Scott Stecher would like it if all baits, or lures, were Reefrunners. He’s been manufacturing and selling his series of Ripshads, Rippers, Cicadas and Wiglsticks baits for decades, and they hold sway in the walleye community.
Stecher, who lives in Marblehead, Ohio, said his lures have landed walleye (and other fish) in places like South America, Europe and Asia. But they’re especially well-known in the U.S. and Great Lakes region, and specifically in Lake Erie circles.
“I think we’re like the No. 2 walleye brand in the country next to Rapala which – I’ll take that, they’re pretty big,” Stecher said. “Of course, like everyone else, we have a little bit of a supply chain issue with hooks, split rings, blister cards, whatever. But no matter what, you always have to come out with new products for customers, and my tool-builders in Toledo are working on some new stuff right now.”
Stecher’s full-time lure business has supported his family and dozens of others over the decades that have worked for Reefrunner. Each year he hears about another great walleye hatch, he smiles.
While he sells directly to captains, national retailers and online, much of his inventory goes directly to small mom-and-pop operations, ones like Sandusky Bait Company and Hammertime Lures, both operated by Steve Hammer.
Small bait and tackle stores dominate Western Basin
“We’re a full-service bait shop with live bait and artificial, of course,” said Hammer, who quit his full-time job in April to run the bait shop (which opened in 2019) and concentrate on creating and selling his Hammertime lures. “I started about seven years ago and I had ideas about some patterns but couldn’t find them anywhere.”
He began painting his own. When Hammer fished with friends who were charter captains, he explained, they’d want him to paint up some baits for them, sometimes buying 10, 15 or 20 at a time. But before producing more than a few prototype lures, he first fishes with them for the real-world walleye test, gauging how they perform.
“I first-mate for a friend of mine who’s a captain, and we’ll take my lures out and run them,” he said. “And yeah, there’s been a few that sold but in the end they just didn’t perform well, so we replaced them with something else.”
When it comes to fishing baits, including spinner blades, stick baits and spoons, the variety of patterns is dizzying, and so are the names. Hammertime’s lineup of nearly 50 patterns includes Burnt Clown, Confusion, Bloody Nose, Skittles, Blue Wonderbread, Freak Show and Algae Bloom, among others.
Like many custom paint bait pros, Hammer buys the plastic bodies and paints his own color schemes and patterns before adding split-rings and treble hooks. After that, they get packaged up and sold. But while he ships plenty of lures, most of his sales originate in the bait shop.
“Most of our customers have heard about us, and they come and meet in person. For example, two guys from South Dakota who fished the National Walleye Tour came in and saw my lures and loved them so much they started using them in tournaments,” Hammer explained. “So now they just call me and say, ‘Hey we need eight of this one, 10 of this one,’ and now they buy anywhere from five to 10 of each color. They want to make sure if they’re out there and it’s a hot color, they’re covered.”
About 35 miles due north of Sandusky Bait and Tackle, across Lake Erie, Fred Bondy is in Colchester, Ontario. He’s in the bait business too, having operated South Shore Tackle for about nine years. Walleye is a significant portion of his operation.
“This is a small shop. It’s not like Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops, but I do have a fair amount of clientele, being two blocks from the marina,” he said. “It’s a very busy store.”
According to Bondy, Lake St. Clair, which lies about 25 miles north of his Lake Erie shop, offers a hard water fishing season (also known as ice fishing), providing steady traffic for his and other shops.
“It freezes over every year, and we have a phenomenal ice fishing industry here for that lake,” Bondy said. “As far as ice fishing on Lake Erie goes, it’s hit or miss. But in early spring from about the first of April until the first of June, it’s all crankbaits – a lot of Bandits, Hooligans, Rapalas (three currently popular brands). I sell hundreds. Then everything switches after the first week of June from crankbaits to harnesses. I probably sell five to six thousand a year I tie myself with bottom bouncers.”
Bottom bouncers consist of a stiff wire with a lead weight. When dropped to the lake bottom and fitted with a worm or casting harness, anglers can move their bait a foot or so off the bottom, the harness being drifted through the water behind it without dragging on the bottom or becoming snagged.
After that, Bondy said, trolling spoons are big. He buys plain spoons, which offer a constant fluttering motion in the water when trolled, from a dealer. Some he finishes himself with special custom tapes, others he has custom painted.
Live bait is a commodity, too
Artificial bait is only part of the story, especially in the spring when most walleye anglers jig for fish by tipping their big, lead-weighted hooks with minnows. The American Sportfishing Association reports that in Great Lakes states, anglers spend more than $61 million annually on live, cut or prepared fishing bait.
Ohio currently has 533 licensed bait dealers with about 100 in Lake Erie counties, which includes mostly bait and tackle shops. There are still a handful of operators that use boats to capture live minnows, netting emerald shiners on Lake Erie and its connected waters. Others import baitfish like golden shiners and fathead minnows to sell from out of state.
Jim Cutcher drives a truck from Oak Harbor, Ohio’s ANJ Bait & Tackle more than 150 miles to east of Cleveland, including into Pennsylvania, dropping of buckets of minnows at bait shops. He didn’t have any emeralds the day Great Lakes Now caught up with him at Central Basin Bait and Tackle in Vermilion, Ohio.
“No, I got golden shiners and fatheads here today,” Cutcher said as he stood atop the flatbed, carefully scooping out big nets of wriggling minnows. “People used to prefer the emeralds, but now they prefer goldies because they figured out they last longer.”
Cutcher said the minnows he’s delivering were all farm-raised in Arkansas. And longer lasting means they’re hardier and stay lively when hooked – which is a good thing when anglers are trying to attract hungry fish.
The vast majority of all types of minnows used on Lake Erie are used by folks seeking to land a bucket or cooler full of yellow perch.
Live minnows like Cutcher delivers sell wholesale anywhere from $65 to $85 a gallon and cost anglers about $5 a scoop in bait shops. Some scoops are bigger and some scoops are smaller, but it all adds up to another portion of the Lake Erie walleye fishing economy.
“I kill about 30,000 pounds of emerald shiners a year,” said Chris Overmyer, who operates N.A.S. Bait in Marblehead. “We go out and catch our own, and in the spring typically everything we catch, I salt and preserve them.”
Those preserved minnows are used for fishing year-round. Emerald shiners harvested other times of the year are shipped and sold live, by the gallon wholesale and by the scoop retail.
According to Overmyer, live minnow prices were stagnant for years, which led many of the older fishermen who went out in boats to catch them to retire. Most were not replaced by new fishermen. Another reason for higher prices is the VHS virus in many species of fish which emerged around 1996, effectively halting the movement of certain live fish across state lines for years.
Like ANJ, Overmyer sends his live minnows far and wide to small bait shops in Ohio all the way from Toledo to Ashtabula to be sold retail. He also deals in other live bait too. That includes mealworms, waxworms, crayfish, nightcrawlers, redworms and butterworms. Currently Overmyer delivers at least one form of bait to 350 stores weekly. Of those, he said, just about 75 are true bait and tackle shops with the rest being gas stations and convenience stores.
A bait dealer’s license issued by the ODNR also allows folks who sell live minnows to catch their own, like Hammer does.
“Right now I have emeralds and goldies both,” he said. “This year I had emerald shiners about 80% of the time because I went out and got them myself. I actually did it from shore in whatever marina I can find them.”
Hammer said, like anyone looking for emerald shiners at night, he uses a bright light to attract them and then a simple cast net to land them.
A friend in nearby Bellevue provides crayfish.
“He raises them right there in his pond, and I go out there with a seine and help catch them,” Hammer said, going on to say that small and local is a sure bet in the bait and tackle business.
“We sell them for $5.99 a dozen and fishermen love them,” he said. “And that’s the thing – I always try to stay local, even with buying bait or anything like that. I feel like if we do that and let people know about it, other people will do it, shop locally or regionally. Help support the small businesses that support our fishing and the things we love.”
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Featured image: There are hundreds of bait and tackle shops on and near Lake Erie, with most being small family-run businesses. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)