LAKE PRESTON, S.D. — Bait and boating business is booming.

At least, that's been the theme in eastern South Dakota since stress of the coronavirus has eased and people have chosen to use a mix of water, sunshine and fishing as their own much-needed medicine.

While humble yet honest, business owners acknowledge it’s fair to say June was a successful month for small-town bait shops and marine dealers. Just ask Tony Frederiksen, manager of the Bait Box in Lake Preston, who has seen the roller-coaster ride of operating a recreation-dependent business through a pandemic.

“People are really sick of the whole thing,” Frederiksen said on a late June afternoon from behind the counter of the store. “There have been a ton of fishermen and the bite has been really good, so business has been really good.”

On a hot and muggy afternoon, Frederiksen worked the counter of the Bait Box on a day that was less-than-ideal conditions for fishing. The wind was breezy, yet here was a customer rolling in at 2 p.m. seeking a specific lure.

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Frederiksen, 24, has been managing the store since December when new ownership took over. Lake Preston is in eastern South Dakota, about 30 miles west of Brookings, in an area where camping and fishing are regular summer activities. The store never closed due to the pandemic, but some employees saw hours cut. Business was admittedly slower in March and April.

Ton Frederiksen of The Bait Box in Lake Preston. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Ton Frederiksen of The Bait Box in Lake Preston. (Matt Gade / Republic)

But May and June were a different story for the Bait Box.

While some neighboring states had stronger stay-at-home restrictions in place, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem allowed for local governments to determine how to handle the pandemic. Regarding the outdoors, however, the message was clear when the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department encouraged people that the state’s “outdoors remain open.”

“The out-of-staters recognize we’re more open when they come here,” Frederiksen said. “They’re not used to it and they definitely talk about it. Even with the bar downtown being open, they’re not used to that. They appreciate and recognize it.

Fishing tackle at The Bait Box in Lake Preston. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Fishing tackle at The Bait Box in Lake Preston. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“It’s a great way to get away from everybody and the negativity in the world,” he added. “You just forget about it all on the water.”

The one hiccup with booming business this year has been getting some stock to replenish sold goods, Frederiksen said.

Doug Johnson, who has owned the Sportsman’s Cove, in Webster, S.D., for 20 years has seen the same problem. His business, known in part for its northeastern South Dakota fishing report, bounced along the same path as the Bait Box. The first few months, Johnson said, “you wondered if you’d ever be busy again. But the last six weeks or so have been very strong.”

Still, finding distribution centers and companies to get products like reels and some lures shipped to him has been difficult at times.

Fishing tackle at The Bait Box in Lake Preston. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Fishing tackle at The Bait Box in Lake Preston. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Companies such as Berkley, Shimano, Pfluger and Lowrance — all regulars in the fishing industry — have messages on their websites reminding customers of the hurdles they are trying to jump while the world moves at a different pace through COVID-19.

“Suppliers that you could often get something within 24 to 48 hours has turned into several weeks,” he said. “Sometimes even months. If it does come too late, you’re going to miss it and the season is over. It’s been a struggle and time has been lost trying to locate, order and reorder and try to find a supplier that has what you’re looking for. A lot of it is made overseas so that’s the unfortunate part of it. Maybe this will be a wakeup call to get some more industry back in the U.S.”

Johnson said a common theme recently has been to talk about anything but the pandemic. When anglers come to his store, they’re typically on vacation. For the most part, they’re respecting others around them, he said, abiding by CDC guidelines of social distancing. But it’s staying in rural America that feels “like a safety net” for the visitors, Johnson said.

Spending money, spending time

In mid-March, one day after the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 a pandemic, David Gilbertson was getting ready to work the floor of the Sioux Falls Sports Show. Except it was canceled.

“I found out everybody was packing up,” said the owner of Weiland Marine, the Lake Poinsett-based boat dealership and service center. “It was unbelievable."

Gilbertson is a native of Arlington, S.D., which is 12 miles east of Lake Preston. He’s worked at the business for seven years but became owner about a year-and-a-half ago.

Anglers head out to their fishing spots at Lake Thomspon on Wednesday morning in Kingsbury County. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Anglers head out to their fishing spots at Lake Thomspon on Wednesday morning in Kingsbury County. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Then, when social distancing became the norm and April came around, business really got going.

"It seems like with the isolation, people have chosen to come to their homes on the lake, and instead of spending money on baseball, softball and some of the regular things they do in the summer, they're spending money on things they can do outdoors," Gilbertson said.

It’s not just lake-life businesses that have done well.

Swenson Bros. Marine, of Chamberlain in central South Dakota, sits in the marina on the eastern side of the Missouri River. The city of about 2,400 people relies heavily on hunting and fishing tourism. It’s common to see hundreds of anglers lining the rocks of the river in the spring and early summer seeking walleye.

Kevin Swenson, owner for 36 years, said the pandemic significantly impacted his region early on, but business for the service center and sales has picked up. The fact that fishing success was “absolutely phenomenal” sure helped, too.

“Outdoor activities, boating, fishing and recreating on the water, and camping, after everything finally opened up, people are using the outdoors rather than indoor activities,” Swenson said. “A lot of first-time boat buyers purchased them simply because maybe they weren’t going on vacations and they decided they were going to stay close to home and enjoy it with their families on the lakes or rivers.”

And even more so than seeing increased business recently, spending time with loved ones — whether it be on the water or off — has been a bright spot during the pandemic, Gilbertson said.

"I think America in general, people have maybe lost touch some as a family,” he said. “I think this isolation has forced us to get back to that, and I think that's a really good thing. Instead of kids at ball practice, they're at home with mom and dad. I say that because it's the way I was brought up. This has forced us to slow down and realize some things."