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Bait shop reaches end of the line

Published Oct. 18, 2005

The angler who wandered into Rita's Bait and Tackle on Wednesday was looking for some live shrimp to go fish the grass flats off Fort De Soto. He stopped at the run-down shop on the Pinellas Bayway often. He liked Rita's place. The shrimp were always fresh, usually caught the night before by her son whose boat was tied up out back. And Rita let regular customers, like him, pick out their own shrimp.

But on this particular afternoon, something looked wrong, dreadfully wrong. The shrimp tanks were empty. Fishing tackle lay scattered about the floor. And the only bait for sale was frozen.

"We're leaving," Rita Surber told her faithful customer.

"Leaving?" the man replied. His face looked like that of a child who just caught mom and dad filling the Christmas stockings.

"Leaving," Surber replied.

After a decade of supplying bait and tackle to anglers and coming to the rescue of stranded boaters and motorists in the middle of the night, Rita Surber is closing her doors.

"This has been my life for 10 years _ seven days a week, 24 hours a day," she said. "I've forgotten that there was an outside world."

The closure isn't by choice. The Pinellas County Building Department and the St. Petersburg Fire Department have found serious safety violations in the building that houses the bait shop.

Surber has rented the building on a month-to-month basis for 10 years. As a result of the violations, the owner has given Surber until Dec.

20 to move out of the shop and home so the building can be repaired.

Richard, her eldest, grew into manhood on the grass flats behind the house. "This is one of the last areas that hasn't been ripped apart environmentally," he said.

He began shrimping when he was 12 and bought his shrimp boat at age 15. Over the years, he's watched the development creep steadily south.

"In the summer months, when the water gets warm, we have algae blooms out here from all the fertilizer running off the lawns," he said. "You can smell it on your skin."

But despite man's encroachment, the grass flats remain one of the county's top fishing spots. Numerous bait shrimp boats work the area, and anglers in boats and on foot find ample trout and redfish.

"I don't know what I'm going to do now," said Richard Surber, who relied on the shrimp boat to pay for his college eduction. "This is a tough business."

Several loyal customers expressed concern that once the bait shop closed down, developers may move in.

Not so, said Mark Wray, who owns the property. He said he plans to correct the building and fire code violations, and then open a new bait shop.

"I'm not going to build any condominiums, I can promise you that as long as I own the property," he said. "It is going to be used for basically the same type of business. We'll shut it down temporarily and then open it right back up."

Even if Wray did decide to sell the property to a developer, it would be difficult to build condominiums on the land.

"It is environmentally sensitive," said Paul Cassel, Pinellas County's zoning administrator. "Its "preservation' designation reflects that."

Cassel said any extensive building project would require a zoning and land use change. That would take both state and local approval, which could only come after a lengthy public hearing process.

As for Surbers, they are packing their belongings and will move in with relatives. "This is a bad time for this to happen, right before Christmas," she said. "It wouldn't be so bad if it was one or the other, but to lose your house and business And as for the anglers who used to stop every morning at Rita's Bait and Tackle to hand pick the select shrimp that her son had caught the night before?

They'll just have to shop some place else and be thankful for the good old days.