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Thursday, 10 July 2014 00:00

Iconic bait shop is a real keeper

Written by  Lisa M. Schmelz
Brian Gates and his wife, Nancy, have run Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle for decades near Williams Bay. The landmark offers fishing gear, guide service, taxidermy, local lore and more. Brian Gates and his wife, Nancy, have run Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle for decades near Williams Bay. The landmark offers fishing gear, guide service, taxidermy, local lore and more. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- 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.

Then, like an epic fish-that-got-away tale, Gates managed to break free from the line, or in this case, the tubing connected to his oxygen tank. 

“She did a lot then,” he says, scooping a few netfuls of minnows. “Now, it’s my turn, I guess.”

The minnow transaction complete, Brian Gates settles into a metal chair behind the counter. Asked to explain the sea of fishing merchandise surrounding him to a novice, he is happy to inform. 

“This is all tackle and accessories,” he says.

And the difference between the two?

“Tackle is something you actually use to catch a fish,” he replies, “and accessories is stuff you wish you had after you caught it.”

What does Brian Gates, a guide’s guide, use?

“I put some hooks and split shots in my pocket and that’s my whole tackle box 99 percent of the time,” he says. “It doesn’t get much simpler than that.”

That his own technique should be so basic is a whale-size irony. Numerous fishing publications proclaim Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle to be the ultimate angler’s treasure chest.

“Believe it or not,” Brian says, cracking open a can of Diet Squirt, “I’ve got more terminal tackle than the chains. Hooks, sinkers, lures, ice jigs -- I’ve got them all. I’ve got more ice jigs than anybody in the world.”

How his claims could be verified is uncertain, but think of it this way: If fishing tackle and accessories were people, Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle’s is roughly the size of New York City.

The bait lady

Nancy met Brian on a blind date in Williams Bay. Over a sheepshead card game, she learned he’d been married before and had a son. Six months later, in 1973, they were married and the woman who describes herself then as “painfully shy” says marriage, motherhood and the bait shop began opening up her world.

She acknowledges that neither she nor her approach to customer service have ever been typical.

Wired to call things like she sees them, she won’t hesitate to move a customer at the back of the line to the front if she finds him or her to be a good example of citizenship for the rest of us. Such moments are always accompanied by an explanation of why the lucky soul now at the front is someone worth emulating. To those who find her behavior unusual, Nancy offers this bit of history:

“Forty-one years ago, I didn’t talk,” she said. “They thought I was mad, but I was just shy. Some people that come into the shop, they say I’m like the people on ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ I’m serious. I don’t watch it, but I heard it was about a bunch of people who couldn’t get along with others and had poor social skills.”

Though she may appear cantankerous and laser-focused to some customers, Nancy loves everything about Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle. She has no use for fishing herself, and her last catch was in the ’80s. For her, it’s about the people. 

“The customers, they become your friends,” she said. “They make it worthwhile.” 

Some of those very customers are paying her visits at Willowfield as she tries -- literally -- to get back on her feet. All who have tried to soften the blow of her car accident by likening it to a vacation, telling her it’s her turn to relax and Brian’s turn to do it all like she did for him, are quickly told otherwise.

“I miss working,” she says firmly. “Wouldn’t you? I miss doing all that because no day is the same. It’s very boring here.

“It was hard when he almost died. But I don’t want any turns. I don’t want time off. I just want to get stuff done.”

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Lisa Schmelz


    How wonderful for you to share your role in bait history here. If only I had known before I filed this story, I would have interviewed you, too. Take care.

  • Guest - Susan Swenson

    My ex-husband and I set up the blind date for Brian and Nancy. Hope Nancy is back on her feet soon.

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