BY don shoopman
THE DAILY IBERIAN
Crickets kickin’ in containers and shiners swimming in water-filled bags are being carried out with increasing frequency the past few weeks by fishermen who shop at Iberia Outboard & Marine Service Bait & Tackle Shop along the frontage road at 2703 Highway 90 East.
Rickey Sonnier, 59, points out the bait shop is much more than live bait, including worms, and frozen bait, including shrimp, and enough fishing tackle to fill a couple of walls and pegboards. The roomy building next to the outboard marine repair’s showroom is filled with crawfish traps, crab traps and frog cages, all handmade with wire by Sonnier, who also sells the wire for those who want to build them themselves.
Sonnier, who lives in rural Iberia Parish, is enjoying the run on live bait. Customer traffic was heavy Saturday morning.
“Right now, freshwater’s on” for bream and sac-a-lait, Sonnier said, naming some of the hotspots as Sandy Cove in Lake Fausse Pointe, borrow pits on this side of the West Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee, Bayou Sale, Quintana and Henderson Lake. There are numerous private ponds also giving up the tasty panfish that give an angler such a sporting fight.
His favorite is chinquapin.
“It’s fun to catch them. It’s fun to eat them,” he said.
The sac-a-lait, bream, chinquapin and goggle-eye bite will improve when the Atchafalaya River drops to a fishable level, preferably at 10.0 feet and falling at Butte La Rose, and fishin’ fever is directed at the Atchafalaya Basin.
During the peak of the season for bream and sac-a-lait, Iberia Outboard & Marine Service’s bait shop sells approximately 3,000 shiners and as many crickets a week, Sonnier said. Crickets, shiners and worms are delivered by wholesalers, he said.
Many of those crickets and worms aren’t destined to be eyeballed, sniffed and (hopefully) eaten by fish. Sonnier said people also buy them to feed lizards and spiders and frogs. Turtles?
“That too,” he said with a smile.
Sonnier’s days at the bait shop will be busier whenever Vermilion Bay starts clearing and salinity increases, conditions that hinge on the height of the Atchafalaya River, which pumps fresh, turbid water into the region at the mouth below Morgan City and via the Wax Lake Outlet. Don’t expect that to happen until the river falls below 12.0 feet or so at BLR.
When the river drops, saltwater fishermen file through the bait shop’s door to get their hands on live cocohoe minnows, which are a delicacy for speckled trout and redfish anywhere along the coast. Three cocahoe minnow tanks in the bait shop are ready for use once the large and hardy baitfish are delivered from Leeville.
Iberia Outboard & Marine Service grew out of the shadows, so to speak, of Magnum Trucking Inc., Sonnier’s former trucking company.
“I was a little bitty trucker with big ambitions,” the elder Sonnier said as he looked at photos in a frame hanging in the hallway between two offices chronicling his rise in the trucking industry. “I bought this yellow truck; then I bought this white one; then I bought another one, then these two trucks at the same time.”
He ended up with six big rigs. Then the oil and gas industry hit another rough patch. He was pained to see downturns that affected men and women in the business each year, especially around Christmas.
His son, Ryan Sonnier, graduated from Marine Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Florida, returned home and started working on outboard motors and engines.
“He (Ryan) knew he wanted to do that before he was out of school (Loreauville High School),” said Wanda Sonnier, Rickey Sonnier’s wife who also logs time at their family business and is proud of their son.
Ryan, now 35, worked at a few local outboard motor repair shops, developing a reputation along the way. Eventually, he started working from his home, next door to his parents, and the yard was full of boats much of the time.
Rickey and Wanda saw their son’s potential and decided to help. He sold the tractor-trailer rigs and invested in the business, which soon got on as a dealer for Yamaha Outboards.
The original small shop at the present site looked more like a little house, Ryan said a few years after it was built. Room was made for more space.
“We’ve grown a little bit. We’ve come a long way,” Sonnier said about the overall business.
The new 40-foot x 60-foot addition to the building for the bait shop was built in 2013. The small corridor that previously housed the bait shop, which began operations about two years earlier, is a storage area now.
Bait shops aren’t as, for want of a better word, alluring as older generations of outdoorsmen might remember them. Thirty to 40 years ago, and earlier, they were a “must stop” before an outing for bream and/or sac-a-lait, places like the old Jerry Huck’s Bait and Tackle Shop on Louisiana 14 and Elton Landry’s bait shop on Louisiana 86, also known as the Loreauville.
“Having a bait shop is not as good as it was,” Sonnier said, in the heyday, before the advent of artificial plastics, even artificial crickets. There’s a fake corn product bottled in a jar and on the shelf at his bait shop, an artificial that is quite effective at catching bream, he said.
“Some days we might sit here in bad weather or cold weather and serve one or two customers,” he said. “They’ve still got people who don’t know we’re here.”
Still, the self-described people person wouldn’t have it any other way. Sonnier and his daughter, Kimberly Collins, man the bait shop.
The 43-year-old Collins, who has worked there since 2009, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., said about her time in the bait shop, said, “It’s fun.”
“She never missed a day of work. She’s always early. She only (misses) if she goes to the doctor,” Sonnier said about his daughter, whose daughter, Laine, a sixth-grade honor roll student at Loreauville, enjoys hunting immensely with her maternal grandfather.
Collins is a proud, working mom, which explains why she leaves the bait shop at 3 p.m. “I have to be home for my little girl,” she said in her soft voice.
Inside the large, wooden cricket box there are cardboard egg containers and carrots. Crickets love to eat carrots, according to Sonnier.
The bait shop has what can be considered a modern relic — a red minnow tank that was in a grocery store that later became a bait shop in Jeanerette. It is one of three large minnow tanks behind the counter.
“This old tank here from Jeanerette, Andy’s Grocery, I got it from them and we’re still using it. A long time ago I used to buy shiners there,” he said, noting the minnow tank later served patrons who visited Luke’s Bait & Grocery.
Sonnier is glad to be talking about the history and the present. He smiles a lot these days for a reason.
“I just fought off lung cancer. I could tell you about the power of prayer and the power of God. It took me 58 years to find Jesus,” he said.
There was a cancerous tumor about the size of a softball on his lungs. After chemo last year from June to November, it was reduced to the size of a 50-cent piece.
As he looked around, with a new lease on life, he said, “I’ve got a lot of work left to do.”