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Two Harbors man launches fly fishing business

Forum Newspapers Jeff Wenger ties a calf-hair jig at his kitchen table in Two Harbors. He got into the jig and fly tying business to meet his own needs as a trout fisherman. For more on Jeff's Jigs and Flies, go to Forum Newspapers photo.

More and more often lately, Jeff Wenger and Pam Holm are unable to cook or eat meals in their own kitchen.

Sometimes, that's because Jeff is baking another batch of his powder-paint jigs in the oven. Sometimes, it's because he's using the kitchen table to tie up another batch of calf-hair jigs or panfish leeches.

And things may not improve soon. After years of product testing, Wenger has launched a new tackle business selling jigs, steelhead flies, and Kamloops rainbow "'looper" bugs under the banner of Jeff's Jigs and Flies.

"Mainly, it grew out of a need for me and my friends to have something that's a high-quality, durable product," said Wenger, who also manages a Two Harbors Holiday station.

A passionate steelheader, stream trout, and Kamloops angler, Weng-er started sharing some of his tackle with friends a few years ago. The tackle worked, and those friends told others.

"Word of mouth is spreading," Wenger said. "People have shown a lot of interest. The response has been wonderful."

Finally, Wenger decided to take the plunge into business. At the heart of his line are his calf-hair jigs, tied in three sizes primarily for panfish. He builds them to last. He "back-ties" the calf-hair, tying it once and folding it over itself before tying it again. He uses four applications of glue in tying the jig.

Every jig he makes is powder-painted by heating the head over a flame, then dipping it in dry powder. Then he bakes the jigs to harden the finish.

Those are the nights when Wenger's and Holm's oven isn't available for cooking dinner.

"I say, 'Oh, we have to go out to eat? OK," Holm says with a grin.

Design and durability

Taking extra steps to produce more durable jigs and flies grew out of Wenger's own fishing experience.

"The jig-making came out by necessity," Wenger says. "I wanted 'looper bugs that wouldn't chip when I fished them."

Wenger's full line will include the calf-hair jigs, plain jigs on sickle hooks, his panfish leech jigs, Superior X-legs steelhead flies, glo-bug yarn balls for steelhead, soft-hackle and woolly bugger flies for the Brule River and the 'looper bugs.

The sickle hooks are more angular than conventional, straight-shanked hooks.

"For hook sets, the sickle hook helps," said Karl Seckinger of Two Harbors, who has tried a lot of Wenger's tackle. "It's a really good combination for warm-water fish - a short shank and the sickle hook."

Mike Cable of Two Harbors also likes Wenger's designs.

"The sickle hooks, they seem to work really well," Cable said. "And he's making them in some good colors, like that glo-red. And it seems like they don't get stuck on the bottom as much."

Wenger ties his calf-tail jigs in 1/32nd, 1/64th and 1/80th ounce sizes, all on tiny number 10 hooks. He offers up a photo of one of those jigs that reportedly has caught 200 fish and is still intact. He hopes to build his business on that kind of durability.

"I'd like to do it as my sole income eventually," said Wenger, 42.

Focused fishing

He moved to Two Harbors from the Twin Cities 14 years ago. He and Holm married soon after that. Although he had grown up fishing walleyes and crappies, Wenger focused more on steelhead and other trout after moving to the North Shore.

"Focused" may be too mild a term. He fished 40 weekdays in a row this spring, while taking no vacation. He worked his regular shift at Holiday starting at 2 p.m. He would get home about midnight and rise at 4 a.m. to go steelhead fishing again.

"Steelheading is my life," he said.

He avoided fishing weekends when rivers are more crowded than he likes them. While fishing North Shore streams for steelhead this past spring, Wenger used his hand-tied yarn balls almost exclusively.

Steelhead apparently liked them.

"I stopped counting at 75 landed on a fly," Wenger says.

Carson, his 10-year-old son, landed nine steelhead in one four-day period.

In the fall, he concentrates on Brule River steelhead, using his hand-tied flies.

Finding his market

Wenger thinks much of the tackle available to anglers today doesn't measure up to expectations.

"I have a real problem with all this Chinese stuff," he said. "It's discouraging to me for people to be making pennies on the dollar and sending it across the ocean to us. This foreign-made stuff, there's no love in it."

He knows he cannot make his tackle as cheaply as it can be made overseas. That doesn't bother him.

"I'm not after the mass quantities," he said. "I'm after the middle- to upper-end fisherman who can appreciate a quality jig that's made in America."

His calf-hair jigs and panfish leech jigs are made to be fished without bait in most instances, a practice he calls "fishing 'em naked."

"I really encourage people, when they fish my jigs, to fish 'em bare, because they work better," Wenger said.

On a recent day, he tied up several calf-hair jigs and some panfish leeches at the kitchen table. He worked quickly, with no wasted motion, even while talking to a reporter.

"My average time is six minutes (on a calf-hair jig) when I'm cranking," he said.

He can turn out panfish leech imitations in about half that time.

If his business takes off, that kitchen table is going to be tied up a lot of the time. Wenger is willing to let the business go where it will.

"We'll just see what happens," he said. "If you're not going to go for it, you're never going to make it. I'm not afraid to fail."