GANDY — Like Siamese fighting fish, two bait shops sit next to each other at the foot of the Gandy Bridge.
They both outfit anglers for the sea, yet the next-door neighbors keep their distance from one another.
"He'd like to put me out of business," said John Stroup, owner of Sailor Mike's All Pro Bait & Tackle. "It's just a big old battle between the both of us."
Eight years ago, Stroup worked for Bill Robinson, who owns Gandy Bait and Tackle, for about 18 months.
"We got along great," said Stroup.
Until they didn't.
Now the span between the two men working just off the Gandy, literally can't be bridged.
The latest: Stroup, 37, says Robinson, 58, called code enforcement on him for a sign and in January flooded his lot, which sits lower.
Robinson said he had to drain his shrimp tanks, which are next to Stroup's lot, after someone put soap in them.
Stroup installed video cameras to protect his own shop.
"It just gets nasty," he said. "It's pretty sad. We don't get along."
Whatever their differences, they share much. Both sell rods, lures, ice and sodas. Both have loyal customers and hear tales of the catches that grow with each telling.
They hang pictures of proud men, like the one of Joey Randazzo, a 20-year-old regular at Robinson's, holding a blacktip shark taller than he.
After the recreational Friendship Trail bridge was closed in December, both shops felt the blow. Inspectors found deteriorating concrete beams, and the bridge was shut down to the very anglers who bought from Stroup and Robinson.
On this, the two men agree: The bridge is too sturdy to be shut down, they say.
"There's something fishy there," said Robinson.
Still, Robinson said, business isn't that bad. "A lot of people are now fishing to eat."
Tarpon, snapper, kingfish and redfish are returning for the season, which runs through summer.
On weekends, boats clutter the waters off the Gandy, most of them carrying bait from either Stroup's or Robinson's shop.
Bill Arthur of Beach Park came into Robinson's recently, on his weekly rounds for shrimp.
"I'm fishing for peace of mind," he joked as Robinson told him the weather forecast: winds at 15 knots all day.
"Have the mackerel showed up yet?" he asked.
"I've seen a few," Robinson said.
Robinson opened his business in 1988 in the old store, at 4925 W Gandy, where Stroup is now. The store, with its parking lot of hard-pressed dirt, holds decades of stories.
A man named George End built the block structure in the 1940s as a rattlesnake cannery and a post office to ship his tinned Eastern diamondback around the world. The Gandy area thus became known as Rattlesnake, Fla.
Out front was a snake pit for shows.
It became a bait shop in the 50s after End met his demise from a snake bite.
In 1993, Robinson built a larger store next door, at 4923 W Gandy, and moved from the old one, which he had leased. He hired Stroup to work alongside him in the new place about nine years ago. After 18 months, the relationship ended.
The reasons differ between them. Robinson said Stroup didn't show up for work. Stroup said Robinson shorted him on vacation pay.
The two parted ways, and Stroup bought the old shop next door in 2004.
Drivers headed west on Gandy Boulevard, first come to Robinson's southern Cracker style shop, then Stroup's modest shop.
Today, you can pull a boat in to Robinson's paved lot and climb up to the store's deck with its shrimp tanks. Clyde Stone, who has worked here five years, counts out 240 shrimp.
Inside, Bob Chenevert of Valrico buys a Falcon rod that he'd eyed for weeks. Walls are lined with stuffed catches: a porcupine blow fish, trout, snook and a pheasant wearing sunglasses.
A few yards away, Stroup calls his place a "mom and pop" joint. He stocks less and sells to people on a budget. "I don't want anything to grow dust on it," he says.
He steps outside to count shrimp from a tank.
He throws in an extra half dozen for Clinton Edwards, who is celebrating his birthday the way he always does.
"It's like a religion for me. I stay out all day and fish," Edwards says, hoping to catch snook, his favorite.
"I only go over there," he says nodding toward the other shop, "if (Stroup) doesn't have bait."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813)226-3431.