TREMPEALEAU — Jamie Richardson’s life has featured several gut-punching times, some intense physical rehabilitation periods and some unbelievably happy and memorable occasions. Through it all, one thing has remained firmly in place — his passion for fishing.
Fishing, it seems, allows him time to tap into his inner self. Sometimes he finds moments of peace and solitude on the water, while at others he’s met with an unbelievable adrenaline rush — like when battling a 50-pound, incredibly feisty, flathead catfish.
Richardson, who co-owns Fat Cat Bait & Tackle on Main Street in Trempealeau with his significant other for the past 18 years, Holly Solberg, has come full circle when it comes to fishing. He fondly recalls his early days while angling with his late grandfather, Clarence Polivoea, as well as recent memories of fishing for the mud-colored and scale-less monsters of the Mississippi — jumbo catfish — with his 13-year-old daughter, Brianna Richardson.
“The night-time fishing is great. It is so peaceful, a place where you can gather your thoughts, hear the crickets, the frogs, the river is like glass. It is just peaceful,” Richardson said. “You get downriver a ways from the big blue bridge, and get down toward Goose (Island), it gets really quiet and really dark.”
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Richardson, who grew up in the Holmen area and now lives in New Amsterdam with his family that also includes Taylor Solberg, could have easily remained in a cold, dark place after a car accident in 1998 left him paralyzed from the mid-chest down. He admits that there were times when life was difficult and seemingly unfair, but he refused to let himself stay in that dark place.
He’s never been a quitter, and wasn’t about to start.
“Most of it, the first five years (after the accident) is nothing but recovery. You have to allow yourself to move on; this is what happened, move on. You’ve kind of got to go with the flow and handle it,” said Richardson, 48, who has wheeled his way around every inch of Fat Cats for the past 5½ years.
“I would say, I think we all have our days, and that’s usually when I need somebody to help me with something. I am glad I did it (bait shop). It has gotten pretty busy. I started doing it as a hobby and it kind of blew up on us — in a good way.”
The business came about by happenstance, as Richardson was looking for some additional income as well as a new challenge. He and Solberg started doing adult foster care in 2003 — and still do — but surfing the internet changed the direction of his life in 2015.
“I was messing around on Craig’s List. I don’t know why I ran across it (property), but six years ago I did. I thought it (the vacant building on Main Street) would be a good spot for a bait shop. Basically, it is something I can do with my disability,” Richardson said. “It was something I could do out of my chair. I wanted to do something besides catfishing.”
So Richardson got in touch with the building’s owner at the time, Kevin Miller, and decided to open a bait shop. He consulted with a number of people, including friends, and asked them where a bait shop was most needed, La Crosse or Trempealeau. Trempealeau, hands down, was their recommendation.
It was far from a slam-dunk, as the first four years were a big-time financial struggle, Richardson said. There were a number of times he wondered if he’d make it.
“The first four years was really tough with all the high water we had. I do foster care, adult foster care, and without that it (bait shop) wouldn’t have made it. My God the river, when the river is 9 foot and above, the amount of people that quit fishing is unreal,” Richardson said.
“The majority of the fishermen don’t like high-water fishing, which makes fishing difficult to fish and difficult for me. Yeah, the first four years were just a killer; it was a buzzkill.”
Richardson, however, wasn’t about to give up. He felt there would be a void in the business community if he closed down, and so he remained open — with little or no profit — out of loyalty to his customers. Customers who stop in to buy live bait (half his revenue, he says), or a wide and expansive selection of tackle, including those heavy-duty, seemingly unbreakable rods used for hauling in those flathead catfish. Customers who also stop in to simply chew the fat, so-to-speak, about fishing, about life, about everything. Richardson admits that is a big part of what kept him going — the socialization — which is ironic.
“Prior to owning that (bait shop), I was probably the most unsocial guy in the world,” Richardson said, chuckling. “I know a lot of people now, and enjoy it. I am glad I made the choice (to run the bait shop). My life is little more social and eventually it got me out of the house.
“The whole disabled thing, everybody up there (bait shop) treats me like I am normal. They don’t treat me like I have a disability. That is one thing right there I love them for. They are just incredible.”
Richardson was quick to credit Holly Solberg, along with the staff at the bait shop. He said he couldn’t run the business without John Heighway, Brad Thompson, Jim Rupple and Brian Luebke, as well as his mother, Rosemary Richardson, who makes homemade greeting cards that are sold in the shop.
He also credits his first landlord, Miller, who guided him in the principles of business.
“He (Miller) is a big part of why I am still here. He owned businesses before, and he was kind of a mentor, a landlord/mentor. He would answer all my questions and guided me in the right direction,” Richardson said. “It was something he didn’t have to do, any of that. He was really cool. You don’t find too many people like that anymore.”
While Richardson was, and still is, surrounded by good people, he has done something equally important. For the first several years, in particular, he asked customers what they wanted in terms of tackle, in terms of bait, in terms of, well, just about everything. And, he said he was fortunate enough to be able to reinvest in the inventory.
“I took all the income I got from that shop and reinvested it in the business. I was able to do that because of my other income. That really, really helped,” Richardson said. “That was the only reason I stayed open (for the first few years). I was able to give it time by reinvesting what my customers spent. I spent three or four years asking my customers what they wanted. What do you want to see in here? What do you need?”
They needed a bait shop, and Richardson needed them.
What he truly enjoys, he says, is doing what his grandfather did for him — introducing kids to fishing. It’s an investment, he says, that is priceless, which is why he runs a dozen ice fishing tournaments from December through February, and weekly tournaments during the summer.
“I like doing a lot of stuff for the community, like kids fishing tournaments. I set up a thing called Coulee Region Ice Fishing Derby. COVID kind of threw a wrench in it, or part of it. We are running a tournament every weekend now, but eliminated the big get-together at the end,” Richardson said.
“It is free of charge and I pay out first, second and third (place) with gift cards to the shop. Kids love it.”
If you’ve cruised around Trempealeau in the summer months, it’s commonplace to see kids walking or riding their bikes with a fishing pole in tow. They fish the Duck Pond, as it’s known, as well as other areas of the river. Seeing that puts a smile on Richardson’s face.
“I do three catfishing tournaments, too. It’s a parent-child type of thing. You sign up (at the bait shop) and three times a year I draw a name, then take them out and teach them how to catfish. My buddy Chris will take them out and put them on some big flatheads,” Richardson said. “We have had some pretty good success, and that experience will stick with them throughout their life.”
As for the future of Fat Cat Bait & Tackle, Richardson hopes the bumpy road of the early years is behind him. The last two years, he says, have been very good.
“The past two years, it has been incredible as far as the river (fishing). Fortunately, COVID actually boosted our sales. Everybody was off work and out doing their hobbies. I foresee that going back to normal one day here,” Richardson said.
“Then again, maybe not because people got a little taste of enjoying life. They got a break from the rat race. Maybe people will choose to enjoy life a little more.”
And enjoying life, Richardson says, means fishing.
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org