Article and photos by John Lawrence
If you are a fish and got caught in the waters around Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in the past half century, you can probably blame Clearwater Bait & Tackle.
The weathered building on Gulf to Bay with the life-sized Elvis statue out front has been selling live crab, pinfish, shrimp and other fishing accoutrements for more than 50 years – long before the Bayside Bridge connected the McMullen family’s little peninsula on Tampa Bay with lower Pinellas County. Its location didn’t hurt business; the shop sits on the small hill just above the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
The local institution is now up for sale, though its present owner, John Spence, found unexpected joy from owning it. The former car dealer bought the half-acre property and bait shop in 1997 with plans to open a truck dealership there. The bait shop’s former owner had passed away, leaving the shop buttoned up and closed.
“I never went fishing in my life,” Spence said during a recent interview in his home. “I was going to specialize in diesel trucks from that property, and the Motor Vehicle Department said okay, the Clearwater Planning Department said okay. I paid $250,000 for the lot, bet all my money, and the Planning Department suddenly said, ‘Mr. Spence, we’re so sorry, we changed the zoning. You can’t sell trucks there.’”
Spence, an Elvis fan with a vast collection of The King’s memorabilia, lives by the singer’s “TCB” motto, aka “Taking Care of Business.”
“I was sitting there with a piece of property worth a quarter million dollars I just bought and no desire to own a bait shop,” Spence said with a laugh. “A friend of mine from Ohio was in charge of marketing for A&P Groceries. He said he’d help me with the grocery part of the bait shop. Another friend who had grown up in Clearwater said he could get me all the pinfish and baitfish I needed. He helped me stock it and open it back up as a bait shop. I had no choice.”
The 72-year-old, who moved to Florida from Milwaukee in 1978, transitioned bait into a good business.
“Thank you, God, it turned out to be the most successful bait shop in Clearwater, versus the car business, which has become a lot tougher in the last 20 years,” Spence said. “I had a great time owning the bait shop, I met great people. The land more than tripled in value, and it was almost by accident. Funny how things happen.”
The secret: The shop is in a great location and is a stop off for those heading to the Gulf to fish.
“We are the only bait shop in this part of the county,” Spence said. “We get all the people who come by us to buy their bait on the way to Clearwater Marina and the charter boats. The people who fish along the causeway, from Tampa all the way to us, they all come to us for their bait.”
A row of live bait tanks, overseen by bait room manager Mark Bailey and assistant Kenneth Algee sits under a low roof next to the store. They contain several sizes of live shrimp, tiny crabs, pinfish and grunts. Customers begin arriving at 6 a.m. every day to pick up their ammunition.
“We sell more than 50,000 shrimp in a weekend,” Spence said. “I always tell our customers, if we don’t have shrimp, nobody does.”
Bailey also buys the frozen bait in the shop’s freezers. “We are a bait shop. We make sure we have the best live and frozen bait every morning for our customers,” he said, adding, “We also sell poles, lures and all kinds of tackle in the shop.”
“I can’t wait to go to work every morning and that’s a great feeling,” said Algee as he sold bait to customer Kyle Andrew.
“I love fishing so much that I have this tattoo,” he said as he showed off the ink on his arm.
Clearwater Bait & Tackle’s success is also linked to a Florida backcountry tradition: smoked mullet. Clearwater’s earliest residents, including the Seminoles and other Indian tribes, caught the silver fish with nets and smoked them for storage. Spence’s bait store sells smoked mullet all week long. The closest smoked mullet competitor is a 55-year old shop in St. Pete, owned by Ted Peters. Spence had nice things to say about Peters.
“He’s one of the best in the state of Florida; he’s very, very good,” Spence said in salute to Peters. “We have people who come to us from Pasadena to buy our mullet. There are also people who will only buy from him.”
Spence gets his mullet from a man in Hudson and smokes it himself in the back of the store. The other item Spence sells is live blue crab, which people snag up every Wednesday and Saturday. Customers steam them and eat them from the shell or make crab cakes and other recipes.
“We have a list of people that are waiting for them,” Spence said. “We call the customers when they arrive in 80-pound crates; we put them in coolers at 52 degrees. Customers pick them up and the crabs are all gone by noon.”
There is something mystical about bait shops in the hours before sunrise. Their worn floors and ancient coolers filled with bait bespeak tradition and history — a father taking his young son fishing for the first time, just as his father before him. It presages a morning or night on the water, the unknown. It’s where one goes for guidance on local waters, on which bait to use, and to hear fishing stories.
In these modern times, people still like bait shops for the reasons they liked them in past years, and Clearwater Bait & Tackle gets good critiques on the Internet.
Mike M. posted: “It’s a great place for live bait. Went in yesterday morning and they were very helpful! Got my fishing license taken care of and four dozen live shrimp. Great start to a day of fishing! Definitely returning!”
Curtis W. likes its atmosphere: “It’s a smaller ‘homey’ type atmosphere that has just about everything you will need for relaxing or traveling … fishing … and seafood department. This is where I purchase blue crabs. Excellent.”
The good news is this long-time landmark will continue to be a bait shop after Spence sells it. Spence, who also collects vintage diecast automobiles from the Danbury and Franklin mints as well as life-sized classic cars, said he already has a bait shop property buyer under contract. The new owner will keep the bait shop open and plans to pave the parking lot, improve the store’s interior and serve wine and beer at outside tables, Spence said.
“It’s a great way to make money,” he said with a smile.
John Lawrence is a free-lance writer who has covered Florida events for decades. He enjoys covering the people and places of Clearwater. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.