Welcome to Fish Alley

Fishing may be one of Minnesota’s great pastimes, but it’s also big business. Minnesota’s Fish Alley, a 180-mile stretch from Brainerd to Mankato, is a mecca of fishing innovation and home to some of the leading brands in the world of sportfishing.

By Stephen Dupont

12:01 a.m., Saturday, May 14, 2011.
There may be no date and time more anticipated by Minnesotans (other than, possibly, Christmas morning) than the annual launch of Minnesota's Fishing Opener. On that day, Gov. Mark Dayton will kick off the season with the 63rd annual Governor's Fishing Opener on Pokegama Lake near Grand Rapids, heralding the beginning of Minnesota's walleye season and the unofficial beginning of summer. Joining Gov. Dayton are an estimated 1.4 million Minnesota residents who will cast a lure or bobber sometime this summer hoping to catch the fish of a lifetime-or at least a great fish story.

It's common knowledge that Minnesotans enjoy their fishing. A lot. After all, Minnesotans are second only to Alaskans in the number of residents per capita who fish (36 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) and they hold the distinction of owning more boats per capita than any other state in the nation. Minnesota also is recognized as a major destination for sportfishing, attracting more than 300,000 out-of-state anglers annually.

Behind these numbers is a story about an industry that few realize rivals Minnesota's famed medical technology industry. And while fishing might seem "low-tech" or "no-tech" to some, in reality, Minnesota's sportfishing industry is a mecca of fishing innovation, with companies continuously developing everything from new marine electronics to high-definition lake mapping software to creating softbait lures with pheromones that were scientifically developed for the fish farming industry.

In the United States, Minnesota trails only Florida and Texas in generating more jobs (more than 43,000) and more retail sales (more than $2.8 billion) from sportfishing. If you throw in all of the ancillary purchases that occur each year, from anglers buying gas, doughnuts, lodging and boat supplies to the support that advertising firms, law firms, accounting firms and printing companies offer Minnesota's sportfishing companies, the ripple effect across Minnesota's economy is enormous-more than $4.7 billion, according to the American Sportfishing Association (ASA). In fact, Minnesota companies directly involved with the sportfishing industry generate about 13,000 more jobs than Minnesota's med-tech industry cluster, which generates about 30,000 jobs in Minnesota, according to LifeScience Alley. This flood of economic activity generates more than $1.3 billion in salaries and wages for Minnesotans and contributes $350 million in federal taxes and $342 million in state taxes, according to an ASA report.

Each year in late March, anglers from throughout Minnesota and nearby states flock to the annual Northwest Sportshow. It's an annual rite of spring for Minnesota's anglers, who have been making the annual migration to the Northwest Sportshow for 79 years. Held at the Minneapolis Convention center, this sprawling five-day consumer show features 575 exhibitors who come together each year to lure hard-working anglers with everything and anything related to fishing. Attracting more than 35,000 anglers, the Northwest Sportshow is, according to its organizer the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the second-largest consumer sportshow in the country based on square footage and number of exhibitors.

It's here, in a single room, that one can see the breadth and depth of Minnesota's sportfishing industry. More than 60 percent of the companies at the Northwest Sportshow are based in Minnesota. Rows upon rows of booths are dominated by small businesses such as resort owners, fishing boat and dock retailers, and fishing tackle retailers, all angling for the cold hard cash of itchy anglers hoping to drive home with some new lures, a fishing rod or a reservation for a week of fishing up north later this summer.

Among these businesses are the heavyweights of not only Minnesota's sportfishing industry, but the world's. Brands such as Rapala, FLW Outdoors, Minn Kota, Lund Boat Company, Vexilar and In-Fisherman, and leading media figures such as the Lindners (Al, Ron, James), Ron Schara, Babe Winkelman, Doug Stange (host of In-Fisherman), Steve Pennaz (host of North American Fisherman) and Larry Dahlberg (host of The Hunt for Big Fish). Minnesota's sportfishing companies literally touch millions of anglers worldwide, influencing where anglers fish, how they fish and with which products they fish.

If Minnesota can have a LifeScience Alley to describe the numerous med-tech and biosciences businesses that have clustered in Minnesota (primarily along Interstate 694), then our state can have a Fish Alley, too. Take out a map and draw a line from Brainerd to Mankato. It's along this 180-mile swath that the majority of Minnesota's sportfishing companies are located. In the Brainerd area, Minnesota's Fish Alley is anchored by the media companies In-Fisherman and Lindner Media and not too far away in New York Mills, the manufacturing operations for Lund and Crestliner Boats. Going south, Little Falls is home to the manufacturing operations of Larson, FinCraft, Triumph and Striper by Seaswirl boats as well as WayPoint Technologies, which markets LakeMaster Lake Maps. Further south, the Lake Minnetonka area is the base for Rapala's U.S. operations (Rapala lures and fillet knives, Sufix fishing line, Storm lures, Trigger X lures), FLW Outdoors, Ron Schara Enterprises, and the North American Membership Group, which manages the 500,000-strong North American Fishing Club (fishingclub.com). On the southern side of Minnesota's Fish Alley in Mankato and St. Peter is Minn Kota trolling motors, Cannon downriggers and Alumacraft boats.

At the heart of what we call Fish Alley are the hundreds of lakes and miles upon miles of river that offer some of the best walleye, bass, muskie and panfish fishing in the country. The sheer number of lakes and rivers in this area, as well as the hundreds of thousands of passionate, boat-owning anglers who live near these waters has created a real-life test lab right out the back doors of many of Minnesota's tackle, marine and fishing electronics manufacturers. Without these, there would likely be no Fish Alley.

Two entrepreneurs who recognized the potential of Minnesota's Fish Alley early on were Al and Ron Lindner. Back in the early 1970s, the Lindners moved from Chicago to Brainerd to begin building a business focused on giving anglers insights about how to increase their fishing success through a more thorough understanding of fish behavior, location and bait presentation. Their business would become known as the In-Fisherman (in-fisherman.com) magazine and eventually, TV series.

"We fished all over the country," says Al Lindner, co-owner of Lindner Media Productions (anglingedge.com), the business that the Lindners co-founded in 2002 after selling In-Fisherman, "and we concluded that there was no other place that we wanted to call home. Minnesota has the best all-around freshwater multi-species fishing anywhere. And it's also home to a number of outdoor fishing industry giants such as Rapala, Minn Kota, FLW Outdoors, North American Membership Group, Inc., In-Fisherman, Lund Boat Co., Gander Mountain and Mills Fleet Farm."

The most critical factor for the ongoing growth and success of Minnesota's Fish Alley is the quality and ready access to its water resources and year-round, high-quality fishing opportunities (including ice fishing).

"The combination of Minnesota's lakes, its incredible fishing and its geology has produced an amazing industry that's rich in entrepreneurial spirit," says Ron Schara, host of Minnesota Bound, and founder of Ron Schara Enterprises (ronscharaproductions.com), a media company that produces such nationally-seen outdoor television programs as Due North Outdoors, Pheasants Forever and Destination Polaris.

"If I did a program called Indiana Bound, we would be out of stories to tell in our first year," jokes Schara. "We're going into our 16th year with Minnesota Bound because people from all over the country associate Minnesota with great stories of the outdoors. And it's true. There are so many stories of things to enjoy in Minnesota's great outdoors, and the people behind those stories."  

According to the Minnesota DNR (dnr.state.mn.us/fisheries) Minnesota is blessed with 11,842 lakes (more than 10 acres) and more than 69,000 miles of rivers and streams. While our state offers lots of quality fishing opportunities, it's the accessibility to Minnesota's lakes and rivers through public accesses (boat ramps, docks, state parks and forests, etc.) and relatively low fishing license fees ($25 annually for an adult couple; kids 15 and under fish free) that allow so many Minnesotans and out-of-state visitors to tap into Minnesota's rich fishing resources. That's not the case in other parts of our country, where anglers may need to pay a high fee to fish a single lake or stretch of river, or join a private club to access a specific lake. Right across our border, at the public fishing ramp on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River in Hudson, anglers must pay a fee to park their trucks and boat trailers, while directly across the river on the Minnesota side, parking is free at the public boat ramps.

Overseeing Minnesota's lakes and rivers is Dirk Peterson, a 33-year veteran of the DNR, which manages 5,400 lakes and 15,000 miles of rivers and streams for fishing. Its management efforts include the development of written plans to manage specific lakes, rivers and streams to deliver specific quality fishing experiences, ranging from trophy muskie waters to lakes managed to produce large quantities of legal size walleyes to urban lakes and ponds managed to create shoreline opportunities for kids to catch panfish and get hooked on fishing in the process.

"We work very closely with lakeshore owners, sportsmans' groups, sportfishing companies and other interested parties to offer a variety of diverse but high -quality, sustainable fishing opportunities across the state of Minnesota," says Peterson, Minnesota DNR fisheries chief, who oversees 300 state employees dedicated to Minnesota's fisheries, located in 28 field offices around the state.

Peterson's task is all the more challenging, between navigating the politics of what one interest group would like versus another to ensuring that Minnesota wards off threats such as zebra mussels, VHS (a deadly fish virus), Eurasian milfoil and the potential invasion of Asian carp through the Mississippi River.

"Minnesota is a very unique state," says Glenn Meyer, publisher of Outdoor News (outdoornews.com), a weekly newspaper that is must reading for Minnesota anglers and hunters. "Minnesotans love their outdoors. They're very passionate about what happens to our lakes and land. More importantly, Minnesota's anglers and hunters really care about conservation and the quality of the outdoor experience."

"If you want to understand how important our natural resources are to Minnesotans," Schara adds, "you need only look at the Minnesota Legacy Amendment, which was overwhelmingly passed by Minnesota voters in 2008. We actually voted to raise our state sales tax to provide dedicated funds for fish and wildlife. That's an incredible gift that we've given to ourselves."

Because of this dedication to high-quality fishing opportunities, companies such as WayPoint Technologies, Inc., in Little Falls, have plenty of opportunities to design and test new fishing technologies. The company's high-definition LakeMaster Lake Maps (lakemap.com) offer unprecedented detail of Minnesota's most popular fishing lakes, reducing an angler's time to find exceptional fishing spots and increasing an angler's ability to avoid unseen hazards.

When Mike Wood founded the business in 1992, his original intent was to create highly detailed PC-based street maps that could be used in various industries to improve transportation, routing or to add digital maps to real estate multiple listing systems. Then along came free, online map websites like MapQuest and portable GPS units. Looking for another market to apply his high-definition map technology, Wood turned to fishing maps, a segment of the sportfishing market that relied heavily on outdated maps created by state departments of natural resources.

"Minnesota is a natural place to start a business related to fishing because we have so many passionate anglers who are willing to share their ideas of what can make their fishing experience better," says Steve Wood, Mike's brother, who joined the business in 2006.  As anglers throughout Minnesota and around the country have embraced the company's innovative mapping products, the company has grown from four employees in 1999 to a staff of 13 people today, with plans to expand its high-def map technology to include many more lakes and many other states.

In today's competitive business world, where companies decide at the drop of a hat to move their business from one part of the country to another to improve their bottom line, in Minnesota, the bottom line is access to passionate anglers.

"The reason Rapala is in Minnesota and not somewhere else," says Tom Mackin, CEO of Rapala (rapala.com), which manufactures the No. 1-selling fishing lure in the world, "is because everyone who works for us is passionate about fishing. The quality of our workforce is second to none. Our people show up. They're on time. They really care about what they do. And while we could move to epicenter of sportfishing, Florida, the fact is, we all really love Minnesota and the lifestyle it offers."

Mackin points to a decision made by the company several years ago. Citing a need to build a new distribution center, Rapala went through the typical process of comparing tax, labor, transportation and other costs and incentives associated with building the new center in Minnesota versus other states.

"We sell Rapala products through more than 28,000 doors [retailers] throughout the U.S. and Canada," Mackin says. "When we got right down to it, it made more financial sense to build that distribution center here in Minnesota. It's more efficient to operate just one distribution center than multiple centers, Minnesota is centrally located and most of all, the people here are passionate about fishing and they have that Midwestern work ethic that we didn't see in other parts of the country."

Maybe not surprisingly, Mackin adds, "Rapala lures are sold in 140 countries. They've set more world records than any other lure. But guess what, Minnesota is our No. 1 sales territory."

Judy Douglas, senior business director for Minn Kota Motors (minnkotamotors.com) and Cannon Downriggers (cannondownriggers.com), echoes Mackin's comments. Owned by Johnson Outdoors, based in Racine, Wis., the company's manufacturing, R&D and distribution operations (a total of 270,000 square feet among three facilities) for Minn Kota and Cannon products are located in Mankato. The Mankato operations also serves as the central distribution hub for Humminbird fish electronics, which are made in Eufaula, Ala., then shipped to Mankato for distribution worldwide.

The company could move these operations and its 200 full-time jobs to just about anywhere in the country, but Douglas insists there's no place like Minnesota for the No. 1-selling brand of trolling motors.

"We have a workforce of extremely tenured, educated employees who are very passionate about what they do," said Douglas. "Our products demand customers who are even more committed to fishing than the average angler. In other words, they're boat owners, too. Minnesota is the perfect place to design and engineer our products because Minnesota is a mecca for serious boat-owning anglers who are eager to invest in new fishing technology."

Another major player in Minnesota's Fish Alley is Irwin Jacobs. A native Minnesotan, Jacobs may be best known for his ownership of boat companies such as Larson, Triumph, Fincraft and Striper by Seaswirl, all of which are made in Little Falls and employ about 350 employees. But what many Minnesotans may not be aware of is Jacobs' gigantic impact on the world of sportfishing through his ownership of the world's largest and richest bass fishing tournament.

The Walmart FLW Tour professional bass fishing tournament features 160 pro bass anglers competing in 10 tournaments, plus the granddaddy of them all the Forrest Wood Cup, which offers the richest prize purse in professional fishing. Besides obtaining the sponsorship support of the world's largest retailer, Wal-mart, the FLW Tour television program is viewed weekly in 123 countries reaching 500 million households. That's for starters. FLW Outdoors also serves as a platform for a number of semi-pro and amateur bass tournament series, including the EverStart Series, the Wal-mart BFL tournaments, the National Guard FLW Walleye Tour tournaments, and local club tournaments in which more than 20,000 club members of The Bass Federation participate. Jacobs even engages non-anglers through FLW Fantasy Fishing (fantasyfishing.com), the world's largest fantasy sports competition, offering prizes up to $500,000 this year.

Jacobs' latest innovation is a new national bass fishing tournament series that allows college teams to compete head-to-head to win college scholarships. Going into its second year, the National Guard FLW College bass fishing tournament series is attracting student anglers from dozens of colleges and universities across the country.

"Fishing is a truly global activity," says Jacobs, "The reason major brands like Wal-mart, Smucker's, and Folgers want to be involved with FLW Outdoors is because anyone can catch a fish. Any age. Any gender. Any skill level. A fish doesn't know who is on the other end of the line. Getting people involved in fishing is what we do at FLW Outdoors."

The "candy store" for many fishermen in the Twin Cities is a relatively small store located on University Avenue in Blaine. To hardcore muskie anglers, fly-fishing enthusiasts, and ice fishermen, Thorne Brothers (thornebros.com) is not simply a destination, it's an addiction. The retailer serves as a proving ground for a number of Minnesota's emerging fishing tackle and equipment companies that seek to connect with serious anglers.  It's here that anglers will find products by local companies such as JB Lures (jblures.com), Maynards Tackle (maynardstackle.com), Gopher Tackle (gophertackle.com), Musky Mayhem (muskymayhemtackle.com), and Phantom Lures (phantomlures.com), among others.

The key to Thorne Brothers' success is that it does fishing and nothing but fishing. Owned by Josh Roundsley, a long-time employee who bought the retail store seven years ago, Thorne Brothers has grown dramatically since then, from nine full-time employees to 18, and from a 5,000-square-foot store to 7,000 square feet.

"We're don't try to be all things to everyone," says long-time Thorne Brothers manager John Nelson. "We just focus on what serious anglers want and need. We're always looking for new gear that we believe will help our customers catch more and bigger fish, and keep us one step ahead of other retailers."

Ice fishing is yet another segment of sportfishing where Minnesota's Fish Alley is a national leader. According to Thorne Brothers' Nelson, it's one of the fastest-growing segments in sportfishing because of the low cost of entry for most anglers. With Minnesota as its epicenter, ice fishing is growing throughout the Great Lakes region, but in most other parts of the country, it is still very much in its infancy.

The sport is dominated by several Minnesota-based companies such as Vexilar (vexilar.com), based in Bloomington, which makes sonar electronics (known as flashers) and underwater cameras for use year-round; Clam Corp., (clamcorp.com), a Medina company founded by legendary ice angler Dave Genz, which markets the Clam portable flip-over ice shelter and Ice Armor, a line of outerwear especially designed for ice fishermen; and Strikemaster (strikemaster.com) power and hand ice augers, based in Big Lake.

Because of the tremendous interest in ice fishing, both in Minnesota and other states, this niche of the sportfishing industry is attracting new companies driven by the opportunity to create new products that put ice anglers on fish faster, while making the experience more comfortable. Two such companies are Canvas Craft and Versa Electronics.

Canvas Craft (canvascraftinc.com) is a custom boat and truck tarp manufacturer in Rogers. The company employs 20 people, and is owned by Matt Franta. Several years ago, Franta created a new portable ice shelter called the Northlander featuring an insulated fabric that can be ready to use within minutes of reaching your ice fishing spot. Demand for the new ice shelter has been remarkable, says Franta, prompting him to shift more of his manufacturing to creating ice shelters.

"Minnesota is miles ahead of everyone in the world of ice fishing," says Franta. "Getting into the ice fishing market has allowed me to retain valuable skilled employees, some of whom have been with me for more than 20 years."  

Another company that is riding the growing wave of interest in ice fishing is Versa Electronics (versaco.com), based in New Hope. The company manufactures and markets MarCum high-powered sonar units and underwater cameras, and Showdown digital ice sonar systems. Kevin Johnsrud, the CEO of Versa Electronics, purchased the MarCum and Showdown brands in 2009 after serving as a contract manufacturer of sonar products for about four years. The acquisition complements the company's other primary operation, making electronic products for OEMs engaged in medical, industrial controls, power and energy, and commercial applications.

"We have a tremendous nucleus of ice fishermen here in Minnesota," says Johnsrud. "We experienced a tremendous response to our products at the St. Paul Ice Fishing Show, and with the help of retailers such as Thorne Brothers, Reeds, Scheels, Gander Mountain, Mills Fleet Farm, Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops, I believe our sales will continue to grow as more ice fishermen around the Great Lakes adopt the ice fishing technology that Minnesota anglers are already familiar with."