A special store on the shore of Neely Henry
Story by Carol Pappas
Photos by Wallace Bromberg Jr.
The front door of a nondescript building fronting US 411 near Ashville on one side and Canoe Creek on Neely Henry Lake on the other doesn’t prepare you for what you’ll find on the other side. The door swings open, and “Boss, AKA Big Head,” sits patiently waiting for your response.
It may be a gasp at just how big his head is – he’s a mastiff – or if you’re a dog lover, the natural instinct kicks in, and petting is surely on its way. At least, Boss seems to hope so.
Welcome to Big Head’s Bait Shop. Amy Jean Pruett owns it. But make no mistake about it, Big Head is the Boss. He’s everywhere. He swaggers around on four legs, checking out the customers. His face (the shop’s logo) can be spotted in any direction on anything that advertises the business.
But the real story stands behind the counter, Boss just plays a role in it.
In another life, Amy was operations manager for an investment company for 18 years. “I loved my job and the people I worked with. That was the hardest thing about doing this,” she said, motioning around the cozy bait shop full of mementos – signs and fish-themed knick-knacks people have given her.
She had a dream to follow, though, and when the bait shop went up for sale, she couldn’t resist the lure.
“I have been dreaming about this since I was 4 years old,” she said. “I was in an out of bait shops as a young girl with my dad. I loved the bait shop atmosphere … the stories … they were right up my alley.”
To the little girl, the fishermen were “laid back. I loved talking to all those old fellas,” she said.
She caught her first fish on Neely Henry, said her father, Paul Pruett, who helps out around the shop and acts as a fishing guide. And now she’s back where she started, barely over the toddler stage.
Originally, she thought she would open a bait shop on the coast, but “this place in particular tugged at me.” She had promised herself that before she was 40, she would have a bait shop to call her own. “Forty came and went, and I made peace with it,” Amy said.
Then, she was going to work one day and stopped to get gas across the street from the bait shop and noticed the ‘for sale’ sign. “I worked out a month and a half notice at the investment company,” and she headed toward living out her dream.
“I signed the papers on my 44th birthday. I laughed thinking about my 4-year-old self” and the promise she made about age 40. “I thought, she wasn’t too far off.”
That was a year ago. Now, Amy said, “I feel like I’m aging in reverse. I still wake up looking for my business clothes. I can wear a bathing suit now if I want to.”
She spent the early days figuring everything out and getting used to a newfound calm that has overtaken her, the slow pace of just selling bait over the demands of the investment world. Her greatest challenge in her new life was figuring out how to keep the bait alive.
“I felt like the mad scientist.” She rounded up old deep freezers people had thrown out, rigged up a thermostat for each, and the minnows seemed quite content swimming in the chill of winter in their balmy, 70-degree water. Her friend, Scott, helped with the thermostats for the tanks.
That’s not the only bait she sells. Check out the chalk board out front, advertising everything from the usuals – Shiners, Toughies, Night Crawlers, Crickets – to Rooster Livers and Live Shad. Don’t be fooled by her petite look. She casts for and catches the shad herself.
And don’t be surprised that a ‘girl’ in a typically man’s world knows her fishing. She encounters a few male skeptics at first. But it doesn’t take them long to discover “I know what I’m talking about. I tell them what to fish for, where to go, what to use, and they come back over and over again. My nephews think I’m the coolest now. They think it’s the most awesome place in the world.”
Her advice for others living their dream? “Don’t let it consume you. Set hours and stick by them. Get your plan together and stick by it. Listen to your customers’ suggestions, but don’t feel like you have to have everything all at once. Every day is a learning experience—learn.
She’s quick to point out that she hasn’t done it all on her own. She talks about the help and encouragement from her dad who works with her, her friends – Shelby Little and Shane Moland — who help out on weekends – and then, there’s Boss.
“He really saved me,” she said. A friend had texted her the photo of this giant rescue who had been in a crate for six months, and she set out to Bardstown, Kentucky, to claim him. “When I saw his face, I just knew I had to have him.” She was going through a difficult time in her life, and “he motivated me. He got me out of my funk.”
Together, they run quite a booming bait business and seem to savor every minute of it.
What’s the next dream? “By 50, I want to catch an alligator with The Swamp People,” she said, noticing an episode flash across the TV. “I’ll be 45 this month. I guess I better get on the ball, huh?”