After more than 40 years making ice-fishing traps, Tim Jackson is helping Jack Traps enter its next chapter.
Throughout a makeshift village of popup shelters and pickup trucks, hundreds of young ice anglers bundled up in bulky snow pants and jackets are watching tip-up traps in holes drilled through the frozen lake. From the edge of Cochnewagon Lake in Monmouth, the ice-fishing traps being used in the youth derby are indistinguishable, apart from their colored flags against the bright-white snow.
But the man at the center of it all, with his name on many of the tip-ups, could tell you which ones he made and when he made them. And if you haven’t hooked a fish yet, he could tell you how to catch one. The founder of Jack Traps, Tim Jackson has been building ice-fishing traps for 40 years and fishing for two more decades than that. But he says that the Jack Traps youth derby—and ice fishing in general—isn’t just about catching fish. It’s about community and camaraderie, family and friends, and learning through failure. “It’s so many things, especially family-wise,” he says. “You spend time together having fun in the outdoors. That’s what it’s all about.” And catching a fish? “It just builds confidence. It can change a kid’s life.”
As a boy growing up in Winthrop, Jackson frequently went fishing with his parents. His father would bring him on fishing outings with his father’s friends. “He took me from age five—and no special treatment, maybe a sody on the way home,” Jackson says. “Line and bait your own traps. If your hands are cold, swing your arms.” He remembers on his first trip to Moosehead Lake, he was on the ice every day from dusk to dawn. He says his father’s friends thought he was crazy, but he learned to fish. “You only learn things by doing it,” Jackson says. “You can learn things by reading about it or watching it, but until you do something and fail at it and suffer through it and face the consequences and then maybe try it again, you won’t learn.”
While working at a sheet metal company in 1979, Jackson started making ice-fishing traps as a side project. He would stay late to make the metal hardware for the traps, and had his neighbor run the wooden parts through the neighbor’s molding machine. When he first started selling them, he and his wife, Debbie, would drive up to stores in the Bangor area to trade them for Christmas presents for their five children. “I’d put 50 in the truck and go peddle them. That was a tough job,” Jackson says. “I sold vacuum cleaners before that, and that really set me up for the trap stuff. If you can sell a vacuum cleaner to a farmer while he’s watching the news, you can sell a wooden asshole to a guinea pig. That’s the way I looked at it.”
Working out of his basement, Jackson could make the traps as well as he could sell them. Eventually the side project morphed into a full-time job, and he began supplying larger retailers, including L.L.Bean. By 2005, the business had outgrown his basement, and he moved it to its current 6,000-square-foot retail and production space in Monmouth.
Then, in May 2012, a visit to the doctor hurled both Jackson’s and the company’s existence into doubt. His doctor told him he had esophageal cancer and would need to have his esophagus removed. If the cancer had spread to other parts of his body, he had a less than five percent chance of surviving. “Once it gets into your lymph nodes you’ve got about two years,” Jackson says. “It was a bad day.” After the surgery that June, Jackson learned it had not spread, but he had a long recovery ahead and didn’t know if the business could survive it. One of his daughters, Tori, helped ensure online orders were still going out, but the business was just scraping by. “I was still coming into work for a couple of hours a day, but the place was going to hell,” Jackson says. “I’d cry because I worked all this time, and this is how it’s going to end?”
That’s when Shawn Norton joined Jack Traps. Norton had grown up less than an hour west of Monmouth in China. His great-grandfather had built ice-fishing traps as a hobby, and Norton would ice fish every winter with those traps. After graduating from high school, he moved to California with his mother, and while attending college he worked at Europlay Capital Advisors, a venture-capital firm in Los Angeles that was involved in the early days of Skype.
In 2012, two weeks after graduating from UCLA, Norton moved back to Maine. Norton’s girlfriend, Kandise Coleman, moved with him from California and bought him a set of Jack Traps for Christmas. That winter, while Jackson was trying to keep his company afloat, Norton was struggling to find work and spent his days ice fishing. “I fished like nine days straight with these things, and every time my flag went off, I caught a fish,” Norton says. “I caught a ton of fish in those nine days. I said, ‘This is the reason.’ These things—you just look at them—they’re beautiful, handcrafted.” When Norton saw Jack Traps advertise a job for a business manager, he applied and even submitted a growth plan for the company. He interviewed but didn’t get the job. Then in March, after returning from a week-long fishing trip in the Allagash with his family, Norton had a Jack Traps box sitting at his front door. “When I opened it up, there was a trap in there with a note from Tim that said, ‘If you’re still looking for a job, give me a call. Here’s your new lucky trap.’”
Since Norton joined Jack Traps in 2013, the company’s sales have tripled. He’s expanded the offerings in the retail store, which sells everything needed for a day on the ice—from lined pack baskets, trap sleeves, and ice skimmers, all in different colors, to hand warmers and raccoon-fur bomber hats. Norton has also brought a more analytical approach to the business; he’s made the manufacturing process more efficient and improved purchase and inventory management. It hasn’t always gone to plan. Norton says he expected internet sales to drive new growth for the business. Instead, the store has been the driver. “People travel from Massachusetts, from Connecticut, to come to see this place because it’s become a destination,” Norton says. The traps aren’t cheap; the standard 26-inch model costs $52 with a line. But ice fishermen know: the traps work. “Some people say, ‘Oh, your stuff costs too much,’” Jackson says. “Compared to what? You wait all year to go up on your fishing trip, and it’s gonna cost you a grand—food, lodging, gas. Why wouldn’t you spend a couple of extra bucks on your equipment? We take a lot of pride in what we do here because we’re the only ones that do this. Other people make traps, but they don’t make them like we do, and they don’t have the heritage behind them like we do.”
It’s now Norton’s responsibility to continue that heritage. When Norton interviewed for the job, he told Jackson that Jack Traps, with its respected brand name, was the kind of business he would want to own. To Jackson, Norton was always the one. “He wasn’t here a week and I said, ‘That’s the guy to take the company,’” says Jackson. “I didn’t tell him right away, but I knew because of his work, his attitude, his schooling, and his love for the outdoors.” This past summer, Jackson sold the business to Norton.
The ironic part of owning an ice-fishing business is you’re too busy in the winter to actually ice fish. Norton says he only gets on the ice two or three times each winter, but when he does go he inevitably runs into other people fishing with Jack Traps. “You look at all these traps that people are using and the fish they are catching, and you know that this is something that came out of your hands,” Norton says. “I think there’s a lot of pride in that. When you’re out there, it could be any lake in the state of Maine. You’re going to find somebody that’s using something you made.”
Jackson still works some mornings at Jack Traps, but he’s looking forward to fishing again. He built an ice shack to use this winter and has decorated it with old fishing photos. “I could out-fish about anybody when I was 14. Now it isn’t about that,” Jackson says. “The past 15, 20 years, it’s about teaching, showing, taking people.” Someone will tell Jackson that they never catch anything, so he’ll go out with them and later see them posting photos on Facebook of fish they’ve been catching. It’s not unusual for him to meet people, including a handful of game wardens, who grew up visiting the store. “When they came in here, they were pimply-faced 13-year-old kids who just couldn’t wait to get the best bait out of the tank and go,” Jackson says. “Now look what they’ve done with their life. It can change you.”