Dilapidated ruins on top of a rocky cliff, lightning darting in and out of ominous clouds as maniacal laughter echoes through the long dead forest that surrounds a world of doom. Monsters’ roaming the country side as a deranged scientist works tirelessly to perfect his experiments. Growing up, this was my version of a Mad Lab. Apparently, this is not something that is isolated to the terrain of Transylvania.
Tucked away in the sprawling city of Raleigh North Carolina lives a modern day mad scientist. Possessed to create a world of bass fishing lures like nothing you’ve ever seen, Custom Lures Unlimited owner Kelly Barefoot has quickly emerged into one of the premier innovators in the tackle industry. FLW Pro Jeffrey Thomas, after watching Kelly’s obsession while creating and perfecting the Zero Gravity Jig, coined the Custom Lures Unlimited (CLU) work area the Mad Lab and needless to say, the name fit perfectly.
I was fortunate enough to have the chance to dive into the psyche of this modern day Dr. Frankenstein and try to figure out what makes him tick. My first thought was, what would be the driving force in starting a tackle company in the first place? “The initial motivation was to provide a custom niche with the lure repaint and restoration services. Like most hobbies gone haywire, there’s a constant striving to do more, to build it better.” Ok, so far not too bad, “This working mode lead to ideas, concepts lures and the desire to innovate, to build a brand and line of products.” Well, there’s a little bit of the crazy coming out. Who in their right mind would want to even consider starting a ‘from the ground up’ tackle company in the first place? “The tackle market is saturated with low end products & choices for anglers, so I knew that I had to create a product that was different and that stood out from the norm.” BAM, there it is, crazy hair, wild eyes and hunched back assistants just came into focus. Offering a high end line of lures that will compete against the top lines in the industry, he’s got to be a little bit off to even consider it! “The lures had to perform well, be unique, and offer a high level of detail and quality. Fortunately for us, the anglers and fish have been receptive to our products.” Alright, so either I’m mistaking genius for madness, or the fish around here are a little crazy too.
Maybe crazy isn’t quite the right word for it, guess I’m a little jealous that I can’t draw stick figures to save my life and Kelly is like a Picasso with an air brush gun. For those that have never seen the work of CLU, to say you’re missing out is an understatement. Without question they are the most lifelike baits that I have ever seen on the market. The attention to detail is phenomenal and they are not only good to look at, but work flawlessly in the water. “As strange as it may sound, internally the concepts typically appear in nightly dreams. Many obviously are filtered out by sleep; however the ones that have merit are prototyped and eventually may make it online.” This was the response I received when I asked Kelly where the inspiration comes for CLU’s baits. “The Zero Gravity Jig ironically is the exception to the rule, the ‘what if’ idea of the ZG came to mind near the end of a tournament years ago. I struggled with the design & how to create it for almost 2 years. It definitely interfered with my sleep. External influences of inspiration can come from basically anything that I see, from the bright colors of a fall leaf to the smooth aero lines of a sports car.”
Starting a business is a huge leap of faith, regardless of the state of the economy. The pressures of knowing that your livelihood relies on your ability to turning nothing into something can be overwhelming. Kelly gave a little insight on how he prepared to jump into the lions pit, “Without doubt, learning how to effectively run a business and to make it financially viable was one of the biggest struggles. I have a few Econ & biz classes under my belt from college, however being an owner of an upstart tackle company has a very steep learning curve.” But hard work, determination and commitment to a passion has without a doubt paid off. “As the years have passed by, my fishing magazines have been invaded by books about business management, marketing, product and brand development. I’ve really come to enjoy this aspect and am constantly learning new ideas on how to improve CLU.” Improvement, really? Looks like I’m going to need a second job if Kelly is going to out do what he has already done!
With the constant change in the market and the never ending battle to stay above the competition, growth is something which is a must for any business. CLU is no different. When you have a mind like Kelly Barefoot, one which is constantly racing, inventing and re-inventing, it is only a matter of time before he knocks the rest of the industry back on its heels with his next great addition to the CLU line. But sometimes, going old school is the path to the future. For those of us who have been around the fishing community for more than a couple days, the name Danny Joe Humphries is legendary in the soft plastic arena. The Original Floating worm is probably the most duplicated bait on the market and still one of the most utilized baits in the water. In 2011, Kelly Barefoot, CLU Mad Man, found a way to add the Danny Joe line to the CLU arsenal of baits. “Yes, CLU did acquire the Danny Joe Original Floating Worm and Buzz N’ Grub designs early this spring. I called Danny in early January to purchase floaters for my personal use and I was looking to stock up on them with a fairly high quantity. Danny made the off cuff comment, ‘Why don’t you just buy my company?’ and that’s what started the wheels in motion.” And I can never get this lucky because………? “After a couple months of discussion with Danny and going thru the legal & financial steps necessary, it was a done deal.” They say that there are certain moments in your life in which you will never forget, a child’s birth, your wedding day, but how many of us can say the day you assumed one of the legendary bait companies in bass fishing is on that list. “I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the cold, rainy day I went to pick up all the goods. The excitement of pulling a U-Haul full of more than a quarter of million pieces of plastic & supplies back to the Mad Lab was awesome. It was a turning point in the history of CLU and allowed us to spread our wings. The floating worm is still a fish catching machine!
So let’s review real quick, the most lifelike crank baits you can find on the market, this crazy awesome Zero Gravity Jig, the Elixir fish attractant and one of the more well known names in soft plastic history with Danny Joe’s all under one roof, is there really anything else CLU can do? “In the near future CLU will continue to branch out and become more diverse with the line of products offered.” Come on Kelly, my wallet is already empty, work with me here! “We are increasing capacity and will continue to grow the network of dealers, wholesalers, and distribution and we’ve been in recent discussions about distribution with a couple countries for a couple of the products, including the Zero Gravity Jig. Overall, the plan is to continue to have smart growth and to offer high quality tackle to more anglers.” Spoken like a true entrepreneur!
If you’re like me, when you set in the boat and get ready to weed through the 40 kabillion crank baits you own and try to decide which one you are going to tie on, generally this will result in, at a minimum, minor migraine. So this was one of the questions I just had to ask the guy who has, could have or may dream up the next best thing to ever see water, If he could only pick one of the CLU crank baits and color to take fishing with him, what would it be? “Now that’s a tough one to put constraints on, considering all of the different water variables out there. For shallow water I would choose the square-bill Mike Iaconelli Signature Series Ikon M2 in lemon splatter back. If I were to pull out a little deeper, I would throw the coffin billed Prodigy crank with carved scales in a shad like pattern.” (Placed on Christmas want list, 4 each, Thanks Santa!!!)
There is an old adage you will hear when it comes to fishing, to compete; you have to arm yourself with best products available. You have to fill your arsenal with the highest quality tackle, rods, reels and especially baits. Without question, Custom Lures Unlimited offers just that, the best of the best. From appearance, performance and quality, there truly isn’t a company out there that can compare in any aspect. Maybe a little “crazy” is just what this industry needs!