CHIPPEWA FALLS — A melancholy Patsy Cline tune played softly on the radio while in a side room Bob Bernier looked over three fishing rods spinning slowly on an electric rotator/dryer so the varnish on them dried evenly.
Ben Adams of Chippewa Falls had just come into Bill’s Sport Shop with a fishing rod needing a tip replacement. He had been fishing for smallmouth bass a few days earlier on the Chippewa River and kept having his line cut.
“I was tearing up 20 feet of line for every fish I caught,” Adams said.
A closer inspection of his rod tip showed the ceramic on the inside of the top guide had chipped, leaving a sharp edge that was slicing his line.
Bernier took a look at the rod tip, then got out a Bunsen burner, applied some heat to the top guide to melt the glue holding it in place, and after some manipulation, had the tip removed.
He searched through a plastic box holding multiple tips, tried a couple until he found one that he liked, and soon the rod was ready to go.
While Bernier worked on the rod, a couple more customers entered the store and began browsing around. Among them was a small boy with a large ice cream cone and his grandfather.
They purchase a jar of “Power Bait” — small plastic baits impregnated with scents that attract fish. The boy explained they plan to use the bait for crappies, although he once hooked a walleye with Power Bait.
Without spilling any ice cream, he showed the length of the fish with his hands. After a quizzical glance from his grandfather, he reduces his estimate of the fish.
The business card for Bill’s Sport Shop says it is “kitty corner” from the county courthouse in Chippewa Falls, but a better landmark might be its location across the street from Olson’s Ice Cream Parlor & Deli — a busy place on any summer afternoon.
Bill’s Sport Store has operated on the same location on Chippewa Falls’ main drag, Bridge Street, since 1964. For the last 46 of those years it has been owned and run by Bob Bernier, now 75.
Bernier never thought about changing the name to “Bob’s Sport Shop, he said. People were familiar with the name “Bill’s Sport Shop” and knew where it was, so he decided to keep the name. The shop was opened in 1964 by Bill Statz, who sold it to Bernier in 1972. Statz was a carpenter who found it was hard to do carpentry and operate a sport store at the same time.
For Bernier, operating a sport store had been a longtime dream. He had been with the Chippewa Falls Fire Department for 10 years, but when he heard the sport shop was available, he jumped at the chance to own it. It was a lifetime dream to run a sport shop, he said.
“When I was growing up, that’s what I wanted to do,” Bernier said. “I liked to hunt and fish, so I wanted to work in that field.”
Bernier soon learned that operating a small sport store did not leave much time for anything else. The first gun deer hunting season he owned the shop he was open until midnight catering to the last-minute needs of deer hunters, then he headed up north to hunt deer.
“I kept falling asleep,” he said. “The last time I woke up it was pitch dark. I decided that was enough of that.”
The store was busy, especially in the build up to deer hunting season, he said.
“People needed to have their guns repaired,” Bernier said. “Nobody else who worked here knew how to do that, and everybody else wanted to hunt more than me.”
Bernier doesn’t do much gun smithing anymore, although he does some simple jobs such as mounting scopes. Fixing fishing rods and reels and selling hand-wrapped rods has kept Bernier in business while other small sport shops have disappeared with competition from bigger chains and online shopping.
People come to his store from a radius of 100 miles to have rods and favorite reels repaired, Bernier said. “There just isn’t any place around anymore, hardly, that does it,” he said.
Over the years thousands of rods have been repaired at his store, Bernier said. He has also built more than 3,000 rods, usually using blanks from a high-end rod company that has a cosmetic problem or something that doesn’t match.
“We rebuild them. We take off the guides and refinish the blanks. When we get done, they look pretty good,” he said.
Fishermen and their equipment have changed in the nearly 50 years he has run the sport store, Bernier said, noting many anglers in the past were early risers.
“We’d open at 6 a.m. and there’d be people waiting at the door,” he said.
Now the anglers roll in at 9 or 10 a.m., he said.
The old-time anglers had never heard of fish locators, but they still managed to find fish, Bernier said. “They had their spots. They knew what they were doing,” he said.
Bernier takes issue with state Department of Natural Resources angler estimates on Lake Wissota, saying they are high. For evidence he produces an old booklet with entries written in pencil for minnows ordered dating back to 1972.
Minnow sales have dropped since then, Bernier said. But at the same time he acknowledges that anglers have also changed tactics, with more of them using scent-impregnated plastic baits instead of live bait.
Walleye fishing locally isn’t what it was 50 years ago, despite efforts by the DNR that include the current slot size on Lake Wissota, Bernier said. Much of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota reports smaller walleye populations, he said. At the same time, largemouth and smallmouth bass are doing well locally. Panfish, the most commonly sought fish, are holding their own.
Fishing for channel catfish has become popular on Lake Wissota and the Chippewa River during the past five years, Bernier said. Muskies, Bernier’s favorite, are doing better than ever with improved management and the catch-and-release ethic.
“They used to say muskies were the fish of a thousand casts. Well hell, you catch them a lot sooner than that nowadays,” he said.
While Bernier doesn’t get out fishing often because of time spent minding the store, every fall he manages to slip out for a few days to fish the Chippewa River for muskies.
Where are they biting?
“You’ll get asked many times during the day where the fish are biting,” he said.
Because he spends most of his time in his shop, Bernier can’t rely on personal experience for the answer to the best fishing spots. So he obtains that information from the anglers who frequent his store.
However, some of those reports are suspect, he said.
“Usually the ones who brag, they ain’t telling you the truth. They kind of exaggerate,” he said.
Bernier offers the best advice he can. And he asks anglers to report back.
“I tell them to find out where the fish are biting, then stop back and let me know,” he said.
John Bernier, 50, Bob’s son, has worked in the shop on and off since high school and still comes in regularly to give his dad a few hours off. He also has holds down other jobs because work at the shop doesn’t pay well. Operating a small sport store is not a lucrative business.
“I don’t think it’s changed too much over the years,” John Bernier said of his dad’s store. “Cosmetically it’s changed. It looks different than it did in the ‘70s. But the general premise of the sport shop is the same. It’s a mom-and-pop sport shop that caters to the basic needs of hunters and fishermen.”
When his dad took over the shop in the early 1970s, it was still a general sport store, selling baseballs and basketballs and such. But Bob Bernier soon turned it into a shop specializing in outdoor equipment.
“Growing up I did a lot of hunting and fishing with friends. Dad was always in the sport shop,” John Bernier said.
He has suggested that his dad modernize some aspects of the store, but it continues to be run pretty much as it was in 1972.
“We do our inventory with pen and paper. We have no computers. Dad doesn’t own a cellphone,” John Bernier said. “The only thing we have is a fax machine. And I’m the one who uses that if we have to send an order. It’s definitely old school.”
Despite his age, Bob Bernier hasn’t talked about stopping work, his son said.
“He’s never talked about retiring,” John Bernier said. “ I think if my father retired, he wouldn’t know what to do with his time.”
Job a joy
Bill’s Sport Shop has regulars who stop by to visit and discuss the issues of the day. Bob Bernier said working with customers has made his job enjoyable.
“Meeting different people, I just love it,” he said.
Long hours are part of the job, but “if I didn’t like what I was doing, I would have quit a long time ago,” he said.
Knight is a freelance writer from rural Eau Claire.