"The first time I worked here, one of the guys says to me "Come on, let's go walk the crabs,' and I thought, yeah, they're just pulling my leg 'cause I'm the new guy," explained Robert Catrone. "I said "Sure, where's the leash?' but I really did think it was a joke."
Yet at Frank's Live Bait & Sports shop, open all night on weekends and from 4 AM to 10 PM during the week, walking the crabs is no laughing matter. Down in the basement there are tubs and tubs filled with crayfish--referred to as crabs by the fishermen--and every night Frank Vizzone's employees trot down to the warm, wet room and plop buckets of crabs on an inclined wooden runway.
"That's how we can tell which ones are alive," said Catrone, an acquaintance of the shop for about two years and an actual paid employee for the last six months. "The dead ones don't move. We end up just throwing those away."
That's a waste, according to Catrone. "Fish go after smelly bait. A dead crab can be as good as a live one, but customers by and large believe the only thing that works is live bait." He shook his head and lighted a cigarette.
"There are a million ways to use bait; there are over 100 ways to use a night crawler. Every time you think you've heard it all, somebody comes up with a radical new idea."
After a while, 25-year-old Catrone--a friendly, earnest type with a classic Roman face, a thick head of hair, and a Superman curl draped on his forehead--begins to sound like a fishing encyclopedia. He can spout volumes on the shop's inventory of rods, reels, fishing lines, sinkers, bobbers, hooks, jigs, lures, nets, fish baskets, buckets, ropes, gadgets to keep the bait alive, and even jackets and caps. On bait alone, it's easy to get the impression he could fill a book. He has the rap down on Frank's discount club, on the monthly fishing contests, on state fishing laws in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, sometimes even on where the fish are biting best on any given night or early morning.
"'When the wind's from the east, the fishing's the least,'" he quotes the old-timers as saying. "'When it's from the west, the fishing's the best.' Frank taught me that; actually, Frank taught me everything I know. He is the ultimate fisherman. He can just look at a lure and tell you what time of day it's best to use it. He's like a fishing guru."
Frank Vizzone's eyes have a twinkle too mischievous for a guru of any kind, but there is something about his beard and profile that might suggest a pagan of sorts.
"I've been doing this for so long," he said, "that I just know what to do. The boys in the shop, they're amazed when I just look at a crab and know it's going to be a peeler [one that sheds its shell], but it's just experience, that's all. I don't even know how I do it anymore, I've been doing it for so long."
To be precise, 67-year-old Vizzone has been at it since shortly after he got out of the Army in 1945, a disabled veteran who'd lost his right leg in a burst of machine gun fire. (Today Vizzone bustles around without the aid of a cane or crutches on an artificial leg.)
Before the war, he had been co-owner of a print shop, but his partner had let it go to ruin during his absence.
"He was the guy who got the customers, he was a college guy, he knew all the corporations," Vizzone, small, wiry, and animated, recounted. "Me, I got the work out. I'm a good worker--hell, I'm a great worker. I've been very ambitious all my life. I got my first job sweeping floors in a print shop for 25 cents a week. Then they let me wash the presses. After that, I learned to set type. That's how I got to know the whole printing business. During the Depression I had 11 different jobs, I just went from one to another until I couldn't learn anything more.
"Then this guy offered me a deal, to be his partner for $500. But the guy was an alcoholic. And while I was in Europe, there was nobody to get the work out. When I got back, I was disgusted. He'd let the shop run down. I was also in the process of a divorce. So, I started fishing.
"Fishing is the greatest thing in the world, if people only knew it," he said.
From that, Vizzone began selling crabs to bait shops along the lakeshore. Eventually he opened his own store on North Avenue. Although he's been pushed from one block to another by urban renewal and economic shifts, Vizzone has a shop at 1308 W. North and another in Uptown at Montrose and Clark (the Uptown store is Catrone's bailiwick).
Nearly 40 years later, Vizzone is still an active fisherman. And, yes, he does eat what he catches. "I like shellfish, perch, bass, any kind of fish," he said. The biggest catch of his life was a 25-pound northern, but Vizzone downplays it. "I don't go for size. That's not what fishing's about. I also don't care for salmon fishing, snagging, or down-rigging."
His biggest concern right now is commercial fishing in Lake Michigan. "We don't allow it on any other lake in Illinois," he said. "So why Lake Michigan? They're using these huge nets to catch perch and it's ruining their habitat."
To pursue his cause, Vizzone helped found Fishermen Interested in Saving Habitat, or FISH, a grass-roots fishermen's organization.
At Frank's Live Bait & Sports, FISH has posters urging sportsmen to write to Governor Thompson about the habitat problem. "It's not easy getting people involved," Vizzone said sadly. "And they don't get as involved as they should."
In spite of the sport's reputation as a laid-back, relaxing pastime, for Vizzone, the business of fishing is grueling. "This is a day-and-night job," he said. "You don't make a go of something like this unless you make it work. It used to be a 24-hour seven-day-a-week job, but now I just have 24-hour weekends. It was killing me. This is highly stressful. As it is, I'm a very sick man, I've got to constantly be taking pills."
Three and a half years ago, Vizzone thought he was going to die. After open-heart surgery, five bypasses, and a pacemaker, he came back to run the shop.
"He's had five heart attacks," Catrone said. "You know, he's gruff, but he's got a huge heart. Sometimes he'll hurt your feelings, but it's all a cover-up. He'll listen to criticism in his own way. I like the guy, he's a character. I like to go fishing with him, I like to listen to his stories. He reminds me a lot of my grandfather and my father. He's just passing on his knowledge, that's all."
Vizzone, who described Catrone as "a great kid" in a confidential aside, may see the hardworking young man as a throwback to another time. Although his fourth wife, Nicolette, works for the business ("I go through 'em quickly, I guess"), none of his own six children ever made the grade at the bait shop.
"The kids just didn't work out, I had to fire 'em," he said. "Of course, there were a bunch of reasons, but if you can't cut the mustard you're no good here."
Still, Catrone, who was not particularly well versed in fishing when he first met Vizzone, claims that while he loves his job, he's all "fished out" right now. Additionally, he's actively pursuing a career as a cosmetologist ("Don't get any ideas, though; gay people are fine but I'm straight," he protests). He also sculpts in his spare time.
"I've had my work appraised at about $3,000 a sculpture," he said. "I do busts, portraits. In a lot of ways, that's my bread and butter, you know, 'cause I love Frank but this is a minimum-wage job."
The duties seem simple enough. The biggest seller at the shop is the live bait, which tends to speak for itself: shiners are little fish that shine; fatheads are little fish with fat heads; maggots are maggots; and so on. But sometimes, an item or two won't fit the bill: golden roaches are actually bigger fish that have a golden aura; wax worms are fly larvae.
It's the intangibles that make the job demanding. "You have to know what you're talking about," Catrone said. "Of course, you have to be honest. If we don't know something, we just tell the customer outright we don't know. But we try very hard to please. For example, we have a lot of Polish, Korean, Chinese, and Spanish speakers that come in here. Well, we try to speak their language. I've learned quite a bit of Korean. I can communicate, even when this place is a madhouse."
Because fishing is seasonal, Frank's Live Bait & Sports has very busy nights and very slow nights. On those evenings that are less demanding, after he's cleaned everything in sight and prepared packages of leader and bait and everything else, sometimes Catrone works on his sculptures.
"Sometimes I read," he said. "Sometimes I just sit outside the door, smoke a cigarette, and watch the stuff that goes on in the street in the middle of the night. Sometimes I think I'd rather be out fishing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.