Over seventy years have passed since Nick Creme created the first plastic worm from vinyl plastic, oils and pigments. Creme’s ingenuity set in motion a burgeoning softbait industry. And yet, curiously, all these years later— even while materials to fashion fishing lines have evolved exponentially—softbait manufacturers today still employ the same polyvinylchloride (PVC) based plastics.
Meanwhile, right around the new millennium, creative minds at an upstart South Carolina fishing tackle company began formulating a radical new softbait recipe with intriguing possibilities. The day the calendar flipped to 05/05/05— following several starts, stops and reboots— the first batch of the new “super plastics” virtually crawled out of their aluminum molds.
After several years of research and development, the folks at Z-Man Fishing—at the time the world’s largest provider of silicone lure skirts—had achieved something implausible, sensational. “From early on, we were motivated by the idea of creating a bait from an environmentally gentle substance that outperformed traditional PVC baits on many levels,” recalls Jolee Myers, Operations Manager at Z-Man Fishing who oversees the company’s bait-making labs near Charleston, South Carolina.
“Among several advantages, we especially liked the fact the material floated without having to add plastic beads or ‘microballoons.’ That was a huge discovery because it meant we could create a much more realistic bait, with tails, claws and fins that would ascend and hover in a natural, lifelike posture.”
Although the foundational material was already in use in certain consumer products, Myers and others at Z-Man quickly realized that the commercially available compounds weren’t quite right for fishing baits.
“We were in uncharted waters; there was no playbook for creating baits from a state-of-the-art material we eventually named ElaZtech,” says Myers. “We worked diligently for years before developing the right machines and processing to finally launch an original series of beautiful, high-performance baits.
“The great part about working with such an unusual material, though, is that it allows us to constantly innovate new formulas and ways to improve on the fishability of the baits. By maintaining our USA based operations, we can control and perfect every aspect of bait making, from changing their durometer (softness) and buoyancy to adding attractants or fine-tuning colors to the exact specifications of anglers.”
Following the model of their successful OEM lure-skirt business, the Z-Man brand initially worked behind the scenes, manufacturing its earliest ElaZtech baits for Strike King Lure Company. Beginning in 2008, Z-Man began packaging ElaZtech baits with its own logo and promoting under the Z-Man brand in earnest. Baits such as the TroutTrick and DieZel MinnowZ became worldwide best sellers on the saltwater scene. Z-Man also revolutionized the finesse and Ned Rig bass arena with baits like the Finesse TRD, ZinkerZ and Finesse ShadZ.
Achieving such success at retail, however, wasn’t an overnight sensation. “Initially, retailers voiced concerns that our baits lasted too long to count on repeat sales,” notes Z-Man president Daniel Nussbaum. “But as we launched a persistent positive educational campaign, ElaZtech sales have just kept growing, with our baits consistently landing on retail best-seller lists. The past few years, we’ve heard time and again from national chains and our independent dealers that Z-Man is the fastest moving softbait line in their stores,” he adds. “The coolest thing is that so many folks are just discovering the advantages of ElaZtech for the first time.”
PVC, Phthalates and the Environment
In effect, 05/05/05 marked a new era for softbaits—a wholly original category of lively, durable and environmentally safe super plastics. “ElaZtech is a very different material from PVC plastisol,” notes Myers. “While PVC baits use a plasticized form of PVC resin with softening agents containing toxic chemicals known as phthalates, ElaZtech uses non-toxic, non-reactive resins. About eighteen years ago, PVC plastisols used in baby bottles, toys and other products were pulled from the market because the FDA realized the products’ phthalates were leaching out and making people sick.
“In part because it looked like PVC might be on its way out, we sought alternative bait materials from day one,” notes Myers, “In essence, ElaZtech is a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) made from a non-toxic, food-grade and pharmaceutical-grade resin. Familiar product applications include cosmetics, baby bottles and medical and healthcare items.”
Myers admits that while ElaZtech offers manifold environmental and angling advantages, producing baits from the material is expensive because it requires longer cycle times and specialized machinery. “Thankfully, we’re able to avoid passing those costs to consumers because we control the entire manufacturing process locally,” notes Myers. “We’re still the only US based company to produce TPE baits in house rather than overseas.”
Equally important to anglers, notes Myers, ElaZtech offers manifold fishing benefits over PVC-based baits. “Anglers tell us ElaZtech is the perfect bait material because it’s so soft to the touch yet unbelievably durable at the same time. An ElaZtech bait will stretch up to twelve times its length without ripping. In many cases, anglers have caught well over a hundred fish on a single Z-Man bait. (The record currently stands at 255 fish caught on a single Z-Man TRD TicklerZ™.) It’s really wonderful stuff, like, we sometimes wonder if it came here from another planet,” Myers laughs.
Adds Drew Reese, an exceptional angler and bait designer who finished 7th at the very first Bassmaster Classic: “When Ned Kehde showed me some early ElaZtech baits, I immediately realized this material would be revolutionary,” said Reese. “These baits exhibit the underwater angle all lure companies have been trying to achieve since the early 1900s: to make a bait that doesn’t lie flat on bottom, but that rises up on its own and moves like something truly alive.”
“Doesn’t matter if you’re fishing a dropshot, Texas or a Ned rig,” says Reese. “ElaZtech baits excel in every situation because they self-activate and move by themselves. Compare that to a PVC bait that falls over and lies lifeless on the bottom, and you quickly understand the allure of super plastics.”
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