There’s a place out there called Fishermen’s Paradise. For some, it’s a mythical land of brackish marshes and redfish. Others imagine endless pad fields and bedded bass. The truest of salts may picture paradise as an elusive El Dorado of billfish lurking somewhere along the continental shelf, but John Carlson thinks he knows where it really is.
For Carlson, Fisherman’s Paradise isn’t down south or out west or along the eastern seaboard. It’s in the middle of Wisconsin, in the heart of the North Woods, where he’s living a boyhood dream of owning his own tackle store.
Ross’s Sport Shop has been a Phillips, Wisconsin, staple since the 1950s. And it doesn’t take long to see why.
Walk around this tiny town of 1,400 and you’ll notice that not much has changed since the heyday of big-finned Cadillacs and Arthur Fonzarelli. Here in the North Woods, you’re hours from any major city by road, and most aircraft land on dirt or water “runways.”
Towering trees line the roads into and out of Phillips. Sasquatch sightings are frequent, and many of the local anglers (who outnumber the population of the town itself), spend their time hunting the region’s big muskie, which can prove to be nearly as elusive.
Carlson’s store is the epicenter of it all. It’s one of the first (or last) stops on the main drag into and out of Phillips. Anyone that wants to get to the local grocery store, head to the town’s vintage, single-screen movie theater or drop into a curbside cafe has a fair chance of passing Ross’s. And it’s this prime location that helped to build the store’s 60-year reputation as a honey hole of fishing tackle and information. (Having multiple lakes and rivers filled with bass, bream, crappie, muskie, trout, walleye and nearly any freshwater species imaginable just minutes away didn’t hurt either.)
Ross’s is the kind of independent tackle store that’s straight out of a dream. In some ways—like the town itself— the Sport Shop is an homage to retail outlets of yesteryear. The customers know John. They ask for him by name. They know his staff, and many of them probably knew the staff before him.
The store’s isles are crammed with tackle, gear and knowledge. And while they might not win an interior design of the year award, they’re a perfect reflection of what Ross’s Sport Shop is: a tackle store’s tackle store.
Yet, despite all of the throwback nostalgia, Carlson is putting massive quantities of sweat equity into his store’s modern brand.
The company just launched a modern, responsive website that not only serves as a conduit for foot traffic, but also generates online sales. Carlson, who’s not a web designer, says he built it in house. Kudos, John! Likewise, Carlson promotes his store via radio and social media, making special note of Facebook as a marketing tool. (Check the video below to see exactly what he’s doing.)
It’s that balance between the past and the present that keeps the registers at Ross’s turning, despite competition from at least two other tackle stores in less than a five mile radius. Fishermen’s Paradise, it seems, can be crowded.
Of course, John Carlson could have coasted on the decades-long reputation of Ross’s. He could have sat on the side of the highway and watched the boats roll in and out of Phillips, same as they always have. He could have witnessed a slow, steady decline in sales as those boats loaded up with tackle from online merchants. But he didn’t. When Carlson saw the world changing around him, he evolved with it. He searched for new ways to reach his customers. He found at least some form of an answer to online competition, and he kept working.
At the end of the day, that’s what every tackle retailer around the country is trying to do—no matter where your paradise is.