It’s a proven fact fish are attracted to particular colours, so what do you do if you run a home-based venture turning out one-of-a-kind, hand-painted fishing lures, and it just so happens that you’re colour blind?
That was one of the challenges facing Mike Harris four years ago, when the longtime fishing enthusiast founded Element Custom Baits in a downstairs corner of the Transcona abode he shares with his wife Kelsey and, as of May 13, their newborn son Kiptyn.
"At school, I was always artistically inclined, but I tended to avoid using colour, because I was afraid I’d paint the sky green or the grass purple," says Harris, noting if he ever teed off with an orange ball during a round of golf, he would never be able to locate it, even if it was resting in the middle of the fairway.
“At school, I was always artistically inclined, but I tended to avoid using colour, because I was afraid I’d paint the sky green or the grass purple.” – Mike Harris
He’s not 100 per cent colour blind; he can make out certain reds and yellows, but he has definitely botched his fair share of paint jobs since starting his company, he continues, decked out in a grey, Element Custom Baits T-shirt and matching ball cap.
"Thankfully, I have my wife to set me straight. Lots of times I’ve shown her something I thought was a certain shade and she was like, ‘Uh, sorry, that’s pink, not blue.’ So yeah, definitely a big shout-out to her."
Harris, 36, distinctly recalls sitting in the back seat of his parents’ car at the age of four or five, and staring out the window every time they drove past a body of water — be it a lake, river or stream — all the while wondering what was moving around "down there." His parents weren’t the type to go fishing, mind you, so he had to wait until he was 18 and had a vehicle of his own to finally begin satisfying his Neptunian curiosity.
He started off ice fishing on the Red River, near Lockport — he didn’t own a boat back then, so that was the simplest way to get into the sport, he determined — and was hooked immediately, no pun intended. A civil engineering technologist by profession, he continued to fish every chance he got, a pattern that increased after he was introduced to Kelsey, an avid angler herself, nine years ago.
Here’s the thing: lures can be rather expensive, especially those meant to attract musky at Lake of the Woods, his preferred fishing hole by a country mile. Harris was shopping for lures in the spring of 2017, ones that would have set him back a fair bit, when he became convinced he could craft something similar for a fraction of the cost. He purchased a set of plastic lure bodies, also called blanks. Utilizing his artistic chops, he then painted each using a compressor and airbrush kit he bought at a local hardware store.
Not only were his creations a hit with Nemo & Co. — elated is the word he chooses to describe his feelings the first time he got a bite using a lure he designed — they also proved popular with his fellow piscators. After he began posting photos of his output on Facebook and Instagram, he was inundated with messages from people wondering how to get some for their own tackle boxes.
By the fall of 2018 he had registered his business name, Element Custom Baits (because people who drop a line are often braving the elements, he puts it) and began fielding orders from every corner of the continent, and as far away as Europe. Things were going along swimmingly until December of that year, when he woke up one night around 2 a.m. feeling exceedingly dizzy.
"It was so bad I could barely move my head without becoming nauseous, and remember thinking I must have caught a bug of some sort, and that I’d probably feel better in the morning," he says.
He didn’t. Nor was there any improvement the next day or the day after that. His wife escorted him to an emergency ward later that week, where he underwent a series of neurological tests. While the two of them were relieved when physicians ruled out a brain tumour, the dizziness continued unabated for three more months, right up until a referral appointment at Health Sciences Centre revealed he was suffering from vestibular neuritis, a virus that permanently damages the nerves in the inner ear. And in his case, both ears.
"Once those nerves are damaged, your brain has to relearn new ways of balancing and interpreting the space around you," says Harris, who underwent close to a year of physiotherapy, and still suffers from dizzy spells, at times extreme, on occasion.
“Once those nerves are damaged, your brain has to relearn new ways of balancing and interpreting the space around you.” – Mike Harris
Unable to return to his former job, which involved regular commutes by plane to remote communities throughout the province (air travel is a big no-no), he turned his attention to his hobby business instead, by heading to his basement studio whenever he was feeling strong enough, to paint lures. He no longer goes fishing as much as he’d like, but does so vicariously, he says with a chuckle, via pics people send him of specimens they’ve landed using an Element lure. Not too long ago, a fellow with the online handle Southern Bass Slayer posted a shot of a largemouth bass he caught in his home state of Alabama, thanks to one of Harris’s designs.
He’d love to get his handiwork into retail outlets that specialize in fishing apparatus, but the problem is, he never knows what his health will be like from week to week, sometimes day to day, and is holding off on getting too big too fast, so as not to get caught with orders he wouldn’t be able to fill.
His primary focus at the moment — besides his four-week-old son, who he hopes will enjoy fishing as much as his mom and dad do — is working hand in hand with a manufacturer to design his own lure blanks; he already has two sizes available.
"It’s super-versatile," he says of a lure he dubbed the Mugshot. "You can fish it vertically, you can cast and retrieve it, plus it works with multiple species."
That particular model sports "grumpy eyes and a grumpy little mouth." (Hey, you’d be grumpy, too, if underwater creatures were sinking their teeth into you, day in and day out.)
"I’m still doing each by hand, but my ultimate goal is to have them mass-produced in a factory somewhere, which would definitely save me a lot of time," he says.
Time he could use to go fishing?
"Oh, for sure," he says, mentioning the last time he was ice fishing, a trio of Americans knocked on the door of his shack he was in to ask whether he’d had a successful day, only to place a sizable order for his lures, impressed with what was dangling from his rod.
"Like I said, I’m not able to get out as much as I’d like but when I am, I definitely count my blessings. It’s the same with the business; it’s been an unexpected blessing that came from being sick, so now I’m just rolling with it, to see where it takes me down the line."
For more information, go to Element Custom Baits website.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.