The One That Got Away

Near the back of Hayes Tackle Plus on East Lake Street--the only remaining full-service bait and tackle shop in Minneapolis--there hangs a bulletin board that testifies to the good fishing available on the city's waters. Most of the snapshots show Hayes patrons hoisting lunker bass, pike, and muskies, fish caught on Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, and other city lakes.

One Polaroid shows Tom Carroll--the longtime reel repair guy at Hayes--hoisting a 50-pound, five-ounce flathead catfish caught on the Mississippi River, near downtown St. Paul, in September 2000. Usually stone-faced, Carroll is beaming a 1,000-watt smile as he strains to hold up the great fish. It is a moment of foam cap glory.

For at least five decades, Tackle Plus has been a neighborhood institution, and not just for a small parade of hard-core urban anglers. A significant percentage of customers rely on Hayes for minnows and worms to feed their aquarium pets. But all this is coming to an abrupt end. These are the final days at Hayes, which is scheduled to close for good sometime later this week. Most of the merchandise has already been sold off at steep discounts.

The reason for the store's closing surrounds the death of its owner, Larry Hayes, who died in November, at age 48, of congestive heart failure. Hayes's widow tried to land a local buyer who would keep the bait shop in the neighborhood--which would continue to supply the local customers her husband had served so well--but it was no use. In the end, the business was bought by a guide service operator who plans to move it to the western suburb of Shoreview. The building was sold separately.

Hayes, who began working at Tackle Plus when he was 16, bought the store in 1994 after a fatal holdup. The robbery took place on July 23 of that year, recalls current employee Gene Hutchinson--who is 54, and has a shiny bald head and salt-and-pepper moustache. The night before, he'd worked the counter, ringing up minnows, night crawlers, and bobbers, just like always. Nothing unusual.

"Before I left," Hutchinson recalls, "I started to ask Vance Johnson--the owner at the time--whether he wanted me to work the next morning. Then I thought, 'Nah. I'm going to go fishing.'" As anyone who has been bitten by the bug knows, blowing off work to fish is a constant temptation, especially during the summer. So it's likely that Hutchinson, a hard-core lake angler, had made similar decisions before. But he never had more reason to be thankful for his indolence.

Early next morning, shortly after opening the shop, Vance Johnson was shot and killed. He was working alone at the time and the crime was never solved. But Hutchinson says "word on the street" pointed to a guy who ended up getting killed just a few years ago in Chicago. Could be true, Hutchinson shrugs. Who knows?

After Johnson's murder, the fate of the shop--then known as Minnesota Tackle Plus--was uncertain. That's when Hayes stepped up. With a loan guarantee from the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, he scraped together enough money to purchase the ramshackle, one-story brick building and its contents. He renamed the place Hayes Tackle Plus and hung out a new sign. Life went on pretty much as before.

For the urban angler of Minneapolis, this was a happy outcome. The city has never boasted enough bait shops. Over the years, they have opened and closed in various parts of town. Beyond Tackle Plus, there is only one other live bait shop within city limits; it's located in a Mobil gas station in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood on the north side.

That is scant solace for south siders--especially those without cars. From Hayes, you could grab a westbound bus on Lake Street, take a short ride, and be chasing panfish and largemouth bass at Lake Calhoun. A slightly longer ride on the eastbound bus, and you could be chasing channel cats and smallies on the Mississippi.

As news of Larry Hayes's death and the impending store closing has spread through the city's angling community, Hutchinson reports, the response has been uniformly mournful: "I wish you weren't leaving," said one guy. "I ain't got no place to buy my bait."

 
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