Mike Witt has reeled in another one.
After several years of successfully running Witt’s Island Lake Bait in a popular resort pocket northeast of Frazee, the lifelong fisherman and Detroit Lakes native is now running a second, bigger bait shop, Quality Bait and Tackle in downtown Detroit Lakes.
Witt purchased the shop from the Onstad family and assumed ownership on March 1, renaming it Witt’s Quality Bait and Tackle. It’s the only exclusive bait and tackle store in town.
“I came in inquiring at about the same time they listed it,” he said of the serendipitous sale. “I wanted to buy it. … My uncle always told me (something like), ‘If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ So that’s something I’m trying to create. If I can run the bait shop and talk fishing and hunting every day, I don’t really feel like I’m working -- even though I work sun-up to sun-down, seven days a week.”
Between owning the two bait shops and working another job in construction, Witt’s not exaggerating about his long hours. But he doesn’t run the shops on his own -- they're family affairs, with his dad, Mike Witt Sr., mom, Debbie Witt, fiancée, Shannon Scarset, their daughter, and other aunts, uncles and extended family members all helping out.
It’s been that way since the beginning, when Witt first started running a little hobby bait place out of the garage of his home on Island Lake. The business didn’t take long to outgrow that space, and in 2014, Witt’s Island Lake Bait was moved into the old Shell Lake schoolhouse on County Highway 37, where it still is today.
A small, casual shop that sells bait as well as groceries, propane and firewood, Witt describes his Island Lake store as “country rustic.” Compared to his new shop at 524 Washington Ave., one of Detroit Lakes’ main drags, he said, the difference is like “night and day.”
Witt’s Quality Bait and Tackle is larger and has quite a bit more in-house inventory, he said. The store offers a full line of products for lake and river fishing, year-round.
In the few months since he’s taken over ownership, Witt has increased the shop's bait selection by 50-60% (with river bait newly added). He’s also expanded the store's snack and beverage area, doubled the number of muskie baits, upped the terminal tackle offerings and brought in bow fishing supplies, among other enhancements.
A new website will be launching in the near future, Witt said, and he plans to double the size of the store’s ice fishing area before next winter. Keeping lower-priced inventory on hand is also important to him, as he wants to keep the sport affordable to everyone, including youth and families: “I like making sure kids can fish,” he said.
Witt himself has been fishing since he was a tyke. He was born into a hunting and fishing family, and his parents and other family members would often bring him along on their outdoor adventures. One of his uncles was a fishing guide at a local resort, and the young Witt would sometimes go along with him to area bait shops to visit with the shop owners and fishermen.
Now, as the owner of his own two bait shops, he gets to enjoy that same experience, but from the other side of the sales counter. Meeting people and visiting with customers, he said, is his favorite thing about the job.
“I like talking to everybody, like helping everybody,” he said, adding that the same goes for all his family members who work at the shops. “We try to satisfy everyone. We’ve never had any bad experiences or unsatisfied customers, to our knowledge… I’ve had kids in here who started fishing when they were 3 feet tall, and now they drive in. It’s fun to see people grow up.”
While most things about owning a bait shop are fun and come naturally to Witt, he said the business is not without its challenges. Keeping inventory in stock can keep him on his toes at times, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everybody’s been wanting to get outdoors, so supply and demand is lopsided,” he said, explaining that some of his suppliers are short on workers, and thus are making fewer deliveries.
That's not such an issue with live bait, which comes from local suppliers and private trappers. The majority of Witt's live bait comes from Rocky’s Bait in Erhard, while his leeches come from Todd Jackson Bait in Detroit Lakes. Carrying high-quality, family-owned bait and other products, Witt said, is a priority for him.
Witt was anticipating a busy week or two ahead at the time of this interview in early May, with the state’s May 15 fishing opener just around the corner. The Detroit Lakes shop will be open a full 24 hours that day, he said, and then will resume its normal schedule of 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. The Island Lake store, which is open seasonally, will reopen ahead of the fishing opener and should be busy, as well.