By day, Paul Ashley is a mild-mannered pizza delivery man, trucking wholesale frozen pizzas to taverns and restaurants across the Northland.
By night, or weekends, or whenever he's not fishing or hunting, especially if it’s raining or windy outside, Ashley can be found alone in his bedroom working feverishly under his alias: Pauly Wally.
Ashley is the founder, owner and sole employee of Paul Wally Tackle Co., something he started a couple of decades ago out of his home in Superior, mostly on a lark. He’s now tying upward of 10,000 walleye fishing spinners a year, selling them at local tackle stores, bait shops and on his own website.
It all started about 25 years ago when some fishing friends noticed he had a knack for knots.
“A few of my steelheading buddies, some of the guys who were older and maybe couldn't see as good, asked me to tie yarn rigs for them. ... Then they started asking for spinner rigs for walleyes. Then more people asked,’’ Ashley said. “Eventually I started selling them rather than giving them away.”
Ashley, 69, started life in central Wisconsin but has lived in Superior since 1977. He first learned how to tie a true snell knot from an old steelheader on the Brule River.
“It cost me a 12-pack of beer to learn it, that's what he charged me,’’ Ashley said with a grin. “Now I’m passing it on to others. And I charge them a 12-pack, too … except now you can go on YouTube and learn for free, so not as many people ask me anymore.”
Ashley can complete about 30 simple one-hook spinner rigs in an hour “if I’m really pushing it,’’ he said. He can do maybe 15 two-hook harnesses and 10 three-hook rigs in the same time.
He usually works for an hour or two, after which he needs some distraction. He will do a dozen of a specific color or type and then switch.
“I’ve had orders for 100 of the same color, same pattern, and that gets a little boring,’’ Ashley said while seated at his work bench.
“With how much the materials cost, and how much time it takes to make them and get them out, it ends up being about a $10-an-hour job,’’ he said.
But Ashley seems to truly enjoy the work. In a spare bedroom in his Superior home filled with boxes and bins of lure makings, Ashley has a desk with the measurements for each rig marked in permanent ink. He moves fast, cutting pieces of bulk monofilament fishing line off a spool and then going into his massive assortment of spinner blades, beads, floats, hooks and other hardware. He offers one-, two- and three-hook versions, most made with 15-pound test line and 36-inch leaders. The assortment of colors is remarkable, and when he mixes colors of different hardware pieces, he ends up with more than 100 combinations. He’ll even do custom orders.
He gets a little help developing new color patterns.
“My wife is good at that design part with the color combinations,’’ Ashley said.
But he lets the anglers decide which ones he keeps making more of. You can tell which are the most popular by the empty or almost-empty display hooks at bait shops.
“The hammered brass and hammered nickels are always popular, especially on the St. Louis River here, the dark water. .... Chartreuse and oranges are popular, too,’’ he said.
Ashley’s personal favorite?
“I’d say glow pink… Hammered brass is good, too,’’ he said.
Ashely said some years see the popularity of unusual colors skyrocket. Last year it was black spinner blades. This year, propeller-style “smile’’ spinners are big.
Last year, when taverns and restaurants were shut down due to COVID, Ashley mostly lost his day job. So he hunkered down and started churning out more tackle than ever. He even started his own website, paulywallytackleco.com, where customers can order directly from his growing assortment of products that include ice-fishing jigs, quick-strike northern pike rigs and Lake Superior trolling spoons.
“I’m not pushing the website hard. I sell for the same prices the shops do, so I’m not trying to compete with anyone. But it’s a chance to reach some new people,’’ Ashley said, noting he’s shipped tackle to New York, Iowa and Michigan this summer.
“This has probably been my busiest year,’’ he noted.
He pays attention to little details, like using packaging with Green Bay Packers colors and wrapping each spinner rig in a tight circle, followed by three loops to keep it from unwinding, and inserting each one into a small Ziploc bag so the blade color points out to the customer.
For a full year now, Ashley has faced mounting COVID-related issues with his supply chain for hardware. Nearly half of a recent order placed to a tackle supply wholesaler ended up on backorder. Still, he’s managed to keep most of his customers happy.
Of the roughly 10,000 units he’ll sell this year, 2,500 will be at Superior’s Bait Box bait shop alone, the first store that carried his rigs and still his biggest customer.
“It’s one of our top sellers. It’s probably the best-selling (lure) we have,’’ said Cheryl Dinda at the Bait Box bait shop in Superior.
“He’s a local guy and that means a lot here,’’ Dinda added. “And they work. So people come back and buy more.”
Pauly Wally Tackle now is available at a dozen stores locally, including Marine General, Fisherman’s Corner, the Twig Store and Chalstroms in the Duluth area as well as Northwest Outlet in Superior, The Cabin Store in Barnes, AAA Sports in Spooner, the C-Store in Iron River and Solon Mercantile in Solon Springs.
Russ Francisco, owner of Marine General, said the Paully Wally spinners have been moving fast this season.
“Already had to reorder. Nice stuff,’’ Francisco noted.
Ashley often stops by bait shops while on his pizza delivery route, either to fill orders or get a new customer. So far, most of the bait shops he visits are biting.
“I’m not going out of my way to try to get them in stores,’’ he said. “But every place I show them to people, they end up putting them in their store.”