TIERRA VERDE — The cold weather had the fish hunkered down and unwilling to bite.
"I am sure we can make something happen," Eric Bachnik said. "We just have to give it a little time."
Bachnik, whose family manufactures a line of popular artificial baits sold under the brand named MirrOlure, had something to prove.
"I am telling you, they really do work," the 41-year-old luremaker from Largo said. "I know the fish are here."
The red and white 52 M11 MirrOlure, which perhaps has been the best-selling artificial bait in Tampa Bay for more than 40 years, sets the standard for all hard-plastic, slow-sinking plugs.
But on this cool April morning, Bachnik was demonstrating MirrOlure's latest product, a soft-plastic bait. Some might believe MirrOlure's venture into the already-overcrowded jig market a foolhardy endeavor.
"We think we have a superior product," Bachnik said. "We think the fishermen who try it will agree, too."
Bachnik comes from a long line of tacklemakers. In 1937 his grandfather, Harold LeMaster, built his first lure, a bass plug, in Illinois.
Ten years later, after moving to Florida, LeMaster saw a fisherman using a homemade lure that flashed in the sun. That is when the proverbial light bulb went off over LeMaster's head.
LeMaster started making saltwater lures. When retrieved through the water, LeMaster's plug flashed just like a baitfish. What separated his lure from other artificial baits was an internally mounted mirror, which didn't scratch or wear off even after it had been hammered by two or three snook.
The luremaker eventually came up with so many designs, he needed an easy way to keep track. So LeMaster developed a numbering system instead of racking his brain for a bunch of silly names such as "Snook Slayer" and "Trout Terror."
The company's 52 M11 soon became one of the most popular-lures in Florida. Today, the Largo-based L&S Bait Company sells its products all over the Southeast, as well as Central and South America.
The jig wars
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, soft-bodied plastic baits, commonly referred to as "jigs" by the angling public, made great inroads into the artificial bait market.
These soft-bodied baits, which resemble everything from shad to shrimp, quickly became the kings of the midwater depths between the grass beds and the surface.
Florida companies such as 12 Fathom, Cotee, Love's Lures and D.O.A. do brisk business with inshore anglers in search of snook, redfish and spotted seatrout.
Bachnik, who has a business degree from the USF, realized that his company was not fully serving its legion of loyal customers.
"We put a lot of thought into it," said Bachnik, who loves the "field research" part of his job. "I am a fishermen, and these work as well or better than anything else out there."
So far, the company has come out with four styles — a 5-inch soft mullet twitchbait (available in 12 colors), a 4-inch soft minnow split tail (10 colors), a 4-inch soft shad paddle tail (14 colors) and a 3-inch soft sardine paddle tail (10 colors.)
But the big question was do they work?
The field test
To help with his demonstration, Bachnik enlisted his 36-year-old friend from St. Petersburg, Dean Pickel, whom he nicknamed the Grand Master Angler, G.M.A. for short, because of his two-year winning streak at local flats tournaments.
"We fish hard," he said. "We cover a lot of ground … constantly casting."
Bachnik and Pickel started firing off the new MirrOlures. They worked off the bow, literally like clockwork — casting to 11 o'clock, 12 o'clock, 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock — covering the entire grass bed.
They soon started catching ladyfish. Then a big bluefish grabbed a bait.
"The thing I love about these lures is their durability," said Pickel, unhooking a small trout. "You can catch six fish and still not have to change out the tail."
Pickel caught a few more trout, including a couple of keepers, but Bachnik was not satisfied.
"I want a redfish," he said. "I know they are here."
Several times, the anglers spotted a school of reds moving across the flat, but the fish were hanging in shallow water, just out of reach.
Then Bachnik changed his strategy. He stopped, pulled up the trolling motor and let the fish come to him.
It took a few minutes, but his patience and persistence paid off. A 3-inch soft sardine, pinfish color, twitched a few times in the grass bed, then the line went tight. A few minutes later, Bachnik had his red. "Now this is what I was talking about," he said.