Comfort Food for an Angler’s Soul

Step into a rural Arkansas bait shop and go back to a simpler time

By Trey Reid   Photos By Novo Studio

 

Reflection comes naturally at the end of a fishing trip. When the fishing poles have been stowed and the boat has been slipped back onto the trailer, the mind mints memories, stamping an impression on a collection of perceptions and organizing them into retrievable mental currency for future use. A snapshot of a radiant sunrise reflected on a glassy lake melds with the image of an unruly largemouth bass thrashing the water at the base of a big bald cypress.

Standing in the aisles of a small Arkansas bait shop, this phenomenon strikes with extreme force. Surrounded by pegboard walls where packages of crappie jigs and fish hooks share space with old photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings, memories surge like floodwaters.

Walking through the door of a rural Arkansas bait shop is like stepping through a portal to the past. Simple objects like sardine tins and Styrofoam minnow buckets conjure vivid memories. There’s a simple authenticity that reminds us of the way things used to be.

While technology and development no doubt have enhanced modern life in myriad ways, they’ve also come with costs. A fishing report is as close as an app on our smartphones, and giant retailers like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s contain thorough inventories that offer just about anything an angler could want or need. But there’s something the megastores can’t provide. Bait shops have it, and it isn’t even for sale.

“It’s history,” says Janet Kelm, associate manager at Harris Brake Lakeside Resort, which sports a small bait shop on the banks of 1,300-acre Harris Brake Lake near Perryville. “You meet people from all walks of life. Rich, poor, it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same. They’re all looking for good conversation, and they all want to know exactly where the fish are. You get to hear stories from every walk of life. You hear about the biggest catch, the smallest catch, the greatest lies ever told…I don’t think you’ll find that at Bass Pro Shops.”

Something else you won’t find is the scene that unfolds many Friday nights on the wooden dock that wraps around the Harris Brake bait shop. Throughout much of the year, as long as the weather cooperates, locals gather on the dock for burgers, hot dogs, jam sessions and karaoke. You’re likely to hear resort manager Karen Patterson perform her rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Another standby is the original tune “Hillbilly Heaven” by Marty Simmons, the resort’s maintenance man and resident guitar picker.

Derrell Lipscomb bought Coffee Creek Landing, now called Harris Brake Lakeside Resort, four-and-a-half years ago. An engineer in his previous career, Lipscomb’s job fell victim to the recession several years ago, so he left his native Texas in search of a change. He and his wife Allison sold their house, bought a recreational vehicle, and traveled across the country.

“We started looking at RV parks with an interest in buying one,” Lipscomb says. “We looked from California to Florida, and we found this one.”

Although RV and cabin rentals comprise the bulk of Lipscomb’s bottom line, he says the bait shop represents “a small part” of the business, “but it’s an important part.” The Lipscombs live in England (the country, not the city in Lonoke County) most of the year but returns to Perry County throughout the year to check in on the business. Just before Christmas last year, Lipscomb was preparing to fly home to England at the end of a visit that was scheduled for two weeks but ended up being three months.

“We’re not just building a business here,” Lipscomb says. “We’re trying to build an atmosphere, a sense of community.”

Like many small bait shops across The Natural State, the one at Harris Brake offers its customers a little bit of everything. Beneath an extensive collection of 4x6 prints of anglers with big fish, you’ll find racks of cookies, cakes and candy bars, Vienna sausages, sardines and crackers. Across the room, a couple of taxidermy mounts of big crappie guard a glass-top chest freezer full of ice cream and frozen pizzas and burritos. Handmade signs advertise crickets are selling for $1.95 a half-tube and $3.60 a tube; the current rate for shiners is $2.45 a dozen for small minnows and $3.75 for large. But the section of inventory that screams “small town bait shop” is the freestanding half-wall in the middle of the shop. Here, you’ll find prepared catfish bait, landing nets, sunglasses and fish baskets right alongside items such as fabric softener, laundry detergent, toilet paper and paper towels.

A classic scene in a small-town bait shop: Minnow buckets and other fishing supplies share space with other necessities, such as on-the-water snacks.

A classic scene in a small-town bait shop: Minnow buckets and other fishing supplies share space with other necessities, such as on-the-water snacks.

Like many small bait shops, however, it’s the things that aren’t for sale that make the Harris Brake bait shop unique. Patterson, the resort manager, has been a regular visitor to Harris Brake Lake since the early 1970s. Her parents lived in Little Rock and built a getaway cabin on the lake when she was in junior high school. The day Patterson graduated from McClellan High School in 1975, her parents put their Little Rock home on the market and moved to the lakeside cabin. Several months ago, she took on the job as manager of Harris Brake Lakeside Resort.

“People just like to come tell us about the way things used to be,” she says. “There are always fish stories. It reminds me a lot of the old downtown cafes, the old country stores where all the old men sat and drank coffee and told stories.”

Many of the stories revolve around fish, and not a single employee at the Harris Brake bait shop will miss an opportunity to tell a visitor about the potential state record crappie that’s alleged to be swimming in Harris Brake Lake.

“You know, Game and Fish does surveys of the fish,” Lipscomb says, “and I’ve heard there’s a state record crappie in this lake.”

 

“It’s a great place to fish where they all jump in the boat,

and the ducks all laugh like you told ‘em a joke.”

                                                            - Marty Simmons

 

Simmons, the maintenance man and guitar picker, tells his version of the story while pointing out a prominently placed photograph of an angler with a 4-pound, 2-ounce crappie that measured 21 ½ inches—not a record, but still an incredible fish.

“You gotta love the legends,” Kelm says. “Without them, none of this would exist.”

At Lake Atkins in southeastern Pope County, Sharon Vinson runs the venerable Lucky Landing bait shop. It’s a small, boxy, concrete-block structure that sits near the point of a peninsula jutting into Lake Atkins, a 750-acre Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake with a growing reputation for producing giant largemouth bass as well as good stringers of crappie, bream and catfish.

Inside the bait shop, which Vinson and her late husband purchased in 2007, the walls are alive with hundreds if not thousands of photographs of anglers and their fish. The only portions of the store’s vertical surfaces that aren’t covered by pictures are those that contain a sundry and surprisingly extensive collection of fishing tackle. Many photos show some of the numerous double-digit largemouth bass the lake has produced in recent years. Others are old Polaroids that date back decades. There’s also a collection featuring the chunky bluegills and redear sunfish that have been caught during the lake’s annual Memorial Day bream fishing tournament.

“It’s just something that we do,” Vinson says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a small child with a tiny fish. We’ll take a picture, have an extra print made for them, and then put the other one on the wall. It’s just fun.”

Each piece of paper with its inky pixels also serves as a lifeline to the past, a fragile representation of a moment in time that can never be duplicated.

“I’ve had great-grandparents come in with their grown children, and they’re usually on the wall somewhere,” Vinson says. “They love to show their kids and grandkids their pictures. It’s just awesome to see the generations that have come through this place. There’s a lot of tradition here.”

Another Lucky Landing tradition is the Bear Burger, a $5.95 double-meat cheeseburger that Vinson cooks on a well-seasoned grill behind the bait shop’s counter.

“They must be really good,” Vinson says without a trace of false modesty, “because we do sell a lot of ‘em.”

Vinson says a love of fishing and the fishing lifestyle are essential to running a small bait shop. Her customers are also her friends, and in addition to looking for a productive lure or a bag of spunky minnows, they’re also looking for conversation and a connection.

“I love being around fishermen,” Vinson says. “Our customers are regulars. There couldn’t be anything better. It’s real laid back and just has its own pace.”

Maybe it’s the deliberate pace of life in a small bait shop that provides the allure that keeps them relevant to contemporary anglers. Arkansas’ small town bait shops almost magically transport us to a happy place. Fishing brings happiness, contentment and peace, and bait shops are physical manifestations of the good feelings and memories.

“You don’t hardly ever see people in a bad mood,” says Kelm, the associate manager at the Harris Brake bait shop.

There’s a reason that many of the best fishing stories are about the one that got away. Their popularity likely lies in the representation of the unattainable, a moment in time and a fish that we’ll never grasp, as gone as the past itself. In much the same way, Arkansas’ old-school bait shops satisfy our nostalgia. Perusing the aisles, looking at the photos on the walls and listening to the stories, we connect to a long gone past in a way that’s comforting and reassuring.

William Faulkner famously suggested that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Visiting one of The Natural State’s small rural bait shops, it’s hard to argue against that claim.