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Tackle and fishing in Chicago and beyond: Mystery Tackle Box to Catch Co.

Ross Gordon builds a new style of fishing shopping experience, based out of the West Loop.

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Ross Gordon, founder of Mystery Tackle Box and later Catch Co., poses with a cut-out of the inspired character Karl VonDibble with Randolph Street in the background.
Dale Bowman

When Mystery Tackle Box started in 2012, I thought it was another dumb-ass marketing stunt in fishing.

But when I visited Catch Co. last month on West Randolph, I looked around the open office and thought, “This is my kind of work space.’’

The lunch room had a fish theme. Conference rooms had fish names. Some desks had enough fishing stuff to match mine.

Something different is going on.

Catch Co., now the umbrella of companies that includes Mystery Tackle Box, is not Bass Pro Shops.

Mystery Tackle Box (https://mysterytacklebox.com/) is a monthly lure subscription service: standard or pro version of bass, trout, walleye, seasonal ice-fishing, catfish, panfish, inshore saltwater and multispecies. Once a month, a box arrives with lures, stories and how-tos.

Ross Gordon grew up fishing around Minnetonka with his dad. When Gordon came to Chicago to a Jewish boarding school, he fell away from fishing.

A restart came in 2006.

“I started to go to Montrose for perch on Sunday mornings,’’ he said. “Every now and then, the bite would turn on. That reignited it.’’

He bought his first baitcaster rod and reel in 2009.

“I got into bass fishing and got obsessed and got into the weeds, so to speak,’’ Gordon said.

He was frustrated and intimidated by all the tackle in bass -fishing.

“I would go into Ed Shirley’s, now FishTech, [in Morton Grove] and buy a ton of junk,’’ Gordon said. “I started to have this idea.’’

He wanted to curate (his word) these products.

“I assumed somebody had the idea, but nobody was doing it,’’ he said.

He signed the letter in April 2012 to sell his tech startup. By May, the logo and website design for Mystery Tackle Box were set. It launched in July, and he started packing boxes out of his garage. About a dozen subscribers remain from the original 450.

What set that up was his Facebook page, “Bass Fishing Favorites,’’ started in 2010 as a hobby. It now has 158,000 likes.

Gordon had found a big hole in the fishing market. Most of bass fishing focuses on the 5 percent who fish tournaments. He was thinking about everybody else.

Mystery Tackle Box grew to more than 15,000 within three years and now has more than 100,000. Top markets are Texas, Florida and California, respectively. Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin skew higher than their populations.

“We relate to younger consumers online in ways that older companies just don’t,’’ Gordon said. “They use it as marketing. We use it to humanize our people. We are the most engaged in the industry. There is content for the younger [audience]. They gave us amazing feedback.’’

That helps with developing new products differently.

Their approach is different. Take Karl VonDibble, the other KVD, a takeoff on the real KVD, Kevin VanDam.

“[VonDibble] represents most regular anglers,” Gordon said. “We don’t take it too seriously. We use humor to build the brand and humanize it. We carved out this unique voice on social media. It removes a lot of intimidation.’’

Through the experiences on Mystery Tackle Box, the company connected with subscribers well enough to build a better e-commerce experience in Karl’s Bait & Tackle (https://shopkarls.com).

Eventually, that led to Catch Co., named for the pinnacle of fishing, the catch.

Resized/Sun-Times
Desk tops and lunch rooms look a little different at Catch Co. on Randolph Street.
Dale Bowman

It seems surprising to have a tackle company in the West Loop, but Gordon said the talent he wanted to attract did not want to commute out to Evanston.

“It’s downtown, the river is right there and there are guys who go down and fish the river,’’ Gordon said.

They are about to build a 1,000 square-foot testing lab in the basement.

They connect, truly, with a younger audience, including through YouTube and such things as the Googan Squad. There’s designer Mike Bucca of Bull Shad Swimbaits and Steve Parks of GameChanger Lures. There’s Chris Grout, the underground lure artist, who spent his last $26 on lure paint. In other words, he sounds right for Catch Co.

“We are very artistic,’’ Gordon said. “We have one of the best designers I have ever worked with.”

That’s chief designer Vince Lusardi, with whom Gordon worked before Mystery Tackle Box.

Gordon is not only eclectic in his work life, but in real life, too. He played basketball and was in the jazz band (club) at Yeshiva University.

“First, when you’re Jewish and 6-4, you’re put on the basketball floor,’’ he said.

As to music, his dad loved Jimi Hendrix. Gordon started playing guitar in high school and still does. He was diagnosed with ADD and said he always had about 10 hobbies going.

“I have done a little bit of everything,” he said. “As long as we continue to not conform to the industry, I have no doubt that we will continue to grow. What we are trying to do right now is create amazing products, content and shopping experience.”