Retailer Spotlight: Decatur Bait & Tackle

DECATUR, Ala. — Wheeler Lake stretches through the northern Alabama countryside for some 60 miles. It’s Alabama’s second largest lake and home to the busiest port on the Tennessee River. If you drive about a mile from its banks, you’ll find Decatur Bait & Tackle.

It’s the kind of tackle store that catches your eye, not for the glitz and shine of a world-class marina or an elaborate decorative scheme; not because it hosts elite bass tournaments or houses the most advanced marine electronics. Decatur Bait & Tackle doesn’t have those things. But what it has—what you immediately notice as you drive by on U.S. Highway 31—is grit. Decatur Bait & Tackle has realness. It’s as authentic as your first Zebco reel.

Decatur Bait & Tackle is like many legacy tackle shops scattered across small towns throughout North America. The owners will tell you that the thin, brick building has served multiple roles in its 100-year lifespan. It’s been a steak house, a…well, nobody is quite sure what else. But for sure, it was a steak house. However, for nearly three decades it’s been the go-to spot for Wheeler Lake’s anglers.

Crappie, bass, catfish, bream—Wheeler Lake has all of the southeastern staples. James Crow has helped anglers catch them all.

Crow has been working there for 28 years. He’s seen the best of times and held fast through the worst. Now getting on in age, Crow works side-by-side with his grandson to keep Decatur’s fishing legacy alive.

James Crow is a fixture of Wheeler Lake fishing
James Crow is a fixture in Wheeler Lake fishing

Crow leans on the checkout counter as two customers idle out the door with a bag full of terminal tackle. They’re likely on their way to Wheeler to find a catfish dinner. The store’s veteran patriarch cranes to speak. His grandson, who Crow refers to as “grand boy”, busies himself over the minnow tanks and cricket boxes that make up a large part of the store’s sales. Otherwise, the store is quiet.

“I love to talk to people,” Crow starts, “There used to be people lined up down the isles waiting to check out. But it ain’t like that anymore. We hope they come back, but we aren’t counting on it.”

When pressed to explain the dwindling crowds, Crow speculates that young people “just don’t fish like they used to.” That, combined with a fishery weakened by the nearby Port of Decatur and hot water discharge from Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, which lies just northwest of Decatur, has slowed his business.

Still, Decatur Bait & Tackle hangs on—in large part due to Crow’s family. He and grand boy know seemingly every local angler in the area. Photos of monster catches and bright days on the water line the walls behind their register. And other than a few big box stores, Crow has a near monopoly on the Decatur tackle market.

Every now and then, he says, another store will open in the same location just down the road. “But they never last long.”

The local big box stores have learned to work with Decatur Bait & Tackle.

“Academy Sports will call us up. If they don’t have something, they’ll send a customer over here. If I don’t have something and they have it, I’ll send them over there.”

Crow says that symbiotic relationship occasionally leads to some funny moments, chiefly when customers that come from Academy realize that his store carries the same rod or reel for a lower price than their larger competitor. “They’ll walk in here, see a rod and realize they got got,” he laughs.

And maybe that’s the thing about owning your own tackle store in one of the more obscure corners of America. Even after 28 years, James Crow is still his own man behind his own counter, and he’s still laughing even if the crowds aren’t what they used to be.

Decatur Bait & Tackle is located at 214 6th Ave. SE in Decatur, Alabama. In addition to Wheeler Lake, which still boats great scenery and good crappie and catfishing, the store is located about 35 minutes from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Hunstville, Alabama. If you’re into spaceships, space ice cream and general, epic NASA things it’s a can’t miss.

Combine the pair with a trip to Decatur’s own Big Bob Gibson’s barbecue (try the white sauce), and you’ve got yourself a nice pitstop on the way to other Tennessee River lakes like Guntersville and Pickwick—both just a few hours drive away.