WILLMAR, Minn. — For anglers driving to their favorite waters, the Highway 71 Bait and Sports shop north of Willmar is every bit a must-stop destination as Betty’s Pies on Highway 61 on the North Shore is for tourists.
The cuisine might be limited to snacks in plastic bags, but in all other respects the ’71 Bait Shop has everything needed to lure in anglers: Friendly service, sage advice on where the fish are biting, all varieties of live bait, and all the fishing lures and gear as desired, not to mention archery supplies.
The shop has been a Highway 71 landmark since sometime around 1960, and will continue to be so. Friends Jason Schmoll and Jayson Estum began filling anglers’ buckets with generous scoops of minnows at the start of the year as its new owners.
They purchased the business from Brad Foshaug, who kept the tradition here since 2001. Before him, Ron and Mary Shimek owned and operated the popular bait shop for 36 years. Foshaug had been trolling for a new owner for a couple of years. Schmoll said Foshaug told him one day: “‘Why don’t you buy a bait shop?’ OK, I said.”
He brought the idea to Estum and two other fishing buddies. After hashing it over one night, the four agreed to meet the next day at noon to pursue the idea. The world of fishing now belongs to the two who showed up.
They were fortunate, too. The two are able to lease the bait shop building from a new owner of the property along Eagle Lake. Being able to lease the facility and not buy the property has reduced the cost of admission to the business world for the partners.
It takes the right attitude to take on the risk of owning a small business, and a bait shop at that, in these times. These guys have it. “Worse case scenario, a guy ends up with one heckuva tackle box,” said Estum, laughing.
A native of the Slayton area, Estum, 25, didn’t catch the fishing bug until he was a student at Ridgewater College. He was renting a seasonal place on Green Lake. Tired of a diet of Ramen noodles, he cast a line from shore for some finned protein.
Schmoll, 34, originally of Eden Valley, grew up with a fishing pole in his hands, thanks to an outdoorsy upbringing. But like Estum, his passion really developed when he was attending Ridgewater College and discovered the lakes in the Willmar area.
They know this now: They are not alone in their passion for fishing this area.
“Willmar is the new ‘Up North’ for people down south,” said Schmoll. Since taking over the business, he and Estum have served a steady stream of customers coming from points all over, but especially the area south of Willmar. Even on those bitter cold winter days, there were anglers coming from as far as Sioux Falls, S.D. and northern Iowa.
They intend to keep reeling them in by a simple strategy: Making sure everyone walks out with a smile, thanks to a good deal. The partners said they know the competition is the phone in everyone’s pocket. They have to match or beat the prices offered on the internet and by big box vendors.
They’re ready to go the extra mile too. Last winter, they had customers coming from all over by virtue of being one of the few shops with a supply of shiner minnows. Schmoll made extra trips to suppliers to make sure of it.
They’re now in the process of gearing up for the open water season. Their starting point for the business is to continue offering all of the fishing and archery supplies for which the shop is known.
They’re also looking to add more diversity in services and goods. They have added electric trolling motors to the inventory, and they will do small engine repairs and maintenance. “We’re not afraid to work and we both love taking something apart and tinkering with it,” said Schmoll.
Down the road, they’re toying with ideas including offering boat and fish house rentals, guide service, and possibly off-sale selections.
“Kind of hit the ground and keep running,” said Schmoll of their startup strategy. The doors will be open 24 hours a day for the fishing opener weekend. They’re also planning to host a grand opening celebration, at a date yet to be announced.