CALEDONIA, Minn. — When Eric Ingvalson was about 16, he was fishing walleye from the wall of the Dresbach Dam on the Mississippi River by drifting live willow cats for bait.

One day he wiped a bit of the catfish slime onto his pants.

A nearby angler noted that and said: “You know, if a guy could bottle that, he would be a millionaire.”

That stuck with Ingvalson, now 33, who has finally accomplished the first part — bottling that fish-catching scent.

The second part — becoming a millionaire — may take a bit longer.

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To make Liquid Willowcat, he combined his passion for fishing, his business selling live bait, the growing artificial-bait market and entrepreneurship then mixed in a bit of chemical wizardry. While he won’t divulge his secret, he said the main ingredient is real willow cats.

Ingvalson runs his business out of his home, expecting to make 15,000 plastic tails for jigs and other rigs by the time this summer ends. That doesn’t include his bottled scent. Some anglers combine live bait and Liquid Willowcat by injecting the scent into nightcrawlers.

He sells it online, as well as to about 25 bait shops in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Pennsylvania, where they are in demand for fishing smallmouth bass on the Susquehanna River.

Willlow cats, also known as tadpole madtoms, are a legendary walleye bait on the the Mississippi — if you can get them, said Bob Veglahn, owner of Tri-State Bait & Tackle in nearby La Crescent, one of the first places to carry Liquid Willowcat lures and scent.

They have prickly spines on their dorsal and pectoral fin that can deliver a nasty sting, he said. “It feels like a giant bee sting,” he said. “Some people, it really bothers; some don’t” get hurt.

Commercial dealers once trapped them on the Mississippi but with invasive species found in the river, that was banned, including for anglers in Minnesota waters. Dealers then had to go inland where supply is spotty. Frustration with the irregular supply was a reason Ingvalson began to develop the artificial product.

“Demand for willowcats is always high on the Mississippi River,” he said. “Although we have a consistent supply to meet demand May-August, I felt like there was something we could do as an effective alternative when willowcats were scarce.”

A business upswing

He is entering the artificial bait business on its upswing. Several decades ago, live bait, especially for walleye, dominated. The few plastics tended to be stiff. Over the years, plastics exploded with much livelier actions and flavors from anise to garlic.

Artificials are exploding “big time,” Veglahn said. “It’s more popular than ever. Plastics, they’ve come a long ways … Now, they look like real fish and have a million colors and scents.”

Ingvalson’s journey to adding to the supply of plastics and scents was rather long and tedious, he said. He grew up on a dairy farm, but that was not his passion.

“I worked to hunt and fish,” he said. “I wanted to be in the outdoors industry.”

He eventually left farming and concentrated on the outdoors, learning to be a gunsmith then selling live bait. Eventually he began to sell willow cats, a bait fish tend to either smash and inhale or swim away. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground, he said.

Two years ago, “I had a horrible year, I just couldn’t get willow cats (in central Minnesota).” That’s when he remembered that chance remark when fishing along the Dresbach Dam, near La Crosse, Wis. He began calling around to others who made scented plastics, eventually finding out enough that he worked out his own formula.

Ingvalson went to bait shops and began passing it around to fishing guides, those who fished tournaments, anyone who could give him feedback and, he hoped, words of praise.

Oddly, he said one of the drawbacks was the success of the bait — when anglers tried it and liked it, they kept success to themselves. So Ingvalson concentrated more on the guides and tournament anglers to spread the word.

“The walleye guys are my bread and butter,” he said.

He’s concentrating now on producing more and different kinds of plastic tails and he’s trying to figure out leech scent.

He’s not hit his million-dollar goal yet; in fact, he said “I wouldn’t call it making a living right yet.”

But, Ingvalson said, “I hope to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s fun being in the outdoors industry.”