DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. — In 2015, an old tackle shop overlooks the warming waters of Mobile Bay. Flapping in the breeze, an American flag stands sentinel over a coast that once hosted fleets of dueling blue and grey navies in a war that lies 150 years in Dauphin Island’s past.The midpoint in those timelines? The 1940s, when Jemison’s Bait n’ Tackle opened its doors not far from one of the bastions that once guarded the south’s grand bay.
Jemison’s doors have been open for over 70 years. Even in the tackle industry, that’s a long time. To find out how this South Alabama staple has stayed in business through countless ups and downs over the decades, I spoke to Harry Jemison—the store’s second generation owner.
Harry Jemison is no stranger to the tackle industry. And though his store does in fact occupy an island, it does not operate on one. Jemison makes a habit of getting out, of attending regional tackle shows—the nearest for him being on the nearby Mississippi Gulf Coast—in order to secure the lowest prices for his customers.
“I don’t have much trouble with the big box stores,” Jemison says, “I carry a lot of things they don’t, and I can beat them on just about any price.”
Veteran FTR readers will recognize that refrain. In fact, many independent tackle retailers are able to compete with their corporate brethren on price, though public perception is frequently to the contrary. However, price is not Jemison’s secret to long term success.
After his father founded the store in the 1940s, Jemison’s Bait n’ Tackle hung tight through good times in the ’60s and ’70s, and through turbulent times in the ’80s and ’90s when the offshore oil industry planted towering, omnipresent flags of change in the waters near its doors.
That worried people, says Harry Jemison: “At first, people were worried about the oil rigs. They were worried about the impact they would have on our environment, but they actually helped our fishing grow.”
The oil rigs brought with them hordes of tuna and the big boats that head offshore to hunt them. But the shop doesn’t make a living off of high-dollar tuna excursions alone. Their bread-and-butter comes from spreading knowledge, from telling regulars and visitors how and where to catch fish on the 6.2 square mile island that they call home.
[divider]The secret to success[/divider]
The first thing you notice walking into Jemison’s is a chalkboard. Propped beside a soda machine, that chalkboard notes the locations of nearly any kind of fish an angler could be searching for near Dauphin Island. It’s a simple touch. Many tackle stores have a board like this. But to traveling anglers, that message board can be the most welcoming sign they see all day. Why? Because it breaks down the tension of entering an unfamiliar shop with unfamiliar faces. When you read the sign, you see familiar things—tuna, flounder, trout, “I know these things,” a customer could say.
The sign is welcoming. And the man behind the sign, Harry Jemison, is more welcoming. After 31 years behind the counter, he’s developed a keen eye for knowing what kind of help to give.
“The first thing I noticed when you walked in here,” he tells me, “is that you probably aren’t from around here. Why? Because I’ve never seen you before. I figured you were from out of town.”
Pick a species—any species and Jemison will tell you where to catch it, how to rig your gear and how to haul it in. If you want a shark, Harry Jemison can help you find a shark. Flounder? No problem.
Jemison says knowing your local waterways is essential for sticking it out in the tackle business. So, too, is sincerity. “Just make sure you know what you’re talking about,” he says. “Never tell somebody that they can go somewhere and catch a fish if you have no idea if there’s anything out there. If there’s whiting, tell them they can catch whiting, but don’t tell them they can catch sea trout if there aren’t any.”
If you ask Harry Jemison what he’s most proud of about his store, the answer comes quickly: “That I’m still here,” he’ll tell you.
The secret to his 70-plus year success story? Knowledge. When you leave Jemison’s Bait n’ Tackle, you feel educated. You feel capable of catching any fish on or near Dauphin Island, and you might just leave with a few secret fishing holes, too.