Grand Forks business makes a splash in the custom-painted fishing lure market
Black Water Customs is named after Lake of the Woods, which is known for its stained, dark-colored water.
GRAND FORKS – Like so many good plans, it started with a few cold beverages and a discussion about fishing, Joel Holweger recalls.
Holweger, of Grand Forks, says he and buddy Jamey Corbit were talking about the challenges and frustrations of trying to find the perfect fishing lure one night, when they stumbled upon an idea.
“You spend all this money on these lures, and it seems like they just don’t last or they’re not tuned right – they don’t run right,” Holweger said. “Or you have a color that works, and they quit making it.”
Their solution? Start painting their own lures.
“I don’t know which one of us suggested it,” Holweger said. “You know, there are guys that do it, and (Jamey) goes, ‘Yeah, maybe we should.’
“So we just started looking into it.”
So began Black Water Customs, a Grand Forks business that is making a splash in the custom fishing lure market.
Corbit owns Dynamic Welding in Grand Forks and Dynamic Outdoors, a Lake of the Woods fishing guide and fish house rental service based in Baudette, Minn. Holweger works for the city of Grand Forks Engineering Department as a Geographic Information System (GIS) and Computer-Aided Design (CAD) specialist, a job that requires an abundance of computer savvy.
“I’ve always been a little bit artistic,” Holweger said. “With our hunting and fishing background, we know what works. We primarily fish Lake of the Woods so we decided, let’s get something that works up there.”
Black Water Customs is named after Lake of the Woods, which is known for its stained, dark-colored water, Holweger says; Corbit came up with the name.
“It just had a good ring to it,” Holweger said. “So, we developed a logo and went from there.”
Combining their talents, they set up shop in a back room of Dynamic Welding.
“I said, ‘I’ll run the paint side of it if you help with the sales and marketing and everything else,’ ” Holweger said.
By December 2019, they’d invested in the airbrushes, compressors, paint and “all that jazz” required to paint custom lures, Holweger says. They formally launched Black Water Customs in January 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic. That turned out to be an ideal time to start a business that’s primarily online, he says.
“Within the span of a few days, we had a website going, we started coming up with color patterns and names, and how we wanted to portray the business,” Holweger said. “We wanted to focus on walleyes because that’s what we like to fish – walleyes, northerns, all the fish that are in Lake of the Woods – and that we know how to fish.
“We know what colors work, and if it works up there, it should work in other lakes. In a way, it opens up your creativity a little bit more because walleyes like crazy colors. Bright is great, and bright sells and it works.”
Custom-colored rattlebait lures are a mainstay for Black Water Customs, along with a “pretty good” line of crankbaits for summer fishing. The company has also started to produce custom-painted jigging spoons and blade baits, and plans are in the works to come up with a line of custom jigs and spinners, Holweger says.
He buys the blanks for the rattlebaits and crankbaits online, painstakingly priming, painting and adding a clear coat to each one before assembling the split rings and hooks. Most of the blanks are made from injection-molded ABS plastic, and Holweger uses water-based acrylic paints to add his custom touches to the lures, finishing them off with a UV resin epoxy clear coat.
“That means the finish you get is phenomenal,” he said. “You get a very high gloss. When you add glitters and bright colors and run that clear-coat over them, it just makes them pop.”
Lures generally retail for $8.50 to $12, depending on the size and type of lure.
“Some people say our lures are a little expensive, but every single one is painted by hand and they’re painted by me,” Holweger said. “So, if somebody has a problem, it’s because of something I did. I like to have that personal touch on them.”
Seeing photos or videos of fish people catch on his lures, Holweger says, is satisfying.
“I created that pattern, I painted it, I clear-coated it, I put the hooks on, I tuned it, packaged it and it works,” he said.
Like any new venture, sales were slow initially, Holweger says, but have grown steadily as the Black Water Customs brand becomes more familiar. Log Cabin Bait near Baudette is a prime retail outlet, he says, along with a big bait shop in Iowa.
The rest is online, driven primarily by word of mouth and exposure through Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. Minnesota is a strong market, Holweger says, and they’ve sold lures to customers as far away as Texas.
“This past year especially has really gone up a lot,” Holweger said. “I think we finally got enough exposure, we got our name out there a little bit, especially up there at Lake of the Woods. There’s a lot of people asking for them.”
Holweger will also repaint customers’ old lures or add special touches, such as sports logos or peoples’ names, to his custom creations.
Since the week before Christmas, Holweger says, he’s been in the shop filling orders about five nights a week. If he’s doing a “production run” of same-colored lures, such as the popular “Pink Panther,” “Funfetti” and “Red Bread” line of rattlebaits, he can paint and assemble 30 or 40 lures a night.
Online orders are more time consuming because most people don’t order 10 of the same lures.
“Typically, I try to paint five or 10 of the same color at one time just because, if I’m going to set up and spray, it takes almost the same amount of time to do five as it does one,” Holweger said.
“I go four or five hours a night, unless we’re swamped,” he added. “I’ve been here as late as 2 or 3 a.m. trying to finish orders. I try not to – obviously, I still have to prioritize my day job. This is kind of a hobby business that’s growing into more.”
Holweger attributes much of that growth to a finicky eye for detail – and customer service.
“I’ve always been a believer that if you put enough hard work into something and you’re honest with people and you provide a good service or product, that it should take off,” he said. “I think a lot of people appreciate the fact that, unless it’s the middle of the night, if they message me on our website or social media or anything, you get an immediate response if I’m available.”
It’s been quite a ride, he says, a journey that started over a few cold beverages and a shot of inspiration.
“I’m glad we’re trucking along,” he said. “We’re growing every year, and hopefully, that trend keeps going.”
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