CLASSIC'S BAIT HOOKS CUSTOMERS

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CLERMONT, FLA. — Deep inside the Classic Fishing Products Inc. injection molding plant there's something that might be called an unusual quality-assurance department.

It's staffed by a 2-pound, 16-inch black bass in a large tank, used for testing new lures.

If the PVC worms don't make the grade, they are shipped to Asia to be foamed and inserted as pads in the innards of tennis shoes. The company's lines of brightly colored artificial lures also include injection molded lizards, crawdads and frogs.

Classic is part of privately owned Cind-Al Manufacturing Inc. Classic has about 60 employees in a 33,000-square-foot facility in Clermont, not far from Orlando, Fla. The company designs and makes aluminum molds for itself and others, blends its plastic and molds, packages and markets its products.

Louie Gibbs, Classic president, said the sport-fishing industry had a slow sales year in 1996 but business began picking up in the fourth quarter. The weather affects sales of fishing gear.

One item expected to boost Classic sales in the months ahead is the recently introduced Burst Worm. That product led to some unusual mold design, mold making and processing in order to create a worm that features a pocket for a feeding-stimulant.

The stimulant gel, developed by the University of Florida, has a flavor that is supposed to drive fish bananas.

Soft-plastic worms with blended-in scent-enhancement are common. What makes the Burst Worm unusual is that it is filled manually with the gel, which gushes out of the lure when grabbed by a fish, Gibbs said.

The Burst Worm is insert molded, pulled off the mold one at a time, and inspected by hand. About 20 Burst Worms are molded at a time in each 16-inch, two-pound horizontal mold.

Classic has 18 home-built, mostly horizontal injection molding machines with a simple design that makes possible a half-day rebuild, Gibbs said. It took two days or so to rebuild the large machines the company used early in its history.

Gibbs said his operation is in a neglected corner of the plastics industry.

``In the plastics industry, soft plastic isn't big business as far as the companies we get our materials from, like BFGoodrich and Monsanto, are concerned ... It's hard for us to get any kind of help on any problem we have.

``No chemist or anyone else knows a whole lot about what we do,'' he said.

Classic's list of colors is staggering. You can, for example, get your worms in electric blue, smoke blue flake, salt and pepper and even speckled. Fresh-water lures are sold under the Culprit name and carry such monikers as Double Trouble, Ring-a-Ding, Wienee Worm and the Captivators. Salt-water lures that look like shrimp, minnows and grubs carry the Rip Tide label.

Classic was founded in 1979 by inventor Rodney Dann in a garage. His plastic worm had one flat side that gave it movement in the water for attracting fish. Dann won many fishing contests with it, Gibbs said.

Classic employees, including Dann, didn't quit their day jobs in spite of those angling successes. It wasn't until the firm landed a contract with Kmart Corp. that Classic became a full-time job. Dann died in a fishing accident in 1983. At that time, the company had six machines. Gibbs joined the company in 1980.

Some Culprit lures are ``guaranteed to produce fish when all other lures fail.'' Riptide brand items are harder plastic. ``In salt water you've got the toothy critters and they'll tear it up pretty good,'' Gibbs said.

Classic's been luring buyers other than retailers and fisherfolk. For example, there is revenue of about $500,000 a year from a customer in Japan.

``They give us the design and we make the mold, blend the plastic and inject it. They tell us how they want to package it and we ship it to them,'' Gibbs said.