Darren Cropper and Joshua Cooper have similar surnames and both love the outdoors. But that’s where the similarities end – for the most part.
You’ll understand better after dropping by the former North Bay Canoe and Kayak location on Highway 17, just 800 metres west of Corbeil Corners in East Ferris.
Cropper, one of only a hundred licensed gunsmiths in Canada, was happy to take over the well-known property to relocate his Backwoods Outdoors live bait, hunting and fishing equipment business from Rutherglen. Cooper leases some of the space for his True North Dock & Paddle company, which started a few years ago out of his Talon Lake home. They opened their collective doors the week before Christmas.
“There’s much higher traffic flow here,” Cropper said of the new location. “And we’re right at the virtual gateway to the lakes in this area – going east or west, you have to go past the store to get where you’re going.”
Cropper, short and stocky with a neatly trimmed moustache, is a military veteran who served throughout the Middle East and the Baltic regions. He was with the Canadian Critical Action Platoon, now called the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit, and is well-versed in bio-hazards and what happens when there’s a disaster, human-made or natural.
He’s a licenced gunsmith and trapper who can help with your beaver pond troubles and can fix just about anything. Cropper also makes fishing lures in his spare time. It’s a family affair, helping him farm worms, minnows, and leeches for the bait store operation is his wife, Janice, and their son, Matt.
“She’s a major part of the business,” Cropper said, adding they do everything together.
Cooper, on the other hand, is tall and lanky with a bushy red beard.
An Oakville transplant, he designs and manufactures custom aluminum docks and ramps for boats. He moved north for the lifestyle with nature in his backyard where riding an ATV or snowmobile doesn’t require a three-hour drive. A paddler with three decade’s of experience, he’s also a retailer of kayaks designed for both anglers and those looking for a relaxing paddle.
“I predominantly do a lot of fabrication and design myself and that's fine with me,” Cooper said.
As for the kayaks, he said it just seemed to fit after a lot of his dock customers asked where they could get something for “a little paddle” or quick fishing excursion.
“I didn’t want something that was going to be really, really cheap or not very good quality,” Cooper said, noting he found a Canadian distributor out of Orillia called Kayak-ity-yak that fit the bill.
“I don’t want to compete with some of the bigger guys that are selling $2,000 or $3,000 kayaks,” he said, pointing to two models with single seats and outfitted for an angler for $600 and $800.
While different in many ways, the two friends do share hope there’s some synergy between their businesses and possible cross-over opportunities for each other’s clientele.
There’s one other similarity: they both approach business the old fashioned way with a keen concern for customer satisfaction.
“All the tackle that we have in here I’ve check out or tested myself,” Cropper said, adding “I know everything in the store works within 100 miles of here … basically anywhere in the northeast.”
He also offers free fishing advice and maps of local lakes for visitors. And there’s never only a dozen minnows in the bag, he said, and the worms are packed in Peat moss instead of soil so they last longer.
They also try to think about the next generation of customers.
“I’ve never charged a child for a worm in my life and I never will,” Cropper said, noting it’s important to encourage young people to fish during a time when so many just playing video games.
They also use bio-degradable foam containers with holes in the lids to allow the worms to breathe.
With the expanded premises, Cropper said they can now supply any resort, retailer, or camp in Ontario.
Up until this year, Cooper said they haven’t had to do any advertising as “word of mouth” and testimonials from satisfied customers bring in enough work. It likely has something to do with him being obsessed with design and manufacturing details.
“You know, for us, reputation is the biggest thing,” he said, explaining how quality control is vital. “It’s more me being fussy with the little things … making sure everything is perfect. I have to remind myself sometimes that it’s a dock and not a grandfather clock, it doesn’t have to be pristine, but I’m fussy that way.”
Cooper said he’s grateful for the patience of his customers this summer with some delays sourcing parts during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns.
“I know a lot of other businesses really suffered,” he said, adding they were fortunate to have a lot of orders waiting to be filled. “We were very lucky and very happy that our customers stuck with us.
Cropper said the one thing customers will have to get used to is they can’t open very early and must be closed on statutory holidays (like New Year’s Day, Family Day, Victoria Day, etc.) due to his gunsmithing licence. To make up for it, he said they use bigger bags to hold more oxygen so those who buy minnows the day before will still have fresh bait. And beginning April until winter arrives, they stock an outdoor fridge where people can pick up live bait and pay using an honour-system slot.
Nobody has tried to steal anything yet, he said, adding one person returned after a long drive because they were short a dime.
Both Cooper and Cropper said they put a high value on dealing with local businesses and they’re open to working with other retailers and producers.
And they figure, with the pandemic making people appreciate nature a bit more, any business providing outdoors-related products and services for sport or recreation will be challenged to keep up with demand.
Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with BayToday.ca. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.
Dave Dale, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca