January 12, 2023
Seward, Nebraska-based tackle maker, Patterson’s Reel Bait Tackle, was founded in 1967 by current proprietor, Al Patterson’s father, an inventor who spent hours at the University of Nebraska talking with chemistry professors and other academics—fuel for his progressive ideas in tackle designs.
“I can remember visiting the University with my dad back in the ‘60s,” said Al Patterson. “They had some irradiated meat sitting out on the counter showing how it never decomposed. From seeing this, my dad got a trademark on something called BioBait and he started on a mission to develop a live bait bombarded with radio isotopes that would never decay. The idea was to bombard nightcrawlers, leeches, and minnows with radio isotopes to keep them in perpetuity.”
There was a hitch, though. Enzymes would form on the irradiated live bait.
“So, we had a bucket of minnows irradiated, a bucket of nightcrawlers, and a bucket of leeches. We had them all in the packages they came in from the University of Minnesota and we opened up the first package and it was nothing but water. And the nightcrawlers were just like pure water. Something happened there and we weren’t sure what. We opened the package of irradiated leeches and discovered the same thing. No color, no anything. Just water. We opened the minnows and found the tiny skeleton of a minnow, but the rest of the package was full of water. What had happened was the enzymes had eaten the bait.”
Patterson continued: “Now they say if you get a grass stain to rub OxyClean on it and what happens is the OxyClean enzymes eat the stain. Well, that’s what happened to our bait. Despite this setback, my father was on the precipice of figuring out a bio-synthetic way of producing a preserved bait that had all the natural feel, liveliness, and mobility of live bait.”
But Al’s father passed before he realized the dream and Al had to take over operations.
“Meanwhile, we had a sick infant and we would make recordings of us reading books that they could play our child when we weren’t in the hospital,” he said. “The baby was in the hospital for 10 months and eventually passed away. Instead of having a belly button, our son had a bubble on the outside with all of his intestines in it. He had 3 million dollars of surgeries—14 or 15 in total. When we weren’t there, they’d play these tapes to our son. But I couldn’t read a book without breaking down crying, so I’d open up my tackle box and start the tape recorder and go through all the different lures and describe how we were going to fish with them and the kind of gear we’d use to fish them.
This became known as ‘The Tackle Box Tapes’. I had phenomenal insurance at my day job and was driving to Omaha every other day to visit him. To get my mind off things I decided to start making up more worm harnesses. One of those rigs I designed was the back-bead spinner, but I didn’t really get into all the fishing stuff until our son passed away. I would come downstairs where I had a little workshop set up and I also had a little bar area. I knew if I went into the bar I’d never come out, so I put all of my energies into designing and building fishing lures and we started growing as a business. The jigs followed not long after and we became a distributor for Reef Runner. At the same time, I was tying all kinds of spinners and molding several different kinds of jigs: wobble jigs, swim jigs, roundheads, all kinds of stuff.”
Along the way, a friend of Al’s introduced him to walleye angler Blaine Brown, which really put things into motion.
“Blaine was the guy who fished against Northland Tackle founder John Peterson in one of the early PWT tournaments on Lake Okoboji. Amateur Blaine Brown drew John Peterson as his partner the first day and John informed him that they’d be fishing crankbaits that particular day,” he said. “Blaine responded that the only reason he signed up for the tournament was to fish his own jig design, the original hand-poured, painted, and constructed Walleye Flasher Jig. Well, John compromised and told Blaine they’d fish three rods with cranks and one with his jigs. Long story short, Blaine put 36 pounds of walleyes in John’s boat that day. That put John Peterson in the lead for the pro division and Blaine in first amongst the amateurs. The second day Blaine drew Norb Wallock and Norb says, ‘Whatever you’re doing Blaine, I’m all in in” and they ended up putting 38 pounds of walleyes in the boat on Day 2.”
Thus, at the end of the second day of the three-day tournament Blaine Brown was in first place for the amateurs and had twice the weight of any of the pros.
That’s all well and good but in those days, they wiped the slate clean going into Day 3. On Day 3 Blaine’s partner fished the middle of the lake and their luck wasn’t as good. So, another amateur won the boat and motor and money.
Walleye pro Norb Wallock got up on the stage after winning the tournament and said to the winning amateur, “I want you to go over and shake Blaine Brown’s hand and thank him for letting you take his boat and motor home.”
“Wallock said he’d never seen a jig like Blaine Brown’s Walleye Flasher and a bait that could bag so many fish. Ultimately, Wallock introduced me to Blaine and said you’ve got to make this guy’s jigs, whatever that entails. I said I’d look at it,” Recalled Patterson. “So, Blaine came out and I asked him how much he wanted from us to license and manufacture it, and he responded ‘I just want some jigs, I’m tired of making them and I want somebody who can make them and supply me with them when I need them.’ He then gave me the rights to make the Walleye Flasher jigs and we got a copyright and trademark on the name; there wasn’t anything to patent because it was already patented. It was already out there and there wasn’t a patentable thing on it. So, we went into production, and it was kind of a local thing at first but then all of a sudden it caught on.”
Although stationed for most of the year at his home workshop/distribution office, Patterson has a cabin in Saskatchewan that just happens to be next to the home of renowned Canadian anglers and communicators, Jeff and Jason Matity.
“I’ve known the Matity boys since they were whipper-snappers. My son would see Jeff Matity in the yard and Jeff told my son he wanted to learn to catch walleyes like that guy on the water in front of the cabins to which my son replied, ‘that’s my dad, want to go out with him?’ So, my son and I taught Jeff Matity how to jig fish,” he said.
Years later Patterson placed his first advertisement in In-Fisherman, and it was situated directly across from an article written by none-other-than Jeff Matity and co-authored by Doug Stange.
“My son called me from California and said, ‘dad, you gotta look at this—I think I know this guy. I think that’s the kid from next door up in Saskatchewan!’ So, I called In-Fisherman and got connected with Jeff Matity again and all of sudden he started using our jigs and Fergie spoons up in Canada and caught a lot of fish on so subsequent promotions throughout Canada was easy. Before that, we had the fellas at Outdoor Quest in Canada, Richard Mellon and TJ Schwanky, who were big fans of our Flasher Jigs and Fergie Spoons. TJ was the head of the Canadian Sportswriters’ Association and Mellon was the top-rated Canadian PWT competitor. “So, we supported Mellon and had a good Canadian connection given our ties to Saskatchewan. And it was actually Mellon’s wife who was using the Walleye Flasher jigs in the winter through the ice who got them used for ice fishing. One thing led to another and the guys on Lake Winnipeg said we love your jigs, but we need something tougher. I said what they needed was to learn to use their drag, but fact is they were routinely catching 10- to 14-pound walleyes so we up’d the hook size with the Gamakatsu and gave it a longer, bigger, and stouter hook. They took off from there and away we went. I tried to get some people up in Canada to mold them for me and all they did was steal the design, knock ‘em off, and have them made in China. Turns out the product they came out with broke easily and they never took off.”
Years before its success in Canada, Patterson’s Original Walleye Flasher Jig also proved its merits at the PWT Championship in Bismarck, North Dakota.
“We were sitting in the convention center watching the parade of glitter boats drive in and Northland Fishing Tackle’s John Peterson was walking around. I pulled out a jig from my pocket and said, “John, you remember that jig from Okoboji, to which he replied, ‘sure do’. Long story short, he kind of kicked himself for not making the original Walleye Flasher for us because it was catching so many fish on tournaments in the U.S. and Canada,” he said.
More History of the Original Walleye Flasher Jig
It was approximately 15 or 20 years ago that the Walleye Flasher jig came out. Blaine Brown and his family developed it for fishing walleyes on Glen Elder Lake in Kansas. Blaine’s uncle was a fishing guide and those first runs of jigs were made exclusively to help his uncle put more clients on fish.
Patterson recalled: “Once we got involved, we advertised in In-Fisherman for a year or two and sponsored the NPAA, but at that time the only thing anglers bought from us were Reef Runners. And then word travelled, and the jig sales went crazy. Then everybody with an old battery and tire weights started to knock them off.”
Patterson said that over the years they’ve put countless dollars into R&D and promotions, only to see the market explode with me-too jigs mimicking the Original Flasher Jig design.
“We promote our own baits and don’t try to copy anyone. That’s not the way we play the game. With people saying they changed the design 10% to get by, there are a lot of copycats out there. Problem is it takes a lot of money to litigate that. You can win the battle and lose the war. All I know is we’re in Canadian stores. We’ve got one store out by Lake McConaughey, and they do really well. But it’s been a long road. I’ve met some wonderful people along the way, but I’ve never worked so hard for something for so little, while still achieving a lot of success.
”Fact is, the product catches fish and that’s what it’s about. And the item that’s kept us alive is the Original Flasher Jig. While my background is in engineering, I do know that when you spend $1 in advertising you should be getting a multiple return on that dollar. All we can do is keep doing what we’re doing while maintaining quality and improving things as we go. We’ve always counted on fishermen and word-of-mouth for a lot of credibility and a lot of promotion. That’s real-world stuff. I get calls from all over the U.S. and Canada with guys telling stories about the fish they’re catching on our hard-to-find products. A lot of these guys and gals have turned into good friends who simply buy direct,” said Patterson.
“One of my best customers is Cliff Hollis and son Matt Hollis in Washington who fish the Columbia River. Cliff’s caught double-digit walleyes that he hasn’t even turned in as records. He’s after the world-record walleye, period. Some of the fish he and his son have caught on our jigs have been so large they wouldn’t fit in a salmon net. They’re chasing fish in the 20s, not the 14s and 15s. And Cliff says he’s personally had three of them hooked on with our jigs—the Original Flasher 1-ounce jig.”
Patterson still runs the business out of the basement of his house, the same place where it all started back in the ‘60s. Given the many styles, sizes, and colors of jigs, he has all of his casting done by the top names in that profession. He said he has “enough to worry about with federal excise tax and those people”, let alone the EPA and new rules and regulations for the lead smelting process.
“It’s gotten to the point where it’s just crazy to be a jig maker,” he said in closing. “But I’ll keep doing it until the day I die. I just love talking to folks on the phone who are catching their personal best fish on our products. That really keeps my dream—and the dream my father had—alive.”
Click the link to learn more about Patterson’s Reel Bait Tackle Company, or call (402) 643-4127 to speak with Al or Holly.