Don’t Spare the Rod

At age 8 — five years after Tom Ashby took his first fishing trip with his father, Jack — he was a passenger on a floatplane bound for Rowan Lake in Canada. As the plane landed on the lake, he found himself mesmerized by his surroundings: the pristine wilderness and cerulean blue waters that he would soon discover were filled with trout, northern pike, largemouth bass, walleyes, and 50-inch muskies. That adventure, says Ashby, is “when I knew I was really hooked on fishing.”

Nearly five decades later, Ashby transformed his lifelong hobby into a living, opening a “superstore” designed to lure anglers seriously hooked on the sport. The retired corporate executive became a licensed dealer for G. Loomis, a high-end manufacturer of fishing equipment with a loyal following.

“G. Loomis is to fishing rods what Harley Davidson is to motorcycles,” says Ashby. “The same mystique, following, and loyalty Harley Davidson has with riders, Loomis has with fishermen.”

A visit to Ashby’s store, the American Legacy Fishing Company on Congress Avenue (southwest of Eastland Mall) reveals the location is an angler’s paradise, filled with every G. Loomis rod and accessory and adorned with antique fishing-related prints and a conversation pit perfect for telling fish stories. Behind the conversation pit are rows of G. Loomis rods, made from an aerospace graphite sheet cut like a sliver of pie, making G. Loomis rods lightweight, sensitive, and strong.

The fishing-rod designs come from Steve Rajeff, who was recently described as “the world’s greatest caster” by the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after his 2009 induction into the California Outdoors Hall of Fame. With four decades at competitive casting, Rajeff’s won 33 national and 14 world all-around championships. His experiences fishing around the world — from Russia to the Bahamas to South Africa — helped him, as the head of engineering at G. Loomis, design more than 2,500 rod models for a variety of disciplines, from fly fishing to deep-sea fishing.

These models aren’t cheap, priced between $240 and $1,000, but the price reflects G. Loomis’ focus on the dedicated fisherman, says Steve Grutbo, a national sales manager at G. Loomis’ headquarters in the state of Washington. These are fishermen who are spending money, too, even in a tight economy. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the estimated 30 million U.S. anglers spend $5.3 billion a year on equipment in order to take to the water an average of 17 days a year — four days longer than the average American’s vacation.

Those kinds of numbers led Ashby to launch the American Legacy Fishing Company in August of 2007, after he’d contacted Grutbo to pitch this idea: He wanted to open an Evansville-based superstore with a strong online presence that, as Ashby says, “would have every single Loomis item made.” All 1,100 items. “I didn’t care if it’s a child’s extra-small T-shirt or the most obscure rod blank,” says Ashby.

The superstore, dedicated completely to G. Loomis products, was a new concept for the company, and Grutbo was initially skeptical. But Tom Ashby’s ability to deliver on his concept and the store’s success so far has made Grutbo a believer. “I have a lot of customers who talk big but don’t always come through,” says Grutbo. “I always like to give them the benefit of the doubt. Tom’s the reason why.”

Ashby is focusing on a worldwide customer base with the promise of fast turnaround on an order placed through the company’s Web site, “Right now, the concept we wanted to explore primarily is to supply G. Loomis to fishermen worldwide from a central location with reliable delivery,” says Ashby. “The key (to our success) has been the Internet and the global community.”

“I still remember the first customer from Australia bought a shaving bag,” says Dixie Ashby, Tom’s wife of 43 years who helped him launch the store. “He called back later and bought a rod.” He was the first of many international customers from Australia, the United Kingdom, Scandinavian countries, Mexico, and elsewhere.

The Ashbys have invested as much care in their Evansville store, where photographs of happy customers clutching their prize catches hang inside American Legacy’s 3,000-square-foot showroom, made appealing by the conversation pit furnished with leather couches, an espresso machine, and a small flat-screen TV. Staffing the superstore are Ashby’s five employees who offer their expertise to patrons. Employees Paul Claspell and Adam Daywalt are competitive tournament fishermen, and Daywalt builds and repairs fishing rods. The store feels like a homage to an old-fashioned tackle shop, only more upscale, says Grutbo: “It’s like a classy cigar shop.”

In the first year in operation, American Legacy Fishing had $1.5 million in revenues, and an optimistic Ashby predicts he’ll eclipse $2 million in 2009. That makes his store the biggest single-shop location for G. Loomis products and one of the top 20 dealers in the country. The rest of the fishing-rod industry — even outside of G. Loomis — has taken notice of his successful business model. “He’s on everyone’s radar,” Grutbo says.

While Ashby runs American Legacy Fishing like the longtime businessman he is, the success seems just as exciting as his boyhood fishing trips to Canada. “I didn’t think I’d work seven days a week when I was 61 years old,” he says with a smile. “It’s fun.”

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