MANTECA -- As many a fisherman has said, you've got to see it to believe it.
Bass Pro Shops, a massive mecca for anglers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts, will open its Manteca store this evening.
It's the first Northern California outlet for the Missouri-based chain, and it's a whole new retail experience for the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The 30-foot indoor waterfall is evidence of that. So are the hundreds of stuffed bears, deer and other game animals amid the dioramas of Half Dome, Muir Woods and other California landscapes.
"I love it, honestly I do," said Sandra Paddock of Oakdale, who helps manage women's and children's apparel. "The visual is incredible in here."
She talked Tuesday while dressing a mannequin in a T-shirt at the base of a giant Sequoia replica. All around the 120,000-square- foot store, employees and contractors worked steadily on the finishing touches -- putting price tags on the fishing tackle, polishing the chrome on the boats, hauling crates of elk antlers to be displayed.
The store employs 278 people, and it is looking for Christmas season help.
Jim Wilson of Manteca, who just returned from deer hunting and soon will set out for pheasant, plans to be at the grand opening. He has ordered goods from Bass Pro Shops and spent four hours in its Las Vegas store.
"I'm just glad to have them here in town," he said. "People are going to be coming from miles around."
The location, just south of Highway 120 at Union Road, is smack in the middle of recreational attractions -- the delta to the north, Sierra Nevada to the east, waterfowl refuges to the south, and bay and ocean to the west.
The region has a high number of Bass Pro catalog customers, as well as fishing and hunting license holders, company spokeswoman Katie Mitchell said.
She declined to say how much it spent to build and outfit the Manteca store. She did say the weak economy did not slow the project or the demand for the merchandise.
"It's very important for people to still take vacations and get away from everything," she said.
The stores have proved to be tourist spots, with visitors coming from as far as 250 miles away and spending two to four hours, Mitchell said.
About 700 tons of rock decorate the interior and exterior in Manteca. It provides perches for the stuffed game, which was obtained from previous owners rather than shot for the store, Mitchell said.
The builders used recycled logs to dress up many of the indoor pillars, and recycled barn wood inside and out.
Twenty species of California trout swim in a small, rocky pool. A pair of mannequin anglers cast lines in the shin-deep water. Nearby stands a stuffed grizzly bear, its gaze fixed on the women's wear department.
The waterfall, using recirculated water, ends in a 20,000-gallon aquarium that will be filled with trout, bass and other fish.
"When you come in here, you actually go outside," said Don Gambill, who flew from the Bass Pro outlet in Memphis, Tenn., to help set up the fishing department in Manteca.
The store could be strong competition for smaller retailers of outdoor gear, but they said they can survive with good customer service and the right products.
"Our prices are going to be the same or less, and a lot of people are going to be coming here to ask where the fish are biting," said Bill Holbrook of Escalon Bait & Tackle.
Back at Bass Pro, footwear department employee Teri Ruiz of Manteca marveled at the latest chapter in her retail career.
"In the last 20 years, I've helped open a Safe-way, a Save Mart, a Starbucks and a Thrifty Drugs," she said, "and none of them hold a candle to this amazing place."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.