As much as John Paul Jr. loves fly fishing the bug hatches on northern Michigan’s famed trout streams, standing in thigh-deep water in the Au Sable River with a fly rod in his hand and a Santa Claus hat on his head on a frigid day last January wasn’t his first choice for fun.
But when a friend came calling and asked Paul to do exactly that, the retired Traverse City bank executive couldn’t wait.
Paul, his wife, Sue, and seven other Michigan residents are promoting the state’s northern beauty by helping Cabela’s — the iconic retailer to generations of hunters, anglers, campers, hikers and those who just like to look outdoorsy — get the right photos and videos for the company’s 2016 holiday catalog and other promotions.
They lent Cabela’s photo crew two hungry bull elk near Ludington, a privately- owned covered wooden bridge in Benzie County, a log cabin on the Au Sable River, a weathered barn door in Suttons Bay, as well as themselves as real-life, if unlikely, models for the holiday shoot.
“It was almost like the Holy Grail of cool,” said Mark Gabrick, who built and owns the covered bridge, which is also featured in Pure Michigan promotions. “I told everybody I know” about becoming a Cabela’s model.
A year before Cabela’s announced this October its sale to Bass Pro Shops for $5.5 billion, its staff was planning photos for the 2016 holiday catalog, weekly holiday season flyers, postcards, digital page banners and other marketing materials. Snow was the critical element for every scene.
Now, with the fate of the Cabela’s brand less than certain, it’s unclear if this year’s Michigan-themed images represent the retail brand’s swansong.
Curt Door, a Cabela’s brand marketing team member, said he knew the company could find inviting imagery in northern Michigan. He grew up in Jackson and worked after college in Grand Rapids before taking a job with Cabela’s at the company’s headquarters in Sidney, Neb.
Door’s friend Paul, whom he’d met 40 years earlier on a Nordic ski team in Grand Rapids, had over the years jokingly teased that Cabela’s should use average-looking people — like him — in its advertising.
“Actually, we use a lot of people who aren’t models for our shoots,” Door countered.
Not surprisingly, Door asked Paul to pose for the Cabela’s crew in Michigan. Cabela’s also is using a photo the crew took of John and Sue Paul pulling a gift-laden sled through a snowy pine forest.
“It wasn’t anything I ever thought would happen,” Paul said. “I had no idea how much goes into a shoot for a simple catalogue photo.”
Cabela’s staff meteorologists had a big hand in helping the camera crew know when to head to northern Michigan. They accurately predicted a heavy lake effect snowfall the third week last January followed by another week of cold weather to keep the snow in place.
“We ended up with five incredible days in Michigan,” Door said.
When Door began his search for Michigan scenes, his first priority was finding an idyllic covered wooden bridge with a solid dusting of snow. His scouting led him to Gabrick, a wood mill owner in Benzie County’s Lake Ann. Gabrick, a longtime Cabela’s customer, not only said sure, he volunteered to model as well.
“I’m a hunter and I’m not too bad-looking,” he recalled telling Door.
Cabela’s photographed Gabrick and his friend Sara Streeter, with their hunting guns in hand, near the covered bridge.
Cabela’s next chapter
Like the other Michigan models, Gabrick said he is concerned what will eventually happen to Cabela’s brand once the sale to Bass Pro is completed next year.
Cabela’s carries an almost cult-like status among its customers, who are known to use the company’s catalogs as substitutes for coffee table books and often drive hundreds of miles to the company’s megastores, like the 225,000-square-foot behemoth that opened in late 2000 in Dundee. In 2013, Cabela’s opened smaller stores in Saginaw and Grandville. A fourth Michigan store is scheduled to open in northern Macomb County’s Chesterfield Township in 2017.
The company was founded in 1961 when Dick Cabela started selling handmade fishing flies he bought at a furniture show in Chicago. Until the acquisition by Bass is finalized in early 2017, details on what will happen to Cabela’s stores and brand is unclear, said Cabela’s communications specialist Nathan Borowski. Bass Pro Shops has only one Michigan store – at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills – but has two stores located just outside Michigan, south of Toledo, Ohio and in Portage, Ind.
In an open letter to employees and customers in October, Bass Pro Shop Founder and CEO Johnny Morris said Bass “has every intention of celebrating and growing the Cabela's brand. We will work hard to foster the qualities that customers love most about both Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's. The spirit of this agreement is about adding to our great brands and creating increased stability and opportunities for our team members.”
Elk meet Christmas tree
The Cabela’s marketing crew also landed in Ludington, along the Lake Michigan coast. Door and the photo editors wanted an image of two heavy-antlered bull elk standing next to a lit Christmas tree. Door found what he wanted at the Amber Elk Ranch, in Ludington, where owner Bob Northrup hosts wagon rides to see his critters.
Northrup, who feeds his elk a grain mixture, knew he could lure the two bulls into position for the photo shoot by only feeding them near the lighted Christmas tree. “It took about a month, maybe six weeks,” he said.
The hungry elk magically appeared from the woods the day of the shoot, unconcerned about the bright lights of the Christmas tree or the nearby photo team. For his help, Northrup was happy to get a Cabela’s gift certificate.
Door found 2016 Cabela’s Christmas catalog cover shot while driving along M-204 in Leelanau County headed into Suttons Bay. He spotted a simple, weathered barn door that would be adorned with a Christmas wreath and a little snow. The owner was George LaCross.
“George’s barn had beautiful weathered wood, unlike any I had seen. He was very agreeable to us using it,” Door said.
Au Sable River Cabin
The crew’s final stop was an Au Sable River cabin Door found on Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO). The listing was called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — a classic, old log cabin that had been disassembled in the Upper Peninsula and moved to its current location about a dozen miles east of Grayling.
One requirement was a low riverbank that would permit a photo to show the river in the foreground and cabin in the background. Once again, the cabin’s owners, William and Krystin Saputo of Rochester, were Cabela’s customers and eager to help.
“We just felt honored to be chosen,” said Saputo. “We never thought that everyday people who drive the Cabela’s brand would get a chance to promote the business.”
Saputo told Door about his two Au Sable River guide boats, classics among the anglers who fly fish in Michigan’s best known trout stream. Door incorporated one of the boats — its gunwale lit by Christmas lights — for the shoot with Saputo and his fly fishing mentor Donn Vidosh of Petoskey. The shot shows them pulling the boat from the river with the cabin in the background. Cabela’s also has used an image of the Saputos dragging a Christmas tree through the woods in a postcard to customers.
Krystin Saputo said she was five months pregnant at the time and the Cabela’s crew brought several larger sizes of the company’s clothing.
“It was kind of like playing dress-up,” she said of the shoot.
William Saputo, who owns restaurants in suburban Detroit, said he was envious of an uncle who spent enough money with Cabela’s each year to get a hardcover catalog. Almost wistful, he said working with Cabela’s was “an honor and a privilege.” Besides that, he got photography tips from the crew that “really helped me step up my Instagram game.”
Since retiring as the politics editor of the Detroit Free Press in 2012, Bob Campbell has done some writing, editing, fishing and hunting - not necessarily in that order - from or near his northern Michigan home where a Cabela's catalog is always within arm's reach.