Field & Stream's John Merwin Explores the Lure Lab at Pure Fishing

It's easy to take a fishing lure for granted. A wobbling crankbait or wiggly soft-plastic worm doesn't look all that complicated. You throw it in the water, you reel it back, and once in a while a bass or other fish grabs it. No big deal, right?

Wrong. Chances are that simple object evolved by way of computers, complex machine tools, robots, scientists, and hundreds of test fish--all serving to develop a lure design that will have a chance of actually catching fish when a fisherman, even one who has very little skill, makes a cast. To get a rare insider's look at how this happens, I traveled to the Pure Fishing/Berkley labs in northwestern Iowa, where tucked in a corner of a low sprawling factory is what's probably the world's foremost research center for fishing lures.

Pure Fishing itself is a huge conglomerate with 800 employees here. Its brands include Berkley, Stren, Fenwick, Spiderwire, Abu Garcia, and more. Privately held, the company doesn't release sales figures but did note a couple of years ago that 20 cents out of every dollar Americans spend on fishing tackle somehow winds up at Pure Fishing.

But to fishermen, the part that matters is down the hall on the left, just past the coffee machine.

"This is sort of like our James Bond room," says lure analyst Mark Sexton as he leads me through a long alcove filled with gleaming test machinery built to torture everything from fishing line to soft-plastic worms. A machine shop is right next door. "We do a lot of our prototyping here. Say you wanted a little different curl on the tail of a soft-plastic grub. I can pull up a grub configuration on some computer-aided design software and change the tail according to whatever new idea we've got.

"Same with a hard-bodied crankbait, if we wanted to try a little different belly shape, for example. Then we can computer-link that new shape to a milling machine that will cut a mold very quickly and precisely."

He smiles. "I can't begin to tell you how much fun this stuff is to play around with."

I'm not saying much for fear of drooling if I open my mouth. The production lines for Berkley's soft-plastic PowerBait lures are just a few doors away, with tanks of liquid plastic at one end; some glopping, hissing, and sighing machinery in the middle; and skeins of colorful worms emerging from the other end. Clearly the time between lure idea and lure in the hand can be very short.

Who thinks up concepts for new lures? They can come from almost anywhere, Sexton says, but commonly arise from the minds of the company's field-sales force, as well as sponsored fishing pros, charter captains, and guides. "We might sit down at the end of a year and say 'Okay, what have we heard?' in terms of suggestions for new or modified lure shapes. Then we'll start a testing process to see if any of those designs pan out."

Two of Berkley's most successful innovations--PowerBait soft-plastic lures and jar baits, and the more recent biodegradable Gulp! series--evolved primarily in the next room.

The Volunteers
The site of this "evolutionary" activity is a large area with dozens of tanks, each holding a small bass about 9 inches long. In large part, the huge success of Berkley's scented and flavored soft baits depends on how those attributes appeal to fish. These bass are the test crew. At other times, the piscine focus group has included everything from trout to catfish to carp, for which Berkley also makes soft baits that are global bestsellers.

More than 20 years ago, Berkley chief scientist Dr. Keith Jones started to examine how bass reacted to various chemicals, flavors, and smells (see "A Scientist Talks Bass," opposite). He developed the current testing system in which a small cotton ball is soaked in a particular chemical solution and then dropped in a tank with a single bass. A technician like Sexton notes if the bass picks up the ball. He uses a stopwatch to record how long the fish retains the wad before spitting it out--or if the bass simply eats it. The bass, in other words, figuratively go Yummy! or Yuk! or Not sure, with each response being duly recorded.

The bass themselves are local hatchery fish, acclimated to people and fed only dried hatchery food. This ongoing research has been done for thousands of chemical combinations with thousands of fish, resulting in a huge and still growing database of bass likes and dislikes. Sexton explains that after a while the individual bass get burned out on the whole process, at which point they are either moved into a different testing scheme or given to the state for stocking in area lakes. A fresh gang of hatchery fish then takes their place at the cotton-ball buffet.

I wonder aloud about being able to read the long record of bass responses, and Sexton laughs. "Sorry, but there's just no way we're giving that up. Follow me, though, for even more cool stuff."

The Fishing Robot
A huge 36,000-gallon oval tank fills the next room, its surface nearly level with the floor. The tank is partitioned into an outer lane with numerous compartments in the middle. A low monorail runs around the perimeter, on which sits a complicated-looking hunk of blue-painted machinery.

"This is our robotic angler, where we can test the fish's response to lure action," Sexton tells me. A lure is tied on a leader to the arm of the motorized blue trolley, which then drags the lure through the water around the tank. Five bass, meanwhile, are released from one of the inner compartments into the outside lane. A video camera mounted on the trolley records the whole process.

Sexton points out that these are virgin, hatchery bass with no knowledge of any natural foods. Their responses are purely innate and instinctive rather than the result of learned behavior. He also notes that each bass group is only allowed one trial on one lure. Then that bunch is removed, and five fresh bass are released for the next go-round, and so on, through what can be dozens or hundreds of tests. The tank water can be chilled to allow similar experiments with trout or other fish.

In pitting the performance of one crankbait shape against another, or in assessing that of similar competing brands, all the lures are painted black so bass see no color differences--only shape and movement. Hooks remain attached, are painted white, and are bent inward so the bass don't hook themselves. Soft plastics are tested in similar fashion.

Once again I am enthralled by the process and frustrated because Berkley won't let me into their results data bank. I don't blame them, of course. It's a lure designer's gold mine. "I will tell you this," Sexton says. "Our line of Frenzy crankbaits is the biggest sleeper in bass fishing. They haven't sold as well as they should have because of some marketing problems, but they were developed through this process and thousands of hours of field-testing. In crankbait-fishing situations, they just blow away the competition. C'mon, there's still more."

The War Room
There's more hissing and gurgling of water pumps and filters in the last room we visit, which holds a 60-foot-long tank for cast-testing lures, along with another odd, large apparatus that looks like a wind tunnel. This is where the action of a crankbait, say, can be measured and compared.

Lure action is hugely complex. Usually, several different motion types occur simultaneously: A crankbait will roll back and forth along its own length, at the same time waggling or pivoting violently on its vertical axis in addition to other movements as it is retrieved. Fish such as bass or walleyes show distinct preferences for certain combinations of those movements. In sum, they amount to what fishermen call different actions.

Berkley's scientists have isolated those components of motion and figured out a way to actually measure them. A crankbait is suspended in a moving flow of water, much like an airplane model in a wind tunnel (the apparatus was built by an aeronautical engineering firm). Its motion is recorded on high-speed video with fixed registration marks in the background. The video can then be computer-analyzed to quantify each aspect of the lure's motion.

Once measured, an action component can be changed by slightly altering the diving lip or body shape of a lure. The fish in the tank next door can then indicate to a researcher if a 5-degree increase in body roll, for example, will give a 20 percent increase in strikes. As Sexton notes, "That's a heck of a lot better and more precise than taking a couple more shavings with a jackknife and trusting to luck."

Before a new lure model goes out for pro-staff testing and then for general sale, the final step is a rigorous on-the-water trial that Sexton says is his favorite part of the job. "We'll take me and another guy for several days of actual fishing," he says, "in which we'll fish the new lure against a competitive lure. Everything else stays the same, except we'll switch the two baits between us every 15 minutes all day long. When the timer goes off, I write down the score for each. We'll keep at this for as long as four or five days until we get a statistically significant sample. That's just another way we know when we've got a winner."

Bet on the Research
Pure Fishing's technology emphasis began more than 30 years ago. That's when a polymer chemist named Paul Johnson (since retired) who also happened to fish joined Berkley and made research an integral and hugely successful part of improving monofilament fishing lines. The testing labs gradually grew to include lure development.

Only two people--Jones and Sexton--are on full-time lure-research duty, and they do not have hundreds of types under development simultaneously. The research is cumulative; some new products are based on tests that might have been done months or years ago. New designs are often derivative: a slight change, perhaps, to the shape of an older plastic worm that's already been proven to catch fish in the test tanks.

Note that I have no particular interest in promoting Berkley. I am not on their payroll, and I paid my own expenses on this investigative trip. I do know that Pure Fishing/Berkley has always been intensely science-driven. As far as I am aware, no other company develops lures via this kind of rigorous testing. Other companies do have successful lures, though, born through a less complicated route. That raises a big question: Is all that work really necessary for a successful lure?

Great classic lures like the original floating Rapala or Heddon's Zara Spook came into being long ago through somebody's imagination expressed with a jackknife, paint, and glue. Just a few years ago, Herb Reed in Connecticut created the revolutionary Slug-Go jerkbait by fooling around with molded soft-plastic designs in his garage.

But Reed is the rare exception. Thousands of other tinkering fishermen are out there, endlessly inventive but usually with mediocre success. If I had to bet on the next home run in lure design, I'd put my money on the chemists, physicists, and statisticians. These are complicated times, even for fishing lures.

THE FISHING LAB

A SCIENTIFIC TEST TRACK FOR LURES

1 Robotic Angler
This trolley-like device rides on a monorail around this 36,000-gallon tank. Technicians tie a test lure to a line on the arm of the robot, which acts like a fishing rod. A video camera mounted on the robot records the test.

2 Lure Travel Lane
The robotic angler trolls the test lure along the outside of the tank, which is about 45 feet long on the side. Technicians are able to monitor the lure's effectiveness at various running depths and simulated rates of retrieval.

3 Fish Holding Cages
The interior of the tank contains 24 compartments, each holding five largemouths. Technicians systematically release the bass, which run 12 to 16 inches long, into the travel lane during tests, and record strikes on each lure.

A SCIENTIST TALKS BASS
DR. KEITH JONES DISCOVERED A FEW THINGS DURING TWO DECADES OF RESEARCH****

ONE OF THE MOST ENJOYABLE THINGS I did while touring Pure Fishing was to corner chief scientist Dr. Keith Jones and pepper him with questions. After more than 20 years of intensive research, Jones probably knows more about why and how bass respond to lures than any man alive. Among his successes have been the PowerBait and Gulp! soft-bait lines, which partly depend on scent and/or taste as fish attractants.

"So do fish actually follow a scent trail toward a lure as I fish it?" I asked.

Jones laughed." No. Even in supposedly still water like a lake, there are so many microcurrents and eddies in the water that what might be perceived as a scent trail breaks up too quickly to be of much use.

"What usually first attracts a bass is a lure's motion, so the bass comes closer, ready to attack. It may then encounter a small cloud of scent around the lure itself. If that scent is favorable, the attack might be reinforced and continue. If not, the fish might turn away. Scent is kind of a make-or-break thing, but only when the fish and lure are very close together.

"Bass don't have hands to grab and test things with," Jones continued, "so its next act might be to grab a lure in its mouth to check it out. If the taste--which is not the same as scent--is good, the fish might hang onto it longer than if it were somehow distasteful. If the bass doesn't like it, it will spit the lure out with unbelievable speed. We try to create things--actually we have created things--they'll hold longer, so you'll have more time to hook them."

Lure motion is also critical. "Bass tend to ignore motionless objects, much like the Tyrannosaurus in the movie Jurassic Park. Moving, prey-size objects often excite bass. They also find erratic motion more exciting than constant motion." The implications for retrieving your own lures should be obvious.

Finally, bass do see color, but in a more limited way than humans do. "Contrast is probably more important," Jones told me, "in helping a bass find its prey against the ambient background." Bass fishermen sometimes use bubblegum-pink soft plastics for their apparent shock value, but the real reason for that color's occasional success is probably just because the bass can see it better.

For more of Jones' insights, read his book Knowing Bass ($17; globepequot.com). It's one of the most interesting and useful fishing books I've read.