Shortly after 8 a.m. on a bright and cool Wednesday morning in May, Tony “Butch” Fessel backs his van up to the garage-style front doors of Karem’s Bait & Beverage, the venerable watering hole and fishing supply shop that looks out on the intersection of Taylorsville Road and Watterson Trail in the heart of Jeffersontown. Fessel has driven from his family-owned business, Wholesale Bait Co. Inc., in Hamilton, Ohio, and is making the first of 14 stops before returning home.
Fessel could probably drive the route with his eyes closed. For the last 56 years he’s been delivering live worms and minnows to Louisville’s bait and tackle stores. He made the first bait delivery to Karem’s in the early 1960s, when then owner Karem Deeb tore down his ice-house, put up a new building and converted the business to a bait-and-beer format.
Today, the shop’s current owner, Fred Jury, sits behind the checkout counter as the genial Fessel methodically counts the inventory of night crawlers, red wrigglers, wax worms and meal worms in a nearby cooler.
Jury struck the line off his bucket list that read “own a bait and tackle shop” when he bought Karem’s in 1999, six years after he retired. He sums up his little kingdom like this: “No air conditioning, no heat in winter, and, in the back, a one-holer.”
Little else seems to have changed since then, except for a few retailing upgrades and the addition of four television screens. “I think that qualifies us as a sports bar,” Jury quips. Outside, a sign proclaims “Fish, Cold Beer & Liars Club – All Here.” Inside, Karem’s feels like a boy’s club in a man-cave, although Jury protests that about a half-dozen women are among his 50-odd regulars. Placards with folksy sayings compete for attention with stuffed fish, deer heads, photos of men holding prey, memorabilia, cases of beer, and buckets of colorful bobbers, spinners and hooks.
Indeed, tradition lingers in Karem’s like a needle stuck in the groove of an old LP. The little corner lot, which clings to the ridge that shaped the city’s original grid, has not changed in over 200 years. The property’s first owner held three tavern licenses. The second owner, who operated a wheelwright shop on the site, also had a tavern license. In those days, taverns were information hubs where officials posted new laws and townsfolk gathered to talk politics.