Gary Kvalheim hopes he'll have some time to fish this year -- but first, he has a few thousand ice jigs to hand paint.
Over the past 22 years, Kvalheim's one-man company Northstar Tackle has produced hundreds of thousands of jigs meant to sink below a frozen lake, all custom-detailed with eye-squinting artistry. In the sunroom of his rural Stoughton home, Kvalheim solders tiny fish hooks onto teeny bodies, or "blades," then paints each one with artistic flair before it continues its journey into an ice fisher's tackle box.
"I'm proud of the fact that I've got a product that's made in the United States," said Kvalheim, whose safety-pinned-sized ice jigs are sold in miniature plastic bags stapled to a card in bait shops. "Each card says 'Made in the USA.'"
Designed for winter months when fish can be sluggish, Kvalheim's ice hooks are meant for snagging panfish such as bluegills and perch in cold waters. But plenty of fishers use the jigs year-round, he said. Some of his fans claim they've caught muskie -- and in one case, an octopus in Florida -- with his ice jigs.
The secret? Maybe it's the paint colors, which change with market demand, Kvalheim said. Pink and purple may be hot one year; orange and chartreuse the next. About half his ice jigs are decorated with glow-in-the-dark paint.
"What you do is manufacture something that people are going to buy. It's not so much that the fish are going to bite on them," he said. "They do bite on them, of course, or I wouldn't be in business. But each year there's a color that seems to be dominant, when people might be catching fish better with one color and they're telling their friends."
The fact that Kvalheim assembles and meticulously paints his ice jigs in Wisconsin won the devotion of Robinson's Wholesale, a third-generation family-owned Wisconsin business and one of two area distributors who handle Northstar Tackle products.
"We like that it's a Wisconsin company" and admire Kvalheim's meticulous work, said Robinson's sales manager Randy Armbruster. "These things are less than three-quarters of an inch in length and about an eighth-inch wide -- and he details them."
During his October-to-February production season, Kvalheim sometimes works six to eight hours a day, producing up to 25,000 ice jigs one by one. His output includes banana-shaped "rockers," named for their movement in the water, as well as "tear drops" and a willow leaf-shaped jig, among others.
In spring and summer, the self-trained artist turns to carving gourds, creating intricate and exquisite works that fetch hundreds of dollars and usually sell out at area art shows.
"I like to be a part of the fishing industry," he said. "I'm glad that I can sell this product to people who enjoy fishing. And if I can make them catch some fish and they're happy, I'm happy too."
-- Copyright © 2012, The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)/Distributed by MCT Information