INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Renosky continues to live the dream
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Steve Neal.
Now this is a true story.
It’s the story of a teenage boy who found his life’s calling after a chance encounter with a stranger. It’s the story of a middle-aged man who gambled on himself, turned a hobby into a million-dollar business and gained world-wide acclaim. And it’s the story of an aging man reflecting on his life, having crashed back to the earth after nearly losing it all.
Most of all, it’s the true story of a man who has never been complacent, never stopped planning, never stopped adapting and never stopped wondering why God blessed him in so many ways.
It’s also a fishing story.
But unlike most fishing stories you’ve heard before — of the ones that got away — this is a fishing story in which every word is true.
The story of how Joe Renosky went from a poor kid raised in a single-parent household to becoming one of the world’s best designers of fishing lures might sound unbelievable, but it’s absolutely true.
It’s the American dream.
It’s a Thursday afternoon in springtime, the sky is gray, a gentle rain is falling and Joe Renosky can hardly contain his excitement. Not for the dreary weather, mind you, but for what’s happening at the end of his line.
“Look at that!” he exclaims gleefully. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
Renosky, the 70-year old Indiana County native and entrepreneur, is standing along the stream at the Yellow Creek Trout Club, the 388-acre fishing and hunting holy land he owns in Brush Valley Township. He makes one cast after another with a yellow lure fixed to the end of his line, and with each flick of his wrist, Renosky’s level of excitement grows. Fifty-six years after he made his first fishing lure, Renosky believes he has made his best one.
“You ain’t never seen nothing like it,” Renosky says, his triple-negative showing the positivity he feels about his newest product, which will be on the market later this year.
Sure enough, the Crippled Shiner looks lifelike as it darts left and right about four inches below the top of the water.
“When you see it in the water and you see what it does, you understand, don’t you?” he asks.
This, at its essence, is what Joe Renosky is about. He’s a mad scientist of sorts, having spent the better part of the past six decades in his laboratory, imagining up some of the world’s most popular fishing lures. He’s a relentless idea man, making one attempt after another to get the balance just perfect, the colors vibrant enough and the design real enough to fool any fish.
“He’s an extremely hard worker,” says Jeff Knapp, outdoors writer for The Indiana Gazette and a local fishing expedition leader who has known Renosky for decades. “He really sweats the bullets over how well his baits work. He has a tremendous amount of excitement about what he does, and he’s really competitive about it.”
Competitive might not be the best word. Renosky doesn’t just want to win every fishing contest he enters, be it on Lake Ontario with a hundred other anglers or at the trout club against one of his buddies. And he doesn’t want to create lures that fishermen will love — he wants them to need the lures. He knows what he’s good at and he doesn’t shy away from telling you about it.
“Let me tell you something,” Renosky says. “There are other people who are better fishermen than me in this county, OK? But they don’t create the stuff they fish with.”
Renosky will be honored for his career as a competitive fisherman and lure maker next Sunday when he is inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. For a guy who has more trophies and plaques than wall space to display them all, this is an honor that actually means a lot. As the first true outdoorsman picked for induction in the hall of fame’s three decades of existence, it means he’s finally been accepted — more than 50 years after he sold his first fishing lure, more than 30 years after his craftsmanship made him a celebrity in the small world of big-time lure makers.
Renosky has spent his life believing he has to hustle and outwork everyone. That’s why he’s proud of what he’s accomplished, and why he’s thrilled about joining some of his mates from Indiana High’s Class of 1961 in the hall of fame, guys like Jim Nance, Rod Ruddock and Barry McKnight.
“You’ve got to realize that I started this from scratch,” Renosky says. “I didn’t have any money when I started out. It’s been tough, but you’ve got to understand that this is all because of fishing.”
Fishing has been a part of Joe Renosky’s life almost as long as the right arm he uses to cast his rod. Renosky’s father, Frank Sr., was an outdoorsman, and he passed along the love of fishing and hunting on to his sons, Joe and Frank Jr., in the early 1950s, about the same time the Renosky family was falling apart.
During a shift underground in the mines, Frank Sr. watched helplessly as his best friend was crushed to death by a coal cart. It was something that had a lasting effect on the Renosky family, as Frank Sr. just couldn’t shake it off and eventually suffered a breakdown that caused him to be hospitalized and his marriage to crumble. Soon after, Marg Renosky and her two boys set out on their own, making a home in a small apartment at 554 Philadelphia Street, just the three of them.
Single-parent families were rare in those days, but Marg made the best of it. She was on government assistance, and she earned a few extra dollars by picking up odd jobs when she could. Once the boys went off to school, she became the first meter maid in downtown Indiana and later moved on to a job at the FMC plant in Homer City.
Young Joe Renosky, meanwhile, found solace near freshwater streams and lakes. He learned early in life the soothing powers of the cast and the catch. It felt natural; like it was his destiny, and there’s proof of this, in the annals of his hometown’s newspaper. At the top of The Indiana Evening Gazette’s sports page on Aug. 6, 1954, there is a photo of two young boys, the taller one holding a trophy fish, a glint in his eye of a job well done.
“THE HAPPY YEARS —” the caption started off, “Joseph Renosky (10) and his kid brother Francis (6) had a successful fishing trip Wednesday near the VFW Lake. Joe, holding his 20-inch, 4½-pound carp, is more than willing to share the laurels with bright-eyed Francis. Only the carp has reason to be unhappy.”
“I just love that photo,” Joe Renosky says, pointing to the clipping that’s now framed and hanging on his wall. “Just love it.”
It was the first time Renosky’s success with a rod and reel was chronicled in the newspaper. But it would not be the last. Anyone who saw it that day, though, would have no idea that one black-and-white photo could be the start of something grand.
One morning four years later, while fishing along Yellow Creek, a teenage Joe Renosky watched as a man reeled in one trout after another from across the water. Renosky’s curiosity was piqued, so he struck up the conversation that would change his life forever. Renosky approached the man and asked his secret. The fisherman, who Renosky realized was a U.S. soldier, showed him the lure he was using. It looked like a Mepps Spinner, but a homemade version.
“You can do this yourself,” the soldier said, and then he told Renosky of how to make the lure. He told him there was a store in Ebensburg that sold the parts, and the entrepreneurial boy went home and begged Marg to take him there. She relented and bought $50 worth of parts. That night, Joe Renosky built his first lure.
Marg took the lures to work at FMC and sold them to her fishermen co-workers, three for a dollar. Just like that, Joe Renosky was a businessman.
“Lord only knows where I’d be if I hadn’t met that guy,” Renosky says. “He changed my life.”
In the years to come, Renosky would pay back his mother for her initial $50 investment.
“I bought her many houses,” he says with a proud smile.
The thing you have to understand about Joe Renosky’s success is that it wasn’t a plan: He didn’t set the goal of donning the crown as the King of Lures. He wanted to be really good at it, but he honestly just thought he could make a few extra bucks on the side.
In the first decade after graduating from high school, Renosky took a job with PennDOT, got married to Irene (Waskovich), settled down in Homer City and started a family. A daughter, Sherry, came along in 1967, followed by a son, Steven, in 1973. All the while, Renosky continued to make lures in his basement after work and on weekends. His family, including his in-laws, pitched in, and his fishing buddies stopped by to help hand-paint the lures.
In the early 1980s, Renosky struck up a deal with the old Penn Traffic Stores to sell his wares, and then he got his lures on the shelves of a growing department store from the South called Walmart. He soon found himself with more orders than he had time to fill.
Renosky had a good job at Penn-DOT, and he could have retired with a decent pension if he stayed a few more years. But facing down his 40th birthday, he took a long look at things.
The basement business was brisk enough that he still could support a family if he started selling lures full time. But it hardly seemed like the responsible thing to do.
So he talked to people. One of them was a fishing buddy, Bob Letso, who at the time was a teacher at Blairsville High School.
“I used to help him paint the lures,” Letso recalled, “and I remember we talked one night in his basement and he didn’t know whether to leave (PennDOT) or not. He was torn. But I told him, ‘If you don’t try it now, down the road, you’re gonna say that you should’ve tried it.”
So in 1983, 39-year old Joe Renosky gave up his job with the state and went all-in on the fishing lure business. It wasn’t the first — or the last — time that someone thought he was a crazy man.
“People said he was nuts,” says Steve Renosky, now 41 and the president of the Yellow Creek Trout Club. “I was 10; he was 39 and he retired. But you know what? He became incredibly successful.”
Renosky Lures was born at a time when there weren’t that many makers of jigs, spinners, spoons and the like. But the company was ahead of the others when Renosky figured out a way to print photo graphics on his lures, which enabled him to produce durable items that didn’t need hand-painted and could be made quickly. Later, he developed the best glow-in-the-dark lures that gave fishermen the ability to reach depths that other baits couldn’t.
“Gone are the days when you had the bobber and night crawler and the big sinker,” Letso says. “Joe is innovative. He’s always working on new things out there to try out. He’s so innovative.”
Renosky built a 27,000-square foot plant in White Township and spent Monday through Friday there making lures. Orders rushed in, and did the money.
Soon, Renosky was a staple of the fishing infomercial, where he pitched his lures in four-minute TV segments. He created some of the top-selling lures in the world for trout, bass, walleye, salmon or just about any freshwater fish you’d want to haul in. His face and name were in sporting goods sections and equipment catalogs across the country.
In one infomercial, he whipped one of his baits into the water and moments later hooked a giant bass.
“If you can’t catch a fish with these,” he says on camera, “you better take up golf.”
In the mid 1990s, he took some of his fortune and bought the tract of land along Yellow Creek, coincidentally where he met the soldier in 1958 who gave him the idea to start making lures. Renosky took that land and turned it into his club, where he brought in outdoorsmen who paid a lot of money to be members.
Business was good.
“There’s so much stuff I have done in the industry that people have followed me,” Renosky says. “The good Lord has given me a knack for being creative.”
But soon after reaching the height of his success, Renosky nearly lost it all.
It’s not that Joe Renosky doesn’t want people to know about his tough times. He just wants them to know his side of the story. Although it’s a part of his past, Renosky still can’t escape the notion that his credibility was once called into question.
“Bring up Google and type in my name,” Renosky says with a sigh. “It’s all out there.”
A couple of well-publicized lawsuits came in the early 2000s. He was sued by some deep-pocketed companies that claimed he had infringed upon their designs.
Although he was a wealthy man, Renosky didn’t have the money his billion-dollar corporate opponents had, and having to take on legal dream teams was a battle too tough for a small-town businessman. Things dragged on as each side filed challenges and appeals, but eventually the courts sided against Renosky.
Let’s just say there was a lot of money involved.
Here’s the part of the story that usually goes untold, though: Yes, Joe Renosky lost those lawsuits. But guess who holds the patent on those lures? Guess who’s still in the game?
“Once those lawsuits hit, it took a lot out of me,” he says. “But I’m back. I’m still going strong. But all that stuff is out there. What it doesn’t say is that I have the patent now.”
Yes, the self-made lure champion is still in business. And he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
Just wait until the Crippled Shiner comes out, because Renosky earnestly believes it will be a game- changer.
“It’s the most exciting bait I’ve ever worked on,” he says, his voice rising with excitement. “It’s doing things no other bait will do.”
The lawsuits did enough damage on their own, but they also forced Renosky’s hand in another way. Over the years, he had been tempted to sell the business to conglomerates who wanted to add to their portfolios, but he always resisted. But in late 2012, True North Outdoors made Renosky an offer he couldn’t refuse. Six months later, the deal was complete, and Renosky Lures became part of a conglomerate.
Honestly though, nothing has really changed at the White Township plant. Lures that Renosky designed are still being manufactured there, and the man himself still has an office and a workspace where he dreams up the next great product for the catalog.
He recently became a septuagenarian, although you wouldn’t know it if you met him. He still has a quick wit, he takes good care of himself, and he sees no reason to take it easy. Other people are giving up their jobs at his age; he is taking on a new one.
As the director of Research and Development for Renosky Lures, LLC., his job is to continue doing what he did at first in 1958. The world of fishing lures has changed since then, but fish have not. They’re still hungry and Renosky believes he knows how to catch them. So every day, he wakes up and is energized by the idea of going to work. Creating lures made him a lot of money before, and his contract with True North pays him a percentage of profits from his creations, so there’s a lot more money potentially coming down the stream. It’s just up to him to go out and reel it in.
“It’s not my company anymore, but my name is still on it,” he says. “I’m still making money. And I have a good chance to make a hell of a lot more money if we get everything going.”
So the notion of retiring? To Joe Renosky, that’s an idea he won’t entertain, and for good reason.
“He’s been doing it for so long,” says Steve Renosky. “It’s almost like he’s Joe Paterno, when they said he couldn’t be the coach at Penn State anymore. I think Dad, if someone said he had to stop making lures, he’d go downhill. Making lures is what keeps him going. I’d never say to stop, and nobody else should, either. So if someone will give him a paycheck to do it, why not? It keeps him happy, and he’s good at it.”
Yes, he is good at it. He’s always been among the best in the business, even if the business wasn’t good to him. But for a guy who took a chance on himself and won more than once, it’s been a charmed life filled with good fortune, good luck and a good sense of appreciation for it all.
“I think God tests you, OK?” he says. “I was at the top of the world. I won’t even tell you what I was worth in 2001. … I was very wealthy. But God punished me. He did. So now I go to church every day, and I’ve come back a hell of a long ways. I cherish what I have. I took it for granted for a long time.”
The story of Joe Renosky has its share of unbelievable moments. But at its essence, it’s the story of a man who, despite long odds, made himself into something, probably more than anyone could have expected.
It’s a fishing story, and it’s all true.