It's THE Big Show, For Both Big and Small

LAS VEGAS, Nev. Pure Fishing has floor space occupying the equivalent of two-thirds of a football field at this year's ICAST show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

A new two-man company called IronClads has a 10-foot by 10-foot booth.

For both, this annual sportfishing trade show represents their most important week of the year.

"Our approach has changed quite a bit," said Eric Naig, the senior marketing manager for Pure Fishing, which includes such well-known brands as Berkley, Stren and Abu Garcia, and this year has grown to include, among others, Shakespeare and Penn.

"We have a much bigger presence this year. A lot of it has to do with being a bigger company now.

"But as far as what we're doing, it's always the same. It's always about new products. It's about getting people excited about all the new products we have, which is a ton."

Ben Hobbins, on the other hand, has essentially one new product  a soft plastic lure that incorporates skin-graft technology so it doesn't tear up nearly as easily as traditional soft plastic lures.

"I caught 36 fish on one of these," said Hobbins, while holding a soft plastic grub. "The record so far has been over 200 on the same lure."

After attending ICAST strictly as an observer in 2006, then as someone with a prototype product not for sale last year, Hobbins is officially in the fishing lure business now.

"We just brought these to market six weeks ago," said Hobbins, a former biotech industry strategist, who came up with his idea after thinking about how painful it was going to be when constantly removing his gloves to put new soft plastic lures on his hook during Wisconsin's upcoming ice-fishing in 2005.

"This is the ultimate place for us to be, this and the Bassmaster Classic. These are the two big ones for us. They are really the showcases for North American fishing."

For over half a century now, ICAST has been THE place to be if you want to introduce a new product to the fishing world. That part has changed only in scope. From an initial gathering of a few dozen fishing equipment manufacturers at Chicago's Hotel Sherman in 1958, the International Convention of Allied Sport Fishing Trades, keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Even this year, in the midst of a U.S. economy that is setting records on the low end of the curve, ICAST has risen to new heights. Although official figures won't be available until next week, 2008 in all likelihood will shatter all the previous marks  for exhibitors (431, that is officially a record), show floor booths (1,350) and attendees (over 10,000 expected), according to American Sportfishing Association spokespersons. Over 350,000 square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center will, through Friday, be the focus of the fishing world.

For companies as vastly different in size as Pure Fishing and IronClads, the way you capture a share of that spotlight is as different as their number of products.

With the addition of its new companies, Pure Fishing has a total of 15,600 SKUs (stock-keeping units), the term tossed around the business world that represents a particular product. For instance, a green pumpkin-colored Berkley Power Worm requires one SKU, as does a watermelon seed-colored Berkley Power Worm.

IronClads has come to ICAST with a grand total of 70 SKUs  seven types of soft plastic lures, from worms to grubs, in 10 colors each.

IronClads has already won a prestigious new product award, being voted "Best in Show" at the 29th annual Chicagoland Outdoors Show in January. Hobbins expects he and his partner, vice president Steve Rice, will be back at ICAST next year with three-digit SKU offerings and a few more employees in their newly-formed company, which is based in Waunakee, Wis.

"We hope to add a couple of hundred SKUs a year," Hobbins said. "I think this product represents a revolution in fishing. We're just trying to get it into fishermen's hands."

Pure Fishing, on the other hand, has a whole other set of challenges. With the additional companies, it now represents nearly 20 percent of sales in a $5 billion annual retail business. It just announced it would relocate its headquarters from Spirit Lake, Iowa, to Columbia, S.C. It hopes to have its new headquarters up and operating by the first quarter of 2009.

New CEO Terry Carlson, who has been on the job for five months now (and had a chance to go fishing only three days during that time) addressed a media conference Wednesday on where these changes would take the company.

"It's still all about making fishing a more pleasurable experience," Carlson said.

And that's what all 431 exhibitors at this year's ICAST show  no matter what their size  think they have the ability to do, if they can just get enough attention for their new products this week in Las Vegas.