A Nebraska native who just turned 30, Witte is the head lure buyer for Cabela's, the mail-order and retail giant whose catalogs fill America's mailboxes with the promise of great fishing every spring and summer. He and two assistants search the globe for the soft plastics, crankbaits, spoons, spinners, and more that fill dozens of catalog pages every year. I wanted to know more about the whole process, so I called Witte and we did the only sensible thing. We went fishing.
TACKLE BY THE TRUCKLOAD
With more than $2 billion in outdoor-related sales last year, Cabela's is a publicly traded company (CAB on the New York Stock Exchange). Even so, it's difficult to get anything resembling inside information. As our bass boat bobbed around on a northern Florida lake, I quizzed Witte on exactly how many lures the company buys per year. He would only say this: "We buy several 40-foot container loads every year. You know how small a lure is, and you can let your mind wander over the word several as you do the math."
Witte was being just as cagey as the bass, which on this cold morning were mostly hunkered near the bottom in 25 feet of water, scarfing down shad. "There!" Witte grunted as his rod bowed deeply to a heavy fish. With much flopping and splashing, a 7-pounder came aboard, a weighted soft-plastic swimbait in its jaw. "So how do you choose?" I asked. "Not that particular swimbait, but lures for the catalog?"
"Sales history is a big part it," he said, "and we have pretty sophisticated systems for tracking that. That's why you'll see some of the same lures in the catalog year after year. Fishermen are intensely brand-loyal about lures. If a guy catches a good fish on a Rapala, then he'll keep buying Rapalas, or Bombers or Bandits or any other established lures with which he's been successful."
The fish went back into the water, and Witte resumed noodling his swimbait along the bottom. "We'll sell newer lures too, of course. But we'll often try them on a smaller scale, in one or more of our retail stores, to first see what happens. At our level, we can't afford to gamble on a questionable item. And the price has to be right."
HIGH END, LOW END
By now the early-afternoon sun had warmed the water a little, and we started tossing crankbaits across some shallow flats. "But lure pricing works a couple of ways, does it not?" I asked. "I mean, there are Lucky Craft hard baits in your catalog selling for $14 to $20 a pop. And there are more and more of your own Cabela's brand hard baits that sell for $3 or $4."
Witte shook his head slowly as I mentioned Lucky Craft. "Well, they're popular, thanks to that company's good marketing, and they do work. But I think consumers also have a get-what-you-pay-for logic, thinking that if a lure costs that much, it must be good. When I fish one, I fish it pretty darned hard to make sure I get my $20 worth out of it."
"So what about the inexpensive Cabela's brand?" I asked, pressing a little harder. "A lot of your crankbaits resemble major-brand lures. Are you ripping off other companies?"
That got me a stern look. "No, we're not," he answered. "But we are tagging on to some good ideas while adding our own. First, all shad-imitating crankbaits, for example, are going to look more or less alike. We might come up with a slightly different design, some unique colors, maybe upgrade the hooks. Our marketing costs will be lower, so we're able to offer the customer a good product at a good price."
Every fisherman has some old favorites, including Witte. "I still like throwing the Panther Martin spinners that I've been fishing for years, and I'm big fan of Krocodile spoons," he said with a smile. "I've got boxes full of Dardevles, too. I really like jointed crankbaits for their extra wiggle. My favorite new lure is our Jointed Suspending Rad Shad. Speak of the devil!"
A 4-pounder had just nailed that very same plug—yes, really—and Witte was soon holding the fish's mouth open to show me how well the fish had been hooked. "Okay, okay," I said, trying not to sound too impressed. "But that brings up my last question: What are fishing lures going to look like 10 years from now?"
"I hope they don't have fish locators built into them!" Witte said, laughing. "Seriously, I think you'll see increased realism. The more a steak looks like a steak, the more likely you are to eat it. I think that's true with fish and fishing lures. Realistic-looking lures also give fishermen more confidence. They'll fish such a lure more frequently and catch more as a result."
Steak was on the menu back at the lodge, so we did the only sensible thing and headed in to eat some.
Occasionally I highlight new lures in this column, and Cabela's Jointed Suspending Rad Shad (800-237-4444; cabelas.com) is a winner on several counts. In my own testing, the lure ran 3 to 4 feet deep and accurately suspended, neither floating upward nor sinking when paused, just like a real baitfish. A unique hinge system keeps the tail from radically drooping when the lure stops underwater; again, more like the real thing. Three internal metal balls also add a rattling effect. The lure body is 2 3/8 inches long and weighs .2 ounce. Perhaps the best thing is its price: $3, considerably less than some major-brand competitors. The Rad Shad comes in 21 colors. To date, my best producer in clear water is the "glass blue back" version. Bass and Walleyes, beware.