Dec. 12—GLENFIELD — Stories swam, memories jumped and laughter flowed around Phyllis Ward's kitchen as her family and a couple of her best customers joined her to reminisce about the life and times of her Mud Puppy Bait Shop on Thursday.
On Dec. 18, Mrs. Ward will turn 87, and after Dec. 31, when she will open and close the shop for the last time, she will turn her front porch business back into her front porch.
For 45 years, locals and seasonal visitors alike have stopped by to grab some tackle, stock up on minnows, tell a tale and have some laughs with Mrs. Ward and her late husband James L. Ward.
While many understand why Mrs. Ward is shutting the Mud Puppy's doors, she said "a whole lot of them are not happy about it" and have reached out on social media to let her know the shop will be missed.
"I'm getting along in age and of course I've been having some health problems," she said. "The last year and a half have been terrible ... we just haven't been able to get (things) through this COVID — mainly hooks and sinkers — and then my crab man went out of business and I couldn't get them for the people last year."
Because she has been running the shop alone since Mr. Ward died at the age of 88 in January 2019, she said she can't get away to find new sources while keeping the shop open like her husband used to do.
Most of the time, even before Mr. Ward passed, it was Mrs. Ward behind the counter of the shop while he went to pick up supplies or go hunting or fishing with family and friends.
"Grandpa would come and go as he pleases, but Grandma was always here," her grandson Jerry Ward said. "The number of times before Grandpa's passing that this shop was closed I could count on one hand — and that was a rare emergency."
If regular customers saw the shop closed, it was so strange that many would worry about the Wards' safety and would call their children, grandchildren or even the Lewis County Sheriff's Office to make sure that the couple was OK.
When Mrs. Ward was asked about the biggest challenges she faced running the shop over the years, her granddaughter interjected, "dealing with Grandpa," to which Mrs. Ward responded, "You took the words right out of my mouth," bringing on a round of hearty laughter from the group.
The shop was her husband's idea. Although they ran it together, by all accounts of those gathered, she ran it more, making sure it was open every day.
After the last two bait shops in the area closed in 1976, the Wards decided to sell bait from their front porch, opening their doors on Memorial Day weekend that year.
"I started out with a few boxes of night crawlers, a few hooks and a few sinkers ... kept right here on the table," Mrs. Ward said.
The porch wasn't enclosed at that time and, her daughter Christina Merry added, the worms were kept in the kitchen refrigerator.
Mrs. Ward said that while worms are delivered now and have been making it through even during the ongoing pandemic, she and her husband had people "picking worms" for the shop's supply at first.
"They would pick worms real good as long as they had their cigarettes and their beer," she said with a laugh.
Mr. Ward's presence was still felt around the table while the fishermen and generations of family took turns interjecting his angler-focused wisdom and allusions to the many tales both he and their customers would tell.
"My husband was a fisherman from the time he was born, practically. He was quite the outdoors man," said Mrs. Ward, to which their granddaughter, Melissa Zehr, added, "He didn't just make up the stories everybody came to listen to."
The rest of those present responded with a long, slow and doubtful, "Well..." followed by another fit of laughter and reminders of all the "big fish" stories that have circulated around the shop for years.
"He never let people out the door when they were ready to leave," Mrs. Ward said. "He had another story."
She doesn't, however, have a favorite or one that sticks in her mind, primarily because she "heard them all so many times."
The rest of the family came up with many of his phrases offering tongue-in-cheek advice amid some nuggets of genuine wisdom.
"Anytime anybody ever came in the winter time he'd always ask them if they had a shovel (and tell them) you got to go dig some ice worms (before shore launch) and don't eat yellow snow," their grandson said. "That was his ice fishing quote every year."
"Then in the summertime it was, 'Don't forget to put the plug in (the boat),'" Mrs. Ward added, after which their daughter anted up with, "And if we were out in the boat fishing and the fish were biting someplace where we were, he'd say, 'Put an X on the side of the boat to mark the spot.'"
There were a few others, his granddaughter said, that were a bit too bawdy to share but that some customers came to expect.
One local fisherman, a longtime customer and friend of the Ward family, boat maker Pat Brown, recalled Mr. Ward using the unique viewpoint reached as a 42-year telephone company employee as the jumping off point for some excellent fishing advice.
"He'd tell you about being up at Blue Mountain Lake, up on a (telephone) pole, and he'd say, 'Geez, there was fish working in this certain area,' he could see from the pole, or they'd be putting in an underwater line somewhere here in the Adirondacks and he'd be involved with that and would give you a little bit of an inside scoop on some of that stuff from when he was working," Mr. Brown said. "He always had his eyes and ears open as far as (how) the fish were going on in different places."
The mom-and-pop shop has embodied the relaxed, welcoming, community-focused spirit that term evokes.
Part of that has been Mrs. Ward's tireless efforts to help people when they need it.
"You've been real generous with helping out somebody in the area who has cancer or whatever. There's just been a lot of fun events that you have put together here," Mr. Brown told Mrs. Ward while the group tried to calculate exactly how many fundraisers she has thrown for people beyond an annual fishing derby benefit.
There were too many to count.
The derby got its start when her grandson needed help paying for lung surgery in 2011.
The proceeds for each derby — which involves fishing on the Black River between Carthage and Lyons Falls with awards for the best in a number of categories, raffles, food and fun right in the Wards' yard — were dedicated to a different charity or cause until 2019. Proceeds went to a variety of organizations, including the American Heart Association and Lewis County General Hospital for kidney dialysis machines.
"When my husband passed, the family decided to do it as a scholarship for somebody going into environmental conservation," Mrs. Ward said.
Mrs. Merry said that money raised beyond the scholarship amount goes to a local group like hospice or Lewis County Search and Rescue. This year, the Lowville Food Pantry was the chosen beneficiary.
Even after the Mud Puppy closes, the Jim Ward Memorial Derby will continue.
Mrs. Ward said she has no regrets about going into the bait business.
"It's been fun. I've enjoyed meeting a lot of people. We've enjoyed making a lot of friends and some we still have as friends ... in New Jersey and Ohio and places like that, who come every year," she said. "I'm going to miss all these people coming in and out. You got to where you knew just about what time to expect them to come and open up their camps."
She said she is sure many of them are the kind of friends who will still come to visit her even with the shop closes.
In the new year, Mrs. Ward said she is going to spend more time doing some of the things she loves, especially crocheting, and will take time to relax — which garnered some questions from her grandchildren about whether she knows how to relax, given how hard she has worked her entire life.
On the weekends, "Mrs. Mud Puppy," as she referred to herself in the hand-written letter to the "guys and gals" that frequent the bait store, will continue to sell the remaining fishing tackle bits and bobs — actual bobs — and Mud Puppy memorabilia at marked down prices. Or she'll sell some of her hand-crocheted items with the help of her great-granddaughter, Brook Ward.
Mrs. Ward will still tell some stories and lend a hand.
Before she lets you leave, she will make sure you've got a Mud Puppy calendar for your new year of fishing, even though you won't have the Mud Puppy.