Cliff Wicktor, who died last week at age 64, is remembered by area fishermen as the man who ran one of the best bait shops in the Brainerd area.
Owning a bait shop had been Cliff's dream since he was a boy growing up in Becker. Through the years he worked as a chef and bartender the dream stayed alive and finally in 1988, six years after he married Sherree Stillings, the couple made it happen.
"He always loved it up here," Sherree said of their decision to try a business in Brainerd. "We used to come up here all the time on weekends. Gull was probably his favorite lake. He could fish it from a boat or the shore. He liked to shore fish. He always kept a rod and reel in the truck so he could stop and fish wherever he found a good spot."
Cliff and Sherree had met in Anoka at DeZiel's Supper Club, "the hottest place around," as Sherree recalls. He was a bartender and she a waitress. When they decided to go into business for themselves they bought the White Gables Motel on Highway 371 north of Brainerd. Shortly after, construction of a bait shop began.
"We did it ourselves with a lot of help from friends," Sherree said. "It took us a year-and-a-half to get it going."
The new bait shop was named S & W for Stillings and Wicktor. Cliff and Sherree felt the name was appropriate because Sherree's father, Ernie Stillings, ran the store while she and Cliff worked in Anoka.
"It was real slow at first," Sherree said of the shop's first years. "The hours were a lot longer than we expected."
But the Wicktors fell in love with their new business.
"It's a friendly place," Sherree said. "Everybody is happy in a bait store. They're going fishing. They're out to have a good time. They're on vacation. Whatever the reasons, people who come in here are in a good mood most of the time."
Cliff had a business role model -- Marv Koep, who already ran a legendary bait shop just down the road. But rather than view the Wicktors as competition, Koep viewed them as friends and came by the shop all the time, Sherree said.
"He gave us a lot of good advice on how to take care of our bait," Sherree said. "He's a sweetheart."
Soon area guides discovered S & W's quality bait. Its location near some of the area's best fishing lakes made it a guide favorite. Four years ago some of the guides united under "S & W Nisswa Area Guide Service," and they remain some of the busiest and most productive guides around.
"It just seems the last three years have been real good," Sherree said. "The guides are great. They bring a lot of business to the store and we supply them with good bait."
Though Cliff's health steadily worsened over the past three years -- he had a congenital heart murmur and kidney disease -- he lived to see S & W Bait become the fisherman's choice in the Brainerd area.
"Even when he couldn't do stuff around the store he still liked to B.S. with the customers," Sherree said. "We have security cameras in the house and he could watch the people going in and out. He liked that."
With Cliff's passing, Sherree said she has no plans to change anything about S & W Bait. That's good news to fishermen who are saddened by the passing of Cliff Wicktor.
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