Sportsman...A Family Tradition for Valley Outdoorsmen

"There's one at 11 o'clock, says Captain Skipper Mock as he deftly casts toward a redfish swimming serenely across the bow. The smoky-gray plastic lure with the chartreuse tail lands several feet beyond the cruising red, a perfect presentation. Skipper wiggles the lure temptingly in front of the reds nose, and the fish suddenly snatches it. Line zings off the reel as the fish make a powerful run, bending the light rod almost double.

Sight casting for redfish on the Lower Laguna Madre is an exciting way to fish, and Captain Skipper Mock and Rob Youker, owner of the Sportsman in San Benito, are on the flats east of Cullen's enjoying a memorable day.

"Got a little bigger redfish this time," Skipper says with a smile, as he begins working the fish toward the boat. He and Youker are standing on the tower platform, above the console of Skipper's 21 foot Shallow Sport. The view is breathtaking, as the shallow, clear waters of the bay stretch for miles beneath the drifting boat. While Skipper plays his catch, Rob spots another red and casts to it. This time the fish doesn't take, and abruptly turns away. "I think he spooked, when he saw the boat," Youker says, and climbs down to join Skipper on the deck. By now Skipper has the red ready for the net and Rob scoops it up.

"This is something I really enjoy," Skipper says as he unhooks the glistening fish. "I really enjoy seeing them and then being able to throw at them. To see them and make a cast and put it right in front of them and watch them attack it, that is my favorite way to fish."

With dinner safely tucked away in the live well, Rob and Skipper climb back up on the tower and begin scanning the sweep of water below for another shot. They are not only a successful fishing team, but also enjoy a thriving business partnership. Youker sponsors Captain Mock, providing him with one of his best selling boats, the 21 foot Shallow Sport.

Youker is a third generation sporting goods retailer, and his family has been supplying boats for South Texans for more than fifty years. "Our family has always been outdoorsmen, and our grandfather came down here in 1950 and opened this little shop."

"My grandfather thought it would be real easy to be in the retail business, just sell a guy a fishing pole or a hunting rifle, and he would go out and have a good time and that was it. But he did not take real well to the business end of it, so my father took over the store and built it to what it became."

There was one very special store that every kid in the Valley with an outdoor interest gravitated to in the 1950's, 60's and 70's. That store was the Sportsman in downtown Harlingen. This of course, was long before there were Walmarts, Academy and Bass Pro Shops. The Sportsman had everything a youngster could desire, from baseball gloves to BB guns. It was a thrill just to wander the aisles and dream of the hunting and fishing adventures the shiny rifles and colorful lures promised.

"We were really known as kind of the Academy of the Valley at that time," Youker said. "We had hunting and fishing departments, and it was just a joy to be around what you love in your life."

The Sportsman was a focal point for Valley outdoorsmen for more than 30 years, but by the early 1980's the proliferation of discount stores and mail order business made it difficult for the Youkers to keep their doors open. "People would ask us---How can you shut down a tradition? --- And the answer was simple---When you quit making money."

While the original Sportsman in downtown Harlingen shut its doors some 25 years ago, the boating business has continued to thrive. Within in a year of opening the Harlingen sporting goods store in 1950, the Youkers branched out into boating and started the marine outlet in San Benito. "It has really grown a lot. We started out with little scooters back then in the 50's and early 60's and went on into the more sophisticated boats that we have now, such as the one we are fishing on today, the Shallow Sport 21."

The sun is intermittent this day, and when scudding clouds smother the light, the anglers are forced to blind cast to potholes hoping for a strike or simply wait for the sunlight to break thru. When the clouds pass, the change is dramatic. Light penetrates the sparkling water and suddenly every blade of grass is visible. Rob spots a red and with a flick of his wrist the lure plops in front of the motionless fish. In a flash the sedentary red whirls on the bait and tears away with line signing off the reel. "I've got a nice one," Rob says with a smile and begins gaining back some line. This time its Captain Mocks turn to do the netting, and soon a beautiful multi-spotted red is hoisted aboard.

They have a couple of nice reds in the live well that are destined for the grill, and it's time for a little more sight casting and some catch and release. Soon both men are back on the casting platform as the Shallow Sport drifts slowly across the vast flats.

That little shop Rob's grandfather opened more than fifty years ago has grown into one of the most successful boating stores in the Rio Grande Valley, and was recently recognized as one of the top 100 dealerships in the nation based largely on customer satisfaction.

Rob has been running the business since he returned from college in 1972, and while he can't remember exactly how many boats he has sold over the years, he says he still vividly recalls his very first buyer.

"I had just finished college and came back home to work at the store. A man came in and wanted a boat, and he decided on a 17 foot Glastron with a modified V bottom. It had two bucket seats in it and a bench seat across the back. I don't remember the man's name, but I remember he was down here working on the causeway. I was nervous as could be, fresh out of college, and I remember how meticulous I was in getting the boat cleaned, serviced and ready to go."

Youker has been selling boats for 34 years, and he has no intention of quitting anytime soon. "I really enjoy it. I have a great crew of people, and that's what really makes the business successful are those people."

Meanwhile, Captain Mock has spotted another red, and soon has a hookup. He smiles broadly as the fish tugs his line taut and says, "I really enjoy sight casting. It is still a thrill, after 20 some years of taking people out; it is still my favorite thing to do."

Youker gazes out across the sparkling flats at the streaking red and remarks, "There is an old saying that goes---The family that fishes together stays together. It's really true. It's all about the relationship. The memories and the experiences is really what I am selling. It just happens to be a boat that gets you out here to enjoy the experiences and memories of life."

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore