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Tackling bait business

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CREEPY CRAWLIES: Chad Phillips, owner of Riverside Sporting Goods, 1811 N. Washington St., restocks the bait cricket tank on Thursday.
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STILL SWIMMING: Riverside Sporting Goods, 1811 N. Washington St., is the only store in Marion that still sells live bait, aside from gas station convenience stores.

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

Chad Phillips is still full steam ahead in a business that seems to be drifting by the wayside: the live bait and tackle shop.

“There’s not near as many bait and tackle shops as there used to be,” Phillips said.

He’s owned Riverside Sporting Goods for 12 years, and in that time he’s watched the two other locally-owned bait stores in Marion close up shop.

And although big-box sporting goods stores like Dunham’s and WalMart, which also sells fishing gear, have made it difficult to stay afloat, bigger chains usually don’t sell live bait, and they don’t offer the same level of personal attention and fishing tips that Phillips says he can.

“People ask me all the time when they come in, ‘Where are the fish biting and what are they biting on?,’” Phillips said.

Although Riverside might not be able to compete with the hours of operation of a chain, Phillips said his prices are comparable to bigger stores and he is able to special order items for customers if they’re looking for something unique.

Phillips also stocks bait that you can’t get at a gas station convenience store, either. A wood and glass cage in the back of the shop houses live crickets, and he also stocks leeches, minnows, beemoths, crawfish, wrigglers and several varieties of nightcrawler.

Phillips buys all of his bait from a bait wholesaler. Once it arrives, however, it’s his job to keep the bait alive and ready to be purchased.

Different kinds of bait require different living conditions. Regular worms like nightcrawlers are kept in a fridge at around 45 degrees. “You don’t want them to get to freezing, but the cooler you can keep them the longer they last,” Phillips said.

Beemoths, also called waxworms, are small grublike worms that prefer to be kept at 65 degrees.

Minnows are tough to keep because they are very sensitive to temperature and water quality changes and die easily. Phillips keeps his minnows in fresh well water with an aerator pump constantly infusing the water with oxygen.

The type of bait used also depends on the fishing season. Right now, crickets are popular because a lot of bluegill have been spawning lately in the reservoirs. In the wintertime Riverside still carries minnows and beemoths, but also two other types of grubs for the ice fishing season: spikes and mousies.

Live bait isn’t just for fishing, though. Phillips said people buy his worms and crickets to feed their pets, from birds to red-bearded dragons.

But the seasons – and the weather – have a big impact on business. This year there was a minnow shortage because the winter in Wisconsin, where his wholesaler usually gets his minnows, was especially long and frigid.

Riverside’s sales change with the seasons as hunting and fishing seasons come and go.

During the spring and summer, gun sales are typically down, but fishing equipment and bait is popular. Then, during the fall, gun sales pick up. And during the winter, propane sales and U-Haul rentals help to carry the business through the year.

This diversity of products has helped the business stay sustainable.

“Every little bit adds up in a small business,” Phillips said.

Phillips thinks fishing will remain popular as a sport for the foreseeable future. He’s already seen a surprising number of young people and kids coming in the door recently. “People who do it when they’re kids always remember that,” he said.

He also pointed to the accessibility and universality of the sport.

“For the most part, wherever you live, if there’s a body of water, you can go fishing,” Phillips said. And Marion is within a 20 minute drive of several public bodies of water, like the Mississinewa and Salamonie Reservoirs, which are popular fishing spots.

It’s not particularly expensive to go fishing, either, which means people can keep up the hobby through financial ups and downs.

Unfortunately, owning a small business means long work hours and a six day work week, and Phillips can’t get out on the water himself as often as he’d like. “I get to hear a lot of stories about fishing, I just don’t get to go myself,” Phillips said.

“It’s not been an easy road, that’s for sure, but a lot of friends helping out (has made it possible),” Phillips said, reflecting on what’s kept him in business as other locally-owned businesses have faltered.

Riverside Sporting Goods is located at 1811 N. Washington St., Marion.