Sad News: Berk passed away in December 2019. Good man who lived a good life. We need more like him.
Every serious angler has heard of the Berkley tackle company that has introduced many cutting-edge innovations to the fishing world since its creation in the 1940s. But do you know the story of the man behind the company and his quintessential Horatio Alger story? I didn’t, so when a fishing buddy, Bob Wayne, called to ask if I wanted to have lunch with the company’s founder, Berkley Bedell, I jumped at the chance. He knew of my love affair with Gulp Swimming Mullet, a lure made by Berkley, and how I doted on my Berkley Lightning Shock fishing rods. Little did Bob know, however, that my love affair with Berkley went back almost six decades.
I still remember in 1960 opening that package of revolutionary Trilene monofilament line introduced the year before by Berkley. No longer did I have to suffer with my old level-wind Bronson Meteor bait cast reel, the thick Dacron braided line, and the inevitable hellacious “birdnest” casting tangles that regularly plagued fishing trips with my Dad.
If you were fishing back then, you know what I mean. I soon loaded my shiny new Johnson Century spincast reel with Trilene, and the rest is history. I was hooked!! Now I could outcast and outfish dear old Pops and chase bass with lures in my favorite local ponds in central Kansas instead of sitting on the banks of the Little Arkansas River waiting for a catfish to consume my garden hackle–and with nary a backlash to pick out.
When I met Berk last year he was pushing 97, still spry and energetic. He was dressed casually, but meticulously, and exuded the aura of a true old-fashioned, soft-spoken gentleman. And he is, but behind that mild-mannered mien I would get a glimpse of the dynamo who has been in the middle of many of the ground-breaking developments in fishing tackle over the last 50 years. What makes the story so riveting is that Berk came from humble beginnings in a small Iowa town called Spirit Lake. There as an angling-addicted lad he started tying flies in his bedroom during the Depression, using materials he harvested from his dog, chickens, and assorted wild woodland critters. He started selling the flies for a few pennies to local bait shops and tourists and then took $50 from his newspaper route earnings and placed an ad in Sports Afield.
When the business thrived, he took over his parent’s living room and hired some of his high school chums to work for him, and by the 1970s had built it into one of the largest tackle companies in the USA! Along the way he served as a bomber pilot during World War II, invented products that shook the angling world, and served five terms in Congress to boot—as a populist Democrat from farm country no less.
Berk told me his big breakthrough was perfecting a wire leader with a swivel soldered on one end and snap on the other. But before he had even started production, he printed up a price list that undercut his competition by 10% and then hit the road for three weeks the summer after he graduated from high school, traveling 3,000 miles to show off some hand-made samples. By sleeping in his parents car, from which he had removed the passenger front seat to make a bed, Berk spent only $90 and ginned up orders for 1,000 gross—144,000—leaders! Fortunately, on his trip he had found a machine shop near Chicago that made equipment to mass produce soldered leaders. Berkley Fly Company was suddenly really in business.
Things perked along well until Pearl Harbor in 1942, and Berk mothballed his equipment until 1945 when he returned home. Business boomed after the war—people had money and the time and inclination to go fishing!! Now he had over 50 employees, but I was even more impressed to hear how he treated his workers. Berk often pitched in on the production line with them when orders needed to get filled, as did his managers. He also started a profit-sharing plan, setting aside 10% of all profits for company vacations and outings for employees and spouses, such as trips to Yellowstone National Park. No wonder this became a very popular benefit.
His next big innovation was figuring out how to coat his wire leaders with a new product being produced by DuPont—nylon. He saw an article about a company that was making nylon-coated steel rigging lines for sailboats. Berk immediately got on a plane and flew to Connecticut and met with the manufacturer, whom he convinced to use the same process to coat thin wire fishing leaders for him. The product rocked the fishing world—it was extra strong, didn’t kink, and less prone to snag than a bare wire leader. Berk coined it “Steelon—A Nylon Leader With A Heart Of Steel.” It put Berkley and company on everyone’s radar screen, and sales doubled, then tripled by 1950.
Berk’s follow-up coup was developing Trilene, a thin, supple monofilament line in 1959. Monofilament line had been available prior to that and had significant advantages over other lines like silk and braid that had to be dried out after fishing. It paired well with the newly invented and popular spinning reels. Problem was, its production was dominated by the industry goliath DuPont. In fact, Berkley bought large drums of mono from DuPont and wound it on smaller spools for sale to the public.
When his fishing line sales started to take off, Berk approached DuPont executives to see if they would license their process to him. After some wining and dining at DuPont’s headquarters in Delaware, they turned Berk down flat. Berk happened to mention this snub to a former fraternity brother who was working to get a license as a patent attorney. His buddy checked the Federal Register and discovered DuPont had reached an agreement with the federal government that required the company to license the process to anyone who requested it. DuPont had flat out lied to the hick upstart from Iowa! In his biography. Tackling Giants, Berk is quoted as saying, “This turned out to be another step in my disillusionment with corporate America.”
Ever the bulldog, Berk got his license and started to extrude his own monofilament fishing line, selling sell it for much cheaper than his competitors who had to buy from DuPont. And then he did DuPont one better. DuPont had come up with an improved mono line it called Stren that was stronger and more supple than regular nylon line, but Berk turned DuPont down when he was asked to become a distributor. Berk experimented and eventually found a way to one-up Stren with his own product he called Trilene. Trilene proved to be stronger than Stren and won the popularity contest among experienced fishermen. Sales boomed, and years later in 1999 Sports Afield magazine would include Trilene in its list of 100 years of awesome gear that rocked the outdoor world.
It is still the best-selling line in the world. Not surprisingly, in 1964 Berk received the national Small Businessman of the Year Award from the federal Small Business Administration delivered in Washington, D.C., by none other than LBJ!! Ever the modest one, during our lunch, this was a fact was never mentioned by Mr. Bedell.
As his business continued to flourish, Berk somehow found time to run and win a seat in Congress as a Democrat from Iowa. He served four terms before retiring because he had contracted Lyme Disease. But like in the business world, he established an impressive track record in politics. He was one of the first politicians of the era to hold town hall meetings and ask his constituents to vote on issues he would be facing in Congress. He was one of the first Congressman to blow the whistle on the Iran-Contra cover-up by the Reagan Administration.
Throughout his career he was a champion for small businesses and the little guy versus big corporations. Just as he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, Berk signed a petition in 2003 with 70 other former Congressmen against military intervention in Iraq, sagely predicting that an Iraq war would be similar to the Vietnam quagmire. Like many former members of Congress from both parties, he laments the current lack of friendship and collegiality in the nation’s capital.
While Berk was carving out a political career, all the while the Berkley Company continued to be a leader in the tackle world, its team of chemists and engineers experimenting and searching for that next breakthrough. Research and development has been a company priority since the early days. I especially liked the story Berk tells of how the famous line of Gulp lures were brought to market. In 1949, soft plastic lures in the form of imitation worms developed by an inquisitive machinist from Akron named Nick Creme created an upheaval in the tackle industry. Creme had been given an assortment of plastics by a DuPont lab technician and began experimenting in his kitchen, reportedly stinking up the house according to his wife Cosma. When he finally succeeded in producing a soft, durable plastic imitation worm, it took off like a skyrocket with bass fisherman, especially in the South. Then in 1972, the lure manufacturer Mister Twister patented the Curly Tail concept using a more flexible silicone-based plastic to create a product with more life-like action and better fishing results.
Fast-forward to the 1980s, and Berkley invents Powerbait, made of PVC plastic, the same stuff plastic pipes are made of, but combines it with oil-based resins that make it soft and injects it with fish-attracting scent (Don’t laugh, it works! My boys now in their 30s caught their first trout on rainbow-colored Powerbait dough balls, a scene recently repeated with my little munchkin granddaughter Aly.)
According to Berk, in the early 1990s the company was approached by an amateur angler with the idea to use a lure material that was similar to Powerbait, but made with a water-based resin that would soak up and release more scent. Berk says the learned chemists at Berkley initially pooh-poohed the idea, but Berk took some sample lures and fished with them in Minnesota with spectacular results. He went back and insisted they produce the new lure and voila, a few years later Gulp was born. When combined with the curly tail design, the fish I chase in Florida—snook, redfish, sea trout, and tarpon—simply cannot resist. As my fishing buddy Bob Wayne can attest, there are some days I use nothing else while catching (and releasing) dozens of fish.
As our lunch wound down, I asked Berk what were the most important developments in the evolution of fishing during his lifetime. He listed five—and I was amazed at how many he had been directly involved with:
- Monofilament line (like Trilene)—Easier to use and maintain than the old standard braided lines and facilitated the widespread use of spinning reels.
- Spinning reels—Far easier to use and cast effectively with than the old level-wind bait cast reels like the Bronson Meteor I started with. Suddenly the average angler and even kids could get in on the fun.
- Fiberglass vs. metal fishing rods—Developed in the 1950s, fiberglass rods were more flexible, could cast farther, and were easier to maintain than metal rods.
- Soft plastic lures—As noted above, revolutionized the design and effectiveness of fishing lures. Berkley Powerbait and Gulp are the current state-of-the-art.
- Graphite vs. fiberglass fishing rods—Graphite-based rods are far lighter, stiffer, and stronger than fiberglass. The renowned Fenwick Rod Company introduced the first all-graphite fishing rod in 1973. Berkley Company purchased Fenwick in 1988 and continued its track record of developing and using high-tech materials for fishing rods.
As Berkley stood to pose for some obligatory pictures and say his good-byes, I couldn’t help but marvel about his story and how that young kid from Spirit Lake, Iowa, had through grit, determination, and a can-do All-American spirit made such a difference in so many ways. Now whenever I get out on the water with my Berkley fishing rod and my Gulp lure, I smile and tip my hat to this great gentleman.