On a cloudy day in January, one lucky fisherman snared his first walleye and then posted a picture of his catch to Facebook.
More than 3,700 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, Vaughn Holderman shared the photo on his company’s page. He’d earned another happy customer: The fisherman, who was from the Netherlands, had caught the fish using one of Holderman’s lures.
About three years ago, Holderman didn’t expect to sell his wares on the mass market — let alone to places as far away as Europe. Then a junior at Penn State, he was still focused on things like graduating. He had thought about starting his own business, but it was just that — an idea.
But now Holderman, 23, has caught the eye of much bigger fish with his glittering, lifelike lures.
“I think that’s what helped me sell,” Holderman said. “I know what I have and I know that it works and I know that it’s different.”
Holderman tests each of his lures before getting them reproduced. His company, Chasing Trophy Fish, began as a Facebook page, but now sells its products through online retailers such as Amazon, TackleDirect and TackleHound besides its own website.
The lures also attracted the attention of the entrepreneur Kevin Harrington from ABC’s “Shark Tank.” Thanks to the endorsement, a commercial has already aired and a radio spot is in the works.
Holderman, who graduated in December, estimates he’s sold 600 to 800 lures in the past two months. He still uses the local postal service to mail out orders.
“I thought it was kind of perfect,” his sister Alexis said. “Fishing is his life, and it always has been. Since I was 2, he’d drag me out into the woods and down to the creek down across the road from our house, and ever since he was a little kid, that’s where he was. My mom would be yelling at him to come back to the house because it was too dark outside.”
Business took off after Holderman and a couple of friends attended the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades in Orlando, Fla., in July. Representatives from major stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops all stopped by, impressed with the lures’ uncanny likeness to the real thing. They writhed and wriggled like a dying bait fish — a detail that Holderman paid attention to when he was fishing with them. With the right movement of the rod, the fish is fooled.
Hearing that he had something buoyed Holderman, who had walked through those stores many times while growing up.
“It was surreal,” Holderman said.
While in school, he began designing prototypes of lures that simulated the look and movements of various species of bait fish. An avid fisher since he was 3 years old, Holderman had used other lures from major retailers but wasn’t fully satisfied with the results.
He knew his lures were different. But bringing them to market came with its own set of challenges. Holderman never heard back from three manufacturers before finding his current one.
“They did a great job,” he said. “They had samples within two weeks for me.”
Then there was the matter of testing them. One set, he recalls, broke down easily, a setback of $500 to $600. They were soon tossed out.
“I honestly have had a lot of other patterns and lures that I’ve thrown in the garbage, like 300 of them,” he said, recounting the trial-and-error process. “Because they just didn’t work or the pattern — they didn’t bite it. And that’s the thing that helps, too — I’ve used all of these and I know they work.”
Now in the swing of fishing season, Holderman can usually be found at Dix Run Creek, which runs by his house, or at Bald Eagle State Park, vetting his latest creation. He said he fishes at least every other day.
Jason Walizer, who went to ICAST with Holderman last year, hunts or fishes with his friend from high school on a weekly basis.
Holderman is debuting a new lure at this year’s ICAST. With the help of Walizer and his sister, he said he’s excited about sharing it and hopes to catch the attention of more people who share his passion, whether it’s across an ocean or just down the creek.
“That’s just Vaughn,” Walizer said. “He can put anyone onto fish.”
By the numbers
1,416,037: Total licenses and permits sold between Dec. 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2015
3,209,961: Adult trout stocked in 2015 (Brook, Brown, Rainbow and Golden Rainbow)
$36,396,837: Fish fund total for fiscal year 2014-15, with $25,869,679 of that coming from licenses and fees
85,000: miles of rivers and streams in the state
200,000: acres of lakes in Pa.
Source: Fish and Boat Commission