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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

Peter Johnson Leaves a Proud Legacy

Peter Johnson, owner of the Roberts Lure Company died Thursday, April 2 after a long health battle. Peter was a fine gentleman and enthusiastic fisherman. It was always a pleasure to run into him on the beach or in the grocery store and catch up on all the latest fishing news, or hear him describe his latest ideas — of which he had plenty. The following column was published in The Martha's Vineyard Times on July 13, 2000. Peter Johnson leaves a legacy of generosity and fish-catching lures.

Vineyard Plugs are Hot Item in the Republic of Kiribati

The classic Roberts Ranger.
The classic Roberts Ranger.

It is a long cast to the Republic of Kiribati. But long casts have always been one of the qualities associated with the venerable Roberts Ranger, developed more than 25 years ago on Nantucket.

It is one of the reasons that two years ago Peter Johnson decided to buy Roberts lures, now the only Vineyard-based fishing lure company. That decision had more to do with a lifelong love of fishing than an effort to become wealthy in the lure business.

Peter, a former Naval carrier fighter pilot, is the vice president of Tekla Research, a defense engineering consulting company based near Washington, D.C., that supplies specialized engineering and technical support to federal defense agencies. Despite his busy schedule he still finds time to plan production schedules and arrange to fill growing tackle shop orders.

The fishing lure business is nothing new. As a high school student, and later while attending Dartmouth College, Peter worked summers for Stan Gibbs, maker of the famed Gibbs’ line of wooden fishing plugs. The nearby Cape Cod Canal provided a convenient testing ground and a source of college tuition from the sale of striped bass.

He says the three and a half-ounce popping plug designed to imitate the then-plentiful whiting was a popular model. It was made of yellow birch with just the right combination of buoyancy and lead. The yellow darter, still as effective today as it was then, was a close second in popularity.

He says, “I learned the lure business and loved fishing for striped bass.”

He adds, “Here I am a couple of decades later surf fishing and in the lure business.”

Peter says a few years ago he heard that the Roberts Company was for sale and met with its owner, Bob Simon, who decided that he would rather entrust the Roberts name to him than another fishing lure company. For his part, Peter saw the potential in a fairly priced, high quality product that addressed a niche area.

That niche turned out to be pretty big. In fact, Peter says his biggest customer is a retailer in the resort port of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. Oh yes, and then there is the Republic of Kiribati.

The Roberts Ranger, a teardrop-shaped piece of weighted plastic, has long been a staple of surfcasters on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket when they needed to reach bluefish off the beach. It casts like a bullet and is virtually impervious to the chomping teeth of attacking bluefish.

Bob Simon got the idea for the Ranger’s shape while looking at the pontoons of an airplane overhead. He whittled out a couple of pontoon-shaped lures, began experimenting with weight, and developed the Ranger.

As it turns out, the Ranger is the only plug Kiribati fishermen have found that will reach and hook the 50-pound-plus giant trevally found in the waters that surround the small Pacific republic, made up of 33 islands in 3 groups scattered over more than 5 million square kilometers of the Central Pacific Ocean.

“They can’t get enough,” says Peter, of a country where the postage to send a cubic foot box of one approximately eight dozen Rangers by UPS costs $324.

In Cabo San Lucas and Costa Rica, the location of another good customer, fishermen use Roberts plugs to catch big rooster fish and jack crevalle.

“It’s not through marketing or advertising,” says Peter. “What happens is people who fish here go on vacations around the world.”

As just one example of how orders come in unsolicited, he says he received a call out of the blue from a hardware store in Phoenix, Ariz., for 144 lures. When he called, the owner said he had tracked Peter down after finding out that fishermen from the East wintering in Arizona were using the Roberts as a “secret weapon” to catch stripers in Arizona’s Lake Havasau.

Peter says the 4 ounce Big Shot Ranger in Chartreuse is the big seller in Kiribati. Cabo fishermen like the chrome model, while the number one seller on the Vineyard is the white ranger with the red stripe.

Roberts plugs are made in a series of steps that includes injection molding and painting. The Ranger is molded around stainless steel wire and lead weight using a high quality durable plastic.

Peter says, “You will never break a Roberts lure by banging it against the rocks, and you will never pull the hook.”

Assembly, packaging, and shipping takes place on the Vineyard on a subcontracting basis. When Peter took over, the company was producing approximately 10,000 lures a year. That number is now around 35,000.

How does he account for the success? Marketing — people taking them with them on vacation — and luck — plenty of bluefish around — says Peter.

Despite a busy work and travel schedule, Peter manages to get to his home in Vineyard Haven every 10 days or so and go fishing. His truck is a virtual tackle box on wheels.

Aside from great fishing, the Vineyard provides Peter with plenty of opportunities for research and experimentation as he continues to develop variations on standard Roberts plugs and develop new ones.

The walls of his basement contain photograph after photograph of well-known Vineyard fishermen and the fish they have caught with a Roberts. There is a photo of the affable Paul Schultz, with last year’s shore bluefish derby winner, caught on a yellow Ranger. And Lance Dimock with a 54-pound striper caught at Wasque on a red and white Ranger.

He says, “I turned an avocation into a vocation on the side. I’m not sure it will ever be a vocation because I enjoy it so much”

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