Mark Sexton, Berkley's official lure tester, may very well have the best job in America. That's because, among his other duties, Sexton is charged with gathering field data on lure performance for the mega fishing-gear manufacturer.
Translation: He goes fishing, counts the number of fish he catches on a particular lure, and reports the results back to company headquarters in Spirit Lake, Iowa.
Berkley, for the first time ever, invited an outsider to participate in an official lure test earlier this fall. I had witnessed several times the extensive testing Berkley does on its prototype soft- and hardbaits at its giant testing facility, and had heard all about the rigors of the on-the-water testing each design undergoes. This would be my chance to see it first hand.
I met Sexton, along with Berkley marketing director, Eric Naig, at a remote cabin in an area of northern Minnesota dotted with lakes of all sizes. Will Brantley, an outdoor writer from Kentucky, fleshed out our four-angler testing team.
We were scheduled to test two versions of the company's flagship Gulp! scent and flavor formula—the standard off-the-shelf version vs. a new, improved formulation that researchers had developed in the laboratory—on the local bass population.
Though Sexton, who holds a degree in fisheries biology, often tests bass lures in places like Iowa, Missouri, Florida and Texas, he prefers this spot in the north woods because of the large numbers of fish that can typically be caught in a short time. "When I do an on-the-water test, I need to catch fish in sufficient numbers to be meaningful," he says, "and I know I can do that here."
In a two-lure, head-to-head test, Sexton needs at least 100 of the target species to be caught for the test to be viable. In a three-lure test, the minimum target jumps to 150; 200 in a four-lure test, and so on.
"Ideally, you want to catch as many fish as possible in each test," he says, "but through years of testing, we know 100 fish will give us what we need to make an accurate determination between two lures."
Prepping For The Test
The night before the lure test was to begin, Sexton paged through his worn and tattered book of lake maps. Each page held a separate map; more than 30 of them looked to be extra dog-eared, and littered with hen-scratched notes and old coffee-cup rings. While he puzzled over where he wanted us to fish in the morning, the rest of us readied rods and got went over the drill.
There were four one-gallon zip-seal plastic bags, each three-quarters filled with 6-inch plastic worms that were identical in size, shape and color. They were simple, do-nothing plastics without tails or appendages. The only difference we could see was that two of the bags were marked "181" and the other two were labeled "148." We knew, of course, that one number represented standard Gulp! while the other stood for the new formula.
"For a test like this, we hand-pour worms that have no action of their own," Sexton explained, "The idea is to eliminate all the variables but the one you're testing for. In this case, we're testing two versions of Gulp!, so we don't want the fish to make the decision to bite based on how the lure looks or moves—just on how it smells and tastes."
That's another reason many of Sexton's tests are done in the summer and fall. "We test lures like these in July, August, September and October," he says. "We don't do it in the spring when you can pull into a shallow bay and whack ‘em while sightfishing. These fish will be hitting on chemoreception, not visual stimulus."
Each spinning rod we'd use was strung with 6-pound Stren Microfuse tipped with an 18-inch leader of 10-pound Transition fluorocarbon. We'd start fishing the worms on 3/16-ounce mushroom head jigs, although we'd all end up switching to 1/4 ouncers because of high winds the next morning.
On The Water
Just after sunup, we stopped at a local gas n' grab to fill the boats and pickups with fuel, and ourselves with coffee and sugar. It was apparent that Sexton is a regular in this out-of-the-way spot as the woman behind the counter and half the coffee drinkers at the few tables scattered in a small alcove either knew him by name, or as the "Berkley Guy."
Always looking for fishing news, Sexton took a few minutes to pump the locals for the latest intel, then we were on the road. Fifteen miles later we launched at a medium size lake that Sexton said was one of his favorites.
Naig and I fished out of one boat, while Sexton and Brantley paired up for the morning. Each team had one bag of 181 worms and a bag labeled 148, along with a stash of jig heads, a digital oven timer and a notebook.
To eliminate the one remaining variable—the angler factor—from the testing equation, none of us, including Sexton, knew which code number (181 or 148) represented the standard Gulp! formula. What's more, the testing procedure is designed to minimize the influence of each angler's fishing style.
"The test is done in Rounds and Cycles," explained Naig, himself a veteran of many of Sexton's lure trials. "We'll each fish worms from one of the bags for 15 minutes, record the number of fish we each catch, then trade bags for the next 15-minute round. A Cycle can be any number of complete rounds."
Swapping lures, and fishing each version the same number of times, he said, would mean that any influence one angler's fishing style might have would be spread equally among the lures being tested.
"We only need to know the number of times a bass has made the decision to bite the lure," Naig continued. "Size doesn't matter, and you don't need to actually boat the fish. As long as you get it close enough to the boat to see that it's a bass, and not a pike, perch or something else, it counts."
Our morning was not stellar; we verified only 24 bass before noon. So, it was on to a local diner for a burger and a little decision-making. While waiting for lunch to arrive, Sexton pulled out his map book again and pinpointed another potential hotspot for the afternoon session.
This time, he and I teamed up. After a couple false starts on promising, but unproductive, spots, we found fish on a weedline extending the length of a long arm that ended in a small bay. Fishing our way back, we caught numbers of bass, while dutifully swapping lures and recording catches. At the very back end, we found the mother lode.
Bass anglers who fish in the autumn, especially in this part of the country, know well the "coot pattern." These ugly, black water birds will raft up by the hundreds in the fall, and where you find them, you'll almost assuredly find green weeds below.
We caught more than 20 bass in that isolated area before the fish, and the last of the day's sunlight, petered out. Naig and Brantley had nearly as good an afternoon fishing weedy humps and shoreline weedbeds, and our final tally for the day stood at 93 bass.
After fishing a little more than four hours the next morning, and catching all the biters in that third lake, our final total stood at 130 bass—enough to call the test complete, according to Sexton.
"It looks like a wash to me," he said after crunching all the numbers while leaning over the hood of his pickup in the launch ramp parking lot. "Bait number 181 took 60 fish; number 148 took 70. I'll report it, but I think they'll decide that, either way, the test formula didn't outperform the standard Gulp!
To tell the truth, I was kind of disappointed. Whenever you run a head-to-head test, you like definitive, decisive results. But Naig assured me that our data would be just as valuable to the lure designers.
"Most anglers think that we come up with a formula, and that's it," he explained. "In reality, we're always looking for ways to improve and test our scent and flavor enhanced lures. Sometimes the designers may add an ingredient; other times they may just play with the formula by changing the concentration of an existing ingredient. In fact, the Gulp! that anglers are fishing now is probably something like Version 2.1.
"Not every change we try is good enough to beat what we've got, and not every improvement we make is big enough to warrant a new product, or a big media splash. We just know the result is a better lure, even if our customers don't."
Sexton is the first to admit he's got one of the best gigs going. He fishes over 100 days a year testing not only bass lures, but those designed to catch walleyes, panfish, catfish and other fresh- and saltwater species. When he's not doing that, he's talking fishing with dozens of top anglers from around the country about news they've heard regarding Berkley lures.
Pulling a paycheck for what Sexton does is the envy of every serious angler on the planet, and he doesn't deny it. "About all I do for my boss is go fishing," he says. "It's good work, if you can get it."