Eastern Sierra icon, former-owner of Ken's Sporting Goods in Bridgeport, Rick Rockel died July 2
By JIM MATTHEWS
An Eastern Sierra icon had died.
Rick Rockel, the long-time owner of Ken’s Sporting Goods in Bridgeport and a fixture on the outdoor sporting scene in the region, died Friday, July 28 in Perris care facility after a brief respiratory illness. He was 71. Rockel had been living in Palm Desert after selling Ken’s in 2000 to Jim Reid, the current owner.
"Rockel was a kindred spirit," said Dick Dahlgren, founder of Mammoth Fly Rodders, and the man who worked to protect fishery resources in the region. "Rockel was never afraid to take on any resource issue. He was also a fun guy."
Ken’s Sporting Goods is located next to the historic courthouse in Bridgeport and has been a must-visit location for fishermen, hunters, and tourists visiting the region. For over 40 years, Rick Rockel was the man who greeted everyone who came in the door and helped them with their needs, many becoming life-long friends.
Rockel is survived by his wife, Sharon, daughters Tracy Rockel and Carla Marchut, son-in-law Jamie Marchut, and granddaughters Sophie and Lyle Marchut.
No services are planned, but there will be a memorial event in Bridgeport in October, and in lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made in Rockel’s name to the Bridgeport Gun Club, The Fishin' Mission, or the Bridgeport Fish Enhancement Foundation. All are non-profit organizations and donations are tax deductible.
Rockel was born in 1946 in Baltimore, MD, but he moved West with his family to Arizona in the mid-1950s when he was 10 years old. It was growing up in rural Arizona that kindled Rockel’s life-long love of the outdoors, hunting, and fishing. Tracy Rockel said that was the era when TV dinners were the rage and her Dad hated them, preferring to cook and eat – even at that age – the wild game he collected while exploring around his home.
Rockel was a young teen when the family moved to Southern California, but his father loved to travel up Highway 395 to Bridgeport for the fishing. In the early 1960's, Rick's father bought Ken's Sporting Goods. Rick worked part-time in the store while attending school, and he also did a short stink working as a salesman for Munson Sporting Goods out of Carson City before settling into Ken’s full time, eventually taking over the business from his father.
“Dad poured his heart and soul into Ken's,” said Tracy Rockel. “He was key in making sure that the fisheries in and around Bridgeport were viable, and he was very involved in the community and befriended and treated his customers like family.”
“There were a lot of weeks he was working 80 to 100 hours,” said Ken Hoffman, a long-time friend and member of the Bridgeport Fish Enhancement Foundation. “The man was a legend in Bridgeport, a leader in the community.”
Hoffman said that he was a “huge supporter” of the Bridgeport Fish Enhancement Foundation from its very beginning 15 years ago.
Rockel was also one of the key drivers of earlier efforts to make the East Walker River and Kirman Lake trophy catch-and-release fisheries -- long before that was a popular effort. He also, along with Dahlgren, was instrumental in getting some waters in Mono County open to year-around, catch-and-release fishing. This was done initially by promoting catch-and-release trout fishing during the "perch season" (perch were technically open to fishing year-around at that time) when their efforts to get the state to add some open waters were met with "needless" opposition. As with a lot of Rockel efforts, it infuriated the bureaucracy and they closed perch fishing in Inyo and Mono counties during the winter months. The battle was lost, but the war was won. It was just a couple of years later when the Department of Fish and Wildlife opened a number of premier waters to year-around fishing.
Dahlgren remembered that Rockel battled with ranchers on both the East and West Walker rivers over maintenance of water flows for trout and fisherman access in both rivers. Rockel was looking out for the best interests of his customers and his community.
In 1988, Dahlgren said it was Rockel who took the East Walker Land and Cattle Company to task over flushing silt out of Bridgeport Reservoir into the East Walker River. The move killed hundreds of trophy brown trout. Rockel and Dahlgren collected them all up onto a sand bar and photos were taken that appeared in newspapers all over the state. Dahlgren said that threats of lawsuits using statutes the "cowboys" had never heard about before assured it never happened again, and the effort led to minimum flow releases in the winter to protect the trout.
But Rockel is also well-known for his support of the community and his sense of humor. Jim Reid, the current owner of Ken’s, said “that man gave me a job when I didn’t deserve one, and he sold me the store when I couldn’t afford to buy it.”
Rick Gieser, who has worked at Ken’s Sporting Goods for the past 24 years, said he remembers mostly the laughter. Rockel made Ken’s famous by placing a freezer out in front of the store on the main street – which is Highway 395. The freezer always had big trout caught in recent days waiting for the taxidermist. Anglers always stop and gawk at the large fish, knowing the next one could be the one they catch. It was great promotion, and anglers would always come into the store to buy whatever that big fish out front was caught on or be directed to the place the trout was landed. The freezer is still there today.
Gieser said that one of their friends had just returned from an ocean fishing trip with an albacore, and Rockel wanted to put in in the big freezer in front of the store. Rockel put a sign next to the albacore: “Record Hammerfore.”
People would come in after looking at the fish and ask, “What’s a hammerfore?” Rockel would bend up his top lip into the half-smirk he wore a lot and simply look them in the eye and say, “I guess for pounding nails.”
Rockel hunted all over the West and fished extensively in Mexico, but his trips were limited to being held after the fishing and hunting seasons were over in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Long-time hunting friend Jim Hudson (who met Rockel when he got a summer job working at Ken’s in 1972) said Rockel had a sense of humor even when things weren’t going exactly as planned.
The pair was hunting javelina in Arizona on the San Carlos Indian Reservation. It was brushy country and the roads were narrow. Hudson said Rockel’s truck was soon covered with deep scratches on both sides of the body work, but Rockel referred to them as “Apache Pinstriping,” pointing them out with mock pride.
On an Idaho elk hunt, Hudson said Rockel had them in a bit of a panic. The two had split up during the hunt and Rockel had wandered over a ridge and into a different drainage. They were waiting up all night for Rockel to return and didn’t find him until the next day. Rockel insisted he was never lost, knowing that all the canyons would eventually run into the Salmon River and the main road, which was where he ended up about 25 miles from where the vehicles were parked.
“He told me that he knew ‘it couldn’t be more than 25 miles, and if Opra Winfrey can do it, I can do it.’ [a reference to Oprah’s hiking of 43 miles in 1993 as part of her weight-loss regime]. He was only wearing thin pacs and there was some snow. I don’t think his feet were ever the same after that trip,” said Hudson.
Information on the October memorial will be available at Ken’s Sporting Goods in Bridgeport once final details are set. Tracy Rockel said it would likely be “a big party, and my dad would like that.”
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]