Minnesota bait business is feeling the heat

Posted Feb. 08, 2012, at 12:56 p.m.

ELK RIVER, Minn. — Alfred Ebner was beyond legendary. At 94 — two weeks before he died — he fired two shots and killed two bucks with the same .30-30 Winchester he’d been using for 76 years. That year, he also bowled a 227.

To some, Ebner’s legacy is the Elk River bait shop he opened in 1949. These days, Ebner’s Live Bait is run by Alfred’s granddaughter, Joanne Rousseau. Like her grandfather and her father, Ronald Ebner, she knows many of her customers by name, knows which lures they prefer and even knows where they’re headed to fish.

But unlike in previous winters, the bait shop seems to be on thin ice. An unusually warm December and January have made ice fishing impossible or, at the very least, dangerous on many Minnesota lakes.

The economy hasn’t helped the family-run business, either, Rousseau said. Nor has competition from a nearby Walmart or a Cabela’s.

And Rousseau, 60, worries that if an industrial park is built nearby, on city-owned land along Highway 10, drivers heading east will have a difficult time finding an entryway to Ebner’s after they cross the highway.

“The economy is probably the biggest thing,” said Rousseau. “People don’t go on fishing trips if they don’t have money.”

Just four years ago, her father was one of several Highway 10 merchants who worried openly about the business not surviving proposed changes to the highway that would include new interchanges and service roads that could put distance between businesses and customers.

Some of those changes could be 30 years away, but Ronald Ebner said he was looking ahead because anything that might affect Ebner’s Live Bait “can’t be addressed too soon.”

Alfred Ebner got into the wholesale bait business in 1921, years before he opened the current shop. He and his wife, Laura, bought and sold chickens and eggs, and the bait operation was an outgrowth of that.

“My grandfather would go to downtown Minneapolis with chickens he raised,” Rousseau said. “The Mississippi River in Elk River is known to be full of red-tailed minnows, and some people who bought chickens from my grandfather wanted these minnows for bait.

“That’s really how the business started,” said Rousseau. “There’s a house here with minnow tanks in the basement.”

Laura Ebner died in 1986 and Alfred died 11 years later. Ronald Ebner retired years ago, and Rousseau and her brother, Mark, bought the business from their parents in 1992, she said. She’d gotten divorced and had moved back to Elk River.

“Mark ran the wholesale part of the business, but we couldn’t make that a go,” said Rousseau, now the sole owner of the shop.

The shop’s minnows now come primarily through a bait supplier in Chaska, Rousseau said. Last year, she stopped carrying hunting supplies.

Rousseau remains optimistic. Most days, she opens the shop at 5 a.m. and doesn’t close until 9 p.m. She has help, but she’s there waiting on customers herself.

“I know what people need,” she said.

She knows which semifrozen lakes have open water. She knows what her competitors charge and what prices are “fair” for her customers. And she knows that the kids who accompany their parents love to have their picture taken in her store.

Rousseau also knows enough not to close the place during normal hours and leave a “Gone Fishing” sign on the door.

“I’m here all the time,” she said. “I don’t have time to fish.”

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