Kyle Jensen / The Record — Possession Point Bait Co. has been ran by owner Dan Cooper’s family since 1964. The business started during the heyday of South Whidbey’s fishing resorts.

Clinton bait biz is here to stay, owner says

For Possession Point Bait Co., the key to success isn’t constant evolution to stay ahead of the curve. Its success lies in doing things as they used to, maintaining its old Whidbey character.

“We try to keep our traditions going, that’s our thing,” owner Dan Cooper said. “I’m not going to let this go, even if the salmon returns continue to be weak.”

Cooper’s live bait company is a business from Whidbey’s past. Completely family run, and on a seasonal basis, the bait company holds live herring in two ponds for anglers to use while fishing for coho salmon, also known as silvers. But Cooper doesn’t grow them — he catches them. He uses both a net cast from shore and a “dip bag thing” — he says that’s the actual name — deployed from a boat. Both devices can haul in thousands of herring at a time.

Cooper is one of four remaining licensed herring fisherman in the state that sells them as live bait.

Anglers come to Possession Point Bait Co. to pick up their bait and cast their lines on the family’s 210-foot stretch of beach in front of the store. It’s one of the island’s prime areas to fish for silvers, and live bait is the best bait to lure silvers, Cooper said. The current salmon season ends Sept. 4, and Cooper says the last week should be the most fruitful.

The business has been in Cooper’s family for more than 50 years. His father, Jim Cooper, purchased the property in 1964 when fishing resorts were still on Whidbey Island. Jim Cooper, now 86, owned Jim &John’s fishing resort on Columbia Beach, and the family’s familiarity with the fishing resorts of old is evident in the character of Possession Point Bait Co.

For many, it’s what brings them back.

“This place is a time lapse,” Clinton resident Dakota Stone said. “They used to run the old fishing resorts, and this is the last blood of that. It has this magic to it.”

Things have changed for salmon fishing since the days of fishing resorts, though. Salmon stocks have generally declined in the past few decades, although the numbers fluctuate year to year based on a number of factors. For Possession Point Bait Co., business heavily relies on silver stocks, which were “almost nothing” this past year and is “really low” in 2017. Cooper says since the season opened Aug. 1, 26 silvers total have been caught on his property.

The last good year was 2015, when anglers caught more than 2,600 silvers.

“The silvers have been hurting the most this year,” Cooper said. “It’s definitely been tough on the business. We’re making maybe a quarter of what we should be.”

The low silver stocks hurt his business, not only because it brings less people to his store, but can also limit the amount of bait he ships elsewhere, depending on the stocks in those locations. He regularly sells to Oregon and Alaska, but says it’s been tough to sell this year as “the fishing has been poor.”

However, Cooper stays afloat by turning to commercial fishing to pay the bills. He’s been doing it for years since the bait company is seasonal, depending on the salmon seasons set by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Although the last two years have been poor for silvers, Cooper is adamant his store will remain open in the future. It’s part of the family, and since just two years ago people were shoulder to shoulder on his beach hauling in thousands of silvers he’s confident the fish will be back.

“It’s been part of my life,” Cooper said. “Believe me, this place isn’t going anywhere.”

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Cooper walks along a pool that carries herring, the live bait his business sells.

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Cooper discusses the ups and downs of the business as it coincides with coho salmon populations. The last two years have been pretty poor for coho, so business has been slow. 2015 was the last big year.

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