New ownership brings continuity to C.J. Smith Resort, the oldest family bait shop around Chicago

The bait shop was sold Aug. 12. The new ownership brings plans for a few tweaks.

SHARE New ownership brings continuity to C.J. Smith Resort, the oldest family bait shop around Chicago
An old postcard from what became C,J. Smith Resort on the Chain O’Lakes.

An old postcard from what became C,J. Smith Resort on the Chain O’Lakes.

Provided

John Hartl gleefully told me that when he visited the former C.J. Smith Resort the other day Frank Visconti Jr. wore Packers gear.

“My customers may have thought after 38 years, they would be rid of a Packers fan,” Hartl said.

The oldest family bait shop in the Chicago area, on the south side of Grass Lake Road in Antioch on a channel between Bluff and Spring lakes, was sold Aug. 12. Since 1929, three generations owned the business.

But new co-owners, Visconti and his father, plan to keep the business—boat rental, shore fishing, boat launch, bait shop — going as usual.

Originally Chas. Smith Landing, the name changed to C.J. Smith Resort in the 1960s when the founder’s son Charles J. Smith took over with his wife Bobby. Their daughter Melonnie and son-in-law Hartl bought it in 1985. They sold to retire.

“For 64 years this has been a very special place for me,” Melonnie emailed. “The resort has been a unique place to grow up and an equally unique experience to operate all these years. I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that it is no longer in the family, but I am thrilled that the business will continue.”

The extended family surrounds John and Melonnie Hartl (Front row: Rosie, Katie, Rowyn; Back Row: Vanessa, Piper, Kelsie, Melonnie, Robbie (in front), John, Brittany, and JP.) by the water at the former C,J, Smith Resort on the Chain O’Lakes. Provided photo

The extended family surrounds John and Melonnie Hartl (Front row: Rosie, Katie, Rowyn; Back Row: Vanessa, Piper, Kelsie, Melonnie, Robbie (in front), John, Brittany, and JP.) by the water at the former C,J, Smith Resort on the Chain O’Lakes.

Provided

The resort found fame beyond its customers.

In November 2017, an independent film production company approached them to include the bait shop in the movie, “Once Upon A River” (2019), based on the novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell.

“Our season had just ended, so we were in a good position to allow the use of the property,” John emailed. “They offered a contract, but we refused as we just asked if we could observe the filmmaking process.

“The crew spent an entire day in our bait shop and both Melonnie and I were simply amazed at the amount of work required to produce a few minutes of film. We were both delighted and surprised when they included us `acting’ in our normal setting as bait-shop operators.”

They were warmly greeted by actors and production staff at the premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival.

“A word of caution: DON’T BLINK or you will miss our three seconds of fame!!!” John emailed.

The resort led the venerable family bait shops in the Chicago area. Triangle Sports and Marine in Antioch has been around since 1948. Henry’s Sports and Bait in Chicago will end its 70-year run this fall. Park Bait started as a family business in 1958 at Montrose Harbor, but Barry’s Bait was there as far back as 1935. The Salmon Stop in Waukegan celebrated its 50th in April.

Visconti is learning the hold of the resort, now named Lily Bug Acres for the nickname his grandmother gave his late mother.

A small Lily Bug Acres sign (the date is the birth year of Frank Jr. Visconti’s late mother) inside the former C.J. Smith Resort bait shop on the Chain O’Lakes. Credit: Dale Bowman

A small Lily Bug Acres sign (the date is the birth year of Frank Jr. Visconti’s late mother) inside the former C.J. Smith Resort bait shop on the Chain O’Lakes.

Dale Bowman

“Customers are just coming in to shoot the [breeze] and make sure I haven’t burned the place down,” Visconti said Wednesday. “We’re on a learning curve.”

He and jack-of-all-trades Brett White run it as a cash business until phone and internet are in.

“I’m not going to change much, just put some TLC in, and some different boats,” Visconti said.

He already has a cool small pedal pontoon.

He established contact with the “Fishing Has No Boundaries” charity. The building sign will go to a historical society. The main sign may be moved.

One possible change may be making the bait shop year-round.

“The whole thing is to carry on the tradition,” Visconti said.

His own family tradition builds with two nephews and a niece working there.

The sign for C.J. Smith Resort will grace the roadside by Grass Lake Road for a few more months before signs for the new Lily Bug Acres go up on the Chain O’Lakes. Credit: Dale Bowman

The sign for C.J. Smith Resort will grace the roadside by Grass Lake Road for a few more months before signs for the new Lily Bug Acres go up on the Chain O’Lakes.

Dale Bowman

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