MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — We are in the throes of the open-water fishing season. Behind every good angler is a bait shop they turn to. In Longville, anglers have relied on Janelle Sonstegard to steer them in the right direction for 50 years.

“Everybody likes to see a friendly face when they come in some place,” Sonstegard said.

With a laugh that’s contagious, Sonstegard can be found behind the register, ready for whoever walks in the door of Longville Bait Company.

“After they’ve been here once, after they know how big our scoops of minnows are, they’re regulars,” Sonstegard said.

She stays on her feet, ringing up orders or doling out tips on where the fish are hungry.

“Because I think she knows, and the advice is free,” customer Jim Nelson said.

People shopping for live bait count on the 62-year-old.

“She always has a smile on her face and she’s always happy to take care of us,” Jeff Nelson, of Woman Lake Lodge, said.

“I listen to the people and whatever they have to say,” Sonstegard said. “And I’ve always been a good listener, and I like people and people like me.”

That skill, connecting with others, started at a young age. She began her career 50 years ago, at age 12.

Pete Thielen was one of her first customers.

“I was easy to make blush, and these older guys, they liked to see me turn red,” Sonstegard said.

She’s outgrown that.

“Every year I got more responsibility. It got so where I was making out the tackle orders,” Sonstegard said.

One of her favorite things is sorting leeches and counting nightcrawlers.

“I spread them out on a board, and I usually put five in a pile and I put 13 to a cup,” Sonstegard said.

“I’m guessing she’s counted more nightcrawlers than any individual in the state, maybe the world. I figure 50 years of 40,000 or so a week? That’s a lot of crawlers,” Longville Bait Company owner Dave Spartz said.

Spartz calls Sonstegard the backbone of the business. On the one day each week she has off, “There isn’t a morning that somebody doesn’t stick their head in and say, ‘Where’s Janelle? How come Janelle’s gone?’ They’re always looking for her, even when they know I’m around here. It’s still Janelle they’re looking for,” Spartz said.

Sonstegard works from the middle of April through mid-October.

“I say if I can get my work done in 6 months, why work 12? When I add up my hours, they’re the same amount of hours as someone who works 40 hours a week and all year long,” Sonstegard said.

One job. 50 years.

“She’s done everything anyone has ever asked and worked harder than most people but it makes the place what it is,” Thielen said.

“It’s a good accomplishment, but I never did quit something in the middle anyways,” Sonstegard said.

Sonstegard plans to cut back her hours after this season. She’ll go from 50 hours a week to 40. Her family will throw her a party in October to celebrate the milestone before the bait shop closes for the season. Of course, the town of Longville is invited.

Jennifer Mayerle