A fellow can make money a lot of different ways, even in this unsettled economy. As a boy, Gary Mau -- a retired Navy fighter pilot and former world traveler and international marketer -- never imagined he'd sell minnows and leeches for a living, and rent a few boats. But that's what he was doing Thursday, staring out the window of his bait shop by the shores of the St. Croix River.

Mau and his wife, Dottie, own Beanies at Maui's Landing, a fanciful name that suggests a fanciful place. But Beanies isn't fancy. Homespun, yes. And, in spring, oftentimes flooded.

Like a corner bar, Beanies is a gathering place where characters come and go, and with the St. Croix walleye season only a week away, many of the usuals -- guys such as Uncle Charlie, who fishes from the end of the dock, and Larry the Luckless Angler -- will soon be back.

"We'll launch 70 boats here next Saturday, the vast majority of which will be in the water by 8 a.m.," Mau said.

Yet whether iconic mom-and-pop bait shops like Beanies will be open in the future to greet anglers is unknown. "You can't make it selling bait or fishing tackle because you can't compete with the Gander Mountains and the other big stores on price," Mau said. "Renting boats, that's where we make our money."

A fixture of Americana lying nearly underneath the I-94 Bridge to Wisconsin, Beanies has been around since 1919. Commercial fishermen tramped its shorelines first, unloading netted fish in rail cars that stopped along the river bluff, before continuing to Chicago and New York, where diners awaited.

Now, by seasons, it's crappie anglers, then the walleye nuts, followed by the muskie addicts, as well as the river rats with their stink baits and headlamps who seek gigantic flathead catfish and prehistoric sturgeon.

"The catfish guys often fish all night, and come and go after we're closed and in bed," Mau said.

Fewer bait shops

Ironically, the St. Croix River is perhaps more popular today with anglers than ever -- yet there are fewer bait shops between Stillwater and Prescott, Wis., to serve them. Jimmy's Bait (formerly Brothers Bait and before that, Stiles Bait) in Stillwater closed last summer.

"We noticed the difference in our business right away, when Jimmy's closed," Mau said. "There's just nowhere nearby to buy bait, Already this spring the phone has been ringing. 'Do you have bait yet? Do you have bait?'"

As Mau spoke Thursday morning, Ron Meuwissen, owner of Ken's Bait Service in Chaska, pulled up in a flatbed truck bearing large minnow tanks. Shiner minnows are tough to come by this spring, Meuwissen said, because the northern lakes from which they are harvested are still ice-covered.

"And we can't get many leeches yet, either," he said.

Mau shrugged, taking the news in stride. He's known pressure in the workplace, and this isn't it.

"I used to travel to the Mideast, Europe, all over," he said. "We had lived in Florida for 10 years, on the water, and when we moved to Minnesota, we wanted to live on the water again. But I didn't want to live on a Minnesota lake that turns green by the Fourth of July. And I didn't want to own two places, a home and a lake place."

That was in 1991, and Beanies was for sale. The joint was run down, Mau said, and the crowd that had taken to hanging around seemed straight out of the "Star Wars" bar.

"It was horrible," Mau said. "We talked to women who said they would never come down here without their husbands."

Bought for the house

But Mau and his wife didn't buy Beanies for the bait shop or the boat-launching business. A house sat next door, and that's what they wanted -- a place to live.

"But there was this little bait business here also, and my wife figured what the heck, she's run it for a while," Mau said.

When Mau retired, he took over management of Beanie's. A son came up with the name (Maui is a nickname the Mau kids were tagged with in school), the place was scrubbed, a new boat launch was built, services were improved and boat rentals expanded.

When the Minnesota-Wisconsin border water walleye season opens a week from Saturday, Gary and Dottie Mau will be aided by a staff of a dozen or so employees, some as young as 14.

The recession gripping so many parts of the state and national economy will seem far away. Business will boom. Anglers will be happy. At day's end, boats will be winched onto their trailers, and tall tales will be told.

"We've had more reservations so far this year for our rental boats, particularly our houseboat, than we ever have," Mau said.

As for Uncle Charlie, the old guy who comes to fish from the dock, Mau hasn't heard from him, yet. Ditto Larry the Luckless Angler.

"But they'll come around,'' Mau said.

With luck, well into the future, Beanies will be there to greet them.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com