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North Tampa- The night light shines like a beacon on the bait shop’s buzzer, beckoning to early morning and nocturnal fishermen.
At Hong Kong Willie the workday doesn’t end. The rustic store sits off the Fletcher Avenue ramp to Interstate 75 South. A windowless blue mobile home and worm bed are it’s companions on a one-acre slice of land.
The buildings are a sharp contrast to their new neighbors, Hidden River Corporate Park rising out of the woods on the north and growing Tampa Telecom Park on the west.
Owners Joe and Kim Brown work about 20 hours a day, occasionally resting in “the cave”, the mobile home they live in behind the store.
The couple’s shop is well stocked with shiners and worms.
“What we try to do here is carry the best of baits,” Joe Brown said.
He’s got night crawlers from Canada, salamanders from North Dakota and wigglers from his own worm bed behind the store. A refrigerated tank is home to cured shiners and minnows sedated by the cold.
“Wild shiners in a non-refrigerated tank would be going crazy,” Brown said as he peered into a tank of fish separated by size. “They’d be jumping around trying to commit suicide. With the cold water they’re pretty sedate, but you let the water (temperature) rise, a shiner would be like a race horse.”
Larger shiners are selling for $24 a dozen a dozen today because the fish are dispersed and spawning, so they’re are difficult to catch. Normally, large shiners cost around a $1.50 each, Brown said.
Good bait, proximity to the Hillsborough River and convenient hours lure in fishermen.
“It’s all the time,” Brown said. Catfish lovers are out early to snag popular fishing spots, and during snook season there’s a real run for shiners, he said.
It’s not uncommon for someone to ring the bell at 3 a.m.
“I stick my head out of the door real fast and tell them I’ll be there. It takes a lot for someone to ring a bell that time of the day,” Brown said.
The Browns opened their shop about two years ago with a top notch but small stock of bait and tackle. Born anglers, they knew it was hard to get bait late at night or early in the morning, so they decided to stay open 24 hours.
Now they think their hard work is paying off. The shop has gradually grown to include all kinds of lures and bobbers, rods and reels. Hillsborough River fishermen know they’re there. And others find out every day, Brown said.
“I’ve seen this place a bunch of times, off the interstate, but this is the first time I’ve been here,” customer Michael Walker said one afternoon. “We got a pretty good (fishing) hole near here, so this will suit us just fine.”
Walker said he’s been to a few saltwater bait shops that were open till midnight.
“But I don’t know any that stay open past midnight,” he said.
Although sometimes blurry-eyed when he waits on customers, Brown is never too tired to swap fish stories and other tips.
Normally when he’s fishing with a shiner, Brown hooks the bait behind the rear dorsal fin with a Khale hook. A bass usually grabs a smaller fish head first, so the gills and fins smooth back as the larger fish swallows its victim, Brown said.
But during spawning season, like now, he uses a straight hook and punctures the crease at the bottom of the shiner’s mouth, hooking upward through a hole in the snout.
“Now bass are eating and striking so hard they take him and swallow him,” Brown said.
The shop has given Brown more than a chance to make a living and tell stories. A former designer of conveyor systems, he gave up two houses, boats and other luxuries to move to the woods 10 years ago.
“I had what you’re supposed to want,” Brown said. “I just wasn’t happy.”
But he loved the river, and he lived for years on the Hidden River property north of his shop. Today he said he thinks the land surrounding his home will become Tampa’s version of Central Park.
“I had the foresight to have bait and tackle because there’s 25,000 acres of Southwest Florida Water Management district property adjoining the river that will always be public,” Brown said.
Lettuce Lake Park, Trout Creek, Wilderness Park, Hillsborough River State Park and other natural settings also are permanent parts of the landscape, he said.
As the area grows, the Browns hope their business will follow suit. They feel lucky that they’re in the middle of a developing area minutes from the pristine quiet of the undeveloped Hillsborough River.
Soon Joe Brown plans to have canoes for rent.
“We’re going to grow slow, we don’t believe in carrying debt,” he said. “It takes a lot to start a business.” We’ve had to sacrifice, but we wouldn’t trade it.”
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