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Big Catch closure signifies end of an era

As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. At the end of this month, Big Catch Bait and Tackle (located at 2287 Niagara St. in the Riverside section of Buffalo) will be closing its doors – representing the end of an era that started 42 years ago when Bill and Pat van Camp decided to open a business with $500 and a dream.

“I’m not dying at the Big Catch,” Pat insisted during a recent visit to the store. “We’re both happy and healthy. It’s time to enjoy life.”

“We’ve had a good ride,” says Bill, 66. “Sometimes you just have to give it up though. It’s time to relax. I’ve already purchased my first fishing license in 10 years because now I will have some free time to take advantage of some of the great fishing we have around here. This business took up a bulk of our time. It seemed like we would be on the run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

It was back in 1976 that Bill and Pat went into the bait and tackle business. They both quit their jobs and jumped in with all four feet. They started with $500 and bought as much tackle inventory as they could from H.L. Peters, a fishing tackle wholesaler on Main Street in Buffalo and Pete Sinatra in Niagara Falls. They also had a business partner in Jim Dillman of Williamsville, but they bought him out shortly after the first year of the operation.

“It was tough going in the early years,” said Pat. “It wasn’t until we saw trucks from Ohio grabbing baitfish from the foot of Ferry Street that we decided to enter into the bait business as a wholesaler. That was around 1980, supplying many area shops. It wasn’t long before we took the business on the road and started delivering to Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and all over New York.”

The business flourished. At one point, Big Catch opened up a second store on Niagara Street near the Peace Bridge. They supported five full-time bait catchers and a total of 26 store employees (which included the drivers on the road).

“In the 1990’s we were one of the biggest bait wholesalers in the country offering shops wild-caught baitfish with a good selection of product,” said Bill. “We gave the fishermen what they wanted. Of course, I didn’t want people to know how big the business had grown because I didn’t really want any competition.”

There were several reasons for the success of their overall operation. One was customer service. “I’m old school,” said Bill. “Customer service seems to be a thing of the past these days. Through the years we would try to keep our customer first in mind. And we treated our suppliers the same way. We would develop a rapport with them and they would take care of us. For instance, we would end up with the biggest nightcrawlers because of our old-school mentality.”

Bill Van Camp in front of bait at Big Catch in 2008. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Another reason for the success was the family atmosphere within the business. Big Catch was a place to hang out. “We watched kids like Greg Becker of Riverside start working at the shop at 14,” reflected Pat. “He’s 42 now and he still works here on Saturdays. It became a family affair, a tight knit group devoted to servicing Western New York anglers.”

A third reason for success was the product itself. It was quality merchandise and the selection was diverse. They did what they needed to in an effort to keep the customer happy. Old School.

Live bait was the way to go in those days and at one time there were seven bait and tackle shops along Niagara Street and to a certain extent they all flourished. Big Catch became a baitfish empire until the discovery of a terrible fish disease, Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS), arrived in the Great Lakes in 2005.

Big Catch in 1976.

By 2007, new fish transportation regulations were put in place and baitfish distribution the way they knew it came to a screeching halt. It took them two years, but the business finally transitioned from wild-caught baitfish to certified baitfish that were trucked in from other states like Arkansas.

“At one point we were servicing 150 stores in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio,”  Bill said. “The cost of business had to go up because baitfish had to be certified. We tried to go the certification route with baitfish we collected ourselves, but the process was too difficult. After you caught the fish the tanks had to be completely empty. Then it took 21 days to certify them, even though the tests often took less than a week. New York had the toughest laws of them all. The new baitfish laws destroyed the business back then and it’s still impacting us today.”

At least it will until the end of the month when they close their doors for good.

Bill Van Kamp in 2006. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

That’s what they will be doing, too – closing the doors and locking them. They are keeping the property and holding on to it. In the meantime, their son Aaron is operating a cash-for-cans service in the building next door. He will also be offering live bait like worms and crabs. However, he will not be offering baitfish like minnows and shiners.

No baitfish? That raises a very interesting question: What will happen to the 150-plus stores that Big Catch used to service? All were notified of their pending retirement. There are other bait wholesalers, but can they deliver – both literally and figuratively.?

Almost immediately coinciding with the announcement of the Big Catch retirement, bait prices increased. Smaller shops in out-of-the-way places may not sell enough bait to justify costs and transport. Will it force smaller shops to close? For the trucks of certified bait coming in from out-of-state, how long before they can’t justify making the trip because of profits (or lack thereof)? Or, worse yet, how long before those operations are shut down due to disease or the bringing in of another invasive species that can compromise our resources?

Hats off to the folks at Big Catch. May you have a happy and productive retirement. Thank you for your dedication and service through the years. Thank you for sharing your angling knowledge and encouraging the next generation to go fishing. Fish on.

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