McHENRY - One worm at a time, Johnny Marple built his business from a roadside stand to the bait shop that became the center of Garrett County's fishing universe.

Where are they biting?

Ask Johnny.

Need to rent a rod and reel?

Johnny has them.

Nightcrawlers or minnows?

Johnny knows.

But when the ice breaks on Deep Creek Lake this spring and anglers go looking for answers, they'll have to look elsewhere.

Johnny's Bait House is closed, and its owner gone fishing, retired after nearly 50 years of dispensing worms and wisdom.

"Of course I'm sad about it, but it's time," says Marple as he stands in the half-empty shop along Route 219.

Truth is, running the bait shop hasn't been as much fun as it was in the days before city people pushed real estate prices into the mid-six figures and filled the main drag with cars.

"I'll miss the customers - most of them. But some of them were getting on my nerves," confides Marple, 65.

The other truth is that selling bait seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., from April through November puts a serious crimp in your fishing. Most times Marple's had to satisfy the itch for an hour after work, strolling to the dock behind the shop to drown a few worms with his wife of 41 years, Elaine.

"I've always said that you never have to go to a psychologist if you fish," says Marple. "You can sit on the dock and get all your problems solved in an hour."

Locals already have a problem: Who will become the new "Purveyor of Piscatorial Products," as the sign at Johnny's once proclaimed? The businessman who bought the property will be selling less fishing gear and more marine equipment and accessories.

"Johnny's a real institution out here," says Ken Pavol, the regional fisheries manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. "It's hard to think of anyone who cares as much about fishermen as he does."

Marple documented fishing records, sold more fishing licenses to out-of-staters than any agent in Maryland and almost single-handedly ran the summer fishing tournament that made Deep Creek's reputation as one of the premier freshwater spots in the state.

But the bait house was more than worms and lures.

Over the years, Marple sold ice and boat rides, delivered bottled gas to cottages and rented cabins, water skis and boat moorings. He even kept track of the date of Garrett County's first snow of the year going back to the 1960s.

And non-anglers and kids couldn't wait to turn the bend in the road just before Johnny's to see the newest slogan on his sign. "Member, Phi Bait-A Kappa," it said once. Or, "To Fish or Not To Fish. That's a Stupid Question."

The most popular slogan also had the shortest life span.

"My wife made me take it down. She thought it was too raunchy," he says, pointing to the entry -"Be a Happy Hooker"- in the little log book he kept.

Marple doesn't want to guess how many worms he's sold in almost a half century, though a few years back the sign out front claimed "enough nightcrawlers to circle the world twice."

"It wasn't up to me to prove it right," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "It was up to you to prove me wrong."

Born in Confluence, Pa., Marple and his family moved to Garrett County when he was just a tadpole.

Looking for a way to make money as a high school student, the young businessman dug worms, stored them in a nail keg and sold them along the road, 35 cents a dozen, three dozen for a buck.

That first summer (he thinks it was 1954), Marple made $80.

The Army grabbed him right after graduation, disrupting his business for two years. But when he was discharged in 1960, he made a beeline back to the same spot, buying the land with 300 feet of lakefront for $10,000.

It wasn't long before Marple doubled the size of the 4-by-8-foot shop "with lumber people gave me."

In 1970, he expanded again, this time with a bank loan.

Pavol says Marple's reputation and energy sold anglers on a state monitoring program to determine why the lake's bass population was declining.

Marple agreed to allow his address to be printed on the tags attached to bass and to interview anglers who returned tags to his shop.

The information helped the state establish catch-and-release regulations on the lake and then statewide that restored the bass population.

"I don't know where we'd be today without his participation," says Pavol. "Johnny's effort had a far-reaching benefit and is part of the reason we have the excellent bass fishing we have today."

Marple's efforts on behalf of fishing won him a gubernatorial citation and a seat on the state's Sportsfish Advisory Commission.

For his years of unflagging promotion of his hometown, the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce last year awarded Marple its Heise Entrepreneurial Spirit Award for lifetime achievement.

"He's a wonderful businessman and person. True, honest, straight," says chamber spokeswoman Peggy Santamaria.

The man who hasn't had a summer vacation since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president swears that in his first year of retirement he's "going to wear out three lawn chairs."

What's he going to miss?

"I'll tell you what I'm not going to miss," he says. "I'm not going to miss working the holidays."

On Saturday morning, an auctioneer will sell what's left in the shop: wooden water skis, a 300-gallon fish tank, books, posters and other pieces of Garrett County history.

Says Marple, "I told that guy I didn't want to see anything in here at the end of the day except me."

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