By: Greg McCain
A chance encounter with an angel prompted the move of Cornfield Fishing Gear to Kentucky.
The angel was actually a lab named Angel that greeted Mark Ridl and his wife Paula on a brief
trip to Kentucky Lake years ago – the exact date seems to have faded from everyone’s memory.
Angel, owned by Terry Pool, darted into the street of Big Bear Campground near the shores of
Kentucky Lake and greeted them as they strolled through. The Ridls had traveled from their Illinois home for a brief stay at the campground, allowing Paula a reprieve from nursing school studies. Dog lovers both – they dote on a Weimaraner named La Rue – Mark and Paula stopped first to pet Angel and eventually to talk with her owner, who just happened to be a Kentucky Lake crappie guide (see Crappie Stomper Guide Service on Facebook) working on his boat. “My lab Angel initiated the meeting,” Terry said. “She never met a stranger. She ran over there, the petting started, and we started talking.” Added Paula about the encounter, “That dog came out to see me. I’ve not met too many dogs that don’t like me.” Thus began a transition that moved a tool-and-die business from the cornfields of Illinois to the shores of Kentucky Lake.
At the time, the Ridls’ business was starting a period of decline, the vagaries of the Illinois economy causing various companies to flee the state. Mark eventually started crafting fishing accessories, first for himself but later to market under the Cornfield Crappie Gear label. The meeting with Angel led to a fishing trip the next day with Terry. A solid friendship emerged out of that day on Kentucky Lake, which gradually compounded into multiple connections in the area. “At the time, he looked over there and saw my boat and asked me what type of fishing I did,” Terry said. “He said he loved crappie fishing and wished he could go. I said, “What are you doing tomorrow?’ I had just met the guy. He said that I guess I’m fishing with you. “It really developed into a great, great friendship. I’m so glad that he made the move. We talked the next day while we were fishing that it was his life-long dream to live on Kentucky Lake. It’s
just amazing how a chance meeting like that could evolve into him moving here and changing his business over from an industrial side to the fishing industry.”
Dean McCoy is another local fisherman who quickly made a connection with Mark. They met at the first Kentucky Lake Crappie.com Shindig that Dean and Terry organized. “Mark cooked supper for us prior to the shindig, and we’ve kept in touch ever since,” Dean said. “In the early days when he first moved here, I would stop by and help him run machines and cut metal. “He’s a true friend, and as far as the industry goes, his mind never stops. He’s always thinking
about new products and what will work. He’s first class.” Friendships aside, Mark leaves little doubt about what prompted the move to Kentucky. “If it wasn’t for that dog, I don’t know if we would have been down here or not,” he said. Twenty-five years ago, the Ridls started their company, Production Tooling and Automation, in east-central Illinois, forming lucrative partnerships with companies in the auto industry. When those contracts began to dwindle about 10 years ago, Mark had some spare time in the shop.
His trips to Kentucky Lake had rekindled a renewed interest in crappie fishing, and he bought a boat and began to accessorize it with products of his own making. One such early design, a cable saver, was developed out of necessity. Mark cut the cable on his trolling motor and envisioned a need for a product to protect the various cables on a boat. The Cable Save’r ultimately became one of the company’s best sellers. “I built some of my own stuff just because I could and because we were slow in the shop,” Mark
said. “One thing led to another, and we started building things for my friends. “About that time, we got the idea of trying to market some of this stuff. We built a website and were trying to come up with a name. We had been making regular trips to Kentucky Lake to fish and had even bought a home there. I was texting friends here in Kentucky, and I was sitting looking out the window at a cornfield in Illinois.”
Cornfield Crappie Gear was the natural name that emerged, but it took some persuading by Paula to get Mark to leave the setting. From the beginning, Paula had run the office side of the operation. She updated the company’s business plan regularly and through the years, noted just how much the customer portfolio was dwindling. By this time, the Ridls had the home and had also bought a building near Kentucky Lake in Gilbertsville, both purchases with retirement in mind, not a destination for the business.
After analyzing the books yet again, Paula had the answer: “Why don’t we move the business to Kentucky?” Mark’s answer was a colorful version of “are you crazy?” Cornfield Crappie Gear headed to Kentucky in the summer of 2017.
Fast forward about 10 years from the meeting with Angel and Terry Pool in the Kentucky Lake campground, the Cornfield name – now Cornfield Fishing Gear because of the wide variety of anglers who use the products – has evolved into an industry standard, a company known for its array of superior offerings both in terms of design and craftsmanship. Mark, with help from Paula and others, advanced the company to another level in a short period of time. The company is perhaps best known for its mounts. Mark first designed a single mount, which soon led to a double mount. The “live” electronics craze that started with Garmin Livescope technology in 2018 begged for even more specialized equipment, and now Cornfield’s telescopic, pivoting mount satisfies the need for an elevated model. See Cornfield’s full product line at https://cornfieldfishinggear.com. “What I like is everything is made here in the USA,” said Cornfield pro staff manager Joel Harris, who oversees a group of 20-plus competitive anglers on the pro staff. “Everything’s solid as a rock. Everybody that runs things has put them to the test with very few problems. “Mark is amazing with what he’s done. If he thinks it will work, he’ll take it and run with it. I was a part of developing the telescopic mount, but he took it to another level.” The company emerged bigger and better out of the Covid pandemic. Neither Mark nor Paula were sure what would happen, but Cornfield enjoyed unprecedented success through 2020 and 2021. Not even Mark’s broken leg early in 2022 slowed the company’s progress. “I feel like when the pandemic hit, it really kind of turned us on,” Mark said. “I feel like there were a lot more people going outside fishing, and just before the pandemic, the live-view transducers took off. We had the first mounts to put that on a trolling motor. I don’t know if it was stimulus money or what, but everybody seemed to be buying live transducers. We were really busy with that.”
The company did encounter a few challenges. Mark learned to buy supplies in bulk well before
they were needed. He has a stockpile of aluminum on the shop floor that will last months, but something as simple as lack of a bolt can delay production on a certain product. The labor force remains a more serious concern than even supply chain issues with workers at a minimum. “Now, we’re experiencing work shortages along with everybody else,” Mark said. The dearth of labor caused Paula to fully devote her time to the business. After moving to Kentucky, she put her nursing degree to use at two different jobs, but the lack of qualified, reliable workers added new dimensions to her work with Cornfield. She left her nursing position and took over shipping and customer service in addition to the office work she previously did. “Things had gotten way out of control,” Mark said. “Something as simple as answering the
phone consumed so much of my time and took away from the need to run machines and design products. “It got to be way too much for me, and what she brings to the shop is unbelievable. She runs the shipping department and answers 99 percent of the phone calls. Believe me, she knows most of
the answers.” What’s the future for Cornfield Fishing Gear? Mark doesn’t make bold predictions but does
suggest the company will continue moving forward, changing as needed to serve the ever-evolving boating and technology worlds. “We’re going to keep coming up with new stuff,” Mark said early this year while recovering from the broken leg. “We get a lot of input from our customers and from our pro staff members. I have a couple of new ideas that I want to work on as soon as I can sit with my foot down at the computer and draw up some stuff. “I feel like being diverse – which is what we are. We don’t just have mounts. We want a few more options out there. That keeps us strong and keeps us going as opposed to the guy who has only one or two options. “Just keep moving forward. I don’t know how to quit. I don’t do I can’t.” Mark said he really could never have envisioned the success Cornfield Fishing Gear has
experienced since moving to Kentucky. “Absolutely not,” he said. “We’ve been guided by the grace of God.” And perhaps by a little intervention by an angel.
Greg McCain is a retired educator and freelance journalist from prime fishing territory in northwest Alabama. In addition to producing content for Cornfield Fishing Gear, his other recent credits include the ACC Crappie Stix blog, CrappieNOW e-magazine, Georgia Outdoor News, and the Alabama B.A.S.S. Nation website.