Westcoast Fishing Tackle is reeling in avid fishers with a fresh approach

When the pandemic left him out of work, Jeff Leung waded into the sport fishing industry and caught a lunker.

Credit: Adam Blasberg

When the pandemic left him out of work, Jeff Leung waded into the sport fishing industry and caught a lunker

At the beginning of March 2020, Jeff Leung was running a thriving bus and shuttle company with $5 million in annual revenue. A month later, with lockdowns in place, he had laid off all of Vanwest Charters‘ staff and parked all its vehicles. “We went from big and busy to nothing overnight,” says Leung, president of Vanwest. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.” A serial entrepreneur—Vanwest was his ninth business—Leung went looking for inspiration and ended up down a YouTube rabbit hole. “All the ‘what to do with your life’ videos said to turn your passion, your hobby, into your business,” he says. “I love to fish.”

Three years later, Leung’s Westcoast Fishing Tackle is hooking avid fishers and gobbling up retail shelf space across British Columbia. Leung credits a lot of the company’s growth to timing, but his success also offers lessons for any small fish finding themselves swimming in a big pond. “It’s hard to break into the fishing tackle market, to win the trust of anglers,” says Finn Goodlife, a salesperson at Campbell River fishing and hunting shop River Sportsman. “But customers love Westcoast Fishing.”

Early on in the pandemic, Leung knew he wanted to start a fishing business of some kind, but it was through binging Gotham Garage, a show about a California car shop that does custom paint jobs, that he found his niche. He was going to make custom fishing lures. The only problem: he didn’t know how. So, back to YouTube. “This is the first time in history that we have the ability to learn any skill we want without having to go to school,” says Leung. In his garage/factory/office/warehouse, Leung watched DIY videos on how to make the lures, how to paint them, how to set up a Shopify store and how to use social media for marketing.

“It was exciting for me to figure it all out for myself,” he says. At the same time, he noticed that, like in a lot of stores, the shelves at his local fishing shops were bare. “COVID encouraged British Columbians to go fishing,” says Owen Bird, the executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C. The number of freshwater fishing licences the provincial government sold in 2020 increased by 6 percent over 2019, according to the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. That’s despite a 93-percent decrease in sales of U.S. and international angling licences. On the salt water side—which is managed by the federal government—licence sales declined slightly in 2020, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. But in 2021, the most current year available, the agency sold a record number. And all those anglers were buying fishing gear right when the shops were running short of inventory.

A handful of companies dominate the fishing tackle market, and approximately 95 percent of manufacturing is done in Asia. By the summer of 2020, those overseas factories were struggling to restart while ships sat at anchor, unable to find containers to move goods to North America. Fishing tackle shops sold out. “There was a need for locally made and locally sourced product,” Leung says. From lures, he diversified into making bait for prawn fishing as well as fishing weights and rods. Armed with catalogues, he started walking into stores, big and small. “Every single one welcomed me,” Leung says. “I had the head of a Canadian Tire tell me, ‘Bring in whatever you want.'”

The supply chain issues created an opening, notes Don Mah, the Langley store manager for Steveston Marine. “When it’s the only thing on the shelf, customers have no choice but to buy it,” he says. “When they catch fish with it, they come back. Customers now come in looking for Westcoast Fishing Tackle.” It helps that the lures are higher quality—Leung upgraded to stainless steel bodies and hooks rather than use the usual tin or brass. The lures cost twice as much as the competition’s but Leung stands by the quality of his product.

Mah’s clients back Leung up. “I have customers coming into the store telling me they’ve caught 15 fish on the same Westcoast Fishing Tackle lure and it still looks mint,” he says. As Leung’s reputation grew, he realized his original goal: collaborating with some of B.C.’s best known fishing guides and stores on custom lures. Leung credits a good portion of his success to that collaboration.

“Retailers are a wealth of information,” he says. “I was humble and sincere—they took me under their wing and I just listened. ‘This is what we like. This is what customers like. This is what you can do better.'” Their feedback convinced him that just dropping off inventory is not a business strategy that leads to success anymore. “You need to work together with retailers to build brand awareness and drive customers to their store,” he says.

That cooperation added up to fast growth. From about $100,000 in sales in 2020, the business grew to more than $700,000 in 2022. Leung hired his first, and still only, employee to help with sales in 2021. WCFT is now in every Canadian Tire on the B.C. coast and most of the specialty retail shops, too. Cabela’s, one of the largest angling retail stores in North America, is dedicating more than 20 percent of the lure walls in its Abbotsford and Nanaimo stores to Leung’s products. “They bought everything,” Leung says.

To keep up with demand, in 2022 he moved most of the manufacturing to China, though he’s keeping his Vancouver garage workshop for research and development and custom lure projects. Even with Vanwest Charters back on the road, WCFT will remain his focus. Like any good angler, Leung knows that reeling a fish into the boat is all about maintaining contact. Selling fishing gear is no different.