Golden shiners flipped and flashed in the dim light as Gary Ingles scooped them from a tank at Wiggly Worm Bait and Tackle.
It was a quiet Wednesday at the little white store set back from Route 50 — no fish tales from customers to drown out the hiss of water spraying into bait tanks.
The smell of fish was noticeable in the air.
These days, bait fish are brought in from Arkansas and night crawlers from Canada, a big change from when Wiggly Worm opened in 1956.
Back then, Ingles’ father, Bill, collected bait himself.
Now 90 years old, Bill Ingles still watches over the business his son helps him run. He glowed when he spoke of his childhood in Whitehall, where his stepfather opened Yell’s Bait Shop during the depths of the Depression. Bill Ingles was only 8 at the time, but old enough to lend a hand with the family business.
“As a young boy, I used to pick nightcrawlers, catch frogs, net crawfish. Back then we sold them for one cent apiece,” he recalled.
He spoke of making 100-foot-long push nets to gather bait in local waterways and of hauling in thousands of quarts of fish.
“I have netted the Hoosick, the Hudson, the Mohawk, Lake Champlain. I netted all those places for years, back when that’s what you were allowed to do,” he reminisced.
Netting bait is still allowed, but government regulations have made it cost prohibitive, Gary Ingles said. So that’s why Wiggly Worm’s stock now comes from far afield, and why the pond outside, which once teemed with tiny fish, was rippled only by the rain.
Business is typically brisk at the little bait store, which is open daily from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. With pike and walleye season opening Saturday, a rush of customers is expected, many of them in the market for suckers and golden shiners. And it’s not just the stereotypical old fisherman who will come through the door.
“I have some women who are better fishermen than the guys,” Gary Ingles confided.
He pointed to a curling photograph of a woman in shorts and a tank top hoisting a huge lake trout. It’s one of many pictures stapled to the store’s joists and cathedral ceiling.
“This is her son,” he said, walking over to a fading shot of a young boy in a camouflage snowsuit who is holding up two lake trout. “He’s a wildlife biologist. He’s older now. He comes in.”
The store has always catered to kids. The Ingles donate worms to science classes and sponsor 4-H groups, Boy Scout troops and a learn-to-fish club in Schenectady.
“My father used to always give every [child] a lucky bobber, which we still do,” Gary Ingles said. “We give them lucky bobbers and let the kids know, if they keep the bobber in their pocket, they’ll catch fish.”
The customer base has diminished some over the years, but Gary Ingles said he’s seeing more youngsters coming in for fishing advice.
Many customers aren’t looking for advice, his father noted. “If I line up 100 fishermen, they all look different, they all fish differently, they all make their rigs and whatnot, bait their hooks all differently and each fisherman thinks he is the smartest man in the world,” he said with humor in his voice. “So I would just look at them and you wouldn’t try to tell them that. The customer is always right.”
He reluctantly offered one nugget of fishing wisdom: “You can’t beat live bait.”
In a walk-in cooler in the back room are stacks of Styrofoam crates that each hold 500 earthworms.
“They used to have to ship in here anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 at a time,” said Bill Ingles, recalling the store’s heyday. All those worms used to sell out within about three weeks. These days, they go through about half that many, maybe a little less.
Artificial bait is now the hot seller at Wiggly Worm. Brightly colored lures cover the white pegboard walls. There are Live Target ones that look like blueback herring, Gary Yamamoto rubber worms and Hula Poppers to attract bass.
The store also stocks fishing poles, bait holders, fishing line and sinkers.
“If it deals with fishing, we carry it,” Bill Ingles said with obvious pride.
He pointed to a high shelf at the back of the store where banged up measuring cups sit, their sides marked in red paint with prices. All bait was measured in them back in the early days.
“Minnows were 50 cents a quart back in our day. Now they’re sold by the dozen,” Bill Ingles said.
Like the battered old measuring cups, the little bait store on busy Route 50 could be called quaint and outdated. Many of its kind have given way to big-box stores with sporting goods departments touting discounted inventory. But there’s no sign Wiggly Worm is on its way out. In fact, Gary Ingles is toying with the idea of expanding the business, and his father is enthusiastic about the prospect.
“I was just saying to him this morning there’s no reason why he can’t put up a big building,” Bill Ingles said with a devilish grin.
“You’d better leave me a lot of money,” the younger Ingles replied, shooting back a smile a lot like his dad’s.