(Enterprise photo - Mike Lynch)
The Adirondack Sports Shop was relocated in 2005. Shown here is the new one.
 
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For the past 47 years, Fran Betters (left) has been offering advice to customers and fellow fishermen as the owner of the Adirondack Sports Shop. Betters, a renowned fishing expert, was inducted into the Catskill Fly Fishing Hall of Fame in 2008.
 
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WILMINGTON — Sitting behind a collection of fly tying materials, including a vice and hundreds of flies in the now-for-sale Adirondack Sports Shop, Francis Betters talked lowly but loud enough to be heard over a nearby mechanical hum.

“You get downstream where they don’t stock, you get more wild fish,” the 78-year-old Betters said. “There’s not that many people that go down there. The advertising is geared toward the catch and release.”

For the past 47 years, Betters has been offering advice to customers and fellow fisherman as the owner of the Adirondack Sports Shop. But that could change in the near future. Betters is getting older, his health has been failing him and he has been trying to sell his shop for about a year.

Betters now runs his shop, which includes a The Evening Hatch restaurant next door and a motel, with his wife, Jan. With fishing season approaching, the pair have been opening up in the afternoons, allowing Fran to tie flies and Jan to run the counter — entertaining customers and discussing the shop with potential buyers.

The sale of the store would mean a big change for the fishing business. There are other quality shops around, but none with the history of Betters’ shop.

“He’s a local legend,” Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston said. “Once Fran Better’s is gone, I don’t know if there’s anyone out there that could ever replace him.”

A fishing family

Betters’ interest in fishing and the West Branch of the AuSable River developed at any early age. Better’s mother died when he was born and he was adopted by Margaret and Victor Betters, who would influence the rest of his life.

“I just happened to be adopted into a family (in which my) dad was a hell of a hunter and fisherman,” Better said.

Betters learned everything he could from his father, who he called the best fisherman he ever met. Growing up just a short walk from the West Branch of the AuSable River, Betters often fished with his father and his father’s friends, including Red Wilbur and Ray Bergman, who authored the classic 1938 fishing guide called “Trout.”

“I was just a tag along kid and because I took an interest in (fishing), they all were willing to help me,” Betters said.

At the age of eight or nine, Betters used a streamer to catch his first large trout in the Flume Pool. By the time he finished high school, Betters had come up with one of his most famous fly patterns, the Haystack.

But it wasn’t Betters’ plan to go into the fly fishing business, when he graduated high school. His dream was to become a civil engineer and work in South America as a bridge builder. That all changed when he was in a bad car accident in which he broke his back and neck and was hospitalized for an extended period. Doctors told him that if he took care of himself he could live to be 40 years old.

“Finally, I got where I could walk with a couple of canes, and naturally I couldn’t go back into what I wanted to do, engineering, so I gravitated back to what I knew,” Betters said.

Opening the store

What he knew was tying flies, building rods and fishing, especially on the AuSable River. So one day while talking with Jack Smith, whom he called the second best fisherman he ever knew, Smith suggested Betters going into the fly fishing business.

“He said to me, ‘Why don’t you open a little shop on the river,’” Betters recalled.

Betters didn’t have much money in the beginning, so he traded some logs from his property to a local mill. In exchange for the logs, he kept just enough lumber to build a shop.

“They made out like bandits, but it was great for me because I didn’t have any money,” Betters said.

His shop opened, and in 1964, Betters created a fly pattern — AuSable Wulff — that would put him on the map.

“After years of fishing the AuSable and other Adirondack Streams, and after studying numerous insects, I had noticed a particular curiosity relating especially to the large stonefly and mayfly nymphs in the rivers of the Adirondacks,” Betters wrote in his book, “Fly fishing and — fly tying and pattern guide.” “They seemed to have a slight rusty orange coloration in the thorax and some red in the heads of the flies. I thought that this might be characteristic of flies on these streams due to the mineral content of the streambeds.”

Shortly after coming up with the fly, Betters tested it on the West Branch and caught several large brown trout, including one 21-inch brown.

“A sixth sense told me that the new fly I had created was not just a flash in the pan,” Betters wrote.

The AuSable Wulff was later named one of the top 10 trout flies of all time by Field and Stream magazine, along with the Haystack.

As his career in fly tying was taking off, Betters was also starting to have success as a writer. Before long, Betters became an ambassador for trout fishing in the region. Tourists would seek out his shop and his articles appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the Northeast.

“Francis Betters is supplying publicity for this area, “ reported the weekly newspaper, The Record Post, of AuSable Forks, in Aug. 1966. “He has had articles printed in the Syracuse Herald-American and in the Newark, NJ Evening News.”

That success as a writer continues to this day. In the late 1970s, Betters wrote a fishing column for the Lake Placid News. In recent years, he wrote regularly for the Plattsburgh Press Republican. Betters has also published numerous books, including the “AuSable River Guide.” He is currently working on his autobiography.

“He’s always been upbeat, positive about promoting fishing, especially on the West Branch” said Dennis April, an outdoors writer for the Press Republican who worked with Betters. “I think he’s very sincere.”

The White

House calls

Over the years, Betters offered advice to fisherman from every walk of life, from the neighborhood worm fisherman to the Washington politician in town for the weekend. From the beginning, fishermen have been able to outfit themselves at an affordable price at the Adirondack Sports Shop.

“He’s more of a blue collar shop,” said Wilmington fly fishing guide Bill Stahl, who has worked and fished with Betters. “He sold worms. A lot of locals would come in and get worms and Fran would try to talk them into fly fishing.”

And, of course, there was the other end of the spectrum. One of Betters’ favorite stories is about receiving a phone call from the office of one of the most powerful men in the world.

It occurred at the old shop location, a quarter mile up Route 86, where he moved from four years ago. Betters was talking with some people in back of his store, when one of the women working inside came out and yelled to him about a phone call.

“Fran, the White House is on the phone,” Betters recalled the woman yelling.

“I said, ‘What the hell White House you talking about?’”

“She said, ‘The president’s White House.’”

“I had a call from (President Jimmy ) Carter’s travel advisor,” Betters said. “He wanted to fish the AuSable. I talked to him for about five or 10 minutes. He wanted to know what place I recommended that would be secure, out of the way. I recommended the Inn at Whiteface.”

Unfortunately, in the end, President Jimmy Carter was unable to visit the West Branch of the AuSable.

“The third time he called he had to cancel the fishing trip,” Betters said. “It had something to do with the campaign in New York. He couldn’t come up.”

Serving generations of fishermen

Today, the Adirondack Sports Shop is still sought out by all kinds of fisherman. Betters recalled that just last summer a 95-year-old man revisited his store decades after his first visit.

“I had to tell you that you sold me my first AuSable Wulff,” the 95-year-old man told Betters. “If I could ever fish again, I’d never use another fly but the AuSable Wulff.”

It’s that kind of long-term experience on the river and in the fly fishing world that will be hard to replace when Betters’ shop sells. Betters is a member of the esteemed Catskill Fishing Hall of Fame, an established writer, a Wilmington native, and just a great fisherman.

“You are kind of a victim of circumstances. Whatever world you are brought up in, you either take to it, or you don’t — and I did,” Betters said. “I loved it.”