A Publication of WTVP

Passion, personal service, plenty of bait

by Steve Tarter | Photos by Ron Johnson |

Presley’s Outdoors is still worming its way into the hearts of sportsmen and women

A local retail business not only fending off the corporate competition but succeeding? It’s enough to renew your faith in good old-fashioned personal service.

‘It was always such a family place and it’s remained that’ — Jeff Lampe

That’s not some fanciful movie premise but the story of Presley’s Outdoors, 1510 W. Garfield Ave. in Bartonville, a seller of hunting and fishing gear that started out in Peoria as the South Side Worm Ranch.

Bob Presley and wife Dorothy (known to most as “Red”) started the bait shop in 1946, establishing a lasting reputation as the fisherman’s friend.

Tim Presley, their son, will tell you that the store’s original name wasn’t just for show: A lot of worms were involved. As a kid, Tim once collected more than 1,400 worms in an hour, he recalled. In his early 20s, he often slept at the store, he said.

In 1979 it was Tim Presley’s turn to take over the business. Bob had died in 1976 and Red was losing interest in running things, he said. As Tim grew the business, it became clear that the old store on South Adams Street was running out of room.

The Presley family left the ranch to open a new, larger store in 2004 with a new name, Presley’s Outdoors, taking over a deserted supermarket in Bartonville.

But they weren’t the only ones seeking to capture a larger share of the area’s outdoor sports market. Not only had national chains like Dick’s, Dunham’s and Gander Mountain set up shop in Peoria but an even larger adversary was on the horizon. By 2011, Bass Pro Shops, a national company billed as North America’s premier outdoor company, had opened a 150,000 square-foot store in East Peoria, dwarfing the 35,000 square-foot Presley store.

“Bass Pro clearly spends a massive amount of money in marketing,” said Kelly Presley, 42, who represents the third generation to run Presley’s.

“Bass Pro has gorgeous stores. Their stores are definitely prettier than ours, but I’ll put my money on our people,” he said of the 25 employees, many of them long-term, who work the various departments at Presley’s Outdoors.

That’s an opinion echoed by Jeff Lampe, a longtime outdoors writer who now publishes the Weekly Post and Prairie News weekly papers across a wide section of central Illinois.

“I go back to the old store on Adams Street,” he said. “I weighed my first two kids on the scale they had in the store. It was always such a family place and it’s remained that.

‘They never talked down to me with my newbie questions’ — Andrew Dearing

“At your big box stores, the faces are always changing but at Presley’s, there’s a whole crew of employees who have been there forever. Whether it’s archery or a telescopic rod, that experience is invaluable.”

While Tim Presley brought the store to broader prominence, said Lampe, he credits Kelly with developing online sales, another reason for the store’s continued success. In a 2017 letter to customers, Kelly vowed to offer the lowest cost items possible online while encouraging the public to visit the store to get even better deals.

The industry has endured a number of trends over the years. For example, there has been a “big-time” decrease in fishing, said Kelly, with the exception of the COVID years, when fishing made something of a comeback.

Meanwhile, “cheap, inexpensive items weren’t selling well last year but more expensive items sold great. That tells me that lower income people aren’t fishing like they used to,” said Kelly. Beyond that, it seems fewer young people are picking up a rod and reel, he added.

Interestingly, hunting has not slowed. “I think hunters are a bit more passionate than fishermen,” said Presley.

Andrew Dearing of Peoria got into bowhunting last year. “I got some awesome help from the boys over at Presley’s,” he said. “They never talked down to me with my newbie questions.”

Robbie Iverson of Ottawa first visited the Bartonville store in 2006 and said it’s worth the drive because of the store’s employees. “They treat me like family.”

Steve Tarter

Steve Tarter

is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to attend Bradley University and decided to stay. He has spent a career in journalism and public relations