For years, Gopher Tackle's 1/16-ounce Original Mushroom Head Jig has been my favorite Midwest finesse jig. And for many summers, we have been driving within two miles of Gopher Tackle's shop in Cuyuna, Minnesota, as our family made its way to one of our summertime vacation spots at the lakes that stipple the countryside of the Arrowhead and Heartland regions of Minnesota's North Woods.
But this summer, as we approached Crosby, Minnesota, at 2 p.m. on July 28, we telephoned Darrick Peterson and asked him if he could give us a quick tour of the shop and an informal history of his family's tackle company. He said yes, and he gave us precise directions on how to find the shop, telling us to turn left off of State Highway 210 onto County Road 31, drive two miles, and then we would see the shop on the left hand side of the road at the corner of Foley Street and County Road 31. Within the city limits of Cuyuna, the County Road 31 is also Minnesota Avenue.
According to the 2010 census, the entire hamlet of Cuyuna consists of only 126 households, 332 people, 162 housing units and about six square blocks. Though it looks a touch threadbare at first glance, it's a growing community. In fact, it grew an impressive 43.72 percent from 2000 to 2010.
When we arrived, Peterson greeted us at the side door with a hearty handshake. An engaging smile enlivened the reddish beard that graces his face. A slight Minnesota accent highlighted his welcoming words.
After we exchanged a few moments of introductory remarks, Peterson said that he was in the midst of working on a batch of 3/32-ounce Gamakatsu Heavy Series Mushroom Head Jigs with a 3/0 hook for Roland Martin of tournament fishing and television fame. He was painting them a chartreuse hue. Thus, he immediately took us from the side door into the painting room and showed us Martin's jigs and scores of other jigs that were in the process of being painted. He explained that Martin's jigs would be baked for eight hours in a nearby walk-in oven during the night of July 28. Then he would package them on July 29 and mail to Martin on July 30.
After Peterson showed us Martin's jigs, he began giving us a tour of the shop's eight rooms.
We started in the molding room, which is lined and interlaced with a series of heavy-duty shelves. Some of these shelves contain a virtual archives of jig and bait molds that Gopher has used across the past four decades.
Before he showed us how his state-of-the-art centrifugal jig molding system operated, we examined some of the archives. He showed us the first steel mold that they used to manufacture their Mushroom Head Jigs, telling us about all the time and labor it took to manufacture these early editions of the Mushroom Head Jigs. We also rummaged through several stacks of the immense collection of molds that Gopher Tackle used to manufacture for several big-time tackle companies before the turn of the century.
As we examined some the old molds, we noticed one that was situated on a top shelf, and it had the name R. Lindner inscribed upon it.
We discovered that it was one of several molds that Darrick Peterson's father, Conrad, created for Ron Lindner, who was the founder and former publisher of In-Fisherman and has been a longtime Gopher Tackle aficionado.
Lindner says the first finesse jig that he used for largemouth bass was a Gopher Tackle's Mushroom Head Jig, and it was Lindner who gave me the first Mushroom Head Jig that I ever used. The jig that Lindner gave me was a black 1/16-ounce one, which Lindner liked to dress with a customized or shortened black Berkley Ribbon Tail worm.
Conrad Peterson made a 3/32-ounce Mushroom Head Jig for Lindner and several other anglers that had the bait-keeping barbs on the side of the jig's collar rather than on the top and bottom portions of the collar.
Gopher Tackle also created a 3/32-ounce Mushroom Head Jig for Lindner that could accommodate a Guido Bug, which was a soft-plastic crayfish that Dion and Guido Hibdon created back in the late 1970s. To employ a Guido Bug on a Mushroom Head Jig, Lindner wanted a bigger hook than was available in the standard Gopher jig. Thus, a new mold was made to handle bigger hooks. In many ways, the Guido Bug jig was similar to the jig that Gopher Tackle now calls the Big John's Mushroom Head Jig, which is endowed with a long hook with a flat, 60-degree eye. The Big John was made for the late John Christensen who was a noted Minnesota bass angler and tournament competitor, and it was Christensen who introduced Lindner to the Mushroom Head Jig when they were paired together at Minnesota bass tournament in the mid-1970s.
There were other molds for the Lindner clan, such as a mold for tube jigs that has Al Lindner's name embossed on it. Because of the unique configuration of the Mushroom Head Jig, some the Lindners used to refer to it as half of a jig. (In the March 1998 issue of In-Fisherman magazine, Matt Straw wrote a piscatorial masterpiece entitled "Smalltime Jigs, Big-time Smallmouths" that featured the way Jim Lindner employed 1/16- and 3/32-ounce Mushroom Head Jigs that he dressed with a two-inch Creme tube, two-inch Berkley grub and six-inch Berkley Ribbon Tail worm that had two-inches removed from its head. If the water was stained, Jim Lindner used either a chartreuse or orange Mushroom Head Jig.)
As we continued to examine the mold archives with Peterson, he also began to delve into the history of Gopher Tackle. He explained that his father, Conrad, created the first mold for the Mushroom Head Jig in the mid-1970s. He sold the first ones in 1976 and acquired a patent in 1978. Darrick Peterson remembers selling them surreptitiously around the Garcia booth where his father was working at the sport show in Minneapolis in the 1970s, which was when Darrick Peterson was still in junior high school.
During those first Gopher Tackle years, the Peterson family resided in Apple Valley, Minnesota, which lies about 21 miles south of the Twin Cities. Darrick Peterson graduated from Apple Valley High School in 1981. After he graduated, he worked for his father and helped him to manufacture jigs for a year, and then he attended Dakota County Technical College in Rosemont, Minnesota, for two years and graduated in 1984.
As we ambled through the front room of the shop, Peterson noted that his father was a dominant angler on the bass tournament scene in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 1970s. In fact, several of the knotty-pine walls in the shop's front room are adorned with trophies, plaques and photographs that chronicle his prowess on various tournament circuits. Peterson also noted that many of his father's tournament accomplishments were execute by wielding a Mushroom Head Jig.
Peterson told us that his father created Gopher Tackle in 1981. Then in 1984, his father moved the family from Apple Valley to Cuyuna and opened the shop. After Darrick Peterson graduated from the technical college, he joined his family in Cuyuna and worked in the shop from 1984 into 1986. In 1986, Darrick Peterson took a job in the Twin Cities, where he worked until 1989. Then he returned to Cuyuna, and, once again, he joined the family's business, which was a growing endeavor.
According to Peterson, the heydays of Gopher Tackle occurred from the late 1980s into the late 1990s. That was when they were manufacturing tackle for Berkley, Lindy and several other tackle companies. They were so busy during those years that they had a half dozen employees, as well as the entire Peterson family, working in this eight-room shop.
But after Berkley decided to manufacture its tackle in China, Gopher Tackle became solely a family business again, and the entire shop was manned by Darrick Peterson, his father, his mother, Janice, his sister, Tracy, Darrick's wife, Brenda, and Darrick's son, Brant.
Since the late 1990s and after the turn of the century, Gopher Tackle's work for other tackle companies has diminished, too.
Nowadays, Conrad Peterson, who is 75 years old, and Janice Peterson have retired and reside in Arizona. Darrick Peterson's wife, son and sister no longer work in the shop.
Thus, it has become a one-man shop, and Darrick Peterson, who is 50 years old, runs the entire operation single handedly, which can be a seven-day-a-week and 24-hour-a-day ordeal. Therefore, he has even created a small bedroom in the shop adjacent to his computer and desk, where he can get a few minutes of sleep during those arduous spells when he has to work in the shop all day and all night.
Peterson readily admits that the jig business has recently become a struggle physically and financially, but he loves it.
It was especially trying when he severely ruptured one of his Achilles tendons two years ago. The surgery on the tendon spawned some significant infections, which confounded and extended the healing process. He was confined to a wheelchair for three months. He couldn't walk for six months. Then for eight more months, he could barely hobble around. Nevertheless, he learned how to negotiate the maze of shelves, corners, doorways, desks, tables, tools and machinery in the wheelchair and with his crutches, and he was able to manufacture thousands of jigs during this pain-ridden and frustrating ordeal.
Petersons spends many hours each week pouring molten lead into a centrifugal-mold machine, which he did even when he was confined to a wheelchair or propped up on a pair of crutches. And when all goes well around the shop, which means there are no interruptions, Peterson calculates that he can pour about 4,000 jigs a day. He says the most time-consuming aspect of the molding process is placing the hooks into the mold.
After the rings of jigs are extracted from the molds, Peterson removes each jig from the ring and smooths any rough spots that are on the head. (All of the lead residue is melted again and used to manufacture another round of jigs. Besides lead jigs, Peterson also makes bismuth jigs.)
After the jigs are separated from the ring, they are taken to the painting room, where he applies a coat of white primer paint. Once the primer paint dries, he applies a coat of epoxy paint. Once the painting sequence is completed, the jigs are baked in a walk-in oven for eight hours. After that they are cooled, and then placed in packages and either shipped to customers or stored in the inventory room.
Peterson says his efforts to economize the business have been confounded by several factors: The price of lead has escalated substantially, rising from $1.70 a pound in 2011 to $2.70 a pound in 2012. Second factor is that the cost of shipping lead jigs has risen significantly. The third element revolves around the economic recession that erupted in 2008. On top of those three critical aspects, several other tackle manufacturers are making a mushroom-style jig, and these copycat encroachments adversely affect his livelihood.
Peterson doesn't manufacture the vast variety of jigs that he and his family used to make. Now his focus is primarily on the Mushroom Head Jig and bass anglers. Nevertheless, he still manufactures jigs in 72 different sizes and hook combinations and 23 colors.
All the hardscrabble days that Peterson has endured during the past several years has him contemplating about downsizing the business to the point that he can do it at his home rather than in the eight-room shop on the corner of Foley Street and Minnesota Avenue. His tabulations reveal that such a move would be fiscally wise. His wife, however, isn't keen about the idea of having the shop in their home.
Whatever transpires regarding Peterson's ponderings about downsizing Gopher Tackle in the days to come, scores of Midwest finesse anglers and other bass anglers hope that Peterson will be able to persevere and manufacture the best finesse jig known to mankind for a couple more decades.
Anglers can order Mushroom Head Jigs by calling 218-546-8195 or going to its Web site at http://www.gophertackle.com