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Deep-sea convenience store

Welcome to Dave's Bait House.

Live pinfish, greenbacks and whitebait swim in tanks on the floor. Cans of Diet Coke and Dr. Pepper cool in a small fridge. Honey buns and moon pies, sugary sweet fuel for hungry fishermen, await purchase at the checkout.

Meet Dave Steiner, cashier and owner. He's a short, chatty guy in a beige fisherman's hat and scruffy Velcro sneakers. His laugh will erupt like a hearty cackle. A box of Doral menthol lights will be tucked in his shirt pocket.

To get his attention, just wave. He'll fill a plastic bucket with bait, and even pass you a coupon for a dozen free shrimp. Cash only, though. No credit cards accepted.

To find the store, head to the mouth of the Pithlachascotee River. Then, go out about 6 miles northwest of American Marina into the Gulf of Mexico.

A red, white and blue flag above Steiner's 33-foot Chris-Craft boat means he's open for business.

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Selling bait in the waterways was an untapped market until Steiner started his business in September.

While bait shops abound in Pasco, none are like Steiner's, a mobile 7-Eleven of sorts.

He's clearly not in the bait business for the money. Steiner, 48, who also runs a cleaning service for new homes under construction, only made $35 his first week on the job. His best weekend was several weeks ago, when he made $150.

Though it's only been two months since he opened, Steiner is already drawing customers away from his competitors.

He's also been stirring trouble at City Hall.

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They kept hitting waves in their 14-foot speedboat, tipping over Dr Pepper cans. So when Michael Trump and Johnny Rumore saw Steiner anchored near the channel, they eagerly headed toward his boat.

Rumore, a bartender on the SunCruz Casino boat, had seen Steiner before, and thought his bait shop was a great idea. Two cans of Dr Pepper and $1.50 later, Trump was a fan, too.

"Most of the time, people only carry Coke and Pepsi," Trump said. "I was like, 'Do you have Dr Pepper?' He did. I was like, 'Oh, thank God.' Nobody ever has Dr Pepper."

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One day about four boaters lined up near Steiner. He was anchored near Sunset Landing Marina, making a few sales.

Then, someone from the marina called Steiner's boat. They asked him to move.

"I'm not in here trying to aggressively take business from anybody," he said. "I'm not trying to stir up any trouble. They called me up to say, 'We've got shrimp.' I said, 'Okay, I'll move.' "

Once, a customer at American Marina called to ask if they sold live bait and fuel, said Kristin Tonkin, whose father owns the marina.

"They came in and got the fuel, and I said, 'Are you going to get the bait?' " Tonkin said. "They said, 'No, I already got it from the guy on the boat.' "

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The bait shop idea began a few months ago. Steiner met with Ed Winch, Port Richey's building official. He asked Winch about docking a boat and selling bait in the city.

Winch told Steiner that he would need handicap accessibility, parking and restrooms. Steiner didn't have any of that.

Still, he didn't want to give up. If he knew anything, it was how to fish. And he knew selling to fishermen in the water, miles away from shops on land where bait is sold, could be a profitable venture.

So he bought a 37-year-old boat from a neighbor. Then he stocked up on snacks and sodas from Sam's Club and set up shop.

About half a dozen residents - some from nearby Sand Pebble Condominiums - complained to the city.

They asked if Steiner had a county occupational license, which allows someone to run a business. (He does.) Others asked if he could sell saltwater products, which require a state license. (He's got that, too.)

Then Port Richey police came knocking.

They wanted to see if Steiner was selling anything illegal. He wasn't.

Steiner's bait house even came up at an Oct. 10 Port Richey City Council meeting.

Officials acknowledged that without an ordinance to prevent Steiner from selling bait on the water, he was free to do as he pleased.

Still, they wondered, would his shop open the door for others to sell goods on the water?

"If you start doing this, the next guy will start selling beer or something," Winch said. "You're opening this up to all kinds of things."

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Steiner says he isn't trying to disturb the peace.

He sees himself as a businessman providing a service. That service just happens to be on the water.

"If they run out of bait, they don't have to go all the way in" to a bait shop on land, he said. "All they've got to do is call."

Some days, Steiner doesn't make any money.

He's fine with that, since he's got everything he needs on the boat.

He's even got a hot plate he uses to make eggs and ham.

"If I break down out here, I've got plenty of food, drinks and water," he says, laughing. "I'm not worried."

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at (727) 869-6229 or cspencer@sptimes.com.

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