ON STURGEON LAKE - Ron Riegger opened a clear plastic tackle tray, pulled out one of dozens of soft plastic lures from inside and handed it to me. Suddenly, my enthusiasm for a morning of fishing sank just a bit.

Riegger suggested I try one of his home-made lures. It was mostly deep red, with a little white plastic where the color didn't inject quite right, about 3 inches long.

It had rings around it - Riegger calls it a ringworm - but with an unusual straight tail. No twister tail, no paddle tail, just a nub.

Uffda, I thought to myself, what the heck was this?

A crappie Ron Riegger caught on Sturgeon Lake. John Myers / News Tribune
A crappie Ron Riegger caught on Sturgeon Lake. John Myers / News Tribune
What it was was a fish catching machine. Over the next four hours, Riegger and I used red plastic ringworms he made in his shop in Moose Lake to catch dozens of largemouth bass, small northern pike (to the point of annoyance, we couldn't keep them off our lures) some nice crappies and even two keeper-sized walleyes. All fish were released.

The worm was threaded onto a unique leadhead jig which Riegger also poured in his shop and then powder-coat painted with a bright chrome finish. (Tip: Riegger's factories made tens of thousands of painted jig heads in dozens of colors for big name take companies, but his favorite color is chrome.)

On a sunny but breezy May morning we had pretty steady action from 8 a.m. to noon, fishing weed beds in this sandy-bottom, clear-water, milfoil-infested lake in northern Pine County. All with tackle designed and made by Riegger.

Apparently he can also read minds.

"I'll bet when you first saw that worm you didn't think too much of it, did you?'' Riegger said between casts after about three hours of catching fish. "It doesn't look like anything in nature. It doesn't look like much... But, for whatever reason, it's been a fish-catching devil for me."

That's pretty much Riegger's story. The fishing tackle he designs in his head and transfers to reality tend to work well. And sell well.

Ron Riegger of Moose Lake admires a crappie he caught. Riegger designs and makes fishing lures. John Myers / News Tribune
Ron Riegger of Moose Lake admires a crappie he caught. Riegger designs and makes fishing lures. John Myers / News Tribune
"I tell people I'm in the cosmetics business. If it doesn't look good it won't sell,'' he noted. And if it doesn't sell, it doesn't matter how good the lure is at catching fish.

It's not so much that Riegger develops revolutionary new tackle. But he has a knack of taking tackle that already works and making it better, or tackle that's close to good and making it great.

Riegger loves solving problems, whether it's how to make lure colors brighter and more durable or figuring out where largemouth bass are hanging out in the lake.

"I've had people bring me a napkin from Perkins and showed me a design they sketched and asked me to make it for them," Riegger said. And he did.

Riegger loves to get into a school of keeper crappies for fish fry fodder and has a soft spot for big bass for fun. On our morning of fishing he was focusing on a pronounced weedline, specifically the inside weed line toward shore.

"By far, on this lake, there's more fish on the inside, the shallow side, than the outside,'' Riegger said as he tossed back yet another bass.

As we moved between spots Riegger explained how he's now working on a better design for a weedless jighead (made for soft plastic worms) for a major tackle company that he can't name.

"I'm not an inventor, really, I'm more of a make it better-er,'' he said as he jumped from behind the wheel of his Stratos bass boat to take his usual fishing position on the casting deck up front. "But I'm definitely an entrepreneur."

Subcontractor to the stars

Chances are you've never heard of Riegger or even his former company, R3 Baits, Inc. But chances are you have fished with, and probably are using, lures that his company manufactured as a subcontractor for the biggest names in fishing tackle - Rapala, Blue Fox, Arkie Lures, Berkley, Pradco, Mr. Twister, Mepps, Bait Rigs Tackle, Northern King and more.

"Ron Weber and I were pretty good friends,'' Riegger said of the Duluth native and Rapala lure entrepreneur. "He liked what we could do for them."

Riegger, 76, has since sold his manufacturing companies. But he can't sit still for long, so he's now working as a consultant under the name R3 Solutions, fixing problems for more big-name tackle makers.

In his shop out back of his Moose Lake home, Riegger has two drag racing cars (that's a whole other story, more problem solving) as well as piles of fishing tackle supplies along with a 3D printer, a UV printer, a soft plastic injection system, lead pouring equipment and other assorted machines.

"I'll wake up thinking of something and run out to the shop at 3 in the morning to see if I can get it to work,'' Riegger said. "I get into things and then I overdo it heavily, that's my pattern."

A selection of lures Ron Riegger designed using stick-on decals. John Myers / News Tribune
A selection of lures Ron Riegger designed using stick-on decals. John Myers / News Tribune
His first stop is usually his computer where he can create elaborate designs with some high-power software. Then his 3D printer can pump out a positive, a plastic version of what he wants to make, and then he can create negative - a mold - to make it.

"This (3D printing) has made this process so much easier and cheaper. It's really cut down on the time, and the cost, of getting something from an idea" to a tangible product, he said.

Riegger has machines that can make lure decals look just like a real fish and which stick hard to whatever lure they are pasted on. He uses a powder-coating finish machine for other lures. Still other lures are detailed with a UV printer. Some have the color and design below the plastic surface, essentially inside the lure.

From Mound to Moose Lake

Riegger grew up near Lake Minnetonka in Mound, Minn., but moved away after high school to join the U.S. Navy. There he dabbled in various assignments and ended up working on nuclear weapons systems for submarines. An avid fisherman while in the service, Riegger became a competitive bass angler in the 1970s, the nascent days of tournament fishing.

"I was based in South Carolina which was a great place to fish bass,'' said Riegger, pointing to two giant, stuffed largemouth bass on his shop wall - one 9 pounds, the other 10 pounds.

Riegger started making his own lures in 1980. A year later he was selling to friends. That's when a buyer for Shopko stores saw them and ordered Riegger's lures to sell in stores across the region. That stroke of luck ended up luring Riegger, by then retiring from the Navy, into the wholesale fishing tackle business for decades to come.

Riegger and his wife, Pat, moved to Moose Lake in 1984 (her parents had retired there) where he built his factory in 1987, eventually employing 42 people. Because of the low margins in the fishing tackle business Riegger eventually off-shored production to plants he owned in Mexico and Haiti. The big fishing tackle companies simply wouldn't pay higher prices for U.S.-made goods. He has since consulted for fishing tackle manufacturing plants in South Africa and the Philippines, still solving problems for other luremakers.

Now, when he's not in his shop tinkering, he spends more time fishing on area lakes and at his cabin on Eagle Lake near Cromwell. But even that has a backstory.

Riegger was looking for a cabin spot somewhere within 30 miles of Moose Lake, so he took out a compass and drew a circle. He tried fishing every lake in that circle and he had about the worst luck on Eagle Lake.

"I couldn't get anything to happen on that lake. I felt like a failure. It was kicking my butt,'' Riegger said. While that would discourage many prospective cabin buyers, it just made Riegger more determined to solve the lake's puzzle.

Eventually, he did figure it out and bought a place there.

"I've been all over the world thanks to fishing,'' Riegger said between casts. "But it's good to be back home and fishing."