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Low lake levels sink bait business

Happy's Bait and Tackle, a fishing landmark for nearly 35 years, closed at the end of April. The owner says drought and Swiftmud are to blame.

[Times photo: Brian Tietz]
Harold Wolfe packs a container of wigglers into a cooler in his truck after buying them at Floral City Foods, one of the few live bait dealers left in east Citrus.

By JORGE SANCHEZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001


INVERNESS -- After watching the lake levels dip lower and lower, and waiting for rain that scarcely fell, the owner of Happy's Bait and Tackle on U.S. 41 S decided it was time to close the business.

Ron Harper said a combination of downturns caused by the drought and poor water management led him to close the store at the end of April.

"It was the drought, plus a little help from Swiftmud," Harper said, using the shorthand name for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Though Happy's has been an Inverness fishing landmark for close to 35 years, Harper has only owned it for the past four years.

"I came in at a bad time. Two years of drought out of the last four years," he said.

Harper, 58, said he purchased the bait and tackle shop because he wanted a change. He had previously worked as a technician for nuclear powered electrical generating plants.

"I just wanted a different lifestyle, and I found it," he said.

But the lengthy drought that has practically dried up the Tsala Apopka lake chain also dried up his bait business. The usual customers who bought dozens of shiners to hook large-mouth bass, minnows for specks and worms for just about anything else stopped going fishing because they couldn't launch their boats.

Harper said he had been pondering closing since late last year.

"Late last fall, after the last public boat ramp closed, was when I first started thinking about it. The tourist season, which I was counting on, was nil. There was still no water in the lake," he said. "So I had the choice of waiting another year to see if the tourist season and lake levels would pick up, or closing up shop. I didn't want to wait another year," he said.

Harper said he also blames Swiftmud for the water problem. He said the agency brought the lake levels down too low after the Arrowhead floods that preceded the drought.

"And they brought no water back in to replenish it," he said.

"Now I'll get to do some fishing myself," Harper said. "You can't fish when you work at a bait and tackle shop for 12 hours a day. There's no time left."

Happy's closing leaves Watson's Fish Camp, 4195 E Parsons Point Road, Hernando, and Floral City Foods, 8391 E Orange Ave., among the remaining dealers of live bait for freshwater fishing in east Citrus County.

Watson's owner Sonny Zettle said the drought is taking its toll on sales.

"That's because the only people who can go fishing are those that have their boats moored in the water," Zettle said. "I have some rental boats moored here, and they go out quite often."

Zettle said the boat ramp at Watson's was usable until about three weeks ago, when low water levels forced it to close.

"But actually, fishing is pretty good. Especially for bass," Zettle said.

"The fish are all clustered together in the remaining water and going fishing is more like going out and picking which fish you want to catch."

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