New Pass Bait Shop was founded in 1929; that much is fact — it says so on the sign. It has become a historical landmark over the last 83 years, buzzing with boaters and fishermen there for bait, tackle or “the coldest beer and the best burgers in town,” says Dan Byrd Jr., the son of original owners Dan and Blanche “Daisy” Byrd.
Much of the shop’s history comes from fishermen, who can, presumably, stretch the truth as far as they can stretch their mouths around the famous New Pass Grill burgers.
“A lot of what I heard about New Pass that I learned over the past 13 years is hearsay and rumors,” says Jim Wallace current co-owner. “But it’s probably true.”
The early years
In 1928, a drawbridge was built over the blue-green waters of New Pass connecting City Island to Longboat Key. The following year, a shack was built as living quarters for the New Pass bridge tender. The drawbridge made the land more accessible, but, with accessibility, comes traffic; next came the need for a bait shop.
The Byrd family
The New Pass property was owned by the state and, at the time, sat west of today’s New Pass Bridge on top of a hill. In 1946, Dan and Daisy Byrd leased the property and turned the living quarters into “Dan Byrd’s Fish Camp,” where they sold beer and tackle.
The Byrds and their two children, Dan Jr. and Cay, lived in the back part of the building until they moved across the street. In 1950, they started selling the thick burgers at their fish camp for which the restaurant is famous today.
A few years later, the Byrds moved to Alaska and leased the building to Keith French. French moved the bait shop portion of the business down the hill, closer to the water, but kept selling burgers from the restaurant at the top of the bridge; they became two separate entities. Hollis Wadley began leasing the bait shop from French.
When the Byrds returned to the area (about 1954, according to Dan Byrd Jr.), they took back the burger side of the business.
The neighborhood children began to refer to it as “The Bridge Shack.”
Hollis Wadley and the fish camp
Hollis Wadley continued to run the fish camp at the bottom of the hill by the New Pass Bridge; he eventually bought the business.
Wadley, a commercial shrimper, sold bait and rented boats near the water on the west side of the bridge at the same time the Byrds sold burgers and beer.
Wadley’s stepson, Jack Matthias, remembers the days when “there might have been 100 people fishing up on the bridge with lanterns,” he says.
About 1966, Wadley sold his fish camp to one of his shrimpers, Carl Sadler.
The ‘new’ New Pass Bridge
During the late 1970s, New Pass Bridge was consistently stuck in the open position. This was about the same time Dan Byrd Sr. died, but his wife, Daisy, kept flipping burgers.
In 1979, the Department of Transportation built a new New Pass Bridge, and by July 31, 1982, The Bridge Shack and bait shop were forced to close their doors, making way for the construction of the bridge, which would be wider and longer, taking up more of the state owned right of way property.
New Pass bait shop lives on
During the construction of the new New Pass Bridge and shortly after, the New Pass Bait Shop operated out of the back of Carl Sadler’s truck, which was parked on the east side of the bridge. But Sadler soon made a deal with the city, which owned the land, to lease the land to build a bait shop on the edge of the water — the restaurant and bait shop’s current location.
Sadler ran the bait shop until he put it on the market in 1998. In October, Jim and Don Wallace put in an offer.
Jim and Don Wallace
Retired airline pilot Jim Wallace and his son, Don, were not fisherman.
“Now what does being a pilot in the Air Force and flying 24 years with United have to do with bait and burgers?” he asks. “Nothing! Talk about naïve.”
The Wallaces were honoring their passion for real estate, circling properties in the classified ads, when they came across the ad for Sadler’s bait shop.
“We were very curious and made up our minds to buy it within 48 hours,” says Wallace.
The Wallaces bought the place as an investment property, but it turned out to mean so much more. Every year of owning the business, the father-son duo said, “Let’s do it one more year,” but it has become fun for them.
Since purchasing the bait shop and grill, they have slightly modified the building. Jim Wallace is proud of the trompe l’oeil painting, or trick of the eye painting, that took late artist Kip Ackerman four months to paint with a 4-inch brush. One of their beloved, and now late, employees, Jack Whitefield, added the “junk” that covers the building, such as a huge white tiger and dinosaur in a cage.
The bait shop ceiling is covered in abandoned hats left in honor of a rumor started by a past employee: If you leave your hat at New Pass Bait Shop, you become a better fisherman.
Aside from giving the building more rustic décor, the Wallaces have kept everything else the same.
“If you are successful, why screw with it?” Jim says.
The Wallaces have had so much fun with the current bait shop and grill that they are opening a second restaurant on St. Armands Circle later this year.
By the Numbers
10 — employees at New Pass Grill and Bait Shop
82 — square feet that make up the current kitchen
14 — number of rental boats Hollis Wadley operated with his fish camp in the late ’50s and early ’60s
36 — number of shrimp Wadley sold in each order for $1.15 in the ’50s
$7.07/ “707”– The original price and menu name for a burger, fries and a tall beer under Wallace’s ownership.
$8.49/“849” — what the 707 became when the Wallaces had to raise the price.
13 — number of years the Wallaces have operated New Pass Grill and Bait Shop
4 — number of months it took Kip Ackerman to paint the building with a 4-inch brush.
700,000 — the estimated number of burgers Jim Wallace has served in his 13 years
1929 — The Bridge Shack was built.
1946 – Dan and Daisy Byrd lease New Pass property and call it Dan Byrd’s Fish Camp
1950 – Hamburgers are sold at the restaurant.
1978 — Dan Byrd dies.
July 31, 1982 — Daisy Byrd closes the door to The Bridge Shack.
1983 — New Pass Bridge is constructed.
1998 — Jim and Don Wallace buy former Bridge Shack the business.