Bait shops occupy a unique slice of Minnesota. Many of them have been in the same spot for decades, and they’re interwoven in the fabric of their communities. Whereas many anglers are tight-lipped and prefer the solitary aspects of the sport, bait shop owners tend to be a personable and talkative bunch, not giving a second thought to passing out information about the best baits and the best lakes. For some of them, owning a bait shop is a family rite and the only thing they’ve ever known. Others are drawn to ownership because they love to fish and talk about fishing, while still others simply recognize there is a living to be made by supplying the bait and tackle that fishermen demand. Following are profiles of five bait shop owners from across Minnesota, their take on the state of fishing, and some of their best tips:
Ebner’s Live Bait: Generations have come through
Back-story: Joanne Rousseau, who owns Ebner’s Live Bait in Elk River, has worked there since 1978. Her roots are deep. Her grandfather opened the shop, which is still in its original location, in 1949. Back then, Elk River was way outside the Twin Cities, and both Hwys. 10 and 169 were two-lane affairs.
“The way I’ve heard it from my father is that my grandfather raised chickens and drove to downtown Minneapolis to sell them,” Rousseau said. “When he was there he’d talk about living by the Mississippi River, and people started to ask him about catching minnows. So he started doing that and taking them to the city, and from there he decided it might be a viable business for his family.”
As a girl, Rousseau fished some with her family, though the bait shop kept them busy for much of the year.
“When we were kids, we would load up in the car, drive up to Lake Winnibigoshish and catch perch, and then come home,” she said. “And we were a Catholic family, so we ate fish on Fridays. We tried to catch what fish we could for that.”
When her grandfather and then her father owned the store, they kept it open 24 hours a day. If they weren’t behind the counter, customers would ring a bell and wake them up. They’d scoop some minnows, send the customers on their way, and head back to bed. Rousseau quit doing that when she took ownership, but that’s not to say she doesn’t work hard.
“I’m up at 5 in the morning and I close now at 8 p.m. I’m here all day, every day, just about,” she said. “It’s a lot more work than people think it is.”
Rousseau particularly enjoys getting to know her customers, many of whom have been coming to the shop for decades.
“One guy came in the other day with his grandson,” she said. “And (the grandfather) used to come in with his father, so we see several generations of people.”
But the times have changed, too.
“Another grandfather told me the other day his grandkids didn’t want to go fishing with him because he told them they had to leave their phones at home,” Rousseau said.
Best fishing tip: Get to know a lake. It’s hard to just go to a lake and catch fish. You need to go several times so you learn how the fish behave. Also, have patience. You may not always catch fish, but have fun — you’re out on the water, enjoying the weather.
One bait or lure: When they’re in season, leeches or night crawlers will catch all sorts of different fish. As far as lures, Mister Twisters will catch anything.
Ben’s Bait & Tackle: Adapting to anglers’ interests
Back-story: Twenty-five years ago, Ben Kellin lost his job in the health insurance industry. He moved back to his hometown of Grand Rapids intending to get a job. Instead, he bought a bait shop.
“The only thing I could do was buy myself a job,” said Kellin, 52.
As a youth, Kellin fished often with his father, who “was the kind of dad that if you were in the boat walleye fishing, you weren’t going back to shore,” he said. “You had to commit to the day.”
Kellin said walleyes have taken a bit of a back seat these days to species such as bass, northern pike and panfish. He has adapted the tackle selection at his shop. And he’s had to watch as technology has made fishermen more effective than ever.
“To talk about [global positioning system] coordinates when I bought the store in 1993 was unheard of,” Kellin said. “Now, a guy can come from anywhere in the world, go to [Lake Winnibigoshish] and know way more than I did after 15 years of guiding out there.”
Still, there’s a certain buzz in the bait shop’s atmosphere that he loves.
“I really enjoy the social aspect of it,” Kellin said. “Especially the people who are from out of the area — they’re just a joy to be around. They’re just so happy to be here. They’ve got smiles you can’t slap off their faces.”
Best fishing tip: Talk to locals and talk to the people who know what they’re talking about.
One bait or lure: I’m a live-bait guy. I would just use a minnow. Everything eats a minnow.
Swanson’s Bait & Tackle: Unexpected ownership
Back-story: Chris and Dean Garoutte were born and raised in Hackensack — and Chris’ family owned a resort — but owning a bait shop wasn’t something either of them thought about. Until the previous owners of Swanson’s Bait & Tackle asked them to consider it.
“They approached us out of the blue and said, ‘Have you ever thought about buying the business?’ ” Chris Garoutte said. Their response: “No, not really, but we can start thinking about it.”
The Garouttes, who also co-own a dock service company, decided it made sense, and they took ownership Jan. 3. Since then, they’ve been pondering things about which they’ve never given much thought.
“You just never know what the bait is going to do from year to year,” she said. “Are the shiners going to be running? Are there going to be extra-large leeches? Everything is really dependent on the weather, or how late the ice goes out. You just hope the [bait] trappers are successful.”
And yet, it’s been fun to get to know people who have been coming to the shop for decades.
“We heard many times over from people that, ‘I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,’ ” she said.
Best fishing tip: Stop in and ask what’s hot right now. Our fishing staff can tell you what’s biting and where.
One bait or lure: Leeches.
Sommer Outdoors: A dream job
Back-story: Justin Sommer was managing a bait shop in Fairmont several years ago when he overheard the owner talking about putting it up for sale.
“I approached him and said, ‘If you’re really trying to sell it, let me know,’ ” said Sommer, 36. “He looked at me and said, ‘I’m trying to sell the business.’ ”
Sommer had worked in the restaurant management, and then as a taxidermist, and knew he wanted to stay in the bait business. So he worked out a deal with the owner. He has owned Sommer Outdoors for more than five years.
“This is basically my dream job,” said Sommer, who spent most of his childhood living in St. Peter. “Where else can you get paid to sit here and talk to people about hunting and fishing all the time? I don’t expect to get rich at this business, but at least I’m happy with it.”
During the purchase process, Sommer’s wife, Mary, faced serious health concerns. Shortly after they bought the shop, he did as well. Going through that gave him perspective on the way he wanted to spend his life.
“At that time, I knew 100 percent that we did the right thing, and if I wouldn’t have had that experience, I wouldn’t have gone through that thought process,” Sommer said. “You want to do something that makes you happy. Why slave away doing something you don’t want to do?”
Best fishing tip: Get away from other people and find your own fish. Also, understanding what fish do during different seasons will help you catch more.
One bait or lure: It would have to be a simple jig and minnow. You can catch anything on a jig and minnow.
Fletcher’s Bait: Raising what he sells
Back-story: If familiarity breeds success, then there’s a reason Fletcher’s Bait still is in business. Owner Denny Fletcher, 66, joined the family business — which his father began in 1950 — when he was 12. Save for a couple of years in the Army, Fletcher has been there since.
“I tell people we’ve been here since the invention of dirt, but I’ve never worked a day in my life.”
Of course, that’s coming from a fish guy. Fletcher has about 60 bait ponds (some he owns, others he rents) and raises a variety of minnows, from golden shiners to suckers and fatheads. He figures he spends about 90 percent of his time on pond management activities — things such as harvesting minnows and trying to keep birds such as cormorants and pelicans from grabbing a free meal and dinging his bottom line.
“It’s a ton of hours, and you have to be extremely dedicated to do this for a living,” Fletcher said. “I open the shop at 6 a.m. We go until 6 at night, and on Fridays we stay later. We work 12 hours a day, every day. If you don’t want to do that, don’t get involved in this business.”
As he looks over the fishing landscape, Fletcher has some concerns.
“If you don’t have a locator or really good electronics on your boat, you won’t have as much luck catching fish,” he said. “The day when Ma and Pa could take the kids on the shore and catch fish off the dock — that rarely happens anymore. We’re overfishing our lakes, basically. If we ever really want to make fishing better in this state, I think we have to get rid of some of the electronics.”
Best fishing tip: If you need to buy live bait, buy it from a Ma-and-Pa shop. You won’t just get a dozen minnows — you’ll also get some information and expertise.
One bait or lure: If I’m walleye fishing, it’s a golden shiner. My second choice would be a red-tailed chub.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org