SHERIDAN — As anglers head to streams, creeks, rivers and lakes near and far, they all carry some form of bait — maybe a simple hook or an artificial lure that resembles prey. For many people, natural bait is the preference.
Natural bait comes in a wide variety, from simple earthworms to leeches or frozen minnows. For natural bait retailers in Sheridan, May and the accompanying warm weather signal the beginning of increased demand.
Due to the seasonal nature of bait, most sellers offer only a few options in small quantities. Most bait is found in a cooler or small section of a fridge at a convenience store and makes up a tiny portion of the store’s overall business. Still, from May to August, a steady supply of anglers purchase bait, an essential part of fishing expeditions.
Most local stores purchase bait from Pryor Creek Bait Company, which is based in Laurel, Montana. Pryor Creek works with at least six retailers in Sheridan.
Pryor Creek gets its bait from larger distributors. Pryor Creek Bait Company owner Michael Herman said about 80 percent of his company’s nightcrawlers arrive in refrigerated trucks or vans from Canada, while most leeches and minnows are found locally.
Nightcrawlers make up the bulk of Pryor Creek’s business, followed by leeches. The company also offers nitro worms, meal worms, wax worms and maggots.
The bait business rises and falls with the weather. In fall, most people are hunting, not fishing. The winter months bring some customers for ice fishing bait, but Herman said 80 to 90 percent of his sales occur in summer, the busiest times being around Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
Herman said Pryor Creek has been supplying Sheridan stores for about seven years. When orders ramp up in summer, he brings weekly deliveries to the Sheridan area.
Quik Sak is Pryor Creek’s largest customer in the Sheridan area. Quik Sak manager Amber Petty said the store just switched from its ice fishing options to summer inventory and recently received a large order of bait from Pryor Creek.
Petty added that demand stays pretty high throughout the summer and into early fall, then drops off and plummets for a couple months beginning around December, when ice covers most bodies of water but isn’t thick enough yet for ice fishing.
Business picks up a bit for ice fishing season, then slows to a trickle in spring when the ice is thawing but still covers most of the lakes and rivers. Fly fishing picks up during that time of year as well, which doesn’t require natural bait.
Quik Sak has sold natural bait for at least the past 25 years. Petty said natural bait is a decent portion of store business, partly because Quik Sak also offers fishing licenses and equipment, natural complements to the bait.
The new location of the Farmer’s Co-Op convenience store opened about two and a half years ago and assistant manager Mike Larizza said live bait has been offered nearly the entire time. Bait sales are a minuscule part of the store’s business, as it only carries nightcrawlers in the warmer months and has no offerings for ice fishing.
Rocky Mountain Discount Sports manager Ron Lee said the store has been selling natural bait ever since it opened.
Most customers buy one or two dozen nightcrawlers at a time and Lee said many locals also collect their own worms after spring rain showers.
Not all of the natural bait is alive, though most is. Rocky Mountain started selling dead minnows shipped from Arkansas — live minnows cannot travel across state lines due to regulations — two years ago. Minnows are a seasonal bait and the store stopped selling them earlier this month but always offers nightcrawlers and leeches. Mule worms, maggots and frozen herring are also more popular for ice fishing.
Natural bait, most of which comes from outside the country, is a small yet essential part of Sheridan business for anglers looking to reel in a quality catch.