Queen of Baits
Roadside tackle shop has lots of lures, but even more allure.
By Larry D. Hodge
It’s easy to drive right by Sabine Tackle Supply on U.S. 69 between Greenville and Lone Oak and not notice it. The sign on the front of the small white building blew off in a recent windstorm, and the string of Christmas lights around the outline of a minnow shines no more. Only a sign on the south side of the building tells you you’ve found it.
Once you enter, there’s no doubt you are in a major-league bait and tackle store. Rods by 40 different makers stand at attention just inside the entrance. Display racks and cases bulge with hooks, bobbers, sinkers and lures. Aerators hum in the minnow room on the left, and on the right a reel repair person hunches over a workbench, immersed in the innards of a sick Shimano.
But before you notice all that, three other features catch your eye. One is the wood floor stretching out among the organized clutter of fish-catching devices, giving the tackle shop the feel of an old-time general store, which in a way it is. Adding to the homey feel is Shelby, the store’s yellow Labrador retriever, who greets customers with a cold nose and wagging tail. Most arresting is the diminutive woman behind the counter, leaning over a copy of a recent fishing magazine with a customer twice her height, telling him what’s biting and where and how to catch it.
He’s paying attention, and for good reason.
Betty Evans has spent 46 years in the tackle business, the last 23 at this location, but her connection to fishing goes much farther back. On the wall behind the cash register is a 1938 picture of a young girl and a man holding two large yellow catfish with the Lake Bridgeport Dam in the background — Evans and her grandfather, Van Harris, a commercial fisherman.
Evans is a living link between the Texas of yesteryear, when the state had few lakes and few people and most anglers fished for food, and the Texas of today, a state with hundreds of reservoirs and tens of millions of people and anglers who fish mainly for the thrill of catching a fish and releasing it rather than eating it.
“As a child I spent my summers with my grandfather,” she says. “I went with him every morning and helped him bait the hooks. He always thought that cattle and fish traveled the same way, had their trails. I had to keep the boat between the big red barn on this side and the big oak tree on the other. I also helped him cook the bait in my grandmother’s washpot. It looked like big dumplings and was flavored with sweet oil of anise and asafoetida. We would catch a lot of fish. Rough fish like drum, buffalo and carp. I remember coming in almost to my knees in fish in the bottom of his little boat, and sometimes we would have to unload and deliver and then go back.”
Evans has operated a wholesale tackle business since 1978, and that accounts in part for the sheer volume of merchandise on display. Or maybe she just likes fishing stuff. Whatever the reason, this store that looks so small from the outside appears much bigger on the inside. “This is pretty much the only place you can find what you need unless you want to go clear to Bass Pro Shops,” says customer Shawn Pickering.
Browsing the shelves turns up some items that are, frankly, a bit dusty. “You have to buy for business whether you are going to have it or not,” Evans explains. “You are at risk at times. Terminal tackle — hooks, lines, sinkers — is the least at-risk purchase. It will be sold. Lures and plastic baits are the hardest to stay ahead of, since they are always changing. I have a lot of items in here that are old enough to vote.”
The merchandise for sale changes regularly, but the building where it’s housed does not. “I went to my banker one time and told him I was thinking about improving my building — which is an old service station — or even building a new one,” Evans recalls. “I asked what he thought about that, and he said, ‘I wouldn’t fix what’s not broken. Your building has character. It has an old wood floor and is laid out like an old country store. If you really want my opinion, I wouldn’t change it much.’”
Evans took his advice, putting on a new roof and adding a room on either side of the original. And she never forgot who made it possible. “Every time a customer came in and said, ‘Look what you did,’ I said no, we did it, with your money.”
When Evans says we, she includes her four children and eight grandchildren. “All of them have worked here at some time,” she says. “It was a joy to be able to help them with a part-time job while they were in school. Three of my grandsons still spend a lot of time in here.” One is Matt Prince, now a railroad conductor, who still helps with reel repair from time to time, relieving Evans of that duty.
Evans passes on her fishing heritage and knowledge to customers as well as family. “You meet a lot of people today who don’t know how to tie a hook on the line,” Evans says. “The 1940s babies’ parents didn’t have as much time to teach them things. You’d be surprised how appreciative they are to be shown. But unless they ask my advice, I normally don’t offer it. I don’t try to sell people bait. I give them what they ask for unless they ask me for advice.”
“We don’t force anything on anybody,” Prince says. “That’s one of the things our customers like.” You’re much more likely to get a cold nose from Shelby than a hard sell from Evans or clerk John Adair.
“We carry everything from low-end to the best you can buy,” Evans points out. “In my little country store I can put together a $500 rod and reel in just a minute, or I can sell you a $15 rig.”
Evans says she has never had any trouble being a woman in a traditionally male line of business. “At first I was really concerned about it. I didn’t know if I would be accepted,” she says. “But customers just kind of put their arms around me. I found if you have what they want, they don’t care what you are.”
Watching Evans wait on customers, including sending some to a competitor for minnows because her delivery has not arrived, makes me realize people do care what Betty Evans is: the genuine article. She speaks their language, shares their passion. “I love to fish, especially for crappie, because I love to eat crappie,” she says. “I love to catch catfish or crappie or anything in the water. It’s very therapeutic and relaxing.”
Evans finds kindred souls in all walks of life. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I have a lot of tackle,” she smiles. “Sometimes I turn tackle into money. I paid for my teeth and my orthopedic shoes with tackle, because both those doctors are fishermen. There’s no way I can tell you who or how many, but through the years there have been lots of electricians, plumbers and yard workers who’ve said, ‘Look, I’ll take a rod and reel instead of money.’”
A bait and tackle shop with atmosphere, a great selection of merchandise, fair prices, a store dog with a cold nose and a knowledgeable staff is sometimes hard to find, and one wishes Sabine Tackle Supply could last another few decades. It won’t. Evans has no plans to retire, but none of her children or grandchildren have the desire to take over the business. “They all have their own careers,” she says proudly and without a trace of regret.
Time will not erase Sabine Tackle Supply, but a planned widening of U.S. 69 will. “The new road will run right through the middle of the front room,” Evans says. There’s no bitterness in her voice. After all, she still has a lot of fishing to do, and anyone with a wholesale tackle business has plenty of gear, none of it old enough to vote.
Sabine Tackle Supply is at 4089 U.S. 69 South, Greenville, (903) 454-2861.