Local, friendly, and open for business for nearly 30 years.
Mom-and-pop hometown bait shops were once abundant in Missouri. You could see them on the way to the lake or river, along busy highways and backroads, and in alleys on Main Street. These shops were crammed with fishing tackle, groceries, and of course, all the live bait a fisherman needs. These small and sometimes ramshackle businesses linked the fishing industry and fishermen in the years before sporting goods superstores and giant chain outlets. Bait shops in those days didn’t compete with the shop down the road. There was plenty of business to go around and nobody was in it to get rich.
Today, family-owned tackle shops are a rare, but glorious, find. They’re usually modest in size but filled with an array of colorful gear. They’re places where you can grab what you need, hang out, talk fishing, and not feel pressured to buy anything — a fisherman’s heaven.
Located in Apache Flats, Mertens Live Bait & Tackle sells everything needed for a day of fishing the local waters, including live and frozen bait, lures, rods, reels, line, nets, hooks, sinkers, licenses, and some convenient snack options.
After marrying in 1981, owners Jim and Carolyn Mertens operated a gas station in Apache Flats when they began to notice quite a few customers were looking for fishing supplies when they stopped for gas. Jumping on the opportunity to buy the building next door, the pair opened Mertens Live Bait & Tackle in 1992.
Over the next 20 years, Jim and Carolyn sold fishing supplies to anglers traveling to and from a variety of locations across the Midwest, fishing for whatever was biting. After Jim passed away in 2013, Jefferson City Parks, Recreation & Forestry created the Jim Mertens Memorial Kids Fishing Derby in his honor. It’s free event where prizes are awarded to participants for the smallest, largest, and most fish caught. Since Jim’s death, Carolyn has continued to manage the shop on her own.
“Part-time, full-time, whatever. I’m supposed to be retired.”Randy Gregory
“Early on, we had a lot of drive-past traffic,” Carolyn says. “That decreased after the highway was built, but our loyal customers still knew the way to Mertens. We try to keep a pretty good array of supplies for bass and crappie fishermen. We cater to all kinds of fishermen. If they ask for stuff, we try to get it in, but it has been harder to get supplies due to COVID-19.”
She nods to Randy Gregory, a part-time employee since 2010. “Then he gets stuck with all the paperwork,” she says.
“Part-time, full-time, whatever. I’m supposed to be retired,” Randy says, chuckling.
Carolyn’s granddaughter, Savannah Thomas, also helps out part-time and has fond memories of hanging out in the shop with her grandma when she was growing up.
“She used to put me in a cardboard box to keep me out of the way when she was busy,” Savannah laughs.
“She liked it,” Carolyn replies.
Behind the glass counter where they wait for customers to arrive, three elderly dogs — strays who were taken in after being dumped — lay curled up in beds beneath a large fish tank built into the wall. Circling the tank is an enormous, 30-year-old pacu – a freshwater fish related to the piranha. A herbivore and an extremely peaceful species of fish, pacus are also known to develop personalities as they grow older and can sometimes recognize their owners.
Carolyn purchased the then much smaller fish from a man who was moving out of state.
“I knew it would die if I didn’t, so I bought it off him,” she says. “I had no idea it would live forever.”
Spring is their busiest time, according to Carolyn. But their business hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic. In fact, it increased as outdoor activities became more popular. Randy says that, for a while, it was harder to keep their normal inventory of tackle, rods, and reels in stock.
“There were four or five months when we couldn’t even get a Zebco [fishing rod],” he says.
The shop also acts as a local hangout where many a fish tale is told.
“We cater to all kinds of fishermen.”Carolyn Mertens
“Fishing has pretty much been the same over the last 30 years,” Carolyn laughs. “All the fish stories are good. But they kind of go in one ear and out the other.”
Open 365 days a year from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closing at 5:00 p.m. on Sundays), you can count on Mertens Live Bait & Tackle doing what they’ve always done best: being local, friendly, and open for business.
“I want to keep the shop forever and have no plans to sell,” Carolyn says, standing behind her glass counter.