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The Santa Claus of saltwater anglers

10/26/2008

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Mark Nichols of Stuart, Fla., is competing in the celebrity category of the ESPN Saltwater Series Mercury Redbone Lowcountry Red Trout Celebrity Classic this weekend.

Although you may not recognize the name, Nichols certainly appeared to be a celebrity at the takeoff for both days of competition in this event that targets redfish and sea trout. He was surrounded by other anglers from the time he arrived at the Seabreeze Marina launch spot until the time he left to go fishing.

Nichols had his cloth bag open, handing out "gifts" both days. When the weekend began, that bag was full of D.O.A. fishing lures, made by the company he created. Nichols' supply was rapidly dwindling when guide Champ Smith approached him Sunday morning.

"I don't even know what you call it," said Smith, of the particular lure he was seeking. "But I'll tell you, it works good."

Nichols, 57, just laughed and acknowledged that he was a fisherman's version of Santa Claus while in Charleston this weekend.

The previous afternoon, Ron Silverman was also praising Nichols' products after Silverman had posted 1,600 points of redfish and sea trout catches. It was the top individual score and, paired with his son, Steven, the Silvermans had the top Day One team score of 2,650 points.

Twelve of the Silvermans' 27 fish came in the artificial lure/spinning tackle category, all caught on D.O.A. Shrimp fished under a popping cork.

"I have to tell you the truth," Ron Silverman said. "Under most conditions, I think the D.O.A. Shrimp works better than a live shrimp."

That's high praise in an event where 143 of Day One's 246 total fish caught came on bait — usually live shrimp, but also blue crabs and cut mullet.

Nichols has the appearance of a veteran saltwater angler, but he's a relative newcomer to the lure-making business.

"I wasn't really a business selling lures to the real world until about 1993," Nichols said. "That's when I started really getting up the numbers where I could pay myself."

Nichols grew up in the Galveston, Texas, area, where his father owned a shrimp boat. It was while working on that boat that Nichols learned how shrimp behave in the water.

"People think they go backwards (like a crawfish) all the time," Nichols said. "They rarely go backwards. They mostly use the 19 sets of legs under them as paddler fins.

"They can go like a helicopter — forwards, backwards — but primarily they just cruise. They climb along the bottom and eat stuff."

At 6 a.m. Sunday, Nichols was sitting at a table in the Mt. Pleasant Courtyard Marriott Hotel, rigging a few D.O.A. Shrimp for the day. Part of the uniqueness of this soft plastic lure is its versatility. Because Nichols planned to cast the lure "on the bank" Sunday, trying to catch redfish feeding in thick aquatic grass and shallow water, Nichols was rigging the lure backwards: Instead of the shrimp's head being near the hook eye, the tail would be there.

And in the lure's hole at the point of its head, where normally the hook eye would be, Nichols inserted a plastic rattle containing small metal beads. This backwards set-up allows Nichols to cast the lure long distances and pull it through the weeds without hanging up.

"I just need to get a lure to a fish that's buried in that thick grass," Nichols explained. "If I can stick 'em, I can land 'em. A lot of times that thick grass serves as extra drag, as long as you don't try to horse them too much. It wears them out, just coming through that grass."

Nichols began making fishing lures for himself after "stealing my sister's Creepy Crawler stuff" when they were kids. You have to be of a certain age to remember Mattel's "Creepy Crawler Thingmaker," which was first marketed in 1964 to produce soft plastic "creepy stuff," like fangs, fingernails, claws and even shrunken heads. It would never make it to market today because of the dangers of a child heating soft plastic molds. But it gave Nichols a start in the lure-making process.

Nichols, a fine cabinet-maker and wood-worker by trade, gradually worked his way up to the injection molding process and producing lures for sale to the public.

Mainly through word of mouth, D.O.A. lures has turned into a business that does about $2 million a year, according to Nichols. The lures are made in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Nobody has got a shrimp like mine," Nichols said. "(Other companies) have knocked it off like crazy. They're making them in China. None of them do what mine do.

"None of them have a hook you can remove and rig backwards. None of them can you slide a worm rattle in.

"I pride myself in having a flexible bait. You can fish it under a float. I can vary the weights in it."

Nichols has used that basic concept of uniqueness and versatility to design a whole line of saltwater soft plastic lures, hooks, jig heads and other accessories. He plans to venture into the freshwater market soon.

All you had to do was look at the constant crowd of anglers around him at Charleston to know that Nichols is headed in the right direction with his D.O.A. lure business. When "Santa" leaves here and heads back to Florida, those anglers will have to go to their local sporting goods stores and drop some cash if they want anymore D.O.A. baits.