Staff at Henry’s Sports and Bait have known for months that fishing license sales were spiking; numbers from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources back that up.
A red Take-A-Number System ticket dispenser awaits customers just inside the door to Henry’s Sports and Bait. As they enter, customers pull down a paper tab as if buying fathead minnows and fishing tackle were the same as picking up potato salad and sliced salami at the grocery deli counter.
For many reasons, fishing has taken off during the pandemic, especially in Chicago, as witnessed by Henry’s, one of the most classic urban bait and tackle shops in the country.
One of the proprietors, Tom Palmisano, has been chronicling the change for months now.
“I’m selling fishing licenses to people who aren’t even in the system,” he said. “They are buying rods and reels and holding them upside down.”
The numbers are staggering across the country and it holds true in Illinois, too.
“From March 1 to June 24 (when we last ran the numbers), sales of fishing licenses are up more than 64,400 compared with the same time frame last year,” emailed Rachel Torbert, a deputy director for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
I was barely inside Henry’s on Sunday morning when the first customers needing licenses came in.
Jason Conaway and Meilan Chen were looking for basics because they were going along with a friend of Chen’s to fish.
“Why not?” Conaway explained. “It is a nice day.”
They were both getting fishing licenses and rods, under the guidance of counterman Ernest Blackman. (Blackman owns a piece of fishing history. He was one of the official witnesses to the weighing of Joe Capilupo’s Illinois-record smallmouth bass last fall at Henry’s. Tom’s brother Steve was the other witness.)
Conaway had not been fishing since he was little and had never bought a license before.
“When I was little, there was something you pushed in,” said Conaway, 47, demonstrating with his thumb.
That’s a spincast reel, typically a Zebco 202.
Their fishing friend showed up after a while and offered bait and tackle advice.
“Hopefully, we catch a fish,” Conaway said.
I marveled at the fullness of Henry’s tackle displays, whereas some shops look as if a vacuum cleaned sucked the shelves empty. Tackle, gear and supply lines in the tackle industry have been hard hit or shut down, particularly for products coming from China.
More than 60 years of a family business helps. Steve Palmisano is a veteran buyer for the shop. As the pandemic settled in, he started buying and ordering heavily. So they have fishing stuff that many places do not.
Henry’s began as a rental in 1951 in Chinatown at what was 25th and Wentworth, now the Dan Ryan. From `59-`68, they rented an old concession stand, leftover from the World’s Fair in ‘33-3’4, at 2222 Silverton Way, then a one-block street connecting King Drive and Cermak Road. From ‘68-’78, they were at the northeast corner of 31st and Canal, now a strip mall. From ‘78 to the present, they owned a specially designed building a couple hundred yards south at 3130 South Canal.
“This place was built for this kind of business,” Tom Palmisano said.
As I had walked in to Henry’s, Eric McKinney pulled block ice from the machine outside. He was heading to Shabbona Lake, a drive west of an hour and a half, for “Whatever I can get.”
“First time this year, but we try to go as often as possible,’’ he said.
There’s another reason for the rise of fishing, people wanting to get out.
Or, as Andrew Vance astutely observed about the problems in the streets, while he waited in line, “This takes me away from everything. It’s a beautiful hobby.”
In the couple hours I was there, the line kept reforming and Blackman and fellow countermen Tom Matual and Brian Caunter kept moving to the next number.
Marcus Givens was getting braid and monofilament line respooled on his reels. He planned to fish catfish (and buffalo and carp) at Veteran’s Memorial Park.
Caunter scooped large fathead minnows for David Strasser, who was heading to fish largemouth bass at Maple Lake.
One thing struck me. Everyone who entered the shop wore a face mask (most correctly) and in general social distancing was practiced. People weren’t acting stupid, they took the pandemic seriously.
“I really don’t know what is driving the people [to fish],” Tom Palmisano said.
There is a new rhythm to the bait shop. Friday night is busy as people stock up, so is Saturday. Sunday packs in during the middle of the day.
“Mondays, the retirees are in, time for them to go,” he said.
Some things stay the same.
For more on Henry’s, go to henryssports.com.