While at work in 2011, Brandon walks in to my office with something in his hand. “This is like the last of the Mohicans”, he tells me. He opens his hand and reveals a little plastic bait that you could tell had been bounced around a tackle box for some time. It was an old Maki plastic from his tournament ice fishing days. “You wouldn’t believe how many fish I’ve caught on these over the years”, he proclaims. This got my attention and knowing Brandon, he had a plan. “Could you draw this up on your computer and send me a 3D model?” He asked. “Sure”, I replied. So at lunch that day, I measured and modeled the little bait he had brought in and had him take a look at it on my computer before sending him the file. “Can you make the tail a little longer and the wings a little thinner?” He asked. After tweaking the design to his liking, Brandon was off to put his plan into action.
A couple days later, Brandon returns with a little block of aluminum that he had machined into a mold to make his own version of the little plastic bait. After ordering some plastic and coloring online, Brandon used his homemade injector to shoot his first baits, one at a time.
Now I had used plastics bass fishing many times, but never for ice fishing. Actually, ice fishing itself was pretty new to me. Inspired by Brandon’s passion for the sport and my parents buying a cabin on a lake in northern Wisconsin, I had begun to accumulate some ice fishing gear of my own the previous winter. I thought it would be a good hobby for me to get into and get me outside during the long winter months here in Wisconsin. I had went ice fishing a handful of times with friends in past years, but it was more put out a bunch of tip-ups and stare down a hole in the ice hoping something was looking at your waxworm on the other end. Rarely did we catch anything and quite frankly, I thought it was a pretty boring. That was about to change.
Brandon gave me a handful of the plastics he had shot to try on a trip up north. I gave them a try but quickly reverted back to using waxworms when they didn’t yield a bite. Even though I wasn’t really catching much of anything on the waxworms either, I had more confidence in live bait and continued to use that for what I would call my first real ice season. Throughout the rest of that ice season Brandon and I started coming up with our own lure designs. He would sketch something up and have me model it and I came up with a few designs of my own that I thought looked realistic enough to work. Brandon would machine them into his block of aluminum and before long we had a half dozen different styles machined into that mold. Now not only did we have a variety of styles to choose from, we also had a few different colors that Brandon had ordered online, white, brown and red, if I remember correctly.
Armed with our arsenal of homemade plastic baits, we were both looking forward to the next ice season. After a few more outings on my own, I was starting to find some better spots and catch a few fish. Nothing like the piles of fish Brandon and his buddies were putting on the ice, so I decided to tag along on one of their trips to the Mississippi River to see what I was doing wrong.
I’ll never forget that first trip. We walked on the ice of a small backwater slough just as the sun was coming up and started drilling holes. I started fishing a hole w/ a plastic bait, but after a few fish had turned it down, quickly put on a waxworm. I was able to ice a couple fish on my waxworms, but my flasher started to show fish after fish turning away from my offering. All the while Brandon is about ten yards away and every couple minutes I hear his drag going off as he was hooking into another fish. I bury my head back into my flasher and continue to work fish, but can’t seem to trigger a bite. I switch back to a plastic because now Brandon and his buddy Adam are both starting to ice a nice mix of crappies and gills. “What color?” I ask. “White”, Brandon whispers. Still nothing. “What color jig?” Brandon comes over and shows me his presentation. I try to replicate it, but still wasn’t having the success they were.
I am watching Adam stand in the middle of a circle of about six holes with a long pole. He would drop his line in a hole and if he wouldn’t get a bite in a couple minutes he would drop it in the next hole working his way around the circle of holes. More often than not, he would yank a fish out after a few seconds of jigging and swing his pole to the next hole in the circle and repeat the process. I was amazed. He wasn’t even using his flasher, simply dropping his line down and focusing on his spring bobber for any sign of a nibble. Here I am using a flasher and working these fish over pretty good and I couldn’t even buy a bite.
Well Brandon must have figured I had struggled enough. It was time to teach me the ropes. He comes over and takes a look at my setup. First thing he noticed was my spring bobber still looked brand new and was stiff. He stretched that out so it was a little more sensitive and showed me how to jig my rod so that my bait was in a nice fluid motion instead of sharply bouncing up and down. Boom! Just like that a fish smoked it. He then gave me one of his rods lined with 2lb test line because the one I had been using was 4lb test. Now it was on. I started hopping around to different holes and catching fish, not as many as Brandon and Adam, but more than the other anglers that had set up in the same area.
By this time it was mid-morning and this small backwater was starting to fill up with fishermen. It wasn’t shoulder to shoulder, but everyone was within a shouting distance. It didn’t take people long to realize we were catching fish. I watched as people shook their head when Brandon’s drag would go off and they would angrily look back down their hole wondering what they were doing wrong. This made me smile because I was in their situation not two hours earlier. People started fishing closer and closer to our group. Some even started fishing out of holes that we had drilled. It didn’t matter. When they got too close and our fishing had slowed some from the added pressure, we simply moved outside the large group of people to some abandoned holes and continued our assault on the finicky gills and crappies below the ice. Finally, an older fellow must have been sick of watching Brandon catch fish and approached him. “What on earth are you guys using?” He said. Brandon pulled his jig up and displayed it in his hand for the guy. Upon seeing the tiny plastic on the jig he asked, “But what are you dressing it with, a waxworm or a spike?” “Neither”, Brandon responded, “just the plastic”. “The hell with you”, the guy goes and throws his hands in the air as he walks away. For he thought Brandon was withholding information from him and didn’t believe our success could come from a tiny piece of plastic on a jig.
Action slowed into the early afternoon, but we were still catching enough to keep us interested. Every once in a while one of us would have a five minute tussle with a largemouth bass. They were fun to catch but almost got to the point we would pull our jigs away from them when we recognized one on our flasher because not only were they getting in the way of us catching more gills and crappies, but about half the time you would end up losing a $3 tungsten jig in the battle. Once we all had a limit of gills w/ a few crappies mixed in we headed for home. We had a pile of fish to clean like I hadn’t seen before, especially ice fishing. From this point on I was hooked. More than hooked, it became an obsession. Little did I know that it was just the beginning.
Throughout the season we would make jokes about how we should go fish these community holes and put up a sign advertising our homemade plastics. Brandon would sell some from time to time to persistent fishermen who would shove a $10 bill in Brandon’s pocket in exchange for a handful of plastics. That season Brandon kept me and his other buddies stocked with plastics and it got to the point where I wouldn’t even take any waxworms with me. I was gaining confidence in using plastics and had enough variety that no matter the day or conditions, I could trigger fish to bite. Even on my own I began to experience great fishing outings. Secretively sneaking fish in my bucket so the others around, who weren’t catching anything, wouldn’t notice that I was and coming home with a bucket full of fish became the norm.
We began to make improvements. We started looking into the types of little critters finicky panfish often ate and modeled our baits after them. Brandon began researching how to make better plastic injection molded parts and applied that knowledge to the bait molds. Pretty soon he was shooting 20-40 baits in one shot. He needed to in order to keep all of his friends stocked with the plastic baits, “superplastics” we called them. We started making more detailed, lifelike critters than what was currently available. It was a great feeling heading to the water knowing we had a secret weapon in our tackle box. Any fisherman’s worst fear when heading out is hearing a fellow fisherman returning from a trip only to sadly announce “lots of lookers”. This didn’t matter anymore. We had something that other people didn’t and were confident we could entice the fish to bite.
That spring I approached Brandon about starting a company and marketing the baits online. I was relieved to hear how similar our visions and goals for the new company were. After some discussion, we settled on ten colors and our five best styles we were going to offer. Brandon went to work making new molds because in a few short months we’d need to shoot hundreds of baits at one time to be able to keep up once word got out, or so we had hoped. I went to work on the website and B-Y Baits LLC was born.
In our first year we set a goal for ourselves to sell 3,000 packs of our plastics. Once word got out we almost met our goal in December alone, but it was just getting started. The rush of orders continued through January, February and into March. Luckily Brandon has a very hard working and understanding wife, Michelle. She has handwritten almost every receipt for every order we have received so far. She has also done far more than her fair share of trimming and packaging baits. We picked a great year to start a micro-plastic fishing bait business as it was one of the longest, coldest winters in years. It was great for business, but since Brandon and Michelle did the bulk of packaging and shipping orders, I know they were ready for a break, so this first “offseason” was welcomed.
We have lots of people ask us, “Are your baits only for ice fishing?” The answer is no, they work great in open water. The difference is there are a lot of different tactics that work during the open water season, so using our baits isn’t as big of an advantage. But come ice season, when the fish really start feeding on smaller bugs and zooplankton is when our baits shine. We have seen days where it seems nearly impossible to trigger a bite, but more often than not by downsizing our jig and pairing it with one of our lifelike critters we are able to salvage a decent day of fishing out of it when many go home with an empty bucket.
So here we are, the weather is changing, the water is cooling and those frosty mornings are becoming more frequent. Before we get to hit the hard water we will spend our days off pursuing another one of our passions, deer hunting. But rest assured, when those lakes lock up we’ll be ready to hit the hard water with our B-Y Baits in hand!
Thanks for reading and good luck to all the people on the hard water this season!
- Darrin Anderson