Spend­ing time in shop class

Visit to pop­u­lar bridge­port bait store con­firms in­ter­est in fish­ing is boom­ing dur­ing pan­demic

Chicago Sun-Times - - OUTDOORS - DALE BOWMAN dbow­man@sun­times.com @Bow­manout­side

Ared Take-A-Num­ber Sys­tem ticket dis­penser awaits cus­tomers just inside the door to Henry’s Sports and Bait. As they en­ter, cus­tomers pull down a pa­per tab as if buy­ing fat­head min­nows and fish­ing tackle were the same as pick­ing up potato salad and sliced salami at the gro­cery deli counter.

For many rea­sons, fish­ing has taken off dur­ing the pan­demic, es­pe­cially in Chicago, as wit­nessed by Henry’s, one of the most classic ur­ban bait and tackle shops in the coun­try.

One of the pro­pri­etors, Tom Palmisano, has been chron­i­cling the change for months now.

“I’m sell­ing fish­ing li­censes to peo­ple who aren’t even in the sys­tem,” he said. “They are buy­ing rods and reels and hold­ing them up­side down.”

The num­bers are stag­ger­ing across the coun­try, and it holds true in Illi­nois, too.

“From March 1 to June 24 [when we last ran the num­bers], sales of fish­ing li­censes are up more than 64,400 com­pared with the same time frame last year,” emailed Rachel Tor­bert, a deputy direc­tor for the Illi­nois De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources.

I was barely inside Henry’s on Sun­day morn­ing when the first cus­tomers need­ing li­censes came in.

Ja­son Con­away and Meilan Chen were look­ing for ba­sics be­cause they were go­ing along with a friend of Chen’s to fish. “Why not?” Con­away ex­plained. “It is a nice day.”

They were both get­ting fish­ing li­censes and rods, un­der the guid­ance of coun­ter­man Ernest Black­man. (Black­man owns a piece of fish­ing his­tory. He was one of the of­fi­cial wit­nesses to the weigh­ing of Joe Capilupo’s Illi­nois-record small­mouth bass last fall at Henry’s. Tom’s brother Steve was the other wit­ness.)

Con­away had not been fish­ing since he was lit­tle and never had bought a li­cense be­fore.

“When I was lit­tle, there was some­thing you pushed in,” said Con­away, 47, demon­strat­ing with his thumb.

That’s a spin­cast reel, typ­i­cally a Ze­bco 202. Their fish­ing friend showed up af­ter a while and of­fered bait and tackle ad­vice. “Hope­fully, we catch a fish,” Con­away said. I mar­veled at the full­ness of Henry’s tackle dis­plays, whereas some shops look as if a vac­uum cleaner sucked the shelves empty. Tackle, gear and sup­ply lines in the tackle in­dus­try have been hard hit or shut down, par­tic­u­larly for prod­ucts com­ing from China.

More than 60 years of a fam­ily busi­ness helps. Steve Palmisano is a vet­eran buyer for the shop. As the pan­demic set­tled in, he started buy­ing and or­der­ing heav­ily. So they have fish­ing stuff that many places do not.

Henry’s be­gan as a rental in 1951 in Chi­na­town at what was 25th and Wentworth, now the Dan Ryan. From 1959 to ’68, they rented an old con­ces­sion stand, left over from the World’s Fair in 1933-34, at 2222 Sil­ver­ton Way, then a one-block street con­nect­ing King Drive and Cer­mak Road. From 1968 to ’78, they were at the north­east cor­ner of 31st and Canal, now a strip mall. From 1978 to the present, they’ve owned a spe­cially de­signed build­ing a cou­ple hun­dred yards south at 3130 South Canal.

“This place was built for this kind of busi­ness,” Tom Palmisano said.

As I had walked into Henry’s, Eric McK­in­ney pulled block ice from the ma­chine out­side. He was head­ing to Shab­bona Lake, a drive west of 1½ hours, for “What­ever I can get.”

“First time this year, but we try to go as of­ten as pos­si­ble,’’ he said.

There’s an­other rea­son for the rise of fish­ing: Peo­ple want­ing to get out.

Or, as An­drew Vance as­tutely ob­served about the prob­lems in the streets while he waited in line, “This takes me away from ev­ery­thing. It’s a beau­ti­ful hobby.”

In the cou­ple hours I was there, the line kept re­form­ing and Black­man and fel­low coun­ter­men Tom Mat­ual and Brian Caunter kept mov­ing to the next num­ber.

Mar­cus Givens was get­ting braid and monofil­a­ment line re­spooled on his reels. He planned to fish cat­fish (and buf­falo and carp) at Vet­eran’s Me­mo­rial Park.

Caunter scooped large fat­head min­nows for David Strasser, who was head­ing to fish large­mouth bass at Maple Lake.

One thing struck me. Ev­ery­one who en­tered the shop wore a face mask (most cor­rectly), and in gen­eral so­cial dis­tanc­ing was prac­ticed. Peo­ple weren’t act­ing stupid, they took the pan­demic seriously.

“I re­ally don’t know what is driv­ing the peo­ple [to fish],” Tom Palmisano said.

There is a new rhythm to the bait shop. Fri­day night is busy as peo­ple stock up, so is Satur­day. Sun­day packs it in dur­ing the mid­dle of the day.

“Mon­days, the re­tirees are in, time for them to go,” he said.

Some things stay the same.

For more on Henry’s, go to hen­ryssports.

com. ✶


Peo­ple took num­bers and a line ebbed and flowed at Henry’s Sports and Bait on Sun­day morn­ing, a sign of the vastly in­creased in­ter­est in fish­ing. From 1959 to 1968, Henry’s Sports and Bait was in busi­ness at 2222 Sil­ver­ton Way, near where the Hil­ton Mc­Cormick Place is lo­cated now.


LEFT: Ernest Black­man (right) shows Ja­son Con­away, who never had a fish­ing li­cense be­fore, how to set up a float. RIGHT: Brian Caunter (left) scoops large fat­heads out for David Strasser dur­ing the rush Sun­day morn­ing at Henry’s Sports and Bait.

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