DULUTH — In the dusky, dusty basement of his West Duluth home — don’t forget to duck going down the stairs — Ed Forrestal works his magic with plastic and metal, epoxy and paint.
Forrestal is the owner, proprietor, president, CEO, designer, engineer, assembler, painting department chief, shipping clerk, janitor, marketing director, delivery boy and field tester for E&M Custom Fishing Tackle.
The M of E&M is long gone, and don’t try asking for details, you won't get any. "It just didn’t work out,’’ Forrestal said of his former business partner. “So I’m all there is.”
But that seems to be just plenty judging by the number of his hand-painted and hand-assembled fishing lures that fly off the shelves at the one store where they are sold, the only place you can buy them, Marine General sporting goods in Duluth.
“On a good night, if I focus and go at it hard, I can do about 25,’’ Forrestal noted as he showed a couple visitors the process. "I used to be in nine stores but it got to be too much."
In the dead of winter, like right now, Forrestal should be building up inventory, producing lures that would sell come spring and summer when anglers dig out their boats and head out on the open water. But the problem is his lures have been selling all winter, even when people can't use them for open-water fishing.
“I can’t keep up,’’ said Forrestal, an avid angler who had been making his own lures for decades.
Most of his creations are designed for catching fish on Lake Superior. His first commercial efforts, starting about seven years ago, were spoons. They sold so well that he branched into plugs in 2018. His forte is color — up and down the spectrum, with a bunch of colors never seen in nature; chartreuse and pinks and lime greens arranged in multiple patterns. Big lake anglers often gobble up his lures when word gets out one color is especially hot.
One particular pattern, a spoon nicknamed the Purple Swirl by anglers (Forrestal does not name any of his lures, but customer-assigned names often stick) was especially hot during the summer of 2018.
“I’d come home from work and go down and make 20 and bring them in (to Marine General) the next day and the 20 I brought in the day before would be gone. … It went on like that for six weeks, every day, they sold out,’’ Forrestal said. “They’re still buying that one.”
For the past two summers E & M’s plugs also have been hot sellers. They are a fairly simple design for a lipped plastic plug, much like the ones sold nationwide with famous brand names.
Forrestal tested dozens of prototype plugs made in China until he found the one he liked best for action. They come in boxes filled with hundreds, all in clear plastic, no paint, no hooks.
Then Forrestal goes to work.
The king of color
He uses an airbrush and UV paint to create intricate designs in unique color combinations, small pieces of art that both fish and fishermen seem enamored with. Sometimes he paints freehand, other times he uses stencils, depending on the pattern. The results are remarkably consistent.
“I try to do five of one pattern at a time, one color combination, and then change it up,” he said as he painted polka dots on a plug. “One guy in his basement can do a lot if they know what they are doing.”
Forrestal isn’t bragging when he says he can build just about anything he can think up. At one end of his basement, hidden under a camouflage tarp, is a powder-coating machine. He wouldn't let us even look at it.
“No one else can figure out how I powder coat’’ the spoons, Forrestal said. “And no one will.”
That proprietary powder coating keeps the paint in pristine condition after months even years of use.
“I have one guy who is still using the original ones from seven years ago,’’ Forrestal said, noting he offers a two-year paint warranty on his spoons. “I’ve had one guy bring one back, that's it.”
While the spoons are powder-coated, the plugs, after they are hand-painted, are dipped in a one-step epoxy that seals the UV paint and prevents chipping. Forrestal then hangs the dipped lures in a box where they are exposed to a UV “black light” that cures the epoxy. They can be handled in just minutes and are ready to add rings and hooks after just a couple hours of UV exposure.
Anyone would notice that the UV paint seems to glow under the epoxy-hardening UV light, and Forestal says that’s the point.
“That’s the same light, UV, the only light really, that penetrates water. So when my lures are exposed to that light underwater, that’s what the fish see,’’ he said. “I can’t prove it to you that the fish see these better. But they do.”
While the plug blanks are made en masse in China since “no one can do plastics in the numbers like they do,’’ he uses Eagle Claw hooks, made in the U.S. (The unpainted spoons he uses are made in the U.S. as well. Like the plug blanks, he tested many before finding just the right bend in the metal producing just the right action to trigger trout and salmon.) He does his own packaging and even drives the finished lures across town to stock them on the store shelves.
High price, higher praise
E&M plugs are not cheap, at $9.99 for traditional finish and $12.99 for chrome finishes. The spoons, depending on size, range from $4.99 to $5.99.
Russ Francisco, owner of Marine General sporting goods in Duluth, has seen a lot of fishing tackle come and go over the years, especially tackle aimed at Lake Superior trout and salmon fishing. He has to decide what to stock on his limited store shelves, and he’s successful when he stocks what people are using and want to buy more of.
Not every entrepreneur with a lure to sell gets to display at Marine General. But Francisco said it was a “no-brainer’’ to stock Forrestal’s lures.
“First you decide by looking at it. Does it look like something people would buy? And his do, right from the start. Second, is it a local guy? We like to give the local guy a chance to make it.”
Forrestal’s stick baits have been especially red-hot for sales recently, in part because of their distinctive action and in part because of those unique colors. On Lake Superior, perhaps more than other freshwater applications, anglers are especially finicky over lure colors because, apparently, the fish can be finicky over even subtle differences in lure colors and patterns. Charter captains might run four or five different lures, in different colors, at the same time. When one color produces, oftentimes all of the lines are switched to that color.
“The color first has to catch the fisherman. But then they have to catch fish or no one buys a second one. His (lures) do both,’’ Francisco said. “Everybody out there (trolling on western Lake Superior) is using them and everyone is catching fish with them.”
Lorin LeMire, Duluth-based Lake Superior angler who runs Fish of the Gitch charters, said he’s been using E & M lures for the past two seasons. He likes that Forrestal is local and that the lures incorporate input from local anglers, especially charter captains who run lots of lures on lots of days and see which ones work best most often.
“He works with several local charter captains and receives their input and puts it to use in his designs,’’ LeMire said. “In turn, we test out his latest creations and give him back our critiques.”
The baits are designed especially for the Great Lakes, LeMire noted.
“His paint choices are very unique, intricate and productive,’’ LeMire said. Forrestal is a “very skilled painter with technical finishes.”
Forrestal credits Duluth charter captain Chris Larson (duluthsportfishing.com) with much of his success. Larson helps field test E&M lures on Lake Superior and then helps spread the word on fishing-focused social media sites. (Once several anglers zoomed in on a Larson Facebook photo to see an E&M lure in a fish’s mouth in the background, behind the primary fish in the photo photo. The lure was a prototype and not supposed to be made public yet. But anglers started asking for it at Marine General the next day.)
Now 60, Forrestal, who grew up in the north end of Superior, said he’s contemplated quitting his day job as a building maintenance manager to focus full-time on making lures.
“I’d like to go in that direction. But try telling your wife you want to quit your job and give up that paycheck,’’ he said with a smile.
Forrestal concedes that the luremaking job is eating into his fishing time, but he still gets out on the water. He and a fishing partner have won the longstanding Monday night multi-species fishing league in Duluth the past two summers.
He occasionally will take orders from friends for walleye or musky lures. But for now Forrestal is focusing on Great Lakes lures aimed at trout and salmon (but which also catch walleyes and pike and musky.)
“I’m in my own lane now,’’ he said, relishing his success. “So I’m going to stay there for a while.”
(You can only buy E&M lures at Marine General, 1501 London Rd. in Duluth, or online at marinegeneral.com)