By Stan Maddux
LAPORTE, Ind. – Worm farms and the bait shops they supply were being hit in the pocketbooks from no ice on lakes extending into late January as far north as Michigan and Wisconsin.
Business was brisk when fishermen were eager to hit the several inches of ice that formed during an arctic blast around Christmas.
Del Weaver, a wax worm farmer for 60 years in northeast Indiana, said he started getting a bit short on supply filling orders from bait shops until more spring-like weather melted the ice before the New Year.
There’s been open water ever since in areas with lakes usually frozen over by now.
That might start to change soon because of daily high temperatures forecast to be below freezing and night-time lows in the teens at the start of February.
Weaver said he was able to weather the financial storm from having bait shop customers nationwide in states like Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, where the lakes have remained frozen.
“You can tell it’s been low but we still got plenty of business,” he said.
Tony Childers, owner of Chief’s Bait Shop in northwest Indiana, said his sales compared to this time last winter are down 75 percent.
He’s also suffered financial loss from having to replace a lot of live bait that died waiting to be purchased. “It’s trying times for sure,” Childers said.
Eddie Hueston, at Pine Lake Bait and Taxidermy also in northwest Indiana, estimated his sales are down 90 percent from a typical winter.
Most of his customers need crickets and other forms of live bait to feed lizards and other reptiles they keep at home as pets.
“We’re just trying to stay afloat,” he said.
Childers said he nearly ran out of the live bait he had in stock when ice thick enough to cut holes into for wetting a line formed in late December.
Thinking early subzero weather would lead to a strong ice fishing season, he placed huge orders for red worms, night crawlers and minnows from suppliers in Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee and Canada.
However, the ice disappeared rapidly and much of his fresh supply perished since live bait lasts for only up to 30 days.
“I couldn’t get bait in fast enough, and as soon as I got it in business dropped and pretty much all of it died,” he said.
Eventually, he placed a second order and decided not to man his store to save on energy and labor costs. He had his customers call in advance and meet him at the door for their bait since he lives just a short distance away from his shop.
The bait leaving his store was mostly for diehard fishermen hoping to catch steelhead and salmon in Trail Creek and other streams even though it wasn’t time yet for those fish to migrate in from Lake Michigan.
Hueston said he was still manning his shop during regular business hours, but things were quite lonely. Beside a few customers with pet reptiles to feed, he sees mostly a handful of ice fishermen simply wanting to visit or express their frustrations.
“Last year at this time, we had ice. We were busy. We had customers in here every day. The guys were loving it,” Hueston said.
Christina Burns, of DMF Bait about 40 miles north of Detroit, said the live bait industry has come to expect spurts of unseasonable temperatures during the winter, but an entire month without ice is extreme.
Her company, billed as the world’s largest wholesaler of live bait, has experienced a noticeable drop in bait shop orders from areas typically with ice on the lakes this time of year.
Burns said sales have been inching back up again, though, since winter just started to return in far northern parts of the state.
“We’re definitely having a late winter this year,” she said.
Weaver said fluctuations in how long there will be ice are expected, particularly in more central locations in the Midwest.
However, Weaver said there’s only one other year he can recall when much of the region went without ice for as long. “A long time ago, we didn’t get ice until February,” he said.