The Last Bait Shop: Bryant’s Drains Minnow Tanks

There was a time when locally owned bait shops dotted Kokomo’s business landscape. Places like Mal’s, Alley Tackle, Martin’s, Jack’s, Bryant’s, Hamler’s, Mark’s, S & S, Dave’s and Jim’s come to mind. “We miss them as much as anybody,” said Liz Bryant, co-owner with her husband Billy, of Kokomo’s last year round tackle shop.

Now they too will be closing their doors at the end of this month. And it’s not just Kokomo. The unfortunate phenomenon is taking place across the nation. But for the Bryant’s it’s not a business decision, it’s a life decision.

“Thankfully our business has always been pretty good, we just decided now is the time,” Liz said solemnly. “Because of health reasons Billy and I decided if we want to spend time together doing the things we love, then we better do it now.”

For the Bryant’s the hardest part will be not seeing the many kids and friends that frequented their popular shop. “To some degree it’s like losing family,” Liz added. “We have made so many friends through the store.”

The Bryant’s have been in business nearly 30 years and even when other competitors were in town, they too were all friends. “We would always help each other out,” she explained. “If someone ran out of a particular item you could always get extra from another shop.”

These places represented much more than a source of minnows, worms and a variety of Hostess snacks. This is a fact fishermen are learning the hard way as mom and pop business are going the same way as locally owned lumber yards, drive-in-theaters and K-Mart subs.

Many hometown bait and tackle shops were forced out of their long existence due to competition from internet dealers, mail order catalogs and superstores that sell everything from lures to ladies lingerie. Now, most convenience stores offer commercially raised live bait with that loaf of bread and lotto tickets. Gone also are the days when, after a good rain, kids could be seen running around barefoot picking up worms which they would sell to the bait shop down the block.

Let’s face it. Live bait, such as minnows and worms were never profit makers for these locally owned businesses. They survived on the fishing tackle their loyal customers purchased when anglers came in to buy their dozen night crawlers or tube of crickets.

It wasn’t until the bait tanks were drained and cricket cages emptied and set outside as garbage that many realized much more than bait was disappearing.

Also diminishing was first hand, knowledgeable information. Things like what bait to use to catch the fish that swim in the lake in those home waters just down the road. Now, the only source of advice comes from people, many who have never held a rod and reel and who split their time between fishing tackle and fondue pots.

Also gone are all the good, old guys you would see hanging out. Every store seemed to have a place where people would gather to visit. At Bryant’s the wood stove served as the communal gathering place. In the winter it gave out heat. In the summer is served as a table for drinks. But year round it was a source of stories from the many who would constantly gather around it.

It also had a following of kids and young adults who would sit close by hoping to gather morsels of fishing knowledge. Sometimes bystanders would hit pay dirt when they would get invited to go fishing with one of the old geezers. This was a coveted chance to gather years’ worth of knowledge in one short trip.

Although online stores and mega marts may provide fishing tackle at cheaper prices, they don’t provide the camaraderie and unique personality that evolves at places that sell hooks, bobbers and sinkers on rows of pegboard shelves and the sound of chirping crickets.

Back in the day, these types of businesses were hallowed ground to outdoor enthusiasts. Like much of today’s society, it has become sterile shopping behind a computer screen without that underlying odor of anise, cigar smoke and maybe a hint of mildew. Even between the constant chatter from those who come and go, the place never goes completely silent as you can always hear the faint gurgling of minnow tanks bubbling behind the counter. Now that too will be silenced.

If you are like me, you appreciate the traditional old time tackle shop where you can expect to find everything from mousies to mealworms and someone still willing to put new line on your reel for you.

“We want to thank everyone for giving us a great life for three decades,” Liz stated, choking back tears. “Words can’t express how grateful Billy and I are and there is no doubt we will miss every single person who visited our shop.”