The Local Baitshop: A Wisconsin Outdoor Cornerstone
by Jeff Nania © 2019
Wisconsin’s small businesses are often cornerstones of our outdoor traditions: the familiar café that opens at four a.m. during deer season, serving up good food and hot coffee or the out of the way supper club serving up a relish tray, thick steak done right, and a brandy old fashion after a day on the water casting for muskies. Visiting these places becomes an important part of the whole experience. Most of these businesses are family run and you can pretty much count on them to take good care of you. They have to; word of mouth is the leading advertising campaign. Food or service that don’t make the grade are one step away from having the front door decorated with a “for sale by owner” sign.
There may no business that are more a representative part of our traditions than the quintessential local bait and tackle shop. The lights are on and the door is open early to make sure you can pick up a couple dozen minnows on your way to the lake. They are on a first name basis with most of their customers, as their customers are with them. New comers are treated in the same, friendly manner.
On a recent musky trip to Sawyer County, I stopped into one the state’s best-known classic shops: The Happy Hooker owned and operated by Pat and Lori Jones. Like most of these places, they are on a back road in lake country but it seems that no one has trouble finding them. Every inch of wall space is neatly covered with products for sale—rods and reels, lures, leaders and line, fishing nets and stringers. You can hear aerators bubbling away in tanks tucked in a back room keeping the water cold and fresh for the bait fish inside. Whether you need a 10-inch sucker or tiny crappie minnows, a scoop of the net and the fish are in your bucket ready for action. Your old bucket leaks? There are several new ones to choose from. Inside the refrigerator next to the tanks, plastic containers are stacked ten high with the contents marked on top: leaf worms, nightcrawlers, or wax worms. Containers with clear tops hold leeches. Along the back wall of the store is a cooler with a supply of Wisconsin essentials including ice cream, popsicles, milk, butter, eggs, cheese, bacon and beer. Even locally made jewelry is for sale and of course Happy Hooker hats and sweatshirts.
Although it was not yet eight a.m., there was plenty going on. Lori was patiently explaining to a first-time license buyer the various combinations that are available. Her husband Pat was next to a rack of big spinners talking with a customer who was holding a big double-bladed neon pink lure and reading the back of the package.
“It says this bait is good for walleyes, bass, and muskies. Is it really a good musky bait?” the customer inquired.
Pat answered, “You can catch muskies on it, but then again depending on the day and if the muskies decide the time is right, you can catch them on anything.”
“Are they catching muskies on them now?” he asked.
“Not really. They are really hitting on this one over here. That’s why I only have one left. People are fishing the edge of the weeds with a fast retrieve.”
While they were talking, another angler walked into the store and joined the conversation.
“Yeah folks are catching fish on that. They are getting a bunch of solid hits with a figure eight at the end of their retrieve.”
The customer got a quizzical look on his face. Pat explained in a helpful and not the least bit condescending way, “If you keep your lure in the water at the end of your cast and do a figure eight pattern with it, you will be surprised at how many fish hit right by the boat. You’ve got to remember to set your drag right.”
Just then the front door burst open and two very excited little girls ran in trailed by their dad. All at once, they were the most important customers in the shop.
“What can I do for you?” Lori asked.
“We need worms, big fat ones,” one girl said.
“Dad is taking us fishing,” said the other.
Lori took them over to the refrigerator, picked out one of the plastic containers, and opened it up to show the kids the fat nightcrawlers inside. “Will these work for you?” she asked.
“Yeah those are good ones,” the kids replied.
On their way out, Pat reminded them to stop back with a fishing report.
Watching tradition get passed on is a wonderful thing.
Bait and tackle shops like this have filled a niche that is similar to one once filled by the “old country store.” In times past, these places were a hub where you could catch up on the local news and pick up supplies. Good roads, the supermarket and big box stores pretty much did away with them. Those same things have presented a challenge to these local shops.
Fortunately, many have not only survived but have flourished. It doesn’t mean that they are not faced with the challenges of the ultra-competitive retail world, because they are. So how is it that they stay in business?
“We know what our customers want and we make sure to have it for them. We pride ourselves on being able to give you up to date fishing information as well as solid advice on the products we sell. On our website you can get a fishing report every day of the year,” Lori said.
The other part of this is that their customers support them, because folks like Pat and Lori Jones aren’t just storekeepers. They are an integral part of the community and our traditions. They’re tied just as tightly to the outdoors as we are.
Small stores like theirs are part of our past and hopefully a strong part of our future. You might find the same lure a buck cheaper at a big box store, but you will never find there what you will at your local bait and tackle shop. Next time you get the chance take a few minutes to stop by.