By Tim McNeil
It’s always wise to keep your garage door closed and locked at night. And not just at night, but at all hours of the day. Larry Dendinger knows there’s wisdom in safeguarding home possessions and personal safety, but he runs a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week business from his garage. His garage door is always open.
Dendinger, 75, owns L&A Bait in southwest Omaha. It’s not the first bait shop he’s owned — Dendinger is an accidental bait store owner. From 1985 to 1998, Dendinger operated Millard Bait & Tackle from a storefront in a shopping plaza.
Born and raised in Hartington, Nebraska, Dendinger’s childhood included milking cows, trapping varmints and feeding hogs, and in between farm chores, he fished Lewis and Clark Lake, the Missouri River, farm ponds and Gavins Point Dam.
“I’d go to nearby creeks and seine my own minnows,” Dendinger said about a once-common practice that is now outlawed in Nebraska.
After graduating from high school, Dendinger operated heavy equipment for Cedar County. He didn’t know it then, but his experience as a heavy equipment operator would come in handy as a bait shop owner.
Dendinger’s brother-in-law encouraged him to move to Omaha and work for the Western Electric Company. As a heavy equipment operator, he could make more money in one week than in a month. So, he moved in 1969 and worked 40 to 48 hours a week. But the slow pace didn’t satisfy the hard-driving, adventurous Dendinger. He left Western Electric in 1979 and opened a lawn service company — Dendinger Lawn & Garden. He and nine employees landscaped, fertilized and mowed lawns around Omaha. He still operates the company today as its only employee.
Between yard work and raising three children, Dendinger still found time to fish. He joined Cornhusker Bass Club and competed in tournaments. He got his minnows at Millard Bait & Tackle.
One day, the store owner said to him, “Why don’t you buy me out?”
“I don’t need more work,” Dendinger replied.
Around that time, Millard Bait & Tackle was to permanently close its doors, and the owner tossed Dendinger a set of keys.
“Look it over,” he said, meaning the shop. “This is what I want out of it.” He quoted Dendinger a sales price.
Dendinger went home and talked it over with his wife, Adrian. “We thought, ‘Why not?’” A few days later, the Dendingers were bait shop owners.
They expanded Millard Bait & Tackle and relocated to a larger storefront in the same shopping plaza. Adrian had a significant role in managing the business. Meanwhile, Dendinger kept the lawn service business going.
Then in 1998, he sold Millard Bait & Tackle. Adrian’s health was starting to decline. She had a stroke shortly after the sale. Between 1998 and 2012, the shop changed owners five times until it eventually closed.
Now that they had one business, life was admittedly slower for the Dendingers. Then a South Dakota bait representative showed up at their front door. He tried convincing Dendinger, a former customer, to open a bait store in Omaha. He said local fishermen were underserved because of the dearth of bait shops in the area.
However, Dendinger wasn’t interested in owning another bait shop. His lawn service was thriving, and Adrian’s health wasn’t great. He gave the sales rep the names of two Omaha men who might have an interest in opening a store, but the men declined. The rep came back to Dendinger, who finally relented.
“I told him I’d open a bait shop, but only if I could do it out of my home.”
Subsequently, the Omaha Planning Board didn’t like Dendinger’s plan and rejected his application. His property didn’t have enough parking space.
“I told the board that what I wanted to do was no different than operating a small sweet-corn stand,” Dendinger said. “People will come in and out of the bait shop in minutes, because they know what they want to buy.”
Never one to be deterred by obstacles, Dendinger approached the union hall next door. He got permission to use their parking lot. In exchange, he agreed to mow their lawn and plow the lot when it snowed.
Dendinger had what he needed to open L (Larry) & A (Adrian) Bait. But there was a final obstacle. Adrian’s health was getting worse. She couldn’t give any time to the new store, and Dendinger still had the lawn service and many customers to consider. He couldn’t simultaneously operate L&A Bait and the lawn service, so he did the unthinkable. Rather than hire an employee, Dendinger decided to do business by the honor system. Shoppers would choose from his inventory and deposit their money through a slot on a wall.
“My friends and family thought I was crazy,” Dendinger said. “But they didn’t know what I knew. Sportsmen are trustworthy people.”
The inventory at L&A Bait includes red worms, nightcrawlers, chubs, minnows, green sunfish, golden shiners, chicken liver, catfish bait, leeches, ice and minnow buckets.
“I have an excellent customer base — ice fishermen and open water fishermen.”
Dendinger raises his bait on a 78-acre farm south of Yutan. It has 13 small ponds that he dug with a CAT excavator, the same piece of equipment he operated in Cedar County nearly 50 years ago. Unfortunately, the many mounds of black dirt ringing the ponds can’t fill the giant hole in Dendinger’s heart left by Adrian’s death last December. But it keeps him busy. He visits his Yutan farm to check on the ponds every day. Many times, it’s dark when he returns to his home in Millard.
The L&A Bait sign above the garage is always lit, and the double wide door is open for any trustworthy sportsmen. Water gurgles in aluminum tanks, and every day, at every hour, at every minute … of the year, a ceiling light illuminates a sign fastened to one of the tanks: It says “Honor System.” ■