An Unlikely Tackle Store Story

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I’m fairly certain that in 1981, when I was 11 years old, I did not know that there was such a thing as professional bass fishing, I had never used a baitcasting reel, and I had not been to a true tackle store. I lived in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and while the Potomac River fishery was benefiting from a substantial cleanup effort it was not yet recognized as a quality bass destination. 

Even if there had been dedicated bass shops around, my parents would not have taken me. They did not know the first thing about bass fishing, nor did they care. Once a year dad and a few friends would charter a boat on the Chesapeake Bay, bring their sons, and catch a mess of bluefish, but that was it. Even though I had the bug, I had no outlet for it—no place to go and no tackle of my own.

Then I met a friend whose family owned a farm with a decent little pond on it that they visited on weekends. When I visited him during the school week at his home in Bethesda, MD, we’d ride bikes to a local sporting goods store called The Sportsman. While they had footballs, and running shoes and machines to string tennis rackets, this store, just spitting distance from the DC line, also had a large back room dedicated to outdoor sports. It was there that I was introduced to names like Ryobi and Bagley’s and Shakespeare, and we’d visit it regularly with five or ten bucks to make a small purchase. I think of my recent Black Friday orders and can only surmise that 11 year-old Pete would’ve thought them impossible, but I can guarantee you that no $300 purchase today makes me as happy as heading home on a dirt bike with a small brown paper bag and a blister pack of five worms, or a plastic sliding box with a shallow-running crankbait and a 200 yard spool of Original Blue Stren did back then.

A few years later The Sportsman closed, but shortly thereafter the son of tackle department manager Mike O’Donnell Sr., the creatively-named Mike O’Donnell Jr., opened a fishing-only shop—my first real tackle shop visit—just a block up Bethesda Avenue in a new stretch of retail space. For me, this shop—yes, it was named O’Donnell’s—was even better because they had a greater selection of more specialized gear. I patronized them as often as possible with birthday money and other semi-legitimately obtained funds, but apparently my meager purchases were not enough to sustain the store. It appears that the greater Bethesda area did not have the same tackle-purchasing compulsions that I did, and it went belly-up a few years later.

I hadn’t thought about The Sportsman or O’Donnell’s for a long time until I recently interviewed Elite Series Rookie-to-Be Ed Loughran. I’ve known Ed casually for over 20 years, and I knew he’d gone to high school in Bethesda. I also recalled that there was a kid even younger than me who was at O’Donnell’s virtually every time I visited the shop. It only took me 35 years, but I finally realized that kid was Ed, and he confirmed it.

I guess if you were raised in Clewiston or Guntersville or Eagle River, Wisconsin, this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but to me it was jarring. Our home region is one that has not previously produced an Elite Series pro (for what it’s worth, I now live on the other side of the river and Ed lives about 90 minutes south), so what are the chances that an Elite pro and a Bassmaster writer would’ve converged at that time and place so precisely?

To make it even stranger, if you walk down the stretch of Bethesda Avenue where O’Donnell’s stood, it’s now an incredibly pricey stretch of commercial real estate—that block alone has an Apple Store (if only O’Donnells had a “Genius Bar” they might have survived), along with The North Face, lululemon, Williams-Sonoma and various other purveyors of countless Veblen goods. If either or both of us had been born 10 years later, we might not have had that launching point for our fishing obsession. So much depends on coincidence and timing and sheer dumb luck.