By David Scott The Charlotte Observer
MONROE, N.C. — When Jeff Konopka was growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., he loved working with his hands.
“I’ve always enjoyed taking stuff apart, seeing how it worked,” Konopka said. “Anything like that, I was totally into.”
That led to a career in woodworking and cabinet making in Buffalo. When Konopka wasn’t on the job, he pursued and perfected his hobby of making hand-crafted fishing baits.
And that brings Konopka to where he is these days. After the economy soured first in Buffalo and then in the Charlotte area — where he has lived since 1998 — Konopka transformed himself from a woodworker to a nationally prominent, highly in-demand maker of custom-fishing baits.
It was a career move that Konopka, 51, was able to seamlessly make.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Jeez, I’ve got to do this,’” Konopka said recently in his small workshop above his garage on the outskirts of Monroe. “But I plunged right in, and it just kind of naturally happened.”
And happening it is.
Konopka said he has filled orders on his Jak’s Custom Baits website (( www.jakscustombaits.com ) from 48 states (all except for Hawaii and Alaska), Canada and Australia. Working from what he calls the “Worm Studio,” he’s already made about 90,000 baits this year, as many as he made in all of 2011.
He said he produces as many as between 600 baits each day and his income is now greater than his days as a cabinetmaker.
Konopka’s soft plastic baits come in more than 400 colors, but he uses two basics — green pumpkin and watermelon. There are also several pungent scents from which to choose, including garlic, shad, anise (black licorice), coffee, squid and craw.
“There’s a million different combos,” Konopka said. “I can tweak them any way you want.”
Konopka was making a good living for himself as a cabinet maker in Buffalo in the 1990s. But when the construction industry began to slow in upstate New York, Konopka and his wife Cheryl decided in 1998 to move to the Charlotte area, where there were no such economic problems at the time.
They settled in Monroe, where Jeff continued his woodworking business. Life was good. The fish were also biting for Konopka in Union County spots like Cane Creek Park. He continued with his hobby of making his own bait.
“One day, one guy said, ‘Buddy, can you make me one?’ ” Konopka said. “Then a couple of my fishing buddies said it was really nice stuff and I should get my own website.”
By that time, the economy in the Charlotte area had also begun to sour. Konopka’s cabinet-making business slowed.
“One day people were asking me to build an entire kitchen for them, then it was, ‘OK, we just need a kitchen island,’ ” Konopka said. “Then I’d be lucky to get that much.”
Konopka found himself spending more time in the Worm Studio, melting plastic of all colors and scents and pouring it into molds that produce six baits at a time. And anglers were starting to buy what he was selling.
As his cabinet-making business decreased, Konopka found his custom baits were becoming more popular. So Konopka gradually made a life-transforming decision.
“I started thinking, if the cabinet-making company goes bust, I don’t want to be sitting here with nothing,” he said.
Konopka started Jak’s Custom Baits full time in 2009. But he was on his own and needed to find a way to market and sell his product.
The best way to accomplish that was on the Internet.
Konopka explored different ways to start his own website, but having it done by an outside party was costly (as high as $25,000). So he bought an explanatory book and built his own.
“But then nobody recognizes you on the web because there are millions and millions of bait websites out there already,” he said. “Even I couldn’t find myself.”
Konopka studied up on search-engine optimization.
By his second year in business he was on Google’s third page; his company is now listed on the first page.
But Konopka said his most effective advertising is by word of mouth, mostly on the fishing tournament circuits. Konopka estimated 95 percent of his business comes from tournament anglers, some of them professionals who are sponsored by bigger bait companies.
“Once any kind of pro gets connected with me, he spreads the word,” Konopka said. “I’m making custom baits that they can’t get at sporting goods stores. These guys want an edge that fish haven’t seen before.”
Said Mark Rose, a top pro on fishing’s FLW Tour: “If it’s something my sponsor doesn’t make and I need a custom color of any kind, Jak’s is a good place to go. He’s really knowledgeable about what we need.”
His proficiency with colors and scents, Konopka says, have set him apart from other online competitors. Swimbaits, which run $3.99 to $7.99, are among the most popular.
Konopka isn’t entirely out of the woodworking business.
He still is asked to build a cabinet every now and then. His attention remains on his bait business, as well as a family that includes children Justin, 18, and Jessica, 15.
Then there’s his wife Cheryl, who was in the banking business when they first moved from Buffalo. Now she’s a teacher at Rocky River Elementary School in Monroe.
“I’m not the only one in this family,” Jeff said, “who has made a change.”