Mike Traylor didn't get to go to bait shops much as a kid. Instead, he'd round up grasshoppers and other critters from the mud around the Kansas ponds where he'd catch bass with his dad.
But when he did get to leave his family's small wheat farm for a special trip to a bait shop, "It was awesome, like a big toy box."
Today, Traylor has a big toy box of his very own. Less than a year ago, he bought Mike's Bait on 8, a Forest Lake shop that has stood in the same spot for more than three decades.
In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the shop is one of hundreds that serve simultaneously as marketplaces and meeting places for that breed of Minnesotan who loves to drop a line in a lake and see what comes back.
"Anybody that lives in Minnesota that's not a fisherman or doesn't like fishing needs their head examined," said Don Bolander, a 71-year-old Roseville resident who loaded up on small suckers, crappie minnows and leeches before heading out to Martin Lake on Memorial Day weekend. He's a Mike's regular.
Every angler has a favorite bait shop; some prefer the lakeside store at their fishing hole of choice, while others stop at marts along the highway en route to far-flung waters. Some cite the quality and selection of living fish food as the draw, while others seek out the community found in the brag boards with photos of big catches, the kaffeeklatsches and the knowledgeable clerks passing on tips about which lakes are hot and which lakes are not.
In some respects, bait shops are the Minnesota version of barbershops.
"It's kind of a place to come in and share stories," said Cassie Wredberg, who grew up in the apartment attached to Prince Bait & Marine, a Milaca-area shop founded by her grandparents in the 1950s. "We had our regular customers always there, talking about the best fishing places, what they were biting on. People just hung out."
The mist and the minnows
For many Minnesotans, the particularities of a certain bait shop are burned into memory.
Wes Largis, of Red Lake Falls, would always go to Taber's Bait in Bemidji. "My dad brought me there when I was just big enough to see into the concrete bait tanks, with the mist from the aerators and the smell of minnows filling my head with anticipation for what was to come," he said. He's no longer in Bemidji, "but if I'm fishing in the area, it's like a pilgrimage to walk in and stand in front of those old concrete tanks and stare at the uncountable minnows, waiting for a smile."
At Traylor's newly renovated 1,800-square-foot store, regulars make a stop at Mike's a habit. Many enthusiastically share their expertise.
"Nobody ever gives up their spot, but they sure talk about it," Traylor said. "We have a lot of the best fishermen in the world coming in here — in their eyes."
Bill Loeffler started visiting Mike's when he relocated to Forest Lake from California seven years ago. He didn't know much about fishing then.
"Friendly people would spend some time answering your questions — you'd get a lot of good information on locations, and just a lot of encouragement," Loeffler said.
After years of daily visits, he now works there part-time and passes on his own well-researched tips.
"It's nice to be able to have the common thread," he said. "Everybody who walks in that door is here for the same reason."
Bait and bling
Traylor's merchandise can make kids and experienced anglers open their eyes wide in wonder.
"Bling gets attention," he said. "It's like a jewelry shop for guys."
Gold and glitter, feathers and trinkets adorn the fishing lures. Panfish candy, jitterbugs, water gremlins, blood-scented catfish dough, lil' hustlers and mimic minnows ("fools 'em") are just a fraction of the items hanging from neat rows of particleboard in Traylor's store. So many of them glow in the dark that when the owner turns out the lights at night, the shop glows for at least another hour.
"Everyone wants what no one else has," Traylor said.
Then there are the live bait tanks along the back wall. Leeches — not the bloodsucking kind — hang from Traylor's hand. The silvery shiners, even if cooled properly, can be dead within an hour of leaving the tank. Sucker minnows are customer favorites for catching northern and walleye. Fatheads, crappie minnows: "Everybody likes those."
In a refrigerated case, plastic takeout containers are filled with night crawlers, some of them dyed green. On the counter, tiny clear plastic boxes that in any other store might hold mints are filled with waxworms and other larvae, little wriggling maggots. If they develop, the store will be filled with houseflies, even in the dead of winter.
Spending so much time among the bottom of the food chain, well, it's an acquired taste, some in the profession say.
"It's a unique business," said Jake Kaysen, who delivers the live stuff wholesale from Fish Lake Bait in Harris.
From a truck of tanks pumped with oxygen, Kaysen was spending his Saturday morning hauling 5-gallon buckets of minnows and friends into Traylor's tanks. A single bucket could contain up to 15,000 crappie minnows so small that they'd barely make a dent in a kiddie pool.
"I don't even smell it anymore," he said.
For Traylor, owning a bait shop was a dream come true — especially one with his name already on it. He eyed the store 13 years ago, and told the previous owner that whenever he was ready to sell, he'd buy it. Even with a full-time job owning a moving and storage business, Traylor jumped when it finally went for sale.
Why take it on?
" 'Cause I like to fish," he said matter-of-factly. "Everything in here is now my tackle box."