For about two years, recreational anglers wanting to bait a hook with a wiggly worm, chirping cricket or slippery minnow couldn't buy their bait on Sixth Avenue Northeast in Decatur near the Tennessee River.
That changed beginning this spring.
The owners of three convenience stores a few hundred yards from the river along the busy U.S. 31 corridor took a gamble and added live bait to their store shelves. They say it’s been a profitable venture, and it filled a void created about 2½ years ago when Decatur’s largest bait shop on Sixth Avenue, Townson’s, closed.
“We had customers keep asking if we had bait, so we gave it a shot,” said Kenny Patel, owner of River Bridge Chevron. “We started selling worms and nightcrawlers in May. We’ll sell the bait until October and see how it goes.”
So far, so good, Patel said. He said the bait generates other business. “The fishermen will come in here asking for bait, and they pick up a bag of ice, drinks and snacks while they’re here. Sometimes they’ll come back later in the day buying more bait and snacks. They’ve got to have something to eat and drink while they’re out there on the river five or six hours.”
Across Sixth Avenue, Naren Patel, owner of the Texaco Express, added live bait including crickets and some fishing tackle to his store’s inventory in April.
“I might sell about $70 a week in bait and some tackle, too, but those customers are in here buying Gatorade, juice, water, snacks to take on the river with them,” he said. “I’m not sure if I will sell bait all year. Sometimes weather is good in January, and we might have some business. We’ll have to see.”
Adjacent to the Texaco, River Bridge Shell doesn’t advertise bait and tackle, but it has a small selection of worms, nightcrawlers and fishing gear.
Cashier Precious Chenimo said she was surprised at the number of families who stop by for bait. “Fridays through Sundays we get quite a bit of families looking for worms. That’s our No. 1 seller,” Chenimo said. “I have had some people buy worms for their gardens.”
A Cullman County couple, Emily and Jonathan Ray, said they were puzzled last year when they couldn’t find a bait shop in Decatur near the river. They saw large selections of fishing gear and some live bait at Academy Sports and Outdoors and Walmart, both several miles away.
Devoted anglers, the Rays decided to open their own bait and tackle shop, albeit not along the busy Sixth Avenue.
The Rays opened Momma’s Bait Shak at Jay Landings Marina & RV Park along Alabama 20.
“We always have had a desire to do something in the fishing industry,” Emily Ray said. “We had a houseboat here in Decatur, and we noticed in August of 2018 that Decatur didn’t have a bait shop. It’s called the River City, but we couldn’t find a bait shop. It made no sense.”
She said they opened in April and realized it takes plenty of cash to keep the live bait inventory fresh. The biggest sellers? Crickets, minnows, worms and skipjack, she said.
“It takes a lot of money to stock it and to keep it stocked,” she said. “Minnows are popular, but you can lose a lot money on them because they die. And we don’t sell them dead. About 70% of our business is live bait.”
Jonathan Ray, a retired Army veteran, said he plans to offer some fishing guides in the slower, colder months.
“We’re hoping to fill a void and be here a long time and even open another bait shop,” he said. “We’re not going get rich doing this, but we’re passionate about it. As long as we have fresh bait for our customers, we’ll be fine.”
The Rays added most of their customers fish for catfish and crappie. They said bass fishermen tend to use their own artificial bait.
Local anglers welcome the stores selling bait along Sixth Avenue and the river.
Randall Maples, of Decatur, said he was glad to find bait again on Sixth Avenue. He said he usually fishes with worms from the bank of the river and frequents Swan Creek in Limestone County.