Owners' vast inventory, insight lend to bait shop's atmosphere
DELAVAN It was a slow fishing day, but the action was heating up inside Geneva Lake Bait and Tackle.
The shop's owners, Brian and Nancy Gates, were dealing with a jailbreak. A shipment of chewing tobacco tins filled with mealworms had broken open, and grubs were squirming loose everywhere.
"It's the kind of thing that happens," Nancy Gates said as she cleared packing sawdust from a table in the office/lounge/grub-sorting area behind the shop's cash register.
It was a minor tragedy at the bait shop, where the minnow tanks bubble among the dusty stuffed coyotes and bobcats that stand guard over aisles crowded with package after package of gleaming chrome and chartreuse, each decorated with a little price tag.
If you've never been in Gates' shop, you've never seen fishing tackle. It's spring, the start of the fishing season, so Gates is stocked to the gills.
The shop has rods, reels, lures, baits and hooks of every size and shape. Gates has holes drilled between the holes in his pegboard displays, which line every surface as high as a tall man can reach.
In stock are maps of fishing lakes in New York state and salt-fishing crankbaits so big they're normally used only to catch ocean fish or arm-length South American peacock bass.
"When some people are trying to catch a musky, they'll try anything," Gates said.
Want it? It's probably here
Gates, 67, has run his bait shop at 2885 S. Highway 67 since 1979, but he's sold fishing gear and run a fishing guide service since the late 1960s, when there were only a half-dozen guides plying Walworth County lakes. Now, there are more than 200.
Over the years, Gates has amassed a stock of fishing gear that he said he fears to quantify. His stock of ice-fishing jigs alone totals 100,000.
A hint at his inventory's breadth and depth: Gates said that when Cabela's or Gander Mountain is searching for an unusual or out-of-production lure, they call him.
"I run my business totally the wrong way. I get everything, and then I let you buy what you want," Gates said.
Gates is not kidding.
He's had a long-handled crappie net in stock for over a decade, just waiting for the right customer. It's $42, and the price is not negotiable.
Gates said he once read through an entire 400-page catalog line-by-line to help a customer find a yellow lure with five painted diamonds in a size that nobody else had.
Sound like mythology? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But Gates said he can prove he's got a wider selection of lures, hooks and tackle than just about any bait shop in Wisconsin—including the north woods region.
Ask Gates a question about a lure, bait or fishing technique, and he'll twist his long, gray beard with one paw and cast a shrewd, squinted glance into the distance. It's as though he's scanning some mental inventory of every lure he ever owned that ever caught anything.
What you get back is a story crammed with facts and exact dates, interwoven with a litany of trivia and local fishing lore.
Gates will tell you why a Racine native named Jack Crawford has a fishing jig and an underwater sandbar in Lake Geneva named after him. Or why black-eyed Susan grubs—the thickest-skinned of all larvae, says Gates—have become so rare in Walworth County. Apparently, it has something to do with a federal hemp defoliation program in the 1970s.
Gates for years has supplied the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune newspapers with weekly fishing reports out of the Walworth County lakes region.
"People call him the walking encyclopedia," Nancy Gates said, snapping lids on some mealworm containers.
Grubs, Swedish Pimples (a type of lure, not an exotic skin malady), minnows and rods and reels are the Gateses' life. Their home is attached to the bait shop. When they sleep, they're beneath the neon sign in the shop's parking lot.
The couple doesn't sleep much because the shop is open 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the fishing season.
"We're the only people who dairy farmers don't envy," Gates said.
Lifelong jigging gig
Gates has known who he is ever since he won the top 33 slots in a 50-slot smallmouth bass contest on Lake Geneva run by the local Jaycees. He was 12 at the time. It was 1956, the same summer Gates said he took his first client on a fishing trip in a 14-foot rowboat.
The trip lasted just 20 minutes before Gates bagged a limit in smallmouth bass. The client paid him $100.
It was a famed Geneva Lake-area resident: chewing gum baron and Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley.
Like all fishing stories, the devil is in the details, and the details are tough to prove or disprove. And Gates has a lot of stories. His memory is as clear as a lake scoured by zebra mussels.
There's the time a wealthy Chicago businessman died in his boat but came back to life. It turned out the man's pacemaker had reset itself. Gates said he never hauled an anchor so fast.
Then there was the day when a wealthy client showed up at his shop for a fishing trip with a bunch of rabbis. Or the summer of 1968, when Gates was waiting impatiently for a man named Agnew to show up at the Abbey Marina for a fishing trip on Geneva Lake.
Gates said he got curt with Agnew's assistants, and they got curt right back, spitting out details about Gates' background he said he didn't even know.
Turns out the assistants were with the U.S. Secret Service, and Gates' erstwhile client was Spiro Agnew, then-Governor of Maryland. Gates said Agnew had stopped in Fontana for a fundraiser for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign.
In all those years, Gates said, fishing and the bait shop business haven't changed much for him. He said all you really need to catch fish with a rod and reel is a good slip bobber, a No. 12 crappie hook and a can of nightcrawlers.
As the irony of that advice hung thick among Gates' overflowing gallery of lures and gear, one of Gates' buddies, Geneva Lake guide Chuck Schalz, came strolling in.
Gates asked Schalz if he'd seen the piranha out back. And there really was a dead piranha out back. It was the size of a dinner plate. Somebody had fished it out of a nearby lake.
Gates said he'd saved it mostly as an oddity but also to show it to the state Department of Natural Resources.
Schalz, who said he's learned practically all he knows about fishing from Gates, just shook his head.
"There's not another shop like this one anywhere," Schalz said. "Brian's the last of the real ones."