By Todd Ceisner
A couple years ago, Will Stewart came back to the United States with a decision to make.
Option 1 was remaining with the company he’d been with in a hands-on position for several years in the Asian maket, but transitioning to a desk job once back in the States. Option 2 was taking a flier with a far less established company that offered him the opportunity to build a brand from almost the ground up.
While some would’ve taken the safe road and relative comfort of the former, Stewart chose the latter and so began his tenure at Doomsday Tackle Co., where he is now the president and chief operating officer.
While it was certainly a leap of faith, going from an established global corporation like Pure Fishing to a start-up like Doomsday, it’s given Stewart the chance to feed his passion for bait design while also helping chart the course for a company he hopes is here to stay for many years.
“It was the product design and to do whatever my imagination desires,” he said when asked to explain the attraction to Doomsday. “It was either having free reign or taking a step back, be restricted and basically start over at the bottom of the totem pole.
“The attraction to Doomsday was instead of working a desk or business job, I can do what I want to do, which is design Japanese-style baits at U.S. price points. The Korean market perfected that for me because Koreans will only buy Japanese quality, but they won’t pay Japanese prices.”
More than two years have passed and things are looking up for Doomsday, which features “Gasmask Guy” as its logo and plays off the end of days theme that many associate with the apocalypse. Stewart’s military background has also helped shape the company’s branding.
Doomsday, based in Danville, Va., is one of several tackle companies to pop up in the past few years that has started small, but is gradually growing. In some ways this segment of the tackle industry mimics the growth of the craft beer industry, where local and regional brands see their reputation and following grow with broader exposure.
“What spurred the craft movement is bigger brands have lost touch with their communities and it gives opportunities to little boutique companies to grab a foothold and hopefully succeed,” Stewart said.
Path to Doomsday
Stewart, who grew up in the Ozarks and got hooked on fishing as a kid, was stationed in South Korea while in the Air Force between 2000-05. He remained in Korea and began competing in bass tournaments there – Korea has a strong bass fishing market that is surpassed only by the U.S. and Japan – and eventually landed Berkley (a Pure Fishing brand) as a sponsor for three years. He later went to work for Pure Fishing due in part to his bilingual abilities.
“I started designing baits for them in 2012,” he said.
Stewart rose to the position of Berkley’s brand business coordinator for all of Asia and he designed soft plastic baits (16 shapes in all) for the markets in Korea, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia.
Toward the end of 2014, Stewart and his wife – they have three sons – decided to move back to the U.S., which meant he’d have to leave his post with Pure Fishing, unsure of what the company had planned for him in Spirit Lake, Iowa. At the same time, a family friend had been involved in the founding of Doomsday, but the company’s only shape then was a soft-plastic turtle.
They approached Stewart about joining the company and expressed a desire to go the infomercial route to market and sell the turtle. Stewart balked at the idea and ultimately the turtle went one way while Stewart and the Doomsday brand went the other.
“I took the name and tried to build a brand,” he said.
He was able to roll up his sleeves and get to work on plotting the course for the company, part of which he admits has been challenging.
“I always had a dream of starting my own tackle company, but I didn’t have the money and I didn’t think I had the skills in business to do it,” said Stewart, who is listed on the company brochure as also holding the official title of Vice President of Innovation along with the less-official title of MultiTasking Ninja.
Doomsday currently offers nine shapes in its soft plastics line.
“Doomsday gave me that chance. On the product side, I have that nailed down – I can do it all day long and in my sleep. I can churn out bait designs on the hour. That’s the easy part,” he added. “The business side of it was tough. I had a lot of relationships in Korea, but I didn’t have any here in the U.S. I didn’t know anybody outside the guys at Spirit Lake.
“It was tough at first, but it’s a small industry and if you go to a couple of the (shows) and start seeing the same faces over and over again and once you start to meet some people, you can build those relationships.”
It’s common for Stewart to put in 18-hour days now between office work, design work, communicating with wholesalers in the U.S. and factory reps overseas along with driving engagement with the Legion of Doom, as the company refers to its online followers.
Much of Stewart’s influence on the design side is rooted in the time he spent in Asia and he is trying to incorporate practices at Doomsday that are commonplace in Korea and Japan. For example, each package of Doomsday soft plastics is trayed to prevent kinking and to maintain the product’s consistency.
“In the U.S., there are two different types of products – there’s cheap quality at a cheap price and there’s good quality at a high price,” he said. “People don’t flirt with that middle segment too much. That’s what I’m trying to do – give them the same quality as Megabass or Evergreen or OSP – but do it at an American price. I don’t think it’s fair that people spend $12 or $13 for a bag of soft plastics when they can get the same quality for $6.”
Doomsday introduced a line of rods at ICAST this summer and another suite of rods designed with Elite Series angler David Mullins’ influence is in the hopper, as are hard baits and fishing line, a nod to Stewart drawing on his relationships overseas. The first series of rods, called The 47, features vintage styling with top-end components like Fuji ACS reel seats, alconite guides and a Toray blank.
“This is a $230 rod every day and we sell it for $139,” Stewart said. “People in the industry are angry at me because they say I’m giving them away because nobody else can afford to do that. I have the contacts and I know where to produce these to be able to afford to sell them at that price.”
On The Rise
Doomsday currently has nine shapes in its plastics line, counting the new products that were introduced at ICAST last month. Stewart says his favorite bait of the ones he’s put out so far is the Laggin’ Dragon 5.4, which is due to start shipping to retailers in a matter of weeks.
“It’s a mix of a Senko, a fluke and a Slug-o,” he said. “From an action standpoint, it’s a fun bait to fish with a lot of options.”
According to information provided to Stewart by wholesale giant Pitman Creek, Doomsday is the fastest-growing soft plastics bait company in the industry. When Stewart hears that, he says it’s both scary and exciting, but he relishes the challenge of continuing the growth trend.
“Being 36 and running a fishing tackle company, it always comes down to, ‘Are the orders going to get here on time’ and ‘Are we going to have the money to keep up,’” he said. “So far, at the last second, we’ve made it work every time. It’s been a struggle, but it’s fun to see it grow and see people take notice.”
Between ICAST 2016 and ICAST 2017, Doomsday’s fan base on Facebook swelled from roughly 3,000 to just over 30,000, an organic, tenfold jump Stewart attributes to the brand’s uniqueness and some clever marketing.
“I think it’s the brand itself,” he said “The name, the logo we came up with. … it’s who we’re focused on, but it happened organically that it’s the 18- to 34-year-olds. There are a lot of (doomsday) preppers out there. They feel an allegiance to the brands. The military theme helps. The product plays a part, too, with unique shapes that look sharp.
“The main goal is to give people more than what they pay for, so those things combined with the name and logo, it’s easy to garner interest. We’re not looking to get stinky rich in this. Even though it is a business, we want to give people the best quality at the best price.”
> Here's Elite Series angler David Mullins explaining how the new Doomsday Tackle Co. C-Shad will be a go-to bait for him in east Tennessee this fall and winter.