Tom Hargrove practices casting into a hoop in the parking lot of his business. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Store, on Manchester for 27 years, still going strong

By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit

There are no rivers in Brentwood, no trout streams, not even a lake nearby. And yet our town is home to the only two stores in the St. Louis area that are solely dedicated to fly-fishing. Both businesses have been around for decades and are located less than a mile apart on Manchester Road. But that’s where the similarities stop.

East of Brentwood Boulevard is Feather-Craft Fly Fishing, a large, modern store that gets much of its business from orders through its website and 110-page color catalog.

West of Brentwood Blvd. is T. Hargrove Fly Fishing Inc., located in an older house that serves as a hangout for fly fishermen. Internet orders? “I don’t do PayPal,” says the owner with a smile.

“They’re different by 180 degrees,” said Al Bourisaw, a recent customer at T. Hargrove. “They’re both good shops, they just meet the needs of different people.”

Perhaps a secret to the two stores’ longevity is that they don’t try to be alike. Soon we’ll profile Feather-Craft. This week we tell the story of the guy who one customer refers to as “the Big Lebowski of fly-fishing.”

T. Hargrove Fly Fishing benefits from being on busy Manchester Road. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

‘Everybody knows your name’

The iron stove in the main room was Tom Hargrove’s father’s idea. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Lots of niche businesses say they want to be known as a friendly hangout, a home away from home. Few of them actually are, and even fewer are as friendly as T. Hargrove Fly Fishing Inc. Step inside and you’ll probably see customers sitting around the fly-tying table drinking coffee or, when it’s cold out, eating bowls of soup or chili from a Crock-Pot. Not just retirees but people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and not all of them men.

But it’s not just a hangout. On Saturday, owner Tom Hargrove and employees Craig Stephens and Chris Conant were hustling around waiting on a steady trickle of customers. Stephens also gives fly casting lessons at Tilles Park. Conant can expertly tie a fly in minutes. But the heart and soul of the place is Hargrove. As his vinyl records play an eclectic mix of vintage rock from artists such as Captain Beefheart and early Led Zeppelin, he keeps a running commentary of anecdotes from the scores of fishing trips he has taken, gear and technique advice, and humor.

“He’s the Big Lebowski of fly-fishing,” said Vince Cutelli, a 15-year customer. “Look at him, is he the greatest? He’s a good guy and a real fly-fishing guru.”

“This is a hometown store where everybody knows your name,” said Wayne Mueller of Fenton. “I’ve been coming here 20 years. I’ve bought at least a half dozen rods and reels from Tom, and waders.”

Said customer Larry Hurt, “This place is like family. You come in here, people hang out, you get to meet the guys. To me it’s a relaxing environment. But as soon as you walk in the door Tom is selling. He’ll say ‘Here, this is brand new and everybody needs one.’”

Waiting on customers are Craig Stephens (left) and Tom Hargrove. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Craig Stephens (left) gives a fly-fishing lesson to Eliot Kerwin of University City on Saturday at Tilles Park. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Craig Stephens (left) instructs Eliot Kerwin at the pond at Tilles Park.

Catching the fly bug

Hargrove grew up in Kirkwood and Creve Coeur in the 1960s. He was a teenager when his father announced that they’d take a family vacation to fish for trout in southern Missouri. To prepare himself, Tom pressed his scoutmaster, who was also his neighbor, for advice on how to fly-fish.

“Mr. Henning gave me about a half-hour of instruction,” Hargrove said. “He gave me a rod and reel and a handful of flies in exchange for me cutting his lawn a few times.”

While many people fish mostly to relax, Tom immediately took to both the hands-on nature and the cerebral aspect of fly-fishing.

“With other types of fishing they’re just out there plinking but with fly fishing you’ve got to be worried about what the fish eat and the whole environment,” he said. “It’s a big puzzle and you’ve got to figure it out. It helps to know what the bugs are, and I was always interested in that. Then you have the craft aspect of tying flies and building rods. I loved art as a kid − creating stuff is really satisfying.”

Employee Chris Conant begins tying a fly that’s called a ginger mohair leech. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

It takes Chris Conant only a few minutes to tie a fly. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Conant’s completed ginger mohair leech, which is one of the store’s most popular flies. “The mohair leech is my favorite,” said Tom Hargrove. “In Montana on the Yellowstone three years back, we floated down from Columbus, just above Billings, and on the mohair leech I caught six species of fish that day.” (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Flies in a drawer at T. Hargrove. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

‘You’d be good at this’

Tom studied wildlife conservation management at Southwest Missouri State University, where he earned a B.S. in agriculture. Unable to land a job with the Missouri Department of Conservation, he became a salesman at Bass Pro Shop in Springfield. He moved back to St. Louis in 1985 to work at Outdoors Inc., a store in Ladue. That’s when he married his college sweetheart Lori, also a wildlife conservation graduate. They’ve since raised two daughters, ages 25 and 20.

Though working in retail wasn’t his first choice for a career, it led to him opening his own shop.

“My boss Jeff Miller [at Outdoors Inc.] was a nice guy and gave me some ideas that maybe I could do this on my own,” he said.

Hargrove carries a large selection of Krystal Flash, fiber used to make flies. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Brentwood store

Waders hang in a room at the store. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

A wide selection of road atlases show just a handful of the states with good fly-fishing. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Hargrove set up shop in the house at the corner of Manchester Road and Manderly Drive in 1987. He learned that the house had originally served as the office for a dentist, Dr. Purcell, and had since been an antique store and a sales rep’s office. His and Lori’s plan was to live there as well, using the Manchester entrance for business and the Manderly Drive entrance for their residence, but that lasted only two years.

“We decided we couldn’t be here 24/7 so we moved back to Kirkwood,” he said, then explained, “It’s a Sunday morning and my wife has a robe on and a customer knocks at the residence door needing something.”

Tom has gradually expanded his business to take advantage of almost every square foot of the structure.

“My dad loves projects so he tore down the wall for the dentist’s x-ray room to make the front room bigger and he said that we’ve got to have an iron stove right away,” Hargrove said. “He grew up in small-town Lesterville, Missouri, where all the old-timers sit around the cracker barrel.”

The bedrooms and back porch were converted into rooms to display fishing gear such as waders, vests and Gore-Tex jackets.

“Dr. Purcell had a couple of sons who are my customers,” Hargrove said. “One of them said, ‘It’s really strange trying waders on in my parents’ old bedroom.’”

There’s classroom space. And in the basement, staff and customers build their own fly rods out of bamboo.

Fishing all over the world

“If I sell this stuff, I need to be able to tell people about it,” said Hargrove. In other words, he goes on a lot of fishing trips. He has fished for two dozen species in nearly 20 states. Just in the past few months he has gone after golden dorado in Argentina and tarpon in the Florida Everglades. Every year he flies to the Patagonia region of South America.

A friend of Hargrove’s once chartered a helicopter so the two of them could fish for steelhead trout in British Columbia.

“We brought rafts light enough to helicopter in,” he said. “They dumped us off with a satellite phone so we could call them to pick us up. For seven days we floated this river that hasn’t been floated by a white man. We ate like kings.”

This photo, hanging in the store, shows Tom Hargrove after catching a 20-inch brown trout on the North Platte River in Missouri in 2009. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

But for him, all roads lead back to St. Louis, which he believes is a good place to have a fly-fishing shop, even with the winter season.

“When it gets cold here, people go to fish where it’s warm so they need heavier tackle, bigger rods, lighter clothing,” he said. “This is the hub of the world.”

A large selection of fly-fishing reels in the display case. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Here’s a tie-dye-colored reel in the display case. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Tom Hargrove practices casting toward a hoop in front of his business. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Hargrove’s fly and line finds its mark, wrapping around the bottom of the hoop. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Having cast through the hoop, Hargrove raises his arms in triumph and turns to his coworkers and customers for their reaction. (Photo by Steve Bowman)