By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: BassFan will suspend feature publication during the holidays as it does each year, although important breaking news will still be reported. The staff wishes everyone a joyous and safe holiday. We'll resume feature publication on Monday, Jan. 6.)
Luke Clausen was spooked by the space-age restrooms. Chris Zaldain remembers the sun virtually staying put during his 12-hour flight across the Pacific. Edwin Evers was struck by how clean everything was.
By all accounts, the recent trip to Megabass' Japanese headquarters for the company's U.S. pro staff was memorable and successful on many fronts. It had been 10 years since Aaron Martens, who trails only Randy Blaukat in tenure on the Megabass team, had been overseas. The other three pros – Clausen, Zaldain and Evers – had never been.
It was a rich cultural experience and gave them all an opportunity to see the inner workings of Megabass on its home turf. The pros did new product testing at Lake Biwa – imagine Evers and Martens casting shoulder to shoulder from the same front deck. They also toured the company's main headquarters in Hamamatsu, visited the new Megabass showroom in Osaka, traded stories and design ideas with company CEO Yuki Ito and tried to soak up all the sights and sounds in less than a week's time.
"It was the experience of a lifetime," Zaldain said. "Being new on the team this year, being able to connect with Luke, Aaron and Edwin in a different setting was neat. It wasn't at ICAST or the Classic. It just put us all in a different setting and we got to know each other a lot better that way."
Clausen, Zaldain and Megabass USA vice president Yuskei Murayama flew into Tokyo a couple days ahead of Martens' and Evers' arrival and were able to take in some of the city's tourist attractions.
"I couldn't believe how fast life is there," Zaldain said. "I've never been to New York, but I can only imagine it's very similar. People are like ants. There are just so many people there. It was a major culture shock. Just the sheer number of people blew me away."
Clausen said it was interesting to see how a completely different culture operates, even if he jokingly complained that he needed a college degree to operate the toilets in Japan.
"It was definitely equal parts, 'This is where Megabass comes from' and 'Holy cow, it's a completely different country,'" Murayama said. "It was quite a cultural experience for them."
As Megabass continues to make strides to increase brand awareness among U.S. anglers, the pros got an up close look at how well-known Megabass is across the Pacific.
"Megabass in Japan is a different beast than Megabass in the States," Murayama said. "Japan is obviously Megabass' home territory and its share of the hard bait market is very large in Japan. We're still the largest manufacturer as far as hard baits are concerned and they're in virtually every tackle shop in Japan."
Check out the photo gallery below for additional pictures of the trip.
While at the factory, the pros were able to interact with the people who build the rods and paint the baits. They even got a look at the master sample sets and inventory on hand, which is much greater than what's kept at the Megabass USA facility in California.
"Those guys are tackle junkies, so when you put them in a room with a bunch of tackle, it's literally who do you have to drag out of the room this time," Murayama said. "Usually, it's Aaron, but everybody took their time."
They were also given sneak peaks at some of Ito's latest creations, new prototypes he's been working on that no one else knew about.
"That was pretty cool to see some of the stuff that's coming down the pipeline," Murayama added.
Next Level Support
Another objective of the trip was to open up that pipeline a bit more as part of a new initiative Megabass is calling its Support To Win (STW) program.
Murayama remembers standing in the bowels of the BOK Center in Tulsa last February talking with Evers after Evers had bowed out of contention at the Bassmaster Classic. Evers, a newcomer to the Megabass team at the time, was apologetic for his performance, which fell well short of his expectations. The conversation struck a chord with Murayama, who attended the event along with Megabass COO Ken Ito.
"He'd had a rough start to the Classic and he's such a competitor and you can tell that it just eats him alive," Murayama said. "It was just a moment where you feel the palpable responsibility that a sponsor has to their anglers. Too often, we focus on how do you promote or how do you fish and get good results or what's your social media presence? That's what the consumers see. The flip side of the coin is really here is someone whose success we're investing in not only monetarily, but also personally.
"A guy like Edwin or Aaron, they're people we really believe in. They're two of the top anglers in the world and they deserve to win more than perhaps they have in the past. They know they have a lot more in them and we know it, too. Same with Luke and Chris. We feel like we have a responsibility as a manufacturer to make sure we're developing products that allow them to fully realize their potential."
Through STW, Megabass will work closely with each pro on developing specific products for each to use at specific tournaments – baits and rods built just for them or certain conditions. These won't be signature series items, per se, because it's unlikely these products will ever be available to consumers unless it's something that consistently outperforms a product already in the Megabass portfolio. It's just another way the company feels it can learn from – and most importantly, help – its pro staff.
Zaldain said the fishing was tough at Lake Biwa, but he did manage to catch a few bass.
"Some of the stuff is really cool, stuff I didn't know was possible to do with baits," Clausen said. "It's stuff I can't even talk about. It's amazing what some manufacturers are willing to do if they want to."
Murayama said STW is Megabass' attempt to take the traditional prototype and product development process a step beyond just building products for consumer use. He cited how NASCAR and Formula One teams try to engineer everything to put a driver in the best position to succeed or to build a car that is suited for a specific type of track.
"There's a greater degree of customization and event-specific support," Murayama added. "One of our competitive advantages beyond the processes and technology is that we still do small-batch production, so our ability to adapt and develop limited and custom products is perhaps greater than a lot of other companies out there.
"The goal of this project is to leverage that unique capacity that we have and marry it with our designers' and Yuki's expertise and with our pro staff and say, 'Hey, what do you need for this specific tournament?' We've always made custom colors for them, but do they need a OneTen that has a more aggressive rise or goes deeper or a crankbait that does X, Y and Z?
"They’ll come to us and say, 'Here are some ideal products and here are some crazy things that we've thought of that maybe will only work one day in one tournament, but we want to try it out.' … It's like a kid in a candy store – whatever you want, we'll try to build it."
Prime Testing Ground
A good portion of the trip to Japan was devoted to discussing and testing the early-run prototypes. Zaldain said during the test sessions at Lake Biwa, a rod designer was taking notes on what he and the other pros liked or disliked, or changes they suggested.
"There were guys with clipboards and it was nice to be able to talk to the designer one on one and tell them what changes needed to be made, whether it was 'bring this guide down' or 'lighten the tip' or 'shorten the butt section,'" Zaldain said, adding that out of the dozen or so rods they brought out for testing, only two passed the "Aaron/Luke/Chris" test.
"It just goes to show they're not afraid to go back to the drawing board and come out with something better. It's great to know they're behind us like that."
While the fishing was tougher than expected at Biwa – water temps were in the 50s and the fishing pressure was intense, even on weekdays – it was time well spent.
"When we saw how much pressure there was compounded with the time of year, we were a little handicapped," Clausen said. "Also, we went out with guides and weren't allowed to use the trolling motor so we were just making casts at a big grass flat.
"I think if a guy had some more time and his own boat, he might be able to go back out and figure something out. Not very often is it easy to catch them there. The fish are fairly well-educated."
Zaldain said he expects to have one-of-a-kind rods built only for him in time for the Bassmaster Classic. Similarly, it's anticipated that Martens, Evers and Clausen will have products engineered to their specs as well.
"What else can you ask for," Evers said ."Any bait that I want built, they have the capability to build it. It's super cool."
Murayama said it's all about collaborating with the pros rather than creating an atmosphere in which they feel like they work for the company.
"If you look at the (Angler of the Year) chase, it's separated by points and those are separated by one or two fish when you boil it down," he said. "Our goal is really to figure out how we can support our pro staff better and how can we deliver truly superior products for their sole use. We can prototype ideas that aren't constrained by market feasibility. It's soley that our guys want to catch more fish. This might be a way to do it and we're going to see how it performs at the highest level.
"We're trying to take product support a step further than anyone else has that I'm aware of in the industry. It's certainly a step further than anything that we've done in the past.
"The devil's always in the details and that's always where we spend the most time. Our jerkbait and someone else's offering may appear similar at first glance, but it's the last 5 percent, 2 percent or 1 percent of design, those defining details, that truly separate products and companies. Those little details have always been our strength."
One Of A Kind Place
In September, Megabass opened a showroom in an upscale section of Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, as a way to give anglers or just curious passers-by an opportunity to touch and feel literally everything the company makes.
From trout rods to sunglasses, it's all on display at the neatly-appointed, 800-square-foot location. It's not a retail endeavor, but a way for Megabass to extend its reach into the Japanese fishing marketplace, where it's already a powerhouse.
The company's entire hardbait collection (freshwater and saltwater) is showcased on a 25-foot long by 8-foot high wall. The opposite wall features literally every rod Megabass makes, an assortment of more than 100 different models, ranging from the popular bass product lines to lesser-known fly rods. Reels are displayed in glass enclosures. Soft plastics, clothing and other accessories are also available for hands-on inspection.
Think of it as bass fishing's Apple store without the retail element.
"It was a really neat place," Evers said. "I felt like I was walking into a real high-end jewelry store."
Megabass CEO Yuki Ito is flanked by Martens (left) and Clausen while at the Megabass showroom in Osaka.
Even the neighborhood seems to fit with Megabass' reputation as being on the cutting edge of design and innovation. Muryama said there are Lamborghini, Ferrari, McLaren and Bentley dealerships all within a two-block radius of the gallery.
"It's a place where consumers can directly interact with our brand," he said. "We have longtime Megabass staff that rotate through there to get that direct consumer experience just because there may not be that interaction at different levels. We rotate different departments through there so it's not always sales guys. We'll have product development guys in there or production staff so there's a benefit to us because we're not making baits for stores. We're making them for anglers.
"The more contact you can have with an angler, the more unexpected good that can come from it."
During the trip, the gallery served as the backdrop for R&D brainstorm sessions with Ito, media gatherings and meet-and-greet events with fans.
In addition to seeing some items he wasn't aware of, Clausen said it was a treat being able to interact with Ito directly.
"There were some (color) patterns that I'd never seen before," he said. "It was really neat to be there with Yuki and talk about the baits and rods and how they evolved. To find out the story behind everything was really neat to hear."
Zaldain said he was struck by the high-end designer vibe of the showroom.
"My first impression was it reminded me of their displays at ICAST," he said. "The lighting is perfect, everything's just right. When you walk in, the first thing that strikes you is the dark, dramatic lighting and the dark walls and floors. The products really stick out that way."
He said he was immediately drawn to the rod wall.
"Of course, I had to pick up every single one of them," he said. "The attention to detail from their products to their showroom from all the people involved is just amazing."
Murayama said he was unaware of another tackle company featuring its products in such a way, either in Japan or the U.S., but he thinks it'll serve as a valuable brand-awareness tool in Osaka, which is about a 3-hour bullet train ride from Hamamatsu.
There are currently no plans to open a similar location in the U.S., although earlier this year, The Hook Up Tackle store in Peoria, Ariz., opened a Megabass shop within its store and that presently serves as the largest retail display of Megabass products in the U.S.
"We'd really love to, but we'd need a much bigger space," Murayama said. "That would be something we'd probably build into the warehouse as opposed to a completely separate location."
> Muryama said Megabass will have a booth at the Bassmaster Classic Outdoor Expo, marking the company's first U.S. consumer show. "We'll have as much product as we can stuff into that space for people to come and check out," he said. "That'll be a neat experience. It'll be a good way to get more eyeballs on our products."
> Randy Blaukat, a Megabass pro staffer since 1992 and veteran of five trips to Japan, opted to stay home this time.