Karen Ann Hill passed away this week after suffering a fall. She was 73 years old and arguably the best known face of recreational fishing on Cape Cod.
For Karen owned Sportsport, the little tackle shop in Hyannis that she inherited from her father, a beloved institution marked by the familiar sight of the Old Salt fishing in the parking lot wearing yellow foul weather gear, rain or shine. I knew the Old Salt before I ever met and became friends with Karen. It was one of those icons I first saw as a kid and have carried with me ever since, despite how much the rest of the Cape changes around me. Some motorist took him out a couple years ago. Karen had sold the shop already and retired. But the new owners knew that Sportsport wasn’t Sportsport without the bearded man in the red boat, and he fishes on to this very day.
I didn’t get to know Karen until 1991 when I first moved to Cape Cod full time to raise my family. Churbucks weren’t a fishing family when I was a kid. My father prohibited fish (aside from frozen Gorton’s of Gloucester fish sticks served to his kids) from ever being served (some old dislike he probably picked up in the 40s when a bluefish was about it when it came to protein for the table) and he certainly didn’t fish but he sure loved to clam. My grandfather wasn’t a big fisherman as I recall.. So there weren’t a lot of the father-son-grandpa-bonding-over-fishing-scenes in my youth. When I did fish it was with my brother, a dropline and a cracked open quahog from the Town Dock for scup and eels, the latter species terrorizing me.
When I became a townie in 1991 I noticed the locals all driving around with fishing rods on their roof racks in the early spring and fall — something was going on that I didn’t know about and I decided I would take up fishing. Obsessive maniac that I become when I really get into something (fishing, Italian bicycles, watching complete archives of a TV series in one binge), I started to really get into fishing, developing a fishing jones I couldn’t appease. I read nothing but fishing books, bought nothing but fishing tackle, and coveted rods and reels like a sex fiend. I woke up at 3 in the morning to fish. I fished at 10 pm in January during a snowstorm on a beach in Sandwich near the Cape Cod Canal on the stupid hunch that I might catch a tom cod. I didn’t but it was worth it for the story. I risked drowning night after night standing in the foaming surf on sandbars off the beach in Chatham fishing for a “keeper” (a striped bass over 3-feet long) and marveling at the wildness of the stars and the Atlantic all in front of me. I waved a fly rod so much in the wind that my shoulder fell apart and I had to stop for six months of physical therapy. They say there are 365 fresh water ponds on Cape Cod? One for every day of the year. I tried to fish them all. Livelining, chumming, trolling, roll casting. You name it, I wanted to try it.
I even started “the Internet Journal of Salt Water Flyfishing” – Sportsport was the first advertiser.
And Karen Hill fed my habit. I basically moved her tackle store ten miles west into my garage over ten years, one sinker, one bobber, one hook at a time. I could have betrayed her and gone online, but that would have meant missing out on the unique retail experience that was Sportsport under Karen’s ownership.
First, there was no such thing as “ducking in real quick” for something at Sportsport. Karen never rushed. Ever. Stepping inside the door and getting out again in under 30 minutes was a miracle. The place could get very busy, and Karen would be winding new monofilament on somebody’s reel while a mob fidgeted to pay for their bait and get back to the fish. She had to hang up the phone to swipe a credit card. She totalled up all the little bits of fishing stuff — swivels, lures, buckets of writhing eels — on a scrap of paper, totalled it up on a calculator, and then put the total into the register. She usually swore at the register.
Second, she was the CIA of Cape Cod fish. If there were rumors of fish, Karen heard them first. And to get her to part with this intelligence meant buying something, even if it was a $0.30 lead sinker. eCommerce fishing tackle sites doesn’t whisper to you that “they’re murdering them at Dowses on purple Deadly Dicks” A photo of one’s self on the door of the bait refrigerator meant you were a made man. Cousin Pete and I schemed to freeze an October bluefish until February (they migrate to the Cape in May), thaw it out, drive it to Hyannis, and ask Karen to take a picture of us holding the earliest bluefish of the year for the fridge. I regret we never did it. She would have howled and called bullshit and then taken the picture anyway.
And then there was Karen’s School of Fishing. Feeling bored and beset with cabin fever on a sunny day in early April, weeks before the stripers and blues return? Karen would teach me the ins and outs of fishing for winter flounder and I’d walk out $50 poorer with flounder rigs, a chum pot, and the advice to fill it with crushed mussels and cans of cat food.
Her assistant Mark became a good friend and great fishing buddy. We sort of enabled each other’s addiction and would drive from one side of the Cape to the other just to catch the favorable tides at Menahaunt on the southside and Bone Hill on the north.
But most of all Karen was a friend, a good wise motherly lady in a business not known for a lot of ladies. She was blessed with a great sense of humor, a way of making you feel you were the most important customer she’d seen all day, a great laugher, and a true Cape Codder; a veritable Old Salt herself.
One of the greats has passed. I’ll kiss my next fish on the head and let it go to swim another day just for Karen.