CALEDONIA -- When Eric Ingvalson was about 16, he was fishing walleye from the wall of the Dresbach Dam on the Mississippi River by drifting live willow cats for bait when he wiped a bit of the catfish slime onto his pants.
A nearby angler noted that and said: “You know, if a guy could bottle that, he would be a millionaire.”
That stuck with Ingvalson, now 33, who has finally accomplished the first part -- bottling that fish-catching scent.
The second part -- becoming a millionaire -- may take a bit longer.
To make Liquid Willowcat, he combined his passion for fishing, his business selling live bait, the growing artificial-bait market and entrepreneurship then mixed in a bit of chemical wizardry. While he won’t divulge his secret, he said the main ingredient is real willow cats.
Ingvalson runs his business out of his rural Caledonia home, expecting to make 15,000 plastic tails for jigs and other rigs the summer. That doesn’t include his bottled scent. Some anglers combine live bait and Liquid Willowcat by injecting the scent into nightcrawlers.
He said he sells online as well as to about 25 bait shops in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, selling from the Twin Cities to Quad Cities, and also Pennsylvania where they are in demand for fishing smallmouth bass on the Susquehanna River.
Willlow cats, also known as tadpole madtoms, are a legendary walleye bait on the the Mississippi -- if you can get them, said Bob Veglahn, owner of Tri-State Bait & Tackle in La Crescent and one of the first places to carry Liquid Willowcat lures and scent.
They have prickly spines on their dorsal and pectoral fin that can deliver a nasty sting, he said. “It feels like a giant bee sting,” he said. “Some people, it really bothers; some don’t” get hurt.
Commercial dealers once trapped them on the Mississippi but with invasive species found in the river, that was banned, including for anglers in Minnesota waters. Dealers then had to go inland where supply is spotty. Frustration with the irregular supply was a reason Ingvalson began to develop the artificials.
“Demand for willowcats is always high on the Mississippi River,” he wrote on the web. “Although we have a consistent supply to meet demand May-August, I felt like there was something we could do as an effective alternative when willowcats were scarce.”
He is entering the artificial bait business on its upswing. Several decades ago, live bait, especially for walleye, dominated. The few plastics tended to be stiff. Over the years, plastics exploded with much livelier actions, scores more designs and flavors from anise to garlic.
Artificials are exploding “big time,” Veglahn said. “It’s more popular than ever. Plastics, they’ve come a long ways … Now, they look like real fish and have a million colors and scents.”
Ingvalson’s journey to adding to the supply of plastics and scents was rather long and tedious, he said. There was no instant ah-ha! moment.
He said he grew up on a dairy farm in the area but that was not his passion. “I worked to hunt and fish,” he said. “I was not enamored with the dairy farm. I wanted to be in the outdoors industry.”
He eventually left farming and concentrated on the outdoors, learning to be a gunsmith then selling a little live bait too. Eventually he bought a live-bait business and began to sell willow cats, a bait fish tend to either smash and inhale or swim away. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground, he said.
Two years ago, “I had a horrible year, I just couldn’t get willow cats (in central Minnesota).” That’s when he remembered that chance remark when fishing along the Dresbach Dam. He began calling around to others who made scented plastics, eventually finding out enough that he worked out his own formula.
That was the first big step. The next one was selling it. Ingvalson said he went to bait shops and began passing it around to fishing guides, those who fished tournaments, anyone who could give him feedback and, he hoped, words of praise.
Oddly, he said one of the drawbacks was the success of the bait -- when most anglers tried it and liked it, they kept success to themselves. So he concentrated more on the guides and tournament anglers who would spread the word. He also relies on YouTube and Facebook.
While the baits work for many species, “the walleye guys are my bread and butter,” he said.
This summer, he said he’s concentrating on producing more and different kinds of plastic tails, including a paddle tail, and he’s starting to try to figure out leech scent.
He will continue leading an outdoorsy life, hunting more in fall and guiding during ice fishing, then moving on to turkey hunting and more fishing in spring. In summer, it’s back to bait production. He’s not hit the million-dollar mark yet; in fact, he said “I wouldn’t call it making a living right yet” but he hopes to at least get into the making-a-living range soon. He and his wife live “very very very modestly.”
But it’s a good life for him, one Ingvalson said he hopes to keep living for at least another decade. When he reaches 40, “I hope to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s fun being in the outdoors industry.”