Jasper's Bait Boat

William Neale and Art Smith are taking it slow on their commute to work. It’s only eight miles to Kinzie Cove on the Caloosahatchee River, but in Smith’s trawler the trip takes nearly an hour and a half from their backyard in Cape Coral. At six knots, the boat is moving slow enough to warrant jokes from an employee along for the ride.

Their destination is Jasper’s Bait, a shack built on a 30-foot barge- anchored and open 24 hours a day- in the last slow zone before the river opens up to the Gulf of Mexico. Its prime real estate for a business whose only customers are people on boats.

Neale, pictured above, and Smith opened the store three years ago out of a small pontoon boat, eventually moving into a 50-foot yacht until they found the store’s current structure on Craigslist in early 2014. Before Jasper’s, they were both retired and looking for something to do. “Retirement sucks,” said Neale. “You can only do your hobbies so much. You have to have a purpose.”

The duo, self-described “co-idiots”, managed to secure permits from any agency that might have authority over a floating business without a permanent address. Jasper’s isn’t the first bait shop on the Caloosahatchee, but its predecessors were either operating illegally or short lived.

When the trawler finally reaches Jasper’s, they tie it to one of the hitching spars surrounding the store. Neale and Smith busy themselves by unloading gas cans, Hostess Cupcakes and other supplies needed to run what Neale calls a “floating Circle K”. Neale checks on sales while Smith scoops through hundreds of squirming shrimp to remove the dead ones that could spoil the whole tank.

In buying the house barge, Neale and Smith also bought an obscure piece of film history. The house was built for a 1993 Hulk Hogan film, and since has been home to a bar, a school, and a towboat captain. The captain found it too run-down to live in, and sold it to Neale and Smith, who were charmed by its rustic appearance.

As they head back to town with their chores completed, Neale leans over the stern of the trawler to enjoy the view. A heart attack this past June and a stroke three days later left him unable to spend long periods of time on the river like he used to, when he worked four or five day shifts at a time. For Neale, the episode left him even more motivated to create a legacy in Jasper’s. “I really want it to succeed,” he said. “I want to leave something cool behind.”

After returning to their home in Cape Coral, Smith shuts down the noisy generator powering the boat and a chorus of barking dogs fills the silence. Among the dogs is Ida, a Pharaoh hound Neale rescued, abused and pregnant, from a park near Miami four years ago. Neale said when he birthed her litter, one pup was born dead. He resuscitated the dog and named him Jasper.

Now, fully-grown, Jasper will chase his favorite oversized tennis ball for as long as someone will throw it. And the business they named after him is also thriving. Neale and Smith have dreams of opening a chain of floating bait shops, stretching from Marco Island to Port Charlotte. But for now, one is enough to keep them busy.


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