Monday, September 29, 2014

Pretty Fly for a Bait Guy

I've fallen away from my roots in the last decade.  Or perhaps I've evolved.  I'm not entirely sure there's a difference.  One thing is certain, I don't fish with conventional rod and reel nearly as much as I used to.  I don't fish with anything nearly as much as I used to, period, but we'll cast that aside for the time being.

It's a natural progression, much written and talked about in fly fishing circles.  Some of us, through boredom or the love of a challenge or the coveting of more sexy gear, eventually leave our spinning rods and baitcasters standing in a forlorn corner obelisk to chase fish and dreams with fly rods.  It happened to me, and it had been quite a few years since I'd been in a good old fashioned bait shop, until recently.

Buddy on planer board watch. Como Lake.
At the farmers market one morning I spied a woman sporting earrings similar to, but not quite spinner blades.  With Randi's birthday approaching, my mind leaped to fashioning earrings for her out of actual spinner blades, knowing she'd appreciate the outdoorsy bent.  In a feat resembling a protracted archaeological dig, I managed to lay hands on my own crawler harnesses from the old catfishing days on Cherokee Marsh and Como Lake, when we used to troll the mud flats for channel cats just like you would for walleyes except with heavier gear (and to only moderate and sporadic success in our case).

There were plenty of blades in my old collection in many sizes and colors, but only a few matching pairs, and mostly beaten and nicked like cheap old diner spoons.  One hatchet blade in bubble gum pink and black would've been perfect were it not for the lack of a matching partner and some unidentifiable crust of fish goo or worm innards.  Not exactly the makings of jewelry for most, although I do know a couple catfishermen who, finding a woman willing to don earrings of such earthy patina, would begin the search for an engagement ring in earnest.  Their wedding colors would be Realtree and Copenhagen, and I'd be there to tap the first half barrel in a plastic tub of ice.

I was about to order some shiny new blades from an online retailer of such things when a novel thought occurred to me... I should go to a bait shop.  I live mere miles from the the biggest inland walleye lake in Wisconsin.  I didn't need the latest in hyper-graphic paint jobs and blade design to fool fish, simply some clean and shiny jewelry fixin's.  Surely a bait shop in walleye country would have a surplus of old blades in bulk.  I was suddenly stunned I hadn't thought of that in the first place.

For the uninitiated: while both fly shops and bait shops exist to provide the tools necessary to chase fish using different methods, there exists an undeniable gulf of differences between the two.  They are, in general, two massively different sides of the same coin.

Many modern fly shops may be described as stylish.  They're appointed and polished.  Sleek.  If a bait shop is the hardware store, many fly shops are the equivalent of a wood grain Apple Store.

If there is a shop dog it will be a German Shorthaired Pointer or a setter, some pointing breed resting comfortably on a canvas and cedar chip bed from which he can preside comfortably over his fiefdom.  There will be beautifully mounted trout on the walls, and always one huge walleye for some reason (or a whitefish out west).  The shop rats will fall into a number of categories, including, but not limited to... the trimly bearded and tatted post-punk modern bug-flinger; replete with piercings, blocky hipster spectacles, and a snarky t-shirt (Fly fishing advice: free. Bait fishing advice: Don't)  He drinks only craft beer and drives a Subaru or Xterra.  The older gentleman in pressed khakis and spendy Filson flannel drinks scotch (or if he's progressive, bourbon, neat), and drives a Volvo.  He prefers to fish dries upstream, but will occasionally deign to fishing nymphs when there's no hatch on, "to pass the time."  If the shop also runs a guide service, there will be a twitchy muttering guide hidden somewhere in the corner so he doesn't bite the patrons, his shoulders copper and broad from a season of toil at the oars of a drift boat.  He drinks whatever the hell anybody sets gingerly near him.

There will be mountains of flies, organized by style, size and color in those display cases with all the little cubicles -- high rise apartments for flies.  Some will be "bought in" as they say, and some will be tied by the shop, the latter having been conceived during fever dreams in the cold off season.  The latest trends in vests and boat bags and waders will adorn the walls, a full kit of which will approach the cost of a year of college tuition.  The latest iteration of the revered Simms wading jacket alone goes, laughably, for over half a thousand dollars... for a raincoat.  Maybe that logo on the chest makes one a better caster.

The best fly shops maintain all of this with an air of comfortable welcome and free coffee near the door.  They're like walking into a nice guest cabin with a warming fire.  The less desirable among them fall deeply into the trappings of effete xenophobia.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the bait shops most of us grew up with.

Where the modern fly shop may be polished, the bait shop most often appears more lived in.  More real, bluntly.  Most are as clean as they need be while remaining a bit scruffy, much like the resident shop dog which, incidentally, will be a good workaday Lab or some other amiable mutt of indeterminate lineage and bountiful good cheer.

There will be minnow tanks in back, gurgling and churning with life and that pervasive, if subtle and pleasant aroma of wriggling life, aerated fresh water, and ammonia.  Some places let you scoop your own minnows while others leave you there peeking under the lid to watch the little guys dart and scatter willy-nilly every time you move, until you can be helped.

There will be dusty mounts of huge walleyes on the walls and always one trout for some reason.  And often, a buck of a size not often seen in that county for the last century with the arrow that felled it resting lightly in its rack.

There will be plastic bins of jigs and hooks in every single size and color ever conceived in the universe, some of them not in popular use since Chubby Checker set the world to twisting.  At the shop I used to frequent there was an eight foot wall of divided Plano boxes set as drawers and filled with ice jigs.  Brimming with thousands of them, tangled in their little prisons so you had to shake one loose to buy it.  Psychedelic pinks and oranges to muted natural tones, from minuscule one dot tear drops to monstrosities obviously constructed in pursuit of a kraken.  From factory paint slopped on junk hardware to quality one-offs from somebody's basement decades ago -- and plenty of the converse.  Well more jigs than I've seen assembled in one place before or since.

Some bait shops are stand-alone affairs, but most are tucked away in the basement of a hardware store or back of a gas station, almost as an afterthought.  In the instance of the latter your customer service representative will vary from a freaked out high school girl pulled from behind the register and afraid to scoop the "icky little fishies"... to a bedraggled guy fresh from cutting some chain and on his way to hauling some sheetrock.

The stand alone bait shops almost always have the proprietor or the proprietor's spouse behind the counter.  These are the best shops.  They know where everything is and most of them care about keeping you as a customer.  They will pass along the fishing report which can later be sussed into equal parts quality information, rumors, and mystical bullshit -- my undying favorite example of such bait shop wisdom being the time a guy behind the counter told us if we were quiet at night in our shacks, we could hear the crappies scraping the underside of the ice for bugs and follow them that way.

Bait shopkeepers are a consistently colorful bunch, and I've had the pleasure of knowing many.  There was Gene with his perpetually filthy canvas work shirt and only the merest acquaintance with the waking world.  When you could rouse him from his torpor his information was solid.  And Red, the excitable fast talker, who, upon only our second meeting, began our conversation by regaling me with a story about the time he woke up in jail after a particularly sanguine bender.

Lastly, with much trepidation, we come to the Scary Lady.

I have no inkling of her given name as she is referred to in hushed tones, fittingly, only as the Scary Lady.  Her ramshackle bait shop, attached to her rural home by a breezeway shuffled together out of warped plywood and prayers, holds a funhouse menagerie of anachronisms and dust bunnies.  It's a big place, deep and long, a warren of aisles and cubby holes festooned with dusty bubble packs and thrice-painted peg boards sporting equal parts full and empty pegs.

One is not allowed to scoop minnows at the Scary Lady's.  No, the dauntless fisherman must wait patiently near the tanks while the Scary Lady separates herself from the hapless stool that supports her impressive girth, and shuffles forward.  The organic aroma of the tanks is soon overpowered by a more feral odor.  The dreaded moment arrives when the fisherman must decide which eye to peer into, the northerly tracking one or the other, seemingly more interested in Illinois.  It should be noted that all attempts at friendly conversation will be flatly ignored.  Transactions take place only through a series of grunts and gesticulations from behind a stringy mat of frightening witch hair, followed by your purchase price appearing mercifully on the register.  Cash only.

Her bait is fresh and lively or nobody would ever go back there again.  Local lore says that during one oppressively hot and humid summer years ago, she appeared in a bathing suit and slipped into one of the bait tanks for a refreshing dip with the shiners.  I hope, for the good of humanity, that is merely an exaggerated folk tale.  On another occasion I know to be true, after I'd paid for my crappie minnows and she'd apparently forgotten in the following instant, she snarled a gravelly, "What is that... what is that," her voice growing louder as she pointed a crooked finger at the minnow bucket in my hand.   Being the staid, fully grown man of the outdoors that I am, I followed her inquiry with the most practical course of action I could come up with -- I scrambled out the door with my bait.  Some would even say I ran, but I prefer to think of it as relieving a poor old woman of her confusion.

You may think the Scary Lady and her exploits a figment of my imagination made up for the enjoyment of my readers, perhaps even an homage to Rancid Crabtree of McManus fame.  I assure you, she is quite real and more frightening than I've managed to describe.  Ask Brian.  If we deem you worthy and brave, we may even take you to visit her sometime.

So it was thus armed that I ventured into a local stand-alone bait shop recently, in search of those spinner blades needed to make earrings.  I found myself in an open and clean bait shop, one that I'd never seen before but knew through memory.

Plenty of earring blades in those dusty old bait shop boxes
The register was attended by the proprietor and her daughter while two ancient, sun-beaten men in seed caps talked about old guy stuff down the counter -- how much the recent rain would bring the river up, and the running concerns of a certain Janice and her useless bum of a husband.

When I related my search for blades as a fly tyer making jewelry,  the owner and her daughter fairly jumped into action.  The daughter is a fellow tyer who produces a locally famous walleye jig, and the mother quickly produced dusty box upon box of bulk spinner blades from the back.  Both were helpful and cheerful in our conversations.

As I finished up my purchase, one of the old guys called over to the daughter, "Hey Brenda, you got a pair of scissors?"

"Yeah... why?"

"I'm gonna cut that goddamn muskrat off his face," pointing at my substantial beard.  Laughs all around.

He continued, ambling over to me, "You ever meet the Fishin' Magician?"

"I haven't," I replied, growing slightly wary.

"Well, now you have, son," shaking my hand.  That earned another laugh from me and eye-rolls from the captive audience who'd obviously been privy to his shtick a few times before.

You can get all the lustrous "latest and greatest" in any modern fly shop, but I'll venture to bet you'll never be treated to a good-natured threat of debeardment on your first arrival there.  And I'm certain you can't get spinner blades... or sun-drenched earring selfies from a happy birthday girl.

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