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Drought Dries Up Bait Business : Fishing: Sales of crawdads, night crawlers and mud suckers have slowed down. The merchants seem uncertain of how to tackle the problem.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fewer people are taking the bait these days in Ventura County and that has some businesses that cater to the fishing industry worried.

Some freshwater bait businesses say that sales have decreased by as much as 50% in the last three years because the drought has kept fishermen away from county lakes and streams.

“You’ve got a drought, you’ve got a recession, and you’ve got a fog,” said Randy King, manager of Casitas Boat Rentals at Lake Casitas. “Everybody’s hurting. The bait business is way down.”

King spoke from the counter of his shop, which once stood 75 feet from the water’s edge. The nearest boat dock is now a quarter of a mile from the store, which sells a variety of live bait such as crawdads and night crawlers.

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King said fishing is still good at the lake, which is stocked with bass, catfish, trout and perch. But people have been scared away by “horror stories” about dropping water levels, he said.

“I think it’s got a lot of people nervous, so they plan their vacations in other ways,” he said.

In 1986, August attendance at the park was 127,700. By 1988, it had dropped to 89,900 for the month. In 1990, it was 67,200, said Casitas Park Services Manager Doug Ralph.

“It’s dropping just like the lake,” he said. “It’s going down.”

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The lake is at 50% of capacity, but it still has more water than many lakes in Southern California, Ralph said. All of the facilities are open.

Overall business in the Casitas Boat Rentals shop, which also does maintenance on boats and rents fishing vessels, has dropped by 20% in the last two years. Bait sales have fallen even more dramatically, King said.

In the past, King said, he could expect to sell about 60 dozen crawdads, used for catching bass, each weekend. This year, he is selling about 20 dozen--priced at $5.50 a dozen--each weekend.

“I think a lot of this is based on this drought,” King said. “It’s having a big effect.”

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Business at the Corner Market, about a mile and a half away, also has slowed some as a result of the drought, recession and a change in ownership, general manager Pam Hughes said.

The store, which sells all the normal grocery items, also has one aisle devoted to fishing needs. A tank of crawdads lines one side of the aisle and a wooden bin of mud suckers stands along the other.

“Business is not as good as two years ago,” Hughes said. “I think all the lakes around here are suffering because of the drought.”

John Van Breemen, who owns the Oxnard Bait Farm on Hueneme Road, said his sales have dropped 50% in the last three years.

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Breemen’s wholesale business specializes in selling night crawlers, three- to six-inch worms typically used for freshwater fishing of bass and catfish. He imports the worms from Oregon and Canada, then sells them to lakeside bait shops throughout Southern California for $1.15 a dozen.

He used to make deliveries to some shops twice a week. Now, the businesses call for orders every two weeks or so, he said. He attributes the decline to the drought.

“The drought really hurt business a lot,” Breemen said. “It’s gotten worse and worse.”

But the drought may have encouraged some sportsmen to try saltwater fishing, other bait businessmen said.

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“The freshwater market is really going down the drain,” said David Townsend of Moore’s Tackle Shop in Ventura, which specializes in bait and gear for ocean fishing. “Predominantly, people have turned to the ocean.”

The bait business at Cisco Sportfishing in the Channel Islands Harbor has stayed even, said tackle shop manager Dave Sechrist.

The business caters to members of yacht clubs in the area who head out on the seas, sells bait to people who fish off the rocks and offers chartered boat trips for fishing, whale watching and other activities.

The shop has not been hurt by the recession, he said. Indeed, it may have drawn more people who wanted to find relatively inexpensive ways of relieving stress and getting their food.

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Sechrist said a half-day fishing trip costs $20 per person and could typically net 15 fish, providing food at a lower cost than a trip to most grocery stores.

“I think more people are fishing to get food on the table,” Sechrist said. “If you check the price of fish in stores, it’s outrageous.

“It’s 1, for fun, and 2, for the table,” Sechrist said. “You have fun eating them and you have fun fishing them.”


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