As an avid outdoorsman with more than 17 years in the hunting and fishing retail industry, Brad Olson knows a thing or two about having fun and selling fun to others.
So, when Olson, who worked at Cabela’s in East Grand Forks from November 2000 until February 2018, had an opportunity to help a fishing buddy launch a small company making soft plastic tails for fishing, he didn’t hesitate to venture into new waters.
The result was Northern Lights Plastics, an up-and-coming maker of scented, ultraviolet-infused plastics available in Whale Tail, Paddle Tail Minnow and Double Twister patterns and black, pearl, chartreuse and pink colors.
The plastics, which can be threaded onto jigs or other lures in place of live bait, are catching fish and anglers alike as the upstart company marks its first year in the ultra competitive fishing industry.
Northern Lights Plastics now are sold in Home of Economy stores in Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Minot and Jamestown, N.D., along with the e-commerce website Valley Outdoors, four outlets in the Park Rapids, Minn., area, the Northern Lights website and, most recently, Gullander Hardware in Hallock, Minn., Olson’s hometown.
It’s a venture Olson, of Grand Forks, says he never could have imagined a year ago.
“I never even thought of it in my wildest dreams,” said Olson, who works full-time as operations manager for Bears Home Solutions and Benjamin Franklin Plumbing in Grand Forks.
It all started on family vacations to Bear Paw Resort near Park Rapids, where he got to know Nate Ewert of New Hope, Minn., Olson says.
Ewert and his family vacation at the resort every year at the same time as Olson, and the pair became fishing buddies. Olson says he occasionally would try out the plastic tails Ewert molded as a hobby for family and friends to use.
When Ewert, an engineer by trade, decided to start a small soft plastics company as a side venture last year, Olson was a logical choice for partner.
“I joined him, and the rest is history,” Olson said.
Still, there were a lot of unknowns, he says, even for a small-scale venture such as Northern Lights Plastics.
“The start-up is the big concern because you don’t know if people are going to like it, if they’re going to buy it,” Olson said. “He knew my experience with Cabela’s and my passion for fishing, and it kind of turned into me being more the salesman.”
Starting the company from scratch required finding a source for packaging, designing a logo to match the company name, and hiring someone to actually mold and pour the plastics.
“There was no way we were going to be able to mold them ourselves, and we wanted to keep it ‘Made in the USA’ because we didn’t want to have our plastics made overseas,” Olson said.
They found a manufacturer in Georgia who pours soft plastics as a full-time job to mold the tails and a company in China to produce the packaging.
Olson says he and Ewert designed the Whale Tail pattern, while the Paddle Tail and Double Tail were in-house designs.
“We were both instrumental in getting the design of the plastics dialed in,” Olson said. “The Whale Tails are pretty unique. I was in the outdoor industry for over 17 years, and I’ve never seen a Whale Tail design like that, and we just loved the action.”
UV adds attraction
Scented plastics are nothing new, but the infusion of UV light makes them more visible underwater, in turn increasing their fish-catching potential, Olson says.
“Other plastic companies have scent, but I haven’t seen too many with the UV, so it’s kind of a unique feature of our plastics,” he said.
The Whale Tails this winter have worked especially well on crappies, sunfish and perch, and Olson has the photos to prove it. He’s had his best luck threading the tails on tungsten jigs with longer shanks, he says.
“This is more finesse fishing -- you have to use your electronics and watch how the fish respond for ice fishing,” Olson said. “Open water, if you’re fortunate enough, you can see fairly decent down in the water if it’s shallow and see how they respond in different ways.”
To this point, the tails only are available in the three patterns and 1½-inch length, but plans are in the works to expand the line of plastics for ice fishing and market 3-inch tails for larger species.
Olson experimented with a 3-inch prototype last summer and said it worked well, but adding the longer tails will require working with the Chinese company to get larger packaging.
Besides the plastics, the company offers decals and a line of apparel that includes hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts and fishing jerseys.
Northern Lights Plastics had a booth in November at the Hard Water Ice Fishing Expo in Blaine, Minn., and will be promoting its wares in late March at the Northwest Sportshow in Minneapolis, Olson says.
“We didn’t know what to expect” at the Hard Water Expo, he said. “We were hoping to sell maybe $200 (worth of plastics), and we ended up paying for our booth on the first day of the show.”
Catching fish on products he sells and helped design is both “rewarding and amazing,” Olson says. The company now has about 535 followers on its Facebook page and also uses Instagram to market its products.
The plastics carry a suggested retail price of $3.50 for a pack of eight or $49.99 for a 120-piece Pro Pack.
“We just wanted to come out with something that’s unique,” Olson said. “We’re not looking to make millions of dollars. It’s just something that’s rewarding, and people can have fun and know that our product is made in America.”
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