by Nick Williams | Photos by Alex Timoney
Love it or hate it, Baldwin County is growing. Growth and change go hand-in-hand, and so it comes as no surprise that Baldwin County has changed as it’s grown.
You can see the changes readily. Through the decades, agricultural fields have turned into shopping malls, dunes have been replaced by condominiums, and messy little swamps have been cleaned up and turned into tidy-looking retention ponds in the middle of tidy-looking subdivisions.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that I suppose. I’ve been known to browse the Eastern Shore Mall, vacation down at Orange Beach, and even wet a line in some of the fishier urban ponds. But I confess to sometimes needing a break from what can seem like impossibly fast-paced change.
On days when the constant roadwork and “Coming Soon!” signs start to wear a little thin, I usually throw a rod and a bucket in the car and head for the Delta. Over the years I’ve found that transitioning straight from the hum of traffic to the hum of frog and insect choruses can be a little jarring, so it’s best to “ease in” to the slower pace.
Preparation is half the battle when it comes to fish- ing, and I know a place that helps with that.
Newburn Boutwell started selling worms at his place up State Route 225 back in 1952. Seventy-one years later his daughter, Rebecca Boutwell Parker (known by most patrons as “Ms. Becky”), still runs the place with the help of a clever little feller named Peanut. Ms. Becky is Southern hospitality personified, and she gives me a friendly greeting as I step through the door.
“Well, it’s about time you came back to see me!” she smiles. “How’s your wife? Does she know you’re out fishing without her?”
I raise a finger to my lips with a smile.
“Mine snuck off today too!” she chuckles. “I swear he’d rather fish than eat. He teases sometimes that he married me because my momma ran a bait shop!”
Peanut interrupts our pleasantries with a bark and trots up to the entryway to administer the mandatory sniff test. He’s Head of Security, and even though I’m a frequent visitor, protocol is protocol. I don’t know what he’s sniffing for, but apparently he doesn’t detect it and he eventually steps aside with a little huff.
Once I’m cleared for entry, I glance around the shop. It’s a far cry from most of the new construction you see farther south. Just an add-on room to a pretty brick house that seems to have grown under the live oaks as opposed to being constructed. But it’s well stocked with everything you need for a day on the Delta.
Worms, of course. Red wrigglers for panfish, and nightcrawlers for bass and catfish. It may sound funny to say, but I’m a bit of a worm snob. Most of your big chain stores and gas station country stores sell worms, but they don’t do enough volume or make enough money off of them to bother keeping fresh stock in rotation. I’ve learned to check the little containers for dead worms, mildew, and off-color smells. Dead and dying worms don’t catch fish. Luckily, Ms. Becky takes her profession as a live-bait seller seriously.
The first time I ever bought a container of night-crawlers from her, I was pleasantly surprised to watch her dump the container in a pan and sift through the contents before handing it over to me. I’ve bought hundreds of boxes of worms, but I can honestly say that was the first time I’d seen anybody take something that simple that seriously.
She takes equal pride in her bait tanks. Three large, black-plastic cattle troughs dominate the small room. Each one is stocked with a different size of Notemigonus crysoleucas, or Golden Shiner. Everything in the Delta will eat a shiner if it’s the right size, and Becky carries everything from dainty little “crappie minnows” that are barely an inch long to monstrous “jumbo shiners” that look almost big enough to filet. The latter are my bait of choice when I’m looking to target big bass or trophy river cats, but they’re hard to find consistently. On the Tensaw side of the swamp, Boutwell’s is the only bait shop I’ve found that keeps them on hand.
I haven’t been out on the river for a couple of weeks, so I ask Becky what’s selling. “Definitely the crickets,” she smiles. “I can hardly keep them in stock. With the bluegill bite being hot, I’m ordering 85 cases a week.”
For those curious, a case holds 1,000 live crickets. 85,000 crickets is a lot of crickets.
Boutwell’s stays busy, obviously, but somehow it never feels busy.
Even when the driveway is full and the door can’t seem to swing closed with people coming and going, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.
“I’m kinda the barkeeper of fishing,” Becky chuckles. “I know all the gossip. Now and then I get some rougher people in here, but they all treat me with respect. That’s because I treat them with respect. And most of the folks that come here are good people. Some of them are folks that used to work here with my dad, picking worms for extra money. Most of the people born and raised here, they’re like family to me. Isn’t that right, Peanut?”
Peanut lets out a soft little bark in agreement.
“The people are the best part of running the shop. I hear a lot of fishing stories, of course. The best are kids that come in to tell you about the first fish they caught. They’re always fun,” she smiles.
I ask her what the worst part is.
“Definitely the hours,” she sighs. “I work 90 hours a week, at least. And that’s with me closing at night. When daddy ran the shop, he’d get up in the middle of the night and wait on people. Folks going out to catch catfish mostly. It was 24/7. I don’t do that. But people fish early in the morning and late at night, and if you’re going to run a bait shop, you have to be open when they’re up and going. And when the weather’s nice, it’s almost constantly busy.”
As if on cue, tires crunch on the gravel drive and Peanut springs to attention. The door swings open and a man with a smile and a bucket steps through the door.
“Well, hello there!” Becky beams at the man. “What can I get you?”
I break away to the back wall while she scoops shiners for the man, browsing the soft plastics, jigheads, and bobbers. A box of hand-tied flies catch my eye. The mayfly imitations are almost uncanny in their resemblance to the bugs that are just now starting to swarm the backwaters of the Delta.
I gingerly pick one up and deliberate for a moment. I can’t deny the efficiency of hitting the river with a cane pole and a couple of dozen crickets. But I do have a new tenkara fly rod sitting behind my driver’s seat, and the idea of attempting to coax a few topwater bites is enticing …
“A local guy ties those; Leon Cumbie. Aren’t they nice?” she asks. “They’re popular right now. So are those ATX baits. I can’t keep the Orange Crush color in stock right now.”
I pick out a few flies and head to the register. Ms. Becky rings me up.
“Let me know how those do for you,” she smiles, “and take care! Come back and see me!”
I give Peanut a farewell scratch and head for the car, walking slower going out than I walked in.
I think I’m ready to fish now.