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A working memory of a bait shop: Slez’s turned 30 and is going strong

Slez's Bait Shop is loaded with memories as well as fishing stuff as one of the last Mom-and-Pop bait shops.
Credit: Dale Bowman

LAKE STATION, Ind.–It works.

That’s the thing about Slez’s Bait Shop.

Funny thing because the Mom-and-Pop bait shop, one of the last ones, was born of a work-stoppage, the great steelworkers strike/lockout of 1986 and ‘87.

Slez’s was started by the late Richard “Big Slez’’ Sleziak during the strike/lockout.

“My mom [Kim] told him, `You have to do something other than go on the picket line,’ ” said their son and current proprietor Rich Sleziak, then 10 years old, five years ago.

Slez’s, a cash-only bait shop, turned 30 this year.

“I’m about the last one left in Mom and Pop bait shops,’’ Slez said Wednesday when I stopped in.

He’s right.

It’s the easiest on-and-off bait shop from an expressway in the Chicago area. Slez’s is a block south of I-94 in Indiana off Ripley Street on Parkside between Ruben’s Restaurant (fast-food) and Lake Station Liquors.

“Pull in like you’re going to the liquor store and there I am,’’ Slez said.

On Wednesday, terminal tackle stuffed the walls of the 14 x 28 garage like it has for decades. The fish mounts were a little older than the last time. Otherwise, it was the same bait shop that stirred memories of similar shops embedded in my soul.

The bait selection remained absurdly good: night crawlers, including neon and babies; bee moths; red worms (small and jumbo); mealworms; super worms; spawn sacs (large and small); shrimp (small and head-on); cured skein; golden roaches (baby, medium and large); minnows (crappie, walleye and Rosie Reds); squid; chicken liver; crickets; skipjack; softshells (frozen and live); and crawdads (frozen and live).

Perch fishing used to be the great driver. That slowed with the the perch crash on Lake Michigan. Instead this year Slez sold jumbo reds and bee moths at at all-time rate.

Rich Sleziak at work at Slez’s Bait.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Rich Sleziak at work at Slez’s Bait.
Credit: Dale Bowman

“This morning I fixed two reels, told another guy he needed to throw one away; and taught a couple guys who came into the shop how to fish for salmon,’’ Slez said. “I didn’t [BS] them. I told them you might not get a bite, but here is where you go.

Slez, 40, in 21 years of running the shop has gone through the circle of life, including losing his wife Stephanie 2 1/2 years ago. He vividly describes meeting her for the first time at 15, “Here she comes, walking through the woods. I still fished, but it was secondary for a while.” Their son Baylor is 15.

Slez opens at 5 a.m., every day, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. During the peak of perch runs, he was up at 4 a.m. Buddy Tom Ferry, a Vietnam vet, fills in when Slez cannot be there. That is rare because there is a buzzer on the bait shop that runs into his house.

“From my couch to the counter is 40 steps,’’ he said. “I like being that guy.

“I’m not going anywhere. This is what I do. I got my bait shop in my yard and my charter boat six minutes away.’’

For Slez’s, call (219) 963-9204 or find on Facebook here.

Slez’s Bait Shop.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Slez’s Bait Shop.
Credit: Dale Bowman