BEMIDJI, Minn. — John Peterson built a burgeoning business after starting Northland Fishing Tackle in 1975. Its iconic brand and yellow packaging has become a wonderful success story. Now, 45 years later, Northland is taking business to a whole new level.

The Bemidji-based company has a new chief executive officer, has purchased one of the country’s largest hard bait manufacturers, has added a Rapala family member to its design team, and will be looking for additional acquisitions.

“We have big plans to move the company forward, even though the challenges today that seem like they’re greater than ever,” Peterson said. “But we’ve got the expertise, we’ve got good people behind us. There’s always new horizons, and we feel that we will find some new horizons in the very near future.”

Fishing industry veteran Gregg Wollner was recently named CEO. He has more than 25 years of experience at Galyan’s Trading Company and Rapala. He has served as chairman of the American Sportfishing Association, board member of the National Boating and Fishing Foundation and Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame selection committee.

Northland also announced last month that it has acquired Bagley Bait Company, which was started by Jim Bagley 66 years ago in Florida and has grown into one of the country’s top balsa wood bait manufacturers.

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Jarmo Rapala, whose Finnish grandfather Lauri started the world's largest fishing lure company in 1936, has joined Northland Fishing Tackle as a contracted lure designer. Jarmo bought Bagley Bait Company in 2010. He will do his design work primarily from his native Finland.

Wollner said he is excited to lead Northland Fishing Tackle, which is headquartered in Bemidji’s Industrial Park and owned by Peterson and three outside investors.

“They’ve taken what John started and grown it to one of the very top brands in Minnesota, but regionally one of the top brands in the country,” Wollner said. “But to keep growing we have to find new categories to go into. I’m going to keep trying to find opportunities for us to grow. We’ll look for acquisitions … and new technology that will allow us to do things we can’t do today.”

Peterson said the hiring of Wollner and the addition of Jarmo Rapala’s design skills put Northland on track for a promising future.

“We feel very very honored and fortunate to have somebody of Gregg Wollner’s caliber,” Peterson said, citing the new CEO’s work with the types of products Northland produces plus those of the Rapala line. ”We needed somebody with a lot of expertise in order to get this new (Bagley) product line going. Our chances of being successful with Gregg are going to be very high now.”

As for contracting with Jarmo Rapala, Peterson said, “That blew me away. We’re going to get Jarmo Rapala from the Rapala family to help us design our lures? Are you kidding me?”

John Peterson talks in the warehouse at Northland Fishing Tackle in August. Peterson started Northland Fishing Tackle in 1975 and still owns the company along with other investors. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
John Peterson talks in the warehouse at Northland Fishing Tackle in August. Peterson started Northland Fishing Tackle in 1975 and still owns the company along with other investors. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Wollner added, “Jarmo will give us the opportunity to bring just about any idea. If we can dream it, he can make it. When you’re a lure designer, it’s like being an artist. You can paint something, but if it sits in your house, and nobody else can appreciate it, it’s difficult to ever feel that reward. So the Northland brand gives us the opportunity to bring those designs to market, and for him to showcase his work.”

Wollner, 56, and his wife, Jacie plan to relocate to the Bemidji area from Hudson, Wis., this summer. They have two grown children.

“We’ve just come through this really scary business climate in the first half of this year,” Wollner said, “and that group (at Northland) has come through with flying colors. I think we’ve recovered all the business that was lost during that time. So for us to come out of that intact, that’s about as stressful as it can get. But that group made it look easy. That’s a real testament to the company that John built.”