The coming close of Henry’s Sports and Bait viewed through decades of its and Chicago’s history
Going back to the beginning of Henry’s Sports and Bait, the powerhouse of Chicago outdoors and fishing, then going through decades of the history of Chicago and Henry’s.
Steve Palmisano dug out a faded mounted dollar bill, then flipped it over to show May 21, 1952, when his dad, Hank, founded what became Henry’s Sports and Bait.
Tom, the middle of Hank’s sons, opened a scrapbook and pulled photos showing the evolution of Henry’s on Wednesday upstairs in the office.
Henry’s, the Bridgeport fixture at 3130 S. Canal, will close later this year, ending its run as the powerhouse of fishing and outdoors in Chicago.
It’s a classic Chicago hustle story.
Hank was an instrument specialist for the Army Air Corps in World War II. On the GI Bill, he studied watch repair, then opened a small shop at 2452 S. Wentworth and worked nights for Burlington Railroad. In the back, he also strung a chalk line with carded merchandise of hooks, lines and sinkers.
“Next thing, he put a well in the basement, and we had minnow tanks,” Tom said.
It became a bait shop. Relatives pitched in. Hank’s dad, the immigrant Ignatius, was skilled at working on nets and would fix seining nets and make smelt nets.
“ ‘One-Arm Phil’ would park his Model A by the lakefront with a sign on the roof for -Henry’s,” Tom said.
In brilliant marketing, Hank made sure -every box of crawlers was opened and shown to the customer. That continues to this day. Staff don’t count minnows, but scoop and -estimate the dozen.
Then Henry’s moved to 2222 S. Silverton Way, a now-gone link between South Park (King Drive) and Cermak. It was a concession stand during the 1933-34 World’s Fair.
When RR Donnelley bought the block, Henry’s had to move, going to 420 W. 31st in 1968, then an empty railroad lot. The -marine shop became a spinoff part of the business, incorporating separately in 1976.
The fear was the move from the lakefront would cost business. But, as Steve noted, “All the pieces of the puzzle were popping in 1968.”
Coho had just been introduced into Lake Michigan. Smelt and perch were strong.
Business quadrupled. Henry’s was just off the Dan Ryan with off-street parking and stayed open extra, 4 a.m. Friday through10 p.m. Sunday.
Around 1974, what became the final home of Henry’s, some condemned buildings needing serious brick work on Canal south of 31st, was bought.
In May 1978, a seven-page ad in Midwest Outdoors announced Henry’s new home.
Henry’s played a big part in Pepsi’s salmon contest, including a boat, motor and trailer. Henry’s held open houses spring and fall with local experts as seminar speakers — perch seminars with Frank “Pan Man” DeFrancisco, Frank Brzycki, Ron Bridges, Ken Schneider and Chuck Thompson. Food — fried pollock, french fries, deep-fried turkey, Italian sausage, jambalaya — heightened the draw and advertised cookers.
Henry’s at times dabbled in other sporting goods (skates, golf, etc.), but fishing remained constant. Though some bait goes for pet food and worms to urban composters.
All seven of Hank’s grandkids worked the shop: counting minnows, packing worms, working the counter. All went on to success in other fields.
Henry’s, where hundreds started their working lives, proved a fertile path to other careers. Tom and Steve rattled off marine biologists, lawyers, doctors, EMTs, EPA -officials, business owners, etc.
“Two guys who used to work have their own marine shops,” Tom said.
I know two who became Chicago policemen.
One, Brandon Troupe, messaged: “I remember working the Rosemont show back in ’05-06. That was a cool time. Having to be at the store one night and literally loading Henry’s whole inventory into a big box truck. Steve and Tom were not just great owners, but they got down and dirty on the loading process, as well! . . . I am happy Steve gave me a shot at such a young age.”
Rich Pinkowski started working for Henry’s as a sophomore at the old St. Joseph in 1983. He became a union carpenter, now a job supervisor around the country. For a few years, he was tournament director for Illinois B.A.S.S. Nation.
He interviewed with the oldest son, -Henry, who died unexpectedly at 54 in 2006.
“He asked what is my perch-fishing rig,” Pinkowski said. “I said, ‘8-pound line and a No. 10 Eagle hook and two split shots.’ He said, ‘Dip some minnows and see how close you are to 12.’ That was my first job interview.
“I packed night crawlers in the back, but mainly worked the counter. . . . The big thing that people went crazy for was Catalpa worms. They would line up when they came in.
“I was a fishhead. It was a perfect job for me. I got to hang around fishing and talk to people.”
Henry’s is one of several longtime bait and tackle shops in the Chicago area. Park Bait started as a family business in 1958 at Montrose Harbor. As far back as 1935, Barry’s Bait was there.
C.J. Smith Resort in Antioch is the oldest family bait shop, beginning as Smith’s landing in 1929. Triangle Sports and Marine in Antioch has been around since 1948. The salmon stop in Waukegan just celebrated its 50th in April.
Tom and Steve recounted the rough-and-tumble days when Chicago had dozens of bait shops. Seining minnows on the Illinois River was a bare-knuckle business, then Hank made a brilliant move to lease a prime spot near Marseilles, freezing out other shops.
Every Thursday night, they seined for crayfish at golf courses or ponds around Orland Park, Palos Park or Kankakee County without gaining permission. For this clandestine operation, they had a $25 beater. In waders, they would jump out in the dark, with dim flashlights, and quickly fill 5-gallon buckets before moving on.
In pinches, they picked crawlers from McKinley Park or lawns.
Five current Illinois-record fish were weighed at Henry’s: skipjack herring (Travis Strickland, 2 pounds, 10.4 ounces, May 11, 2022, Illinois River), bighead carp (Jarrett Knize, 72-9, Nov. 8, 2021, Humboldt Park lagoon), smallmouth bass (Joe Capilupo, 7-3, Oct. 14, 2019, Chicago lakefront), tiger muskie (Michael Behmetuik, 31-3, Aug. 6, 2004, Lake Will) and brown trout (Deva Vranek, 36-11.5, June 22, 1997, east of Chicago).
“I’m proud of what we’ve done, but it’s time to go fishing, go hunting,” Steve said.
“If someone wants to pick up the ball and open up down the street, I will support them,” Tom said. “I don’t want to have to travel the suburbs to get bait.”
Time for somebody to build their own stories.