‘Things end; I’m at peace, but it’s hard’: Indy’s oldest bait shop to close after 67 years

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‘Things end; I’m at peace, but it’s hard’: Indy’s oldest bait shop to close after 67 years

Surrounded on three sides by large reservoirs and bisected by a major river, Indianapolis has a lot of places to fish, meaning lots of places to buy fishing supplies. Twenty years ago the city had a dozen bait shops.

It now has three, and soon it will have just two: the venerable Westside Bait & Tackle at 1507 W. Vermont St., an institution dating back to before the Eisenhower administration, is closing.

“Things come to an end; I’m at peace,” said proprietor Jim Donlan, son of the store founder, sensibly. But in the next breath, Donlan’s sensibility gives way to sentimentality: “I feel like I’m quitting my customers, it’s really hard.”

A bait shop is more than a place of business where you put down your money for nightcrawlers. Or catalpa worms, or mealworms, or chubb minnows…or butterworms, or beemoths (which are the same as waxworms), etc.

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It’s a social place, a clubhouse. Fishermen stand around in bait shops and go on and on about jigging spoons and Junebug spinners and about how one time the fish were hitting this bait and one time that bait, and so on, while not boring each other but instead holding each other in rapt attention.

John Stingley, at Westside Bait & Tackle, last week: “Your carp fight lasts a while — they just put their heads down and run. But the initial surge of the bass is better.”

Mike (declining to give last name): “Uh huh, but those Asian carp, we don’t want those. They’re invasive. They’re all over Kentucky, and they could take over.”

John T. “Tom” Donlan started Westside Bait & Tackle in 1951. He and his wife had six children and his firefighter salary needed supplementing. Plus he knew fishing. His son followed in his footsteps: Jim Donlan also is a full-time firefighter. He runs the bait shop in his free time.

Westside Bait is located on edge of Stringtown, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Throughout their seven decades in the neighborhood, the Donlans gave back. They hired local kids and allowed people to buy fishing tackle in installments.

Tom Donlan was an early backer of Lucious Newsom, the former Baptist minister revered for organizing food giveaways and paying the heating bills of people in desperate straits. Newsom’s first food pantry operated out of Westside Bait.

Tom Donlan died in 2003 at age 77, Newsom in 2008 at 93.

Many Westside Bait customers fished the White River not just for fun but also for food, and some still do. Stingley, 71, started coming into the shop when he was 10. He today practices catch-and-release, but as a kid Stingley brought his catch home for dinner — “and so did everyone,” he said, even though the fish were contaminated with high levels of PCB.

“Carp, catfish, bass, all the species,” Stingley said, “We ate them, and I never knew anyone who got sick. Everybody ate the fish. Back then even if it was polluted, we didn’t know.”

Donlan said Westside Bait is on sound footing financially, debt-free and coming off a good sales year, though he agreed a person can’t get rich selling bait.

Selling real estate, however, can be lucrative. Westside Bait may be on the edge of Stringtown, but it’s also on the banks of a wide and picturesque stretch of the White River, and its has great views of the river and Downtown skyline. The property for the first time has caught the eye of developers.

A few blocks upriver, a spiffy new apartment building called the Annex on Tenth houses IUPUI students. A 200-plus unit apartment building is under construction directly across the street from the bait shop. Donlan has fielded calls lately from developers wanting to put a high rise apartment building on Westside Bait’s lot, which is less than two acres.

When Westside Bait closes — Donlan is shooting for Dec. 31 — the city’s oldest bait shop will be the Bait Barn, 3241 N. Arlington Ave. The other bait shop still standing is Adams Outdoors in Beech Grove, which opened in July.

Bait Barn was founded in 1997 by Ed McCullough and is now under the management of his son, Dave McCullough. Like the Donlans of Westside Bait, the Bait Barn McCulloughs always considered bait sales as moonlighting. McCullough’s main job is diesel mechanic.

McCullough said that running a bait shop today is less lucrative than it has ever been because big chain stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and Gander Mountain have come to dominate the tackle business. Fishing tackle, the rods and reels that are expensive and have decent profit margins, are generally sold for less at big chain stores because chains can buy the goods from the manufacturer in bulk for less.

Selling crawlers and minnows, McCullough said, feels more a hobby than a business. “There’s not much revenue,” he said. But there is brotherhood: Bait Barn has a bench and even a rocking chair, where fishermen sit and talk at considerable length. “I’ve had guys that have stayed in here so long talking about fishing they missed the daylight,” McCullough said.

McCullough, 46, said he has no plans to close his store.

Jim Donlan, 53, has had enough of Westside Bait. “I’ve lost my passion some,” he said. He has had enough of firefighting, too, and plans to retire from the department next year.

And after that?

“I’ll just fish,” Donlan said.

Contact Star reporter Will Higgins at 317-444-6043. Follow him on Twitter @WillRHiggins.

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I'm a writer who focuses on the outdoors and travel. I share my time between Alaska and Colorado, where, when I'm not writing, I enjoy camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and skiing (often with dogs in tow). My byline may also be seen in publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and others.


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