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One Final Tie

TRAIL — Rarely a week goes by when Mike Fillis doesn't drop into Pat's Hand-Tied Flies for a little gear and shop-talk about what's happening in the woods and waters along the upper Rogue River — everything from how early winter steelhead fishing is shaping up to calling predators.

This day, Fillis buys an elk call, two pairs of fingerless gloves and a soda over chit-chat about spring chinook fishing regulations.

Tomorrow? Who knows? Maybe bobcats and cutthroats over nuked burritos and jerky.

"Just the amount of knowledge shared in this shop alone, the conversations, you don't get that in the stores," Fillis says. "I love this place."

But Fillis and other customers of this upper Rogue mainstay will need to find a new hot stove to mill around.

Pat's Hand-Tied Flies is closing after nearly 45 years of catering to the upper Rogue outdoor crowd, the victim of myriad financial pressures that collectively doomed this small shop along Highway 62 near Casey State Park.

Factors ranging from tighter fishing restrictions to big-box competition and the price of gas have caused the store's sales to drop 75 percent from its heyday a decade or more ago, and it is time to stop the bleeding.

Owners John and Sue Billows put a 20-percent off sale sign on the door Tuesday and began liquidating the shop's merchandise.

"You can only beat your head against the wall until that's that," John Billows says.

When the last reel and watermelon corkie are sold the Billows will pack up and return to Nevada, which was home before this shop went up for sale in 1997. They literally have not left in 15 years — save for a five-day Christmas vacation this past winter.

"How long we stay open depends upon how fast everything goes," says Sue Billows, 63.

How everything about Pat's came to be has its genesis in the nimble fingers of Patricia Szigeti.

She was a starlet high-school fly-tyer in the mid 1960s, learning patterns to keep her father, Red Szigeti, stocked with steelhead flies. She got so good at it that she was tying for fly-gear giant Orvis before the family opened the small storefront to sell flies in 1968.

Red Szigeti started adding other gear and manned the counter with his wife, Helen, when Pat — now Patricia Harbison, 61, of Prospect — married and moved away.

Over time, it became the cornerstone of upper Rogue fishing.

Spring chinook fishermen from across the region relied on information gleaned from the Szigetis to plan trips to the upper Rogue. Medford anglers regularly stopped to get the latest skinny on chinook catches while picking up a few more sinkers, corkies and hooks.

They had the market cornered on cured roe sales, and no one was anyone if they didn't have a Polaroid of themselves holding a big springer tacked to the wall.

"My dad was the one who turned it into the hub, the star of the upper Rogue," Harbison says. "He turned it into what it is; or what it was."

The Billows found themselves in Eagle Point visiting family in 1997 when their eyes fell on Pat's.

Sue had retired from nursing and John had retired from working at a Nevada power plant when they fell in love with the store and bought it. They ran the store together with no other employees except for the occasional part-time hand.

In their heyday, they'd sell 13,000 pounds of lead sinkers a year, primarily to spring chinook anglers.

But the new century seemed to conspire against them.

First came the infamous bait-ban for summer steelhead fishing in November and December, cutting store traffic and sales.

Bigger retail stores started popping up, drawing dollars away from smaller stores such as Pat's.

The real zinger came in 2004, when the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission ordered a 7 p.m. closure on fishing upstream of Casey State Park during the spring chinook season to curb illegal angling and drunken lawlessness at the popular Hatchery Hole along the Cole Rivers Hatchery dike.

Working-class anglers who clocked out at 5 p.m. stopped making the 30-mile drive from Medford to the upper Rogue for an evening of salmon fishing.

John Billows begged the commission to rescind what he considered a Draconian rule and potentially a business-killer.

"I said, 'You're taking $100,000 off the top of my business,' and they could care less," John Billows says.

Then the economy tanked. And then a gallon of gas cost more than a cheeseburger.

Over time, the snowball simply got too big.

"It's not any one thing, but it was just one thing after another," Sue Billows says. "It's not just us. It's getting tougher and tougher. It's a sad thing."

They raised the red flag Tuesday with the going-out-of-business sale.

The Billows will return to Nevada and retire amid family members.

"While we were here, people were fantastic to us," Sue Billows says. "And I feel real good about what we did for people."

When the store goes dark some time next month, Harbison says she hopes someone, anyone, can pick up the baton and resurrect Pat's Hand-Tied Flies.

"We'll try to find a way to make it live on," Harbison says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman

John and Sue Billows are closing Pat's Hand-Tied Flies, which operated for nearly 45 years along the upper Rogue. - Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch