Published December 21, 2008, 12:00 AM

Engineering a better ice fishing experience

Owner of Vexilar aims to keep the Twin Cities-based company's depth finder/fish locator at the top of the ice fishing market

By: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS — Earlier this month, Steve Baumann did what he probably thought he never would, growing up in the 1950s on the family farm in southwest Minnesota. He talked electronics with a handful of Japanese engineers at his office.

It’s something Baumann, owner of Vexilar (www.vexilar.com) — the fishing electronics company and maker of the world’s top-selling ice-fishing gadget — does often these days.

The “heads,” or brains, of Vexilar depth finders/fish locators, are manufactured in Japan, and Baumann, an engineer himself, wants to make sure everyone’s on the same page as new products are conceived and built.

“I fish a lot, and the people who work here fish,” Baumann said. “When we’re on the ice, we’re thinking, ‘What can we do to help the ice fisherman enjoy his experience more, and catch more fish?’ When we come up with new concepts, we trade them back and forth with our Japanese engineers, hoping to come up with the ideal product.”

Baumann didn’t learn to fish in Minnesota’s storied lake country, up north. Instead, he first dipped a line in Dutch Charley Creek, which divided his family’s farm. And on Sundays, after church, his mom and dad would sometimes yield to their son’s pleadings and head to nearby Lake Shetek for a day on the water.

“When I was a kid, I loved to fish and I loved to hunt,” Baumann said.

But bad luck struck early in the form of an encephalitis-carrying mosquito, which bit the young Baumann and sickened him with fever. He recovered fully, but his legs never did, and to this day they remain impaired.

Yet Baumann’s struggles as a youngster might have helped forge a determination that drives him still today. He’s not the only engineer in the world, after all, and a lot of companies, some with big names in the fishing business such as Humminbird, would like a greater share of the winter-fishing electronics market.

It’s unlikely Baumann will yield any of his business without a struggle.

“We’re an engineer-driven company,” said Tom Zenanko, Vexilar’s director of sales and marketing.

A one-time pro angler, fishing educator and fishing-product promoter, Zenanko is known in the business as a Type A personality with a rapid-fire approach to, well, everything.

“A lot of companies focus on marketing an idea, with slick packaging and catchy phrases,” said Zenanko, a 10-year Vexilar employee. “I try some of that stuff, but Steve throttles back 99 percent of my ideas. He doesn’t allow me to embellish. What I have to sell is what we make: an extremely reliable, extremely durable product that has a history of being the go-to product in ice fishing.”

Drawn to problems

Some people flee from fix-it types of problems; others are made curious by them.

Baumann is the latter.

“I’ve always been interested in, and fairly capable of, solving problems,” he said.

Baumann’s career in the fishing electronics industry began in Marshall, Minn., where, as a college student, he worked part-time at an electronics company that manufactured some of Vexilar’s first fish finders.

At the time, Vexilar primarily made temperature gauges. Then, as the Lake Michigan sportfishery took off, the company moved into paper sonar graphs, and later cathode ray tubes (CRT).

“We built the first CRT fish finders,” he said. “They were expensive, but charter captains liked them because they didn’t have to buy paper for the paper graphs.”

Notwithstanding such innovations, Vexilar went bankrupt in 1979. It emerged under the ownership of a Florida company, and went on to develop the first liquid crystal display (LCD) fish finders.

All the while, Baumann was an employee.

But Vexilar didn’t find its product niche until it purchased the rights to a “rotating wheel flasher”-style fish finder that originally was built for bass fishing.

“It showed too much information for that application, but it was excellent for ice fishing because anglers could actually see their baits being lowered into the water, and fish taking them,” Baumann said.

An owner of the company since 1986 (originally with Skip Christman, who died in 1995), Baumann has continually overseen improvements to the first Vexilar flasher — the FL-8 — (about $259 at retailers) while adding new models (top of the line is the FL-20 at about $500) with more bells and whistles.

“It’s difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t fish, or who hasn’t used this type of product,” Baumann said. “But the ability to watch your bait and to see a fish move toward it creates excitement. You know the fish is there, therefore you know the opportunity is there. So you stay with it.”

Ice leader

Nationally, angling license sales have sagged in recent years, as baby boomers age and relatively few young people take up the sport. Minnesota generally remains a fishing hot spot, however, particularly in winter, during which it puts far more anglers on the ice than any other state.

“Wisconsin is No. 2 and Michigan third,” Baumann said. “But Minnesota is the biggest, far and away.”

Which is why Humminbird, owned by Johnson Fishing in Racine, Wis., and a longtime manufacturer of quality fishing electronics, is eyeing the winter fishing market so closely with new products — as is Nature Vision of Brainerd, Minn., founded by Jeff Zernoff.

“It’s an old story,” Baumann said, explaining why his basic business plan has remained unchanged over the years. “We try to think like our customers. What do they want from us?

“And when our Japanese engineers come over here, we want them on the ice, so they can know what it is exactly we’re talking about.”

On the Web:

www.vexilar.com.

Anderson covers the outdoors for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

Tags: