CROOKSTON - It's a quiet Monday afternoon at Ceason's Bait & Tackle, and one of the regulars is seated at the counter shooting the breeze with owners Myron and Sue Kaiser.
Occasional shoppers stop in and browse the aisles, perhaps to snap up a bait bucket and some much-needed tackle or just to see what's there.
Pretty much like every other Monday afternoon at Ceason's Bait & Tackle.
It's been a gathering place for friends and fishermen for years, this "Mom and Pop" bait shop at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Eighth Street a few blocks north of the main drag. But now, after 30 years in business, Myron, 83 - best known as "Caesar" to everyone in Crookston - and Sue are calling it quits.
The Kaisers announced their decision to retire Saturday, Feb. 9, during the annual Ice Buster Daze fishing derby and snowmobile radar run on the Red Lake River in Crookston. They'll close the doors and cast their lines into retirement sometime later this month or early next month, depending on when they sell off the inventory, Sue Kaiser says.
"We finally decided after 30 years, it was kind of time," she said.
Concrete to crappies
It all started in 1989, after the asphalt company Caesar worked for went out of business. As often happens, the closing of one door resulted in the opening of another, Sue recalls.
She had spent the past 17 years driving a school bus.
"He said, 'I want to open up a hobby store,' and I said, 'What do we know about running a business?' I didn't do real well in bookkeeping class in high school," Sue said with a laugh. "But I did learn enough."
They never expected to be in business 30 years, she says.
"He said we were going to try it for a year," she said.
The store, known originally as Ceason Sport and Hobby, was downtown in those days, selling hobby supplies such as radio-controlled cars and airplanes, tennis shoes, hockey equipment and archery gear, in addition to bait and tackle.
The timing was right, because another bait shop closed about the same time, and radio-controlled cars and airplanes were popular hobbies.
"We had a racetrack out back" for the cars, Sue said.
As often happens, the business evolved, and the Kaisers moved away from hobby supplies and sporting goods, shifting their focus exclusively to bait and tackle.
They changed the business' name to Ceason's Bait & Tackle, moving from rented space downtown and buying the building that's been their home for the past 24 years.
As the store's sole employees, the bait shop in many ways has been a way of life. Seven days a week and 365 days a year, more or less.
"We've done it all ourselves," Sue said. "If we've gone on vacation, we just shut the door. We find it's cheaper to just shut the door and go during our slower times than it is to hire somebody to come in."
November through mid March are busy times, followed by a lull until ice-out, when anglers begin targeting panfish on popular Polk County lakes such as Maple, Union and Sarah, Caesar says. The mid-May Minnesota walleye opener heralds another busy time that often continues through Labor Day.
The store was open from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week the first two years, but the Kaisers gradually adjusted the hours to better reflect peak traffic times, Sue says.
They often came in after hours if someone called wanting bait, she says.
"I'm going to miss my customers - I'll miss the people stopping in, the company and that type of thing," Sue said. "What I'm not going to miss is working weekends and seven days a week just about year-round."
The couple might be retiring, but they plan to remain in Crookston; she'd never get Caesar out of Crookston, Sue says.
"It's as good of a place to be as any," he said. "We made a living out of it. We'll take a trip or two ... we'll do things."
There'll be yardwork and house projects to catch up on, new hobbies to pursue. Perhaps, Sue says, she'll get the boat out of the garage for the first time in five years.
And there'll still be breeze to shoot.
"I'll just have to go around town and visit everybody instead of them coming around to visit me" in the bait shop, Caesar says. "Things will be running backwards."
Look across northwest Minnesota and other parts of the region, and there aren't many "Mom and Pop" bait shops left. Convenience stores and big box sporting goods outlets often sell bait and other fishing supplies. The Internet also has changed the business, Sue says.
"It's a lot different," she said. "There are more people fishing, but there are more places to go and get things now."
Ask Caesar, and he'll say getting bait has been the most challenging part of the business in recent years.
"This coming year, they say (bait supplies) are going to be terrible," he said.
That's nothing new, Sue says.
"We hear that, and then all of a sudden we've got bait with no problem," she said. "You never know until the ice goes off. I know even talking to (the people) where we go get the leeches, they said the same thing. They used to catch how many pounds a day, and it's down to half of that.
"And then again, you've got to understand, there's a lot more fishermen out there fishing now than there was when we first opened up."
The Red Lake River would be an exception, they say. Fewer people fish the river during open water times since the dam was modified several years ago into a rock-riffle structure that accommodates fish passage.
Previously, the river below the dam concentrated fish and anglers alike.
At the same time, though, more people fish the river through the ice and often with very favorable results. Last weekend, for example, the 227 or so anglers fishing the Ice Buster Daze derby brought more than 700 fish to the scales in three hours.
Suckers and goldeyes, mostly, Sue says, but the top fish for the day was a walleye weighing more than 5 pounds.
That's quite a contrast to some years, when derby anglers catch only a handful of fish, if any.
It was a fitting finale for Ceason's Bait & Tackle, which has sponsored the event basically from the get-go; this year's Ice Buster Daze was the 16th annual.
They'll still be involved, Sue says; just not as bait shop owners.
"It's been an awesome ride," she said. "It would have been fun to stay in (business) longer, but somewhere along the line, you've got to say enough and start enjoying life a little bit."