The jig is up

• Father-son fishing tackle business is a striking success

By Brett French / Billings (Mont.) Gazette

It was a moment that epitomized a business, a relationship and a dream.

In 2012, Kit Johnson and his son, Trevor, won the Canyon Ferry Walleye Festival tournament amid a field of 150 teams of the state’s best anglers. For the Helena, Mont., residents it was a defining moment.

“It was an emotional experience,” Kit said. “And to do it with your son, catching eight or nine fish over 10 pounds in pre-fishing …”

Kit is the founder of Kit’s Tackle, a side business for the former 66-year-old trucker that has expanded since Trevor came aboard in 2008 after graduating from the University of Montana. Now business partners, the duo have been nearly inseparable, dating back to when Kit first started taking Trevor fishing when the boy was only 3. During daylong outings, Kit would bundle his son up in a sleeping bag and tuck him under the boat’s console to stay warm.

“They are definitely fishing enthusiasts,” said Patti Marshall, Trevor’s mother.

The early introduction to the outdoors, which also included numerous hunting trips, made a big impression on the youngster.

“In third grade I was tying ice flies and selling them to my friends,” said Trevor, now 32 and the company’s co-owner and marketing manager.

Hobby turned business

Kit started the company in the late 1970s as a hobby and because he couldn’t find the type of lures he wanted.

The small business that now employs three contract laborers has become well-known for its handmade jigs. The company’s motto is: “Jiggin’ the dream.”

The dream seemed to become a reality at Canyon Ferry in 2012. The duo was product testing a new jig that, as the tournament win proved, was incredibly successful. The jig is called the Glass Minnow, named because it appears translucent like small baitfish in the water.

“We hadn’t put it to market yet, so we were kicking butt,” Trevor said. “We never really got into tournaments before that.”

With one hour left in the 2012 tourney, knowing that they were in second place after the first day, Trevor hooked into what he thought was a carp. The fish started peeling off line, a tactic not common to walleye. Trevor even told his father to put the net down and considered breaking off the fish since time was running out in the tournament. Luckily, he reeled it in closer and saw it roll underwater. The white flash of the fish’s tail told Trevor it was no carp.

“Oh my god, that’s a monster,” Trevor recalled saying.

The fish ended up measuring 29¾ inches, an “awesome tournament fish,” as he noted, and “a great way to win” the tournament and seal the duo’s faith in their Glass Minnow jig.

“We’re still real innovative on the water,” Kit said. “We’re always stretching the boundaries. Right now, Trevor is working really hard on brown trout jigs.”

Not species specific

The pursuit of brown trout is just the latest in a long list of fish that Kit and Trevor have targeted over the years. They are not purists, in the sense of fishing exclusively for one species.

They even give seminars on fishing for walleye and trout, whereas most experts these days specialize in one species.

“I love to fish walleye and trout,” Kit said, adding that whatever fish is on the end of his line is his favorite.

“I think you learn from them. Sometimes you’ll get on a walleye bite when you’re fishing trout.”

Despite the many hours the father and son devote to fishing and making fishing gear — including building custom rods — they still get so excited about fishing that they hard time sleeping the night before a trip.

“Every cast is an opportunity,” Kit said. “I’m 60 years old and I still get butterflies going to the water. That’s how I know it’s a true passion.”

Research and development

As fishing business owners, outings on the water are classified as research and development, just part of the job. But after Trevor and a friend won a tournament at Fort Peck last summer, demand for Kit’s Tackle’s Glass Minnows skyrocketed. That has meant more time in the shop casting, painting and tying each lure by hand.

“It’s kind of a unique jig in his Glass Minnow series with the skirt on it,” said Nate McClenning, fishing shop manager at Scheels, the only outlet for the jigs in Billings, Mont.

“One thing with Kit’s jigs, the way they’re hand tied they are extremely durable.”

About the adventure

Although success on the water, no matter where they go, is now expected, Kit and Trevor said each journey is more about the adventure than the number or size of the fish they catch.

“We always take away something that Mother Nature gave us,” Kit said, like a recent sighting of a large bobcat on the bank of the Missouri River.

Most of Kit and Trevor’s fishing now is catch and release, so they take plenty of photos and video to document their success and share it with others on their website, blog and YouTube. Their buyers enthusiastically email with photos and comments on the success they’ve had with the jigs.

“We killed fish in our younger days,” Kit said. “But to us now the biggest thrill is watching the video.”

Still, success has its rewards, like recognition and affirmation. At the 2013 Hell Creek Walleye Tournament, Trevor and Kris Keller of Wolf Point won with 44.57 pounds of fish. Trevor went on to finish second to Keller in the Montana Walleyes Unlimited Fort Peck Championship Series and win runner-up honors as angler of the year, with Keller taking first place. And Trevor did it with jigs and a rod he made. There’s great pride in that achievement.

“It’s not just a company saying, ‘Hey, this is great.’ We’ve won a tournament, it’s a proven product from a father and son in Montana,” Trevor said.