The old painted hardwood floor was slick as ice when wet, and due for another coating of sand before someone came along and broke their ass. But that was a risk you took. Well that and the possibility of choking to death or dealing with a life altering injury due to a sharp instrument connecting with an important body part. I could partake in a more pleasant ambience of soft music and courteous soft-spoken fishermen at the bait shop uptown but, no thanks. I’ve been enjoying the rough and tumble nature of this place since I was a kid. All else aside if you could pick through the bits of conversation you could walk away with some real good advice. It feels a little like listening to a radio where a handful of stations are bleeding over one another. If you recognize the voice, and understand their hierarchy, you can block out some of the garbage background chatter. The buzz is electric and the air thick and heavy today. My eyes are peeled for any suspicious activity that might give me a clue to where the fish are biting.
John’s at the counter buying more walleye minnows. Normal for him as he focuses on the rock reefs these days. He spends a lot of time out there in that boat all alone. Some would call him a lonely old man. Others might say he just likes to fish. But I know John, and I can guarantee he wouldn’t be there if he wasn’t catching fish. Period. There’s nothing more to say or see there. If you want to catch walleyes just follow John. I’m looking for some good perch fishing action and the intel so far is spotty.
Eldon is chatting it up with Franny and both look like they have a girlie secret or something. Either that or they’re trying to lift a few lures from the shelf and they’re all bubbly with adrenaline. Good grief they don’t look right and hey! Yup! There goes a pair of daredevils right in his pocket. I cry foul to myself because I don’t think this little family-run bait shop can afford even a small loss. At least that’s what Connie says. But Franny has little more than the fish he catches or whatever wild game he can shoot to live on. My verdict comes in with two Chinese-made lures that probably have lead paint on them belong in Franny’s hands or at least his pocket. He nods when he realizes I saw him. I just shake my head slowly to each side with a tight-lipped grin and that’s when it happened.
Both Eldon and Franny grabbed an open spot at the counter and, while glancing back to me, Fran reached into his pocket and loudly exclaimed that he must be getting senile because he darn near walked out with two pike-catching daredevils. “Yes-sir-ee that’s what them are,” he says as he tosses a candy bar onto the counter next to the lures, “I’m feeling lucky today.” Eldon stands nearby looking somewhat puzzled. Probably wondering if he’ll need to front Franny the money for the lures. “Don’t worry,” Connie says, as she rings up the lures and the chocolate bar. “I would have reminded you they were in your pocket long before you got close to the door. And that’s only ’cause I like ‘ya,” she says nearly spitting in their faces as she snarls out every syllable. It’s like magic how she sees everything even through the crowd and the haze of smoke.
The two of them finish at the counter and turn as if they were joined by a rope. With only two steps onto the painted hardwood they both met an aquamarine colored floor the hard way. The crowd cleared just enough to give the two men enough falling room. I heard John as he walked to the door, “Careful with those lures Francis.” A few delayed chuckles from the peanut gallery and a muttering of something from Franny about more sand or get sued and that was it. Right back to battling the cigar smoke and the smell of fish in the air as the clanging bell on the door chimes to announce Franny has left the building. I took the opportunity to find a quick gateway to the soda cooler as the sea of humanity bumbled and grumbled their way back to their previous positions in line.
The bell chimes twice again as more fishermen try to enter and realize the line starts at the door. Finally! Some fresh air found it’s way in and the smoke found it’s way out. I crack open my can of Coca Cola and take a good long drink. There are empty cans laying all over. I wonder how many people drink their soda and set the can down before they ever make it to the counter. I don’t have to wonder for very long.
Connie’s growling voice splits the crowd as she points to a specific can sitting next to me. Focused like a laser, the stick-bobber in her hand draws a bead down to a can of Mountain Dew that is empty but still sweating. I hold exhibit-A in my hand and produce a small sideways shake of the can to show that, yes indeed, this can is empty. That’s when Craig grabs the belt-loops of his pants and pulls them up a bit. Tossing his head back and looking down his long narrow nose at Connie he says, “Prove that I drank that soda.” It took a whole milli-second for Connie’s 215 pound 5 foot 2 frame to get over the counter and in Craig’s face. She stood on her tip-toes and slobbered out some words that I guess only her and Craig understood because the rest of us just stood there silent. Not even the bell on the door dared to make a sound. Craig slumped down into an early primate pose before throwing his arms to the air screaming, “Alright! OK! I drank TWO Mountain Dew’s for Christ sake. Jeez-o-Pete sue a guy for trying!” The bell on the door chimed, Connie rolled over the counter like a little ninja, and the crowd burst into laughter as Craig pulled his wallet from his back pocket. Now he doesn’t have enough for bait! That’s just classic. Serves him right the cheap old bastard. He randomly grabbed two empty soda cans from the counter and quickly shuffled himself to the door through a chorus of laughter. Toucan Craig, was born in that moment thanks to a clever play on words by Donald. I never saw Craig in the bait shop again.
The buzz of the place has calmed a bit now and the tone has dropped significantly. Must be all the sugar wearing off. I see guys pointing to empty cans as they reach the counter. “I had those two,” says Reese. “And I drank that Root Beer,” confesses Doug. Connie has them all on their best behavior now and my ears have been scanning the conversations constantly. You could feel the fun being sucked right out of the room as Connie sat there quietly, grinning from ear to ear, ringing up items on the vintage cash register. I think she’s seeing dollar signs. Perhaps she’s just going to wait and see who dares break the silence. The bell on the door chimed another arrival and Daniel walked in and stopped. He’s a local fisherman and friend and is wondering why everything is so quiet. He looks around with his foot still lodged at the doorstep holding the door open for a quick escape. I can barely contain my laughter as he scans the crowd like a SWAT member entering a hostile environment in search of a target. He sees me and starts to laugh out loud while letting the door swing shut and another round of chaos begins.
It’s been less than 15 minutes since I walked into this bait shop waiting for Daniel to meet me here. “We’re heading off to the mill ponds to catch them big slab crappies,” I announce loudly while Connie fishes 2 dozen perch minnows out of the tank for me. “That’s right. The water temperatures are perfect for the crappie to start spawning any minute. And you boys all know what that’s like. Right?!” A sea of heads nodding up and down agree and a wave whispers flow through the thinning crowd. “You got to be there when it happens,” yells Curly. “Right you are my man,” I respond as I retrieve the change from Connie’s hand and turn to walk away. The crowd goes silent as I turn my back to the counter. I realize I didn’t claim the Coca Cola I drank while waiting. Turning back I’m met with face to face with Connie all puckered up. She yells at the top of her lungs, “That one’s on me baby!” Her laughter crackled through the room and rang in my ears all the way to the truck. With the distant noise from the bait shop still rumbling in the background Daniel walked up to the truck. I told him to meet me down at the old shipping docks. “I thought we were heading to the mill pond?” says Daniel. “Hell no. It’s way too early for the crappie to be spawning. But those other guys don’t know that and since they were headed to the docks to fish perch we should have the place practically to ourselves.”In a couple hours Daniel and I pulled enough perch out of that deep dark water to call it quits. That’s about the same time the other guys began filtering back to the dock from their journey to crappie heaven at the mill ponds. They appeared a bit defeated as we crossed paths and didn’t utter a word to one another. Payback is hell I know and I’ll get mine. It’s just an unspoken rule but sometimes 15 minutes in the bait shop can give a guy the edge. If nothing else the entertainment is cheap.
By the way. A week later Franny graced the front page of the sports section in our local newspaper. A 43 inch northern pike fell prey to his mastery of fishing skills. In his glory Franny stands tall holding the fish high and towards the camera to make it look larger. Good job Fran. And good for you Eldon sneaking yourself into the photo. And in all the irony the big daredevil he almost got away with stealing was the same one hanging from the lip of that monster pike. I can only imagine how that fishing story will grow through the years and make it’s rounds back to the bait shop.