by Sam Cushman
15-minute read time
After a series of progressively intense surgeries in 2013 left Mike Baker in the hospital for almost a month, all he really wanted to do was camp down at the Arkansas River and drink coffee while he fished on the bank. His wife Sharon joined him and together they set out one weekend with a camper to do just that.
For Mike, surely this would be a welcome reprieve after weeks of nurse checks, beeping machines and hospital food. So when he sat down with catfish bait and tackle to cast his line out onto the water one might think that moment would mark the beginning of a long-awaited period of refreshment. Instead it was the beginning of a long weekend of frustration and the birth of an idea that would change his life.
For whenever he went to cast his line, he continuously encountered the same frustration that many catfishermen face: the bait simply wouldn’t stay on the hook.
“I started to throw stuff out but bait would go one way and the hooks would go another,” he says recalling the moment.
A month of frustration in the hospital because “things went from bad to worse” gave way to more frustration by the river. Sharon volunteered to go to Walmart and bring him back every catfish bait they had but Mike still had the same issues.
Chicken livers, stink bait, punch bait or some other concoction – if it wasn’t the cast that threw it off the hook it was the current that swept it away or the weak formula which dissolved too quickly.
“It was miserable,” he said. “So by Sunday I said ‘By damn I’m gonna figure out a way to make a bait that’ll stay on your hook and catch a catfish.’”
Fast forward six years and Mike now owns and operates his own bait company with his son, Mitch who serves as Vice President. Catfish Pro of Springdale, Arkansas is likely to be a household name for catfish bait and gear within the next 10 years (Mike, in his humility, actually estimates 15).
With eight different types of bait from original formula to blood, shad and chicken livers, Catfish Pro has one of the best, if not the best, baits on the market. Promising the bait “will stay on your hook when nothing else will,” there is no mess, no stink and it uses 100 percent natural and locally sourced ingredients. Within 30 seconds it begins to release a visible scent trail but dissolves slowly on your hook.
For every resealable bag, there are around 80 pieces of cube-shaped bait – an important point according to Mike as many baits are round or oval which increases their hydrodynamic properties. A cube, on the other hand, will have greater drag and resistance to ensure steady dissolving and scent release.
And when they say it never comes off, they mean it. It is an impressive sight to watch Mitch perform the live demo, swinging a baited hook around like a shepherd’s sling. In a flash, he slams the hook onto the table with a loud crack and the bait still remains.
The quality is astounding and quality is certainly one of the chief values of the small family operation. Mike, Mitch, Sharon, Mike’s mother, cousin Terry and Bill, a friend of the family, all come together to help in production and inspection which happens seven days a week.
Each piece of bait is handcrafted and inspected. If there are any defects or if the bait cube is not perfectly smooth, it won’t make the cut. Even the bait that Mike freely gives to churches, libraries, schools or other cause-oriented events will be the same quality that you find in Walmart.
Mike admits that the waste doesn’t make much business sense, but he considers the customer experience of opening a quality package and handling each piece of perfect bait far more important than his bottom line.
“Everybody always just wants to worry about their bottom line, their profits – I get that,” explains Mike. “But if you concentrate on taking care of the people and making it enjoyable for the people, you don’t have to worry about that because it all takes care of itself. If you just worry about the customer and take care of them – it’ll be there.”
It’s also worth noting that Mike and Mitch prioritize using local ingredients and partnering with other Arkansas companies, even bearing the greater cost to do so. If he can’t get it in Arkansas, then he goes regional – Oklahoma, Texas, or Mississippi, and if it nots regional, it’s certainly American. The only exception will be the rods and hooks which they will introduce later this year.
“I just believe that if you can take care of someone in Arkansas and do business with them,” Mike says, “then you’re just making the state greater and the people better.”
R&D IN THE KITCHEN
What followed that weekend of frustration on the Arkansas River and led them to this point is a tale worth hearing in person.
Mitch is an accomplished individual with a successful background in retail management. He has an enterprising spirit that has built up the company in unbelievable ways. His father, Mike, is humble, unassuming, and welcoming.
He grew up on the west side of Springdale when it was “all dirt roads and country” (Har-Ber High is now his next door neighbor) and Mike has plenty of experience to bolster his college education.
He served in the Army for 13 years (he was airborne) and was a recruiter in Oklahoma City with offices in the Murrah Building (he knew six people that lost their lives in the explosion). Then for 20 years, he and Sharon owned their own company, Art Prints, Inc., which was the largest distributor of art prints on Amazon. He knows his way around Picassos, Monets and Van Goghs. They sold Art Prints in 2014.
“I grew up fishing my whole life so I had a general idea of what catfish wanted to eat,” he said. “I just didn’t know how to put it all together. So I started researching on the internet and my wife being a cook helped a lot.”
In fact, Sharon used her extensive cooking knowledge to help develop a formula for solidification which was one of the primary obstacles they faced in the beginning.
They started with a kitchen mixer in their house and were so successful in those early stages of development that Mike and Mitch would quickly reach their daily limits.
He recalls a two week fishing trip they took together on the Arkansas River:
“We had all these people from the park and locals asking what kind of bait we were using,” Mike said. “Then they wanted to start buying it from us. And it just kind of snowballed from there.”
This experience helped Mike see the business potential of his bait and later that year, he incorporated as Catfish Pro, LLC.
When they began to explore using other ingredients such as shad, blood, and chicken livers they ran into more obstacles.
“We got it pretty close to what we were looking for but we just couldn’t finish it,” Mike said.
Many people encouraged him to go into retail but he personally wasn’t ready. He wanted to improve and perfect the formula.
“Because if you go to Walmart, buy a bag of our bait, go to the river and you fish and by some chance you don’t catch anything, then you’re going to thing I sold you a bag of crappy bait,” he says justifying his hesitation. “It took me a long time to convince myself that we were ready.”
“It’s personal,” Mitch says explaining his father’s motivation. “If he sells you something, he wants you to be 100 percent satisfied. It doesn’t matter if you fished in a hole that doesn’t have any fish at all, he thinks you should have caught something because you used our bait.”
Of course, Mike understands that many factors, not just bait, go into successful fishing.
In late 2014, a team at Tyson Foods, Inc. got wind of what Mike was trying to do and became highly interested in helping develop the product. This provided Mike with the opportunity of utilizing locally sourced ingredients and provided a larger company like Tyson Foods with the opportunity to help a local small business.
“Thanks to Tyson – Andy Dilatush and his crew – we were able to get over that hump to get our bait to exactly where we needed it to be,” Mike said. “Without them we wouldn’t be here. They taught us a lot about much that we didn’t understand so we could get a grasp on what we needed to do.”
Andy Dilatush has worked for Tyson for 29 years and currently serves as Senior Manager of Sales and Marketing. When Mike reached out, Andy connected him with members of Tyson’s R&D team to help them solve particular challenges in their formula. He also worked with his operations team to pack smaller manageable sizes so Mike could use their product.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for us to do small projects very well,” Andy says. “I believe it’s important to help small businesses because someday they may become big businesses. Tyson Foods began as a small feed company. We help all customers if the capability to help grow their business and ours is there.”
Andy says Mike and Mitch are hardworking entrepreneurs with a passion to make something happen. Like us, he sees their story as a great small-town America success story about good people doing whatever it takes to succeed.
Now that he had Tyson’s help, Mike felt comfortable enough moving forward to get his bait on the shelves. So once they obtained a Walmart vendor number, they began to work with Department Nine buyer Jim Enneking who communicated with them over the phone and via email. Enneking was succeeded by Kathryn Gaines as buyer and after setting up Retail Link they began to submit their reports to Gaines.
“I guess my report looked really good because she immediately responded and said let’s meet next week,” Mike recalled. “So I went up to the meeting and she asked, “How in the world did you get it into 174 stores on your own?’”
The answer was Mitch.
Remember that enterprising spirit?
Mitch serves as Vice President of Catfish Pro and for good reason. Many of his cherished boyhood memories revolve around fishing (he will boast that he knows every inch of Spring Creek).
In junior high, he oversaw the very first Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs campaign for his school as president of the fishing club. In adulthood, he opened the Harps Foods store on Butterfield Coach Road in Springdale in addition to the Fayetteville and Bentonville Sam’s Clubs. Afterwards, he served as a district manager for Sprint and then worked for Bed, Bath and Beyond.
With Catfish Pro he combined his love of retail with his passion for fishing.
In 18 months, Mitch put 60 thousand miles on his truck going store to store to pitch their bait to department managers. They went from 10 stores in 2016 to 174 stores in 2017 when Mitch took on his role full time.
“He would stay on the road, fill ‘em up, come back in for the weekend, we’d load his truck back up and he’d take back off again.” Mike says.
Mitch would print out a map of each state, mark the Walmarts and chart the most efficient route, pitching to 10 stores a day while aiming for six or seven to pick up the bait.
Mike says it was fun and Mitch also enjoyed it.
“I love retail,” he says. “I love dealing with the people, dealing with the merchandising and everything else. I still have stores that I stopped into four years ago where the department managers still call me up to this day.”
With an increase of 164 stores in a single year by their own efforts, it’s a small wonder that Kathryn Gaines was amazed.
Although they did not yet qualify for modular display Kathryn was able to help them set up shipping to the Walmart Distribution Center. She put them on a program for PDQ displays and within the first year they had bait in 300 stores which eventually grew to 834 stores.
They hit 872 stores in 2018 and this year they are in just over 1000 stores. They are running modular display tests this year and if performance is good, by next year Catfish Pro will be displayed nationwide.
“Walmart was kind enough to give us the opportunity to fail,” Mike said. “Which was all I asked for. If I get the chance and fail, that’s my fault. They were kind enough to give us that door, that opening, and then we used it to our advantage. Walmart has been very supportive from the beginning.”
Once they were established in retail and were moving forward, Andy at Tyson reached out to Mike.
“Andy said to me ‘Mike I know you’re not there yet but I can tell you that you’re gonna be there one of these days. You’ll want to go international.’”
So Andy facilitated an email introduction for Mike, introducing him to Boon Tan and the World Trade Center Arkansas in November 2016. This was the first time Mike heard about the World Trade Center.
“It was exciting to know that Andy had that much trust and belief in us that he could see what we could be in the future,” Mike said.
Mike filed that email away for three years. Then he contacted Boon in February 2019 when they got into ICAST, the “holy grail” of fishing trade shows, which takes place this July.
ICAST is the world’s largest sport fishing show, boasting more than 15 thousand attendees from 71 countries in 2018. Mike and Mitch have been planning to go since July of last year – even having a special booth constructed. It’s an exclusive, invitation-only event where the attendees are almost completely media or buyers. Mitch says each one has the power to buy on the spot.
“I can close the deal right there, all you have to do is stop and talk to me. Give me my chance to fail,” he says, echoing his father’s words.
“ICAST is a game changer, in my opinion,” Mike said. “So when we got into ICAST with all these different countries, I reached out to Boon to ask him for some expert advice on international business.”
The World Trade Center Arkansas specializes in helping small businesses just like Catfish Pro. In addition to export training, market research, consulting and advising, the trade directors have extensive experience supporting companies on trade missions and at trade shows.
“In addition to trade show and export support we are hoping to help with financial components,” Boon said. “We are looking for some funding to market their products and in addition to ICAST there are still many avenues to help them grow exports.”
In terms of funding to offset costs, the Small Business Administration’s State Trade Expansion Program (or STEP) Grant administered through the World Trade Center Arkansas will be a top priority. There are also more resources through the Southern United States Trade Association (SUSTA).
Mike and Mitch have meetings planned with Academy Sports and Outdoors at ICAST. They will introduce their original poles and hooks and are hoping to break into international markets (they’ve expressed interest in the U.K. and Japan).
They intend to make more contact with dealers and bigger brands like BassPro Shops. Finally, they will be running two special promotions adding a 20 percent bonus to bait orders and offering a future shipping date as determined by the buyer’s needs.
Despite the fun that comes with building an enterprise, what really brings Mike and Mitch joy is contributing to local communities. They partner with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission all over the state, setting up at events and handing out free bait. They even have a fishing simulator to expose kids to the fishing experience.
After working hard for two years, they just secured a partnership to donate bait to local libraries through the AGFC’s Tackle Loaner Program, which lets kids check out fishing poles. Now the kids will have free bait.
It’s a big win for Mike, whose enthusiasm for this particular initiative is contagious.
“I know it sounds silly,” he admits.
But it’s really not.
For Mike, it’s about the memories. In his eyes, the bait plays a small but indispensable role in creating a cherished experience.
“A good example – and I guarantee he’ll remember this,” he says pointing to his son Mitch. “I took him to Murphy Park –”
“Third grade,” interrupts Mitch with immediate recognition.
“Yeah,” says Mike. “I took him over there and –”
“I caught a five pound goldfish,” says Mitch with a big smile. Mike grins, too.
It’s a memory. A cherished one between father and son.
“Let’s say that your son comes up to you one weekend and says, ‘Dad I want to go fishing down at the pond and catch a catfish,’” Mike offers as explanation. “So you can go to Walmart and buy our bait. You can take our bait and throw it out there on a regular hook and catch a catfish. We make it simple where anyone can use our bait. And chances are good that the kid, when he grows up, will remember that weekend for a long time.”
With the new library program, Mike also envisions the same type of experience between childhood friends. In twenty years, someone may fondly remember the time “he and his buddy snuck out to get some poles and bait at the library.”
“In 20 years from now we’ll never know it – you’ll never know it. I’ll never know it,” he says emphatically. “But you know that possibility exists. By providing for them, you give them an opportunity to make a memory that will last lifetime.”
Within five years, Mike and Mitch want to be firmly established in the domestic market. Within 10 years they want to be established internationally and within 15 they want Catfish Pro to be a household name.
They have their work cut out for them at ICAST, but we at the World Trade Center Arkansas can see a bright future ahead of them and many tight lines for fishermen.
Getting to know hardworking, down-to-earth people like Mike and Mitch Baker brings us great joy in our mission to serve Arkansas companies like theirs. We are excited to attend ICAST with Catfish Pro, the next big step in their journey.
To contact Mike or Mitch and to learn more about Catfish Pro, visit www.catfishpro.com. To learn more about the World Trade Center Arkansas and how it serves Arkansas companies, please visit arwtc.org.
Written by Sam Cushman, Strategic Communications & Public Information