Much is working against the minnow. The state has rules, the anglers have options. Is the end near? Or here?
Anything important to do with freshwater fishing originated in Minnesota. That's not true, of course. But it has a dandy ring to it. And it's close to being true.
The Rapala? Made in Finland. But brought to the United States by two Minnesotans, Ron Weber and Ray Ostrom.
The Vexilar FL-8 sonar unit, which revolutionized ice fishing? Credit Steve Baumann of the Twin Cities.
The Lindy Rig? Born on Brainerd-area lakes, it was first manufactured for the masses by Al and Ron Lindner.
And flies? Try the Dahlberg Diver (developed by Minnesotan Larry Dahlberg of "Hunt for Big Fish'' TV fame), and the Muddler Minnow (by Don Gapen, father of another legendary Minnesota angler, Dan Gapen).
The list goes on, and includes, among other products and gadgets, aluminum fishing boats, of which the world's best -- Lunds, Alumacrafts, Crestliners -- are made in Minnesota.
Now credit also Minnesota for helping give birth to what ultimately might prove the most revolutionary of all the state's fishing inventions: soft plastic baits.
Sure, Berkley of Spirit Lake, Iowa, (a mere stone's throw south of Minnesota) is the leader here, with its fish-catching Gulp! But Northland Fishing Tackle of Bemidji, with its "soft and chewy'' Slurpies brand soft baits, isn't far behind.
And now industry heavyweight Rapala, whose North American headquarters are in Minnetonka, has entered the market with a $25 million research and development effort yielding its Trigger X brand soft plastics.
Meanwhile, the live bait industry is awash in challenges, particularly in Minnesota. Most problematic: Golden shiners -- long the favorite bait of walleye anglers -- are in short supply, so much so that some minnow retailers say their sales are off 70 percent.
In response, Minnesota's bait producers are pleading with the DNR and legislators for permission to import shiners from Arkansas for resale here -- just as about 45 other states do.
But state fisheries officials say they have been stung before by invasive species hitchhiking to Minnesota in ship ballasts, on boat trailers and in anglers' live wells. So, no dice: The risk of imported minnows bringing to Minnesota weird diseases and creepy critters is too great, according to the DNR.
Meanwhile, in laboratories worldwide, the next generation of soft plastics is being developed, with the direct intention of stealing still more market share from live bait.
Already in China, soft plastic Northland minnows nearly identical to young-of-the-year fatheads are being hand-painted and hand-tuned, ready for shipment to Minnesota and throughout the world.
"There's no question soft plastics are becoming more and more popular, and we see it continuing,'' said John Crane, brand manager at Northland. "In some places we're almost seeing an equalization of sales between soft plastics and live bait. Someday, soft plastics might even overtake live bait.''
Thus the question: Is live bait dead?
Soft plastics got their start in -- of course -- Minnesota
A long time ago (1967) in a faraway place (northern Minnesota, near International Falls) a schoolteacher named Ric Welle began hand-tying fishing jigs with natural hair and feathers.
Fledgling, to be sure, Welle's initial effort was intended to supplement his teacher's salary, while sating his long-held interest in all things fishing.
One spring break, Welle took a fishing trip to Florida, where, serendipitously, on a charter boat, he met a DuPont chemist who was fishing with what appeared to be a homemade rubber bait.
Amazed at the success the DuPont angler had, Welle later fashioned similar baits of his own and tested them on a Canadian fishing trip he took with a fellow named Duane Peterson.
Duane Peterson is the brother of John Peterson, the northern Minnesota fishing guide who in 1975 founded, and still owns, Northland Fishing Tackle.
So successful were Welle's soft baits that in 1973 he and a partner started selling baits they called Mr. Twister -- soft plastic worm- and grub-like critters that immediately won over anglers worldwide.
And still do.
In 1983, Mr. Twister was bought by the Mepps Co., which owns the brand yet today. (Welle, meanwhile, has moved to Florida, where he owns Wahoo Bait Products.)
Shift the scene now from northern Minnesota to Spirit Lake, Iowa, where in the labs of Berkley Fishing, fish biologist Keith Jones and chemist John Prochnow labored for 20 years to develop Berkley Powerbaits and Berkley Gulp!.
Both are soft plastics, but they differ from one another in key ways. Powerbaits -- long a staple of competitive bass anglers -- are made of oil-based resins and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The "flavor'' of Powerbaits is impregnated into them, and tasted when fish bite, making them hang on long enough for a hook to be set, Berkley says.
Gulp! is Berkley's more recently developed bait, and it is made of water-based resins. Gulp! baits, which resemble leeches, minnows and other aquatics, release their scent as soon as they enter water.
They can also be recharged and kept fresh in their packages or in special Gulp! Alive! pails.
Rapala: from hard baits to soft
Fishing is fun. But it's also a very competitive business.
Rapala, long known worldwide for its famous fish-catching hard baits, for many years watched from the sidelines as the soft bait portion of the industry took off and flourished.
Now Rapala has its own line of soft baits, unveiling this spring its Trigger X brand that it says are the result of $25 million in research.
"I've never seen a single magic bait, and I've never seen one bait that catches all fish all of the time,'' said Mark Fisher, director of field promotions at Rapala's North American headquarters in the Twin Cities. "There's a time for hard baits and a time for soft baits. At Rapala, we've watched the soft bait industry grow and we've done a lot of research. We think we have a unique product that catches fish.''
Rapala's baits are pheromone-scented, biodegradable and species-specific to walleyes and bass (as well as saltwater species). As with Powerbaits and Northland's Slurpies, they're shaped to mimic live bait.
"Pheromones are what trigger feeding and aggression in fish,'' Fisher said. "Rapala has tested these baits extensively, and they catch fish. That said, today's anglers are a tough sell. They'll test them themselves. I'll think they'll find that in some circumstances they're the best bait, while in other cases, it'll be hard baits or live bait that work best.''
Crane, of Northland Tackle, agrees.
"At Northland, we're 'pro' live bait and 'pro' artificials, especially soft baits,'' Crane said. "In certain waters you can do better with soft baits. The Mississippi River. Lake of the Woods. Canadian lakes. The Missouri in the Dakotas. Any time you have dark or moving water, soft plastics will work well.
"On the other hand, live bait shines when used in clear, northern Minnesota lakes like Gull, Winnie, Cass and Whitefish, among others.
"To catch fish, you need to have the right bait at the right time.''
Dennis Anderson • email@example.com
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