Making It

ANGLING FOR BUSINESS: Ben Wilson with three eight-inch offshore trolling lures.
ANGLING FOR BUSINESS: Ben Wilson with three eight-inch offshore trolling lures. (Keith Barraclough - )
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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, April 20, 2008

BEN WILSON of Silver Spring spends his evenings and weekends turning broomstick handles into colorfully painted fishing lures. Striped bass and tuna find the surface lures intriguing; a growing number of fishing enthusiasts feel the same way.

Ben, 34, grew up in Lexington, Mass., and attended Dickinson College on an ROTC scholarship, majoring in economics. After his tours as a military police officer in Korea and Colorado, he and his wife, Megan, settled in Silver Spring in 2001, to be near her family in Potomac and her then-job at a private school in Washington. Ben took a position with communications network provider Ciena Corp. near Baltimore but says, "I knew I don't want my life to revolve around my corporate job."

As a kid, Ben fished with his family off Cape Cod. He and his father, John, a teacher, got into making wooden lures when John learned the art from a colleague. Fishing with wooden lures, which float, takes a different skill than fishing with bait, and it offers different rewards, says Ben: "It's really interesting to see a fish come up on a surface and take a lure. You can see the strike; there's almost an explosion of adrenaline."

Ben and his father were often asked where they got their lures, so they had long envisioned a business. When Megan snapped a striking photograph of Ben and his dog in Colorado, it inspired a name: the Lonely Angler. They used a blacked-in copy of the photograph for the logo, and Megan's father, a lawyer, helped with the trademarking. But Ben and his father didn't seriously market their product until after John's retirement in 2004. That's when they attended their first trade show -- and sold about 20 lures. "We were saying, 'This is not going to work; we've got to go out and really talk it up,' " Ben recalls.

Ben and John started visiting more trade shows (they now hit six a year), placed their lures in several tackle shops along the East Coast (former president George H.W. Bush bought some in a Maine store) and established a Web site, and business grew.

St. Leonard resident "Walleye" Pete Dahlberg, who owns Four Seasons Guide Service, says he likes to use the Lonely Angler's needlefish lure for Chesapeake Bay outings. "It's a long, skinny lure, and it imitates an injured bait fish running from a striper or blue fish -- running like crazy," he says. The lure is very sturdy, he adds. "It will last all summer long."

Ben and his father hand-make the wooden lures. The broomsticks are turned on a lathe, decorated with durable auto body paint and adorned with holographic eyes. The lures cost from $10 to $20 each; the company also sells apparel and manufactured plastic lures.

In 2004, the Lonely Angler grossed perhaps $5,000, Ben says. By 2006, it had made $30,000; and in 2007, $40,000.

Any profit (about $20,000 in 2007) has gone back into the business.

Ben dreams of making enough to quit his day job and building a business he could pass down to his 5-year-old daughter, Abby, who loves to fish. His passion for fishing helps him keep his eye on the goal, he says. "There are some days it's long hours, and you're scratching your head and saying, 'What am I doing it for?' " But the next day often brings a vicarious thrill, he says, because "I'll get an e-mail from someone who's caught a huge fish."

Are you succeeding with a new and unusual career, invention, business or creative endeavor? E-mail changb@washpost.com.


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