CONWAY — The human race is enamored with streaks. Winning streaks. Losing streaks. Not missing a day of work. Days on the space station.
When streaks end, we step back and take time to ponder what the streak meant in our lives.
Recently, a streak ended in the valley.
The Valley Angler column, a Saturday morning staple in The Conway Daily Sun, recently ran for the last time.
For 15 years, Bill Thompson, fourth owner of the North Country Angler (itself on a streak of serving anglers for 51 years) was the scribe of the highly popular column, one that was widely read throughout the United States.
During one of Bill’s “Fly Shop Fixes,” we had a chance to discuss how Bill came to write the Valley Angler for the Sun; what owning the North Country Angler meant to his life journey and that of his late wife, Janet; and many of the changes that have taken place in the fly fishing industry over the years.
“Janet and I had just bought the shop from Hunter’s Angling," said Thompson. “We were looking to increase our exposure in the valley. I went to the Daily Sun offices and asked the receptionist if the paper would be interested in a weekly outdoor fishing column. She turned and pointed to a gentleman and said, 'Let me introduce you to Mark (Guerringue, Sun publisher).”
The two agreed to a weekly column to run on Saturdays. One thousand words and Bill had free rein. The column had to be turned in on Wednesday.
Owning the North Country Angler gave Bill a myriad of story ideas. He would write stories about new anglers, favorite waters, new equipment and looks back at fishing stories of the past. The columns were well-written and informative. With the expansion of the internet, anglers who fished the valley but lived “away” read the column to stay in touch with their favorite fishing waters and their favorite fly shop.
Each column ended with the tag line “See you on the river.” Bill enjoyed meeting his customers when out fishing. He was always helpful and shared a fly with anglers who were not having as much luck as he. It was always educational to run into Bill when he was on the water.
Each winter, Bill and Janet would choose the columns that they liked the most to put in their own Valley Angler newspaper. In addition to the articles, there was a fishing map. Anglers flocked to the shop to pick up a copy of the Valley Angler and have Bill or Janet mark the hot fishing spots. Each season saw over 1,000 copies of the Valley Angler land in anglers' hands.
Before owning the North Country Angler was on his radar screen, Bill was a shop rat during the Dick Stewart era (Stewart was the second owner of North Country Angler). Bill wanted to become a world-class fly tyer. He would consult with any of the anglers who worked at the shop. He would purchase the necessary materials for a select fly pattern. He would take a completed fly back to the shop and show it to Stewart.
“Dick was a taskmaster,” said Thompson. “He would rip my fly to shreds with all the imperfections. I would go back and retie the fly. Stewart would still find mistakes.”
This made Bill a world-class fly tyer. His flies are a thing of beauty. Stewart asked Bill to contribute some ties to his book “Flies for Trout.”
“I was shocked when Dick asked me to tie flies for his book,” said Thompson. “The day before, he had ripped me for all the mistakes I had made when I brought a fly in for him to critique.”
Fly tying remained one of Bill’s passions. When he and Janet bought the North Country Angler, he started Lyars & Tyers, a free fly-tying session on Saturday mornings. Lyars & Tyers became a great way to get new anglers into the art of fly tying. It also was a way to drive business through the shop during the slower winter months. Lyars & Tyers is now entering its 19th year. Another notable streak!
With the advent of YouTube, Bill started a fly-tying channel. He set up the back of the shop as a mini studio and would take video of New Hampshire fly patterns and post them online. This brought Bill some notoriety out on the internet.
At one time, Bill did a fly tying show on Valley Vision. While the show was short-lived, the show solidified Bill’s stature as the valley’s preeminent fly tyer.
Bill had a long and distinguished career in department store retail, his final workplace being Ames Department Stores. Ames fell into financial difficulties in the late 1990, declared bankruptcy and ultimately closed. Bill took his retailing experience with him when he and Janet purchased the North Country Angler.
“We weren’t the first to try and buy the shop from Hunter’s,” said Thompson. “Jon Howe, the lead guide for the shop, tried to buy it. But he and Hunter’s just never got to a price they could agree upon.”
With creditors banging on the door, Hunter’s sold the shop. The Thompsons bought the shop for fixtures, the name and the minuscule inventory that remained.
With Bill’s retail experience and Janet’s business savvy, the couple went to work. First, they moved the store from Intervale to North Conway, next to Elvios’s Pizza on the left side of the building. Janet felt that being closer to town and the Saco River fly fishing-only section of the river would boost sales. Bill had acquired retail store fixtures from an Ames' going-out-of-business sale and strategically placed them within the new store’s layout.
Walking up the porch stairs and opening the double doors was fly shop nirvana. The shop ran deep, and Bill had merchandised a magnificent rod rack at the back of it. It drew you in and had you walking past all the accoutrements for fly fishing. It was a fun place to shop for fishing gear.
Bill loves fishing gear, both old and new. He has seen a major transformation in equipment, starting with fly rods.
“Back in the Stewart days, shorter five-, six- and seven-weight rods were all the rage,” said Thompson. “Over the years, the rods got longer, lighter and moved to five weight, four weight and three weight line sizes.”
The race to who could throw the lightest line the furthest was on. So were the rod sales for the shop.
“We upgraded many anglers each time a new rod series arrived,” said Bill. “New rod technology is one of those things that keep a fly shop in business.”
Not only did new rod technologies thrive during the Thompsons' ownership of the shop, but fly reels went through an amazing transformation.
“Pflueger shipped their reel manufacturing overseas, and the quality was junk,” said Thompson. “Orvis went to England and maintained their quality. We sold a lot of Battenkill reels.”
The Battenkill reels had a standard arbor (the arbor is the center of the reel spool where the line is attached). Reel manufacturers begin putting larger arbors on the reel spools. This made reeling in line and playing fish easier. Reel manufacturers began to race to see who could build the largest arbor without losing performance. Anglers kept upgrading reels, and the shop flourished.
“A good reel will last an angler two lifetimes,” said Thompson. “I never really understood the big push for new reels. I guess anglers are always looking for that little edge to make their fishing experience meet their expectations.”
Bill fishes with his classic Hardy reels. He has had them for as long as he can remember. He beams when he speaks about those reels. “No finer sound on the river than a Hardy screeching under the strain of a landlocked salmon running downstream.”
Fly lines were no different. With each change in fly rod technology, fly lines had to change as well. The fly line manufacturers were always playing catch-up. This made the management of fly lines a nightmare.
Janet was in charge of fly lines. “She was really good about dealing with the vendors and getting returns for obsolete inventory,” said Thompson. “Otherwise, fly lines could have put us out of business. To this day, I wonder if we ever made any money on fly lines.”
It is said that brick-and-mortar retail is a war zone. The North Country Angler has weathered those battles well. The shop has been an authorized Orvis dealer since the beginning. However, the biggest challenge in the 51-year history of the shop has been Orvis opening outlet stores in the valley — twice.
The first Orvis outlet was in the old airport hangar in Settlers Green. Bill went over and introduced himself to the manager. They ended up striking a partnership. Orvis would bring in minimal fishing gear and recommend customers to North Country Angler. In return, North Country Angler would send all the dog owners down to the Orvis Outlet for dog beds. The partnership worked until one day the Orvis Outlet closed.
The second iteration of the Orvis Outlet was at Settlers Crossing, at the present REI location when Eastern Mountain Sports was there. Bill once again went to meet with the manager. Not only did the manager agree to carrying some minimal fishing gear but she would call Bill to review what she had received before it even hit the sales floor. “I got some really good deals on Orvis gear that way,” Bill chuckled.
That location didn’t last more than a year. The North Country Angler survived another challenge in the valley.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge was the opening of the Saco River Fly Shop in Conway. A young fly fisher thought he had a better way to sell fly gear by using the internet. “I learned a lot about loyalty when that shop opened,” said Thompson. “Vendors that I had supported for years went behind my back and sold to my competition. I felt betrayed.”
Fortunately for the Thompsons, Orvis was not one of the betrayers. Orvis did everything in its power to help the shop stay viable, and vibrant. A couple of years passed, and the Saco River Fly Shop went bust.
“People don’t realize what it takes to be a successful retail operation,” said Thompson. “I don’t know how many meals I missed — my son’s athletic events, even sleepless nights. With brick-and-mortar retail, you are either all in or you are out!”
Well, that stress finally hit home when Janet was diagnosed with cancer. Between trips to Hanover for treatments, the Thompsons manned the shop and stayed loyal to their customers, and their customers did likewise.
It was a sad day when Bill announced in the Valley Angler that the shop was going up for sale. “So much of our life, so many of our friends, we felt like we were letting them down,” said Bill. “But we hoped to make a trip to Yellowstone together. We loved it there.”
The trip didn’t happen. Janet passed away before the shop would be sold. It looked like the end of a streak and that the North Country Angler had met its demise.
But a native son looking to return to the valley and an ardent follower of the Valley Angler online saw that the shop was for sale, and the rest is history. Bill continued to write the Valley Angler and support the shop. When retail is in your bones, it never leaves.
After selling the North Country Angler in the fall of 2016, Bill dove into his second passion, photography. A member of several photo clubs, he traveled the North Country in pursuit of the perfect photograph with his friend Rick Davidson. The duo worked together for many years in film and photography. It is not uncommon to see them parked at a pond, a lake or a field looking for that perfect picture.
During the summer, Bill travels to car shows with his pride and joy, a restored 1964 F-100 Ford pickup truck. In addition to fishing and photography, Bill is a gearhead. He has a passion for old cars and trucks, and can tell you everything about the old classics. Bill is a cornucopia of knowledge once he develops a passion and is always willing to share that knowledge.
Bill looked at his watch. His “Fly Shop Fix” had lasted almost two hours. He had grocery shopping to do and a dog at home to feed. But as he headed out the door of the shop, he paused, winked and said, “See you on the river.”