Finding your people in the swimbait universe

If ICAST is the corporate rock event of the fishing retail world, then the Swimbait Universe Gathering is more like going to an edgy club – adjacent to but not in a sketchy part of town – and hearing the bands that are going to direct music’s next major steps.

I attended “The Gathering” this past weekend at a campground in Lanexa, Va., and while I’m certainly not a swimbait expert or a full member of their tribe, this by-the-people-for-the-people get-together provided hope for the future of fishing. Forget for a second the people spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars to get the glide bait or rat or rod of their dreams, most attendees were there to meet the people who made those baits, or to meet others with an equal passion – the type of drive that compels them to fish all day or all week or all season for one monster bite.

Obviously, I am a fan of pro fishing. I wouldn’t have been in this business for 20 years otherwise. My position in the industry gives me a front row seat to bass fishing innovation. Whether it’s forward-facing sonar, a new lure like the ChatterBait or a technique like “moping,” it’s a top-down process. The Bassmaster Elite Series pros tend to be the ones who popularize it to the masses.

In the swimbait world, it seems, the opposite is true – the innovation and popularization comes from the base of the pyramid. I’ve spent plenty of time talking to Brandon Palaniuk, Chris Zaldain, Carl Jocumsen and Steve Kennedy about big baits, and clearly those guys are really, really good with them, but the energy, innovation and information come from the people at ground level. Just like going to the small club where the next new thing in music is happening, everyone has a seat close to the drummer.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t an Elite-adjacent presence at the Gathering. On one side of the room, Lee Livesay’s sister Lisa and his brother-in-law-to-be Brad Vanderpool sold their F5 Custom Rods. On the other side of the room, Matt Herren’s sons explained the merits of their Taddo Designs Eon glides. Throughout the days leading up to the event, and even as it occurred, Steve Kennedy bombarded me with both curious and instructive texts about the wares on offer. With each text from Steve there also came a corresponding message from his wife, Julia, that under no circumstances was I to accept from SK any portion of their kids’ college money to act as a straw man purchaser for the big baits he just “had to have.”

Right now, the swimbait world is somewhere between a movement and a business. While there were plenty of vendors who sell baits or rods or other gear full-time, again and again I heard about craftsmen who work full-time jobs and then “stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning painting baits.” The bliss they found in their second full-time gig reminded me of my own writing career. Yes, some of the products go for insane amounts of money, but profit motive is not the main driver. That same passion was evident in the consumers who started lining up outside the gates at 2 a.m. for a show that started at 11 a.m. – and the only reason they weren’t there earlier is because that’s when the organizers instructed them to begin.

In the end, I spent $700 on a handful of lures, beating my prior “personal best” expenditure for a single bait five times over. I’m still not sure if I got the right ones for the places I fish, or how much I’ll fish them, or whether they’ll produce more or better fish than the Senkos that have gotten me this far. Obviously it is my hope that they will give me a situational advantage over some of the other anglers in my area, providing the local fish with options they’ve never seen and can’t resist. More than products, however, my entry fee to the show purchased a renewed sense of energy and excitement about the sport that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember.

I may never become a full-fledged member of the swimbait tribe – and, like Groucho Marx I’m wary of any club that would deign to have me as a member – but at the Gathering I was once again reminded that the future of fishing lies not in patches and promises, but rather in passion.