I canceled six,” Merchant said. “This year I’ve booked six.”
The National Sporting Goods Assn. found that sport fishing in California dropped from 5 million people in 1985 to 3.1 million in 2004. That number took another dip this year, to 2.5 million.
The California Department of Fish and Game also shows that in 2008 it issued 2.8 million fishing licenses. Last year the number had dropped by 400,000 and through Aug. 30 of this year by 300,000 more.
Fishing advocates blame regulations placed on the state’s coastal waters.
The California Assn. for Recreational Fishing predicts that private fish hatcheries and stocking ponds are next to go out of business. The state is proposing regulations that will require lake and pond operators to conduct environmental studies to determine if the fish they keep in stock have an effect on native species. Advocates say the regulations are costly and will affect 1.7 million freshwater fishermen who pump $4.9 billion into the state’s economy.
“You’ve got to basically carry the bible with you; the fish and game book that lists the various regulations for freshwater and saltwater fishing,” said John Barrientos, a 63-year-old Vietnam vet and longtime customer of Fishermen’s Hardware.
Barrientos, whose devotion to fishing recently led him to spend more than $1,000 at the store, said the regulations are needed. Pollution, overfishing and what he said is a change in water temperatures have reduced some fishing stocks.
“The waters are changing a lot,” Barrientos said.
On land, he’s facing a different kind of change.
“It’s a shame it’s closing,” he said of the store he has frequented at least once a week for more than 20 years. “This place has been good to me.”