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Hillyer’s Tackle Shop Reels in Customers

Despite increasing competition, for three generations this family business has flourished by giving local fishermen what they need.

If you’re into fishing, then you know . For three generations, the Hillyer family has operated this store, which has become a fixture at Mago Point. The bait and tackle shop attracts people from all walks of life, all cultures, and from all over the country who come to fish the Niantic River and Bay, but they don’t just stop in to pick up worms.

A steady stream of regulars pop in for coffee and to talk fishing before they set out in the morning, and return later to have their fish weighed and their pictures taken for display on the store’s TV set and Web site.

Need a fishing license or a clamming permit? Hillyer’s sells them. Need a rod or reel repaired? Hillyer’s does that too. Want to consult a tide chart or find out where the best fishing spots are? Everyone on staff is an experienced fisherman and they know these waters well.

“I have a knowledgeable staff here, four to 10 employees depending on the season, and we all fish locally. We know what’s going on out there,” says Matt Hillyer, who coowns the store with his brother, Jon. “We try to have everything they need to go out and have a nice day on the water.”

Despite competition from big chain stores, mail order catalogues and online stores, Hillyer’s continues to flourish because it’s carved out a niche in the local market. Unlike the big chain stores, it opens at 5 a.m. during the busiest seasons to serve the local fishermen and it carries both live and frozen bait.

Rather than trying to be all things to all people, Hillyer’s specializes in everything the local fisherman might need. “We are an inshore, saltwater fishing tackle shop. That’s what we do,” Matt Hillyer says. “We do pride ourselves in that we have everything for our type of fishing.”

A History of Success

For three generations, the Hillyer family have served the needs of local fishermen and they've succeeded by changing with the tides.

Matt Hillyer’s grandfather, Walter L. Hillyer, started the business back in 1934 in Niantic. When Matt’s father, Walter C. Hillyer took it over in 1965, he moved the store to the Waterford side of the river, which offered better parking for boats and trailers and was nearer the boat launch.

He had his eye on a piece of property owned by Earl Wadsworth, a charter fisherman who owned much of the land down by Mago Point, but young Walter didn’t have a lot of money to put down. Wadsworth, who knew the family, told him if he paid a certain amount every year, at the end of 15 years, he’d give Hillyer the deed.

“My father bought the land on a handshake,” says Matt. “That’s how it was done back then, because your word was your word.”

Although there was never any written contract, Walter C. Hillyer kept his word and Wadsworth was true to his, turning the deed over after 15 years.

Matt and his brother, Jon, started helping out at the family store from an early age. In 1987, it was their turn to run it. Although the business was well-established by that point, the two brothers faced a couple of big challenges right off the bat.

The year they took over Hillyer’s, the old Niantic River bridge was replaced by a new one which dramatically changed the lay of the land on the Waterford side of the river. The road over the old bridge used to be the main route from Niantic to Waterford. Not only did the new bridge force the store to relocate, it turned the road at Mago Point into a dead end.

That didn’t hurt the Hillyers’ business as much as the recession that hit in the late 1980s did. To adapt to the changing economy, the brothers downsized from the 5,000 square foot building their father built to house the store originally (which is now home to Outboard Exchange) and moved to a smaller 2,000 square foot building which they built on the same lot.

Matt Hillyer also refocused the store. Where once it carried everything from fly fishing to deep sea fishing supplies, the brothers honed in on equipment that local fishermen need for the Niantic River and Niantic Bay. “We still have freshwater [gear] and some fly fishing, but if you try to do too many things, you end up not good at anything,” says Matt.

Seasonal Challenges

The business is, by nature, seasonal. The store is open seven days a week from dawn until dusk during the fishing season from April through November, but after that it’s open only on weekends. “In the winter, it’s a graveyard,” Matt says.

“We’re very, very busy from April to October. We start off in spring with winter flounder and cod fish, which is making a comeback. In May, we really start in earnest with striped bass, bluefish, and fluke (summer flounder). During the summer months, we have porgies (skate) which are great fun to catch. You can catch those from July to November,” Matt says. The black fish season, by the way, starts October 1.

Hillyer’s business doesn’t only fluctuate seasonally, however. “Every year is different,” says Matt. “We have three major issues: the economy, the fishery itself, but the biggest one is weather. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

This year has been an off-year, he says, starting with a rainy spring and ending with tropical storm Irene. Still, as a fisherman and as a businessman, Matt has learned how to stay afloat even in rough waters and he knows the tide will always change.

“Some years are better than others,” he says. “I’ve been doing it long enough that nothing catches me by surprise anymore. You adapt.”

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