Cook, Minn. – Northwoods Bait and Tackle was hopping the day before the fishing opener, with hopeful anglers lined up outside the door of this humble northern Minnesota establishment, bait buckets in hand.
Some customers ordered scoops of rainbow chubs, others flathead chubs, and others still shiners and leeches.
Behind the minnow tanks was proprietor Joe Kruchowski, 56, a man of widely varying interests. On this day he was selling bait, homegrown and hand-sorted, but on another day he might be trapping bobcats, fox or coyotes, or perhaps tending to his 30 Flemish giant rabbits or musing about the restoration of one of his innumerable vehicles, perhaps the 1975 AMC Pacer or the ’76 Gremlin.
Kruchowski has owned Northwoods since 1993, having begun working there in 1988 while attending college. He bought the business from his brothers, Tim and Larry.
To be sure, anglers pull over to the small frame building alongside Hwy. 53 in Cook, population 570, in part because they want bait. But many also want reliable fishing information, not just about nearby Lake Vermilion, but also about lakes up the road, among them Pelican, Crane and Rainy.
“People who stop want to know what the water temperatures are of the various lakes, and where fish can be found,” Joe said. “I try to help.”
For years Joe has parked a customized VW Beetle in front of his bait shop as a sort of calling card. About a year ago, on June 22, his “Bug” was in its customary position when through the door of his business walked a woman named Kelly Rae Erickson.
This would be Joe’s future wife.
“As soon as I saw her I knew instantaneously I would marry her and she knew instantaneously she would marry me,” he said.
Which explains why a photo of Joe and a woman wearing a wedding dress — now Kelly Rae Kruchowski — is attached to the Northwoods Bait and Tackle cash register.
The newlyweds first met when Kelly Rae, 56, a Californian, visited relatives in northern Minnesota when she was 10. On a later visit, when she was 18, they were “sweethearts.”
Thirty-eight years later, they still are.
“Joe was very busy in the shop the day I walked in, and when he saw me, he was so shocked he couldn’t talk,” Kelly Rae said. “But he hugged me and asked for my phone number.”
Joe would have called that night, but he didn’t want to be pushy. So he called the next day.
“We’ve been inseparable ever since,” Kelly Rae said. “I went from being an account executive to scooping bait.”
In the cash register photo, the happy couple are pictured sitting comfortably in a 2017 Z06 Corvette, a supercharged 650-horsepower aluminum V-8 under its hood, a sweet ride.
“Where did the nuptials occur?” a visitor asked while paying for two dozen rainbow chubs and two dozen shiners.
“We had planned to get married in Las Vegas in January,” Joe said. “We had rented two Ferraris, which we were going to drive side by side after the wedding around Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“But then we were in a serious car accident and had to postpone the wedding until February. Instead of Las Vegas, we were married in Duluth.”
The mishap occurred in a gift vehicle Kelly Rae had bought for Joe to use while running his trap lines.
Kelly Rae was at the wheel of the trapper mobile in northern Minnesota last November, with Joe riding shotgun, when they hit a deer.
Kelly Rae wrecked her shoulder and Joe broke a foot.
The crash threw a wrench into Joe’s trapping efforts. Still, last winter he managed three bobcats, two fox, five coyotes, 40 beavers, 70 muskrats, 12 raccoons and four mink.
“The bobcats, fox and coyotes were coming after my pet rabbits,” he said. “I had to put an end to that.”
In April, while Joe’s brother, Larry, was busy trapping bait that Joe would sell from his shop last weekend, Joe and Kelly Rae traveled to California to celebrate their wedding.
This wasn’t Las Vegas with twin Ferraris on a racetrack.
But Joe had car plans, nevertheless.
“Kelly’s brother-in-law has a 2017 Z06 Corvette with just 600 miles on it that he let us use,” Joe said. “One of the neighbors also let me drive a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and a Bentley. The Ferrari’s sound was heavenly. But after driving them all, I liked the ’Vette best.
“With 650 horsepower and 650 foot-pounds of torque, that thing just howled when I had the baffles open,” he said. “I really put it to that ’Vette on the 405.”
As Joe spoke, another customer pulled up to Northwoods Bait and Tackle.
Minnows and perhaps leeches — yes, the client would want those, and fishing information, too, all of it delivered by Joe, a man of widely varying interests.
Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424