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Iconic bait shop is a real keeper

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Lisa M. Schmelz | July 13, 2014

TOWN OF DELAVAN -- On an overcast morning, neither Brian Gates nor his wife, Nancy, are anywhere to be found at their iconic bait store just north of Williams Bay. Behind the counter, and seated at a table possibly constructed from the side of a pontoon boat panel and four wooden fence posts, a petite woman cleans a cooler full of bluegills, crappies and one prized walleye.

“He should be back soon,” says Sherry Alcantar, her eyes never lifting from the filet knife, when asked if Brian is around. “He had to go help someone whose boat stalled on the lake.”

Watching Alcantar in this cramped shop, overflowing with every imaginable doodad related to fishing, are William Freeman, a retired 40-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, and his wife, Gracial. It is their fish that are being cleaned.

For decades, the Freemans have made Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle their go-to place. Here, they find everything a tackle box could need or want, guide service, taxidermy if they so desire and a vanishing slice of Americana. The fish the Freemans catch can be measured and weighed, but their love of this bait shop and its owners cannot. What else explains their detour after a guided trip with Brian this morning to Willowfield, the Delavan nursing home where Nancy is recovering from a car accident?

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“We were at Interlaken and were vacationing or something,” recalls William Freeman of their first encounter with Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle and the Gates, his voice filled with the same joy heard in any fishing story. “Our kids (were) like 7 or 8 years old, and we came in here and fell in love with the store and them and have been friends ever since.”

“We stopped in to see Nancy today after we fished with Brian, and she's doing better,” adds Gracial. “She was playing bingo. We hope she gets back here soon.”

A few moments after the update on Nancy, Brian Gates ambles in, slightly damp from the earlier rain and whatever wrestling he may have done with the stalled boat. He is a big man, with enormous hands and a squinty gaze.

As he nets a supply of minnows for a customer, it's hard to believe that just a couple of years ago he was the one in frail health and Nancy was running the place. The store he started in 1967 by delivering crayfish to local boat liveries looked like it was taking its final swim upstream. Not only was Brian's health declining, but the big box stores and gas stations were taking a sizable bite out of the bait and tackle business.

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