The service is the bait here.
Dan Cooper, owner of Possession Point Bait Co. in Clinton, slogs through the water in chest waders to hand deliver-buckets of live herring to boaters.
Or if the tide is really ripping, he tosses a bag of the bait from shore, along with a tennis ball. Shove $7 inside the ball slit and throw it back.
“I just say, ‘Hit the beach anywhere,’” Cooper said.
Such personal touches you just don’t find many places. It has been that way here for nearly 60 years.
The bait store sits on 210 feet of flat beachfront at the bottom point of Whidbey Island, with sweeping views from past Edmonds to beyond Everett.
A supersized “LIVE BAIT” sign on the front of the three-story gray building can be seen from the water. By land, you have to travel about 8 miles from the Clinton ferry terminal and along curvy stretches to reach the rustic fishing destination at 8311 S. Franklin Road.
Anglers can grab a bucket to fish on the beach or get a takeout order of herring.
Cooper, who lives above the shop, is up before dawn.
“On weekdays the ferry leaves Mukilteo at 5:05 so everybody gets here at 5:35, 5:40,” he said. “In come the cars. They get their bait and off they go.”
Cooper, 60, has spent his life working in the bait business started in the 1960s by his parents, who live in Clinton. His dad started Jim & John’s fishing resort in the late 1940s on Columbia Beach. In the heyday on Whidbey, there were about 20 of these so-called resorts with simple beach cabins for cheap getaways for families and diehards who just wanted to fish.
For years, Cooper delivered bait to the mainland.
“Soon as I could drive I was at the boat launch selling herring,” he said.
One stop was Donny Minteer’s Woody’s Market, a former bait and ice cream shop at the Mukilteo waterfront in space absorbed by Diamond Knot Brewery & Alehouse.
“Dan really busted hump to keep his business going and to support me,” Minteer said. “He would bring me over bait first thing in the morning on the first boat and then he’d race back over and open up his own shop.”
Woody’s Market customers depended on the bait.
“During the fishing season they’d line up and wait for me to open with fresh herring,” Minteer said.
These days, Minteer, who now works in the RV industry, stops by Cooper’s bait shop, as he did recently by boat.
“I had the ice chest ready and Dan hollered at me from his shack, ‘How much?’ and I said, ‘One dozen live ones,’ and he brought them down in a bucket and handed them over the bow of the boat,” Minteer said. “I handed him his bucket back and his cash, and we backed out and off we went.”
Minteer said that alone is testament to Cooper’s devotion.
“Seldom is there a case where an owner of a business will put on chest waders, bring out 12 live fish in a bucket and walk waist deep out into the water, hold your boat off so it won’t run aground and hand you a bag of bait for $7,” Minteer said.
The beach is a good place to fish, even if you don’t catch anything.
“You go over and sit on a bucket and bring a hot coffee and sit there for an hour and watch these people, men, women and children of all ages, and they’re casting their wiggly herring out there. And when the salmon take it it’s a great fight, super fun to watch,” Minteer said.
“You got guys out there in $200,000 fishing boats trolling back and forth. And you got people who choose to fish off the beach with a bobber. And sometimes they do better there.”
There are about five licensed sport bait herring fisheries in the state, said Todd Sandell, a forage fish ecologist biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It’s very important that we have a local source for herring bait,” Sandell said by email. “Keeping this fishery open means that Washington state isn’t importing frozen herring from outside the region, which can introduce unwanted fish pathogens into our waters. Turns out freezing a fish doesn’t kill the viruses, so this is something we watch out for.”
Cooper nets in the herring to stock in a concrete saltwater pond by the shop.
Payment is by cash or check, by hand or by tennis ball. No plastic, Venmo or Square. Though he does have a cell phone and a Dan Cooper YouTube channel with 170 subscribers.
Inside the shop is a push-button phone tethered to the wall with a long coiled cord that reaches to the nearby rooms with tackle and snacks. Lots of snacks. Bait for the humans, you might say.
The area attracts wildlife from land and sea. River otters cross the sand to dine.
An electric wire around the tank keeps the otters from dining on the herring.
“Once they touch that, they don’t come around, they just waddle on past,” Cooper said. “They drag up flounders. You’ll hear them crunching on those.”
Oliver, his 13-year-old Pomeranian-shiatsu mix, stands guard, ears flapping in the sea breeze.
His son, Kyle, helps at the bait shop in the summer. He’s a senior at Western Washington University, majoring in biology. Not marine biology. His daughter, Sydney, works in Langley.
Cooper’s not sure who will fill his wading boots someday.
The state-regulated coho fishing season in his region, Marine Area 8-2, was only five weeks this year and ends Monday. Nearby Area 9 closes Sept. 25.
“Right now this should be going gangbusters,” Cooper said. “It started out so slow and still has been slow. It is the worst ever for catching silvers on the beach and selling bait.”
No matter. Cooper keeps doing what he’s done for decades and what his parents did before.
He’ll continue to sell herring for people in other areas with active fishing and for the Everett Coho Derby on Sept. 24 and 25 at the Everett Marina.
Later this month, he’ll hang up his Frogg Toggs chest waders and dry out his tall rubber boots.
But not for good.
He hopes for better times in the spring, when lingcod season starts.