– Here along Hwy. 53 between Duluth and International Falls, cars and trucks pull up to a structure about the size of a big winter fish house. This would be Northwoods Bait and Tackle, and most who stop are looking for good bait and quality advice. With a smile, they get both.

Iconic to the region, with its down-home appearance, Northwoods Bait and Tackle boasts minnows swimming in tanks and leeches sold by the pound. Also hanging on its inside walls is lots of stuff intended for sale, from fishing line to boat-drain plugs to knives, as well as the odd deer head or beaver pelt.

Cash is OK or credit cards are welcome. Owner Joe Kruchowski takes it all.

“I bought the shop in 1993,” Kruchowski said. “My brothers, Tim and Larry, owned it, and I had worked for them since 1988, while I was going to college.

“With all the tourism in the area, I saw the potential for the business, and thought I would take a gamble on it.”

The uninitiated might consider Kruchowski a small-time business owner in an even smaller town. In some ways, that’s true. Only about 600 people live in Cook.

Yet looks deceive. In fact, Kruchowski is a savvy proprietor who competes in selling bait not only with the two gas stations in Cook but with “every bait shop between the Twin Cities and here.”

Anglers who regularly travel north constantly scan roadsides for good bait sold at fair prices, Kruchowski said. Whether that bait is purchased in the Twin Cities, Cloquet, Virginia or Cook often depends also on the availability of good information about where fish are biting, when and how often.

“We get a lot of Twin Cities people stopping by, and also a lot of people from Illinois and Ohio,” Kruchowski said.

In spring, Northwoods sells mostly rainbow chubs, while at this time of summer, it’s leeches and ’crawlers.

Kruchowski’s brother, Larry, traps bait for the store, traveling an area about 100 miles in all directions of Cook to do it.

“We grade our minnows, selecting the larger ones from our rearing ponds to sell and allowing the smaller ones to go back into the ponds,” Kruchowski said. “We always want to sustain our bait, so we have plenty in coming years.”

“I don’t have a middle man, so I’m able to be very competitive on my prices,” Kruchowski said. “And while I close the shop in winter, we still trap bait then to sell to anglers and to other bait shops.”

Also in winter, Kruchowski traps furbearers, beginning about Dec. 1 and ending in early January. High on his target list are bobcats, fox, fisher, marten and coyotes.

Often he prepares the pelts of animals he’s trapped for finishing and sale.

“Right now I’m taking 20 beaver pelts and making a king-size bedspread for someone,” he said. “Also, some animals that I trap, I mount and sell to people for their cabins.”

A bit of a gearhead, Kruchowski has owned 110 vehicles in his day, including a couple of wacky models, a 1982 AMC Spirit and a 1976 AMC Pacer.

“The Pacer looks like a pregnant roller skate,” he said.

Kruchowski’s current ride, which always is parked in front of his shop, is a tricked-out Volkswagen. Kruchowski buys a new one every year.

“Years ago I owned a 1968 VW Beetle, and I’ve always liked their cars,” he said.

The other day, when I stopped at Northwoods Bait and Tackle, minnows were quickly scooped and worms were packed in foam containers.

Asked if anglers ever try to talk him into a deal, Kruchowski said, “All the time. But people know we sell good bait at a fair price. They also know that with all the mosquitoes and ticks near our ponds, they wouldn’t want to get the bait themselves.”


Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com