by Charles Upchurch
photographs by Geoff Wood
The airbrushed colors come at night. The green and orange of an autumn leaf. The silver-blue of darting fish. Soon, the airbrush is out again. Flawless transitions. Scale patterns in geometric perfection.
As a craftsman who has mastered the art of the fishing lure, Kelly Barefoot of Raleigh is a natural phenomenon, an organic product of the North Carolina Piedmont, where fishing with crankbaits – lures that mimic the swimming action of bite-size creatures that largemouth bass and other freshwater gamefish love to attack – is a serious business.
Since launching Custom Lures Unlimited in 2003, the former health services administrator has gone from lure repair man (restoring and re-painting lures in his spare time) to lure guru. His lures have won top industry awards, are used by world champion fishermen, and are sold all over the globe. In a consumer niche where most goods are mass-produced overseas, Kelly Barefoot’s are hand-painted. Word-of-mouth buzz, powered by critical praise in fishing magazines and the internet, has put CLU and its founder on the map.
“Kelly has that rare combination of talent and passion, which is rare in the tackle industry,” says Thomas, founder of CarolinaOutdoors.net. “He has extremely high standards for his lures, and it shows.”
Barefoot’s home studio, midway between Raleigh and Fuquay-Varina, is also home to his newest brainchild, a fledgling lifestyle brand simply tagged Catch. With it, he aims to sell fishing products and outdoor equipment like kayaks, camping gear, apparel and accessories.
“My dream for Catch is a small retail shop with a rustic cabin feel where folks can hang out and spend time,” said Barefoot. “And then, maybe a little mountain cabin of my own.”
It’s a dream within striking distance. When Bassmaster magazine, the bible of the sport, offered hosannas, the crankbait faithful were converted. The CLU collection, including the IKON M2 (named for Bassmaster World Champion Mike Iaconelli) and the groundbreaking Zero Gravity Jig (winner of the coveted Tackle Tour Innovation Award) are sold in sporting goods and outdoor retailers across the country, as well as at TackleWarehouse.com, the world’s largest online fishing tackle outlet.
Barefoot, 46, grew up in the furrowed farm country between Angier and Benson. His parents commuted to jobs in Raleigh – dad with Carolina Power & Light, mom as a teacher. With his older brother David he hunted and fished, often with their father and grandfather, related as much to the nearby ponds, reservoirs and winding tributaries of the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers as they were to each other.
His earliest fishing memory is of Pitchkettle Creek, a turbid backwater near New Bern where ocean-going hickory shad converge every spring during their annual run to inland spawning grounds. “I remember being in a little wooden boat with my grandfather, surrounded by cypress trees and Spanish moss,” he said. “I don’t recall catching any fish, but it was magic.”
In Cub Scouts, Barefoot made his first lure. His father opened an archery shop for hunters and let the boys paint crests on the arrows. Their mother took them to ceramics classes where they decorated pottery. Barefoot remembers the sketchbooks he filled – not with superheroes or spaceships, but with deer, birds and fish. As a teenager he would carve and paint wooden baits to fill his tackle box. While majoring in psychology at UNC Wilmington, he discovered fly fishing, and found himself stalking bluefish in the saltwater currents of Masonboro Inlet with flies he tied in his apartment.
But fishing remained a hobby. When Barefoot returned to the Triangle, it was to work with the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program, part of the Children’s Developmental Services Agency, diagnosing and coordinating services for special needs children. He married Heidi, a Knightdale native and Campbell University graduate who became a successful pharmacist. Their kids, a daughter, Macie, and son, Colby, are now 14 and 12. Barefoot continued to fish the waters he knew best, competing in amateur bass tournaments with lures of his own design. And winning.
“I had an old Bagley’s lure that I loved,” said Barefoot. “But they stopped making the ugly blue one I liked so much.” So he painted one. Sure enough, bass ate it up. He played with color combinations, drawn to the tones and textures in nature – a leaf, a sunny stream – that visited him so often in dreams that he started keeping a pen and paper at his bedside. Inspiration was everywhere. “Have you ever walked down the shampoo aisle at Walmart? The colors are awesome.”
In fishing, of course, a little luck never hurts. In 1997, Jeffrey Thomas, a professional angler from Broadway, N.C., asked Barefoot to repaint one of his lures. Barefoot did, and when Thomas netted consecutive nine-pound lunkers, Barefoot became that rare discovery that fisherman love to know about but would rather you didn’t. A wizard with an airbrush, he specialized in taking a favorite, time-worn lure and making it like new, but better. The word was out, and the orders flowed in. By 2003, Barefoot had christened his growing enterprise Custom Lures Unlimited. He built a web site and soon had a nationwide customer base.
Then, three years later, just as Barefoot was offered the biggest job of his 15-year health services career, he bailed. “I was sitting in a meeting and realized I was drawing little fish,” he said. “I didn’t want to be there.” He told Heidi he was quitting. Like the hickory shad, he pointed upstream.
He knew that restoring lures was not going to get him that cabin in the Blue Ridge. He had to create a brand. Experimenting with shape, pattern and color, he marketed original designs online while still doing repaints. Then came the call from Iaconelli, the 2003 world champion. The two had hit it off at a trade show, and Ike was looking to team up. The result was the IKON, which remains the premier wooden lure from CLU. Iaconelli fished with it on the pro tour. Barefoot’s star was rising. Tackle companies wanted to work with him. Touring pros jumped on board. Sales spiked. But the trophy moment was yet to come.
When Barefoot introduced the Zero Gravity Jig, it was the designer who surfaced as the icon. The lure was a masterpiece of metallurgy and biomimicry. The fishing media cheered, and it sold at a clip of more than 12,000 per month.
Customers started asking Barefoot to sign their lures. He met one who told him he had gone to Gander Mountain and bought every Kelly Barefoot lure they had. “How do you like ’em?” Barefoot asked. “Oh, I don’t fish with them,” came the answer. “I’m saving them for when you’re… you know.”
Catch Outdoors Supply Co. was created by Barefoot last year to expand his business into licensed products beyond lures. In his shop, rustic mountain cabins bid welcome from the covers of magazines. When he’s not painting or assembling lures, he’s coaching Colby’s baseball team or catching Macie in a dance recital. When the weather cools down and the bass get frisky, he’ll head to the Cape Fear River near Jordan Lake. Meanwhile, as nights grow longer, a pen and paper lie waiting.
More information: go to customluresunlimited.com