As the founder of YakAttack, Virginia resident Luther Cifers has provided the kayak angling world with numerous innovative and highly sought-after products, all while steering his company along a path of integrity and character. Cifers is also a name synomymous with giving within the sport, and has sponsored many a tournament, including those benefiting Heroes on the Water (HOW). When not on the water or contemplating the next must-have kayak angling item, this father of three can be found heading up Cifers Solutions, his freelance design company, and spending time with his family.
What first drew you to this style of angling? When was that?
I used to do a fishing trip to Hatteras, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, each fall with a bunch of buddies. We did mostly pier and surf fishing back then. In 2006, one of my friends bought a sit on top kayak to carry out shark baits from the surf. I spent a little time on that kayak, and it was cool, but I didn’t really fish from it on that trip. About a year later that same friend hooked up with some other local kayak anglers, and started doing some kayak fishing. It took a while, but he convinced me to buy a kayak. I bought a 2007 Hobie Outback. My first kayak fishing trip was in the York River in VA. I caught my first fish, pulled out my phone, and called my wife. I told her when I got home I was getting a kayak for my son, a promise I kept. I’ve loved it ever since.
I’m also a bowhunter, and I think the same things that drew me to bowhunting drew me to kayak fishing. You can reach out a lot farther with a rifle, just as you can with a power boat. But the bow and the kayak both have an added level of challenge. They are more intimate with the environment and nature. I like that.
I also like the freedom associated with kayak fishing. I’m a very independent person, and I like the concept of each angler navigating his own vessel. It allows the angler to try the structure or the depth or the drifting or trolling technique that he thinks will work, and his success or failure will determine his approach next time. You don’t get that when you stuff three or four people onto a powered boat. How many times have you been on a boat with someone else, and thought there might be a better spot to fish, or that the boat is never turned quite right to drop the lure where you’d like to? That’s kind of stifling. Kayak fishing is a liberating experience, and I believe it develops better anglers.
Do you remember the first fish that you caught from a kayak?
Yes, it was a York River croaker. Around here, a lot of people consider croaker an irritating fish that you catch when trying to catch flounder, but they are a lot of fun to catch and, pound for pound, are one of the best fighting fish out there. I still fish for them, though not as often as I used to.
You consistently design reliable and innovative products for the kayak angler. Tell us about the creative processes involved in the development of these items.
Well, thanks for the compliment. We work really hard to build products that folks are glad they purchased – even years later. We don’t measure success in sales alone, but in customer satisfaction after the sale. If someone buys a product and wishes they had not, or feels it wasn’t worth the price, we have failed.
As far as the creative process, there are a few channels of inspiration. Sometimes it’s customer feedback, sometimes it’s a conversation with one of my many friends in the sport, and sometimes it’s a need discovered while out on the water.
Once we know what problem we want to solve, we develop one or more concepts that address that problem while fitting the bigger picture of where we want our product line to go. We utilize state of the art design and analysis software to create a virtual 3D model of the product, and from that, create photo realistic renderings to send to trusted resources for feedback. I have another business in which I do freelance design and engineering for other companies, so I have the “tools of the trade” to do professional product design. Because I’ve designed a lot of products and machines in many different industries, I have some experience in identifying what makes a robust design. That definitely helps where reliability is concerned.
With as many things as I’ve designed over the years, I seldom “get it right” the first time. We’re really good at rapid prototyping, so we are able to build prototypes to test or send to beta testers to use in the field. This helps us refine the design before settling on a production version. Even though we’re a small company, our design and engineering process is on par with companies 10 or 20 times our size, but we have the agility and creativity of a small enterprise. For example, when we first conceptualized the Mighty Mount, it went from a rough sketch to an actual part within 3 or 4 hours. By late that same night, I had rapid prototyped 4 versions, and had something very close to what we went to market with. A dozen or more prototypes were in the field a week later.
What also helps is that we have a master plan of where we want our product line to go. Our new rigging products are all about modularity and configurability. That puts a lot of the actual innovation into the hands of the customer. There is a DIY component to this sport, and though it’s our biggest competitor as far as lights are concerned, we actively embrace it. Every situation is a little different, so we want our rigging system to be configurable rather than something with rigid, specific uses. We probably have the most innovative customer base of any industry I’ve had experience with. We want to empower them to do what they excel at.
What food and/or music fuels your drive to the put-in?
Fast food and country music. I don’t even eat fast food that much, but it seems like I end up eating it every time I go fishing. When I was younger I hated country music, but the older I get the more I can relate to it. I spend a lot of time with the radio off, too. My drives to the water are often 2+ hours, and that’s good thinking time. I’ve put the final details on more than one design in that time.
Who, specifically, is shaping the future of kayak angling?
I’m not sure there is a specific person or entity, but there is definitely a specific group. It’s the kayak angler. As the sport grows, there are lots of personalities, retailers, manufacturers, and media outlets that are popping up to support the growth. But I think the growth and direction of the sport are attributed primarily to the folks who slip the kayak into the water at the boat ramp or sand launch. Success and failure of the rest depends on how well they resonate with the kayak angler. It’s why I think choices are so great for the sport. It gives the angler more influence over where the sport is headed.
With that in mind, I feel we’re really blessed to be doing what we’re doing. From the start of YakAttack, we’ve tried to do things the way we think they should be done rather than use some of the conventional tactics that a lot of companies use to squeeze every last drop of opportunity out of a market. It was something of an experiment in the beginning. We decided it would work or it would fail, but we were not going to compromise our core values to succeed. That may sound cliche, but it’s real. Having that mentality will cause you to do some things an MBA might tell you is foolish or naive. Once you draw that line in the sand, success or failure is out of your hands to a large degree. You do the best you can with product design and pricing, and then put it in the hands of God and the hands of your customers. I feel we’ve been blessed by both, which has given us the opportunity to give some different options to consumers so they can decide where this sport is going and where we fit in. So far, so good!
With regard to kayak angling, what issues are important to you? What, if anything, can be done about them?
Like I said earlier, I’m a bit on the independent side. Some people might disagree with me here but that’s OK.
Probably the most important issue to me is that as the sport grows it doesn’t get sterilized by regulations designed to protect us from ourselves. The kayak fishing community does an amazing job of self regulation and self education, and I hope it doesn’t lose that. There are less and less things anyone can do these days without being subjected to some condition or requirement. Even kayak fishing already has some. But personally, I would rather have the liberty to put myself at risk than the protection that comes with containment.
We’ve had people suggest that YakAttack lobby government bodies to have more flag and light requirements since visibility products have, up to this point, been the foundation of our product line. Granted, I think people should think about visibility and do the best they can to be safe. But I don’t want to see our hands get tied to the point that a barrage of one-size-fits-all requirements dictates what is best for what are truly dynamic, individual situations. I’d rather leave personal safety in the capable hands of the individual. As the sport becomes more and more mainstream, I have concerns that the dangerous elements of the sport will invite some well meaning folks to want to hold our hands. Living is full of risks. Without the risks and the liberty to take them, it goes from living to just kind of existing. For me, anyway.
As far as what can be done about it, I think if the kayak fishing community continues to be focused on being safe on the water and actively helping educate newcomers to the sport about on the water safety, self regulation will negate the need for external influences.
Barring money or logistics, what is your dream kayak angling trip?
Man, that’s a tough one. Somewhere with clear, warm water and big fish! And definitely in the salt.
What’s in your milk crate?
Well, the tackle depends on what I’m fishing for, but I usually have some snacks and a couple of bottles of water. I keep a Fish Grip, knife, pliers – typical stuff. I prefer my tackle on the lighter side, and usually carry 3 reels. If I’m in the salt I’ll have a fat tub of Gulp back there. 90% of the time I fly a VISICarbon Pro in my center rocket launcher.
Tell us about your best day on the water.
Another tough one. Some days on the water have been enjoyable because of the comraderie, some for the family aspect, some for the adventure, and some because the fishing was great. One of my best fishing outings was a night this spring at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in Norfolk, VA. There had been a report of a lot of striped bass caught the night before, so power boats and kayaks were clustered around every bridge light. Turns out that night, on the outgoing tide anyway, was pretty much dead. I caught one fish over a period of about 4 hours and did not see another fish caught.
By the time the tide changed around 2AM, I was the only one left out there. I had the entire Norfolk bridge to myself. I started seeing some fish as soon as the tide changed and a couple of hours into it they were thick. I’ve seen a lot of fish out there many times, but this was a real spectacle. Hundreds of schoolie striper mixed with small blues were just blitzing. They had abandoned the “shoulder to shoulder” patrolling formation you normally see under the light line and were just swarming. At one point I drifted too far and went through the light line and I could feel the striper hammering into my Mirage drive on my Outback. I caught a lot of fish that night. Ended up with a sore wrist and a tattered thumb from lipping fat schoolies. That was a good time! There’s nothing like a good case of “striper thumb”!
What is the kayak fishing lifestyle?
That’s a great question! I think the answer varies a lot depending on the individual and geographical location, but when I think of “kayak fishing lifestyle,” I think of folks who drive to work with their kayak on the roof so they can go fishing on the way home. That’s something unique to kayak fishing. Hard to do that with the jon boat or Carolina skiff. I think of keeping up with the rest of the “family” on the kayak fishing forums, and pecking away at the keyboard to share a fishing report or new rigging idea, or to help a newcomer to the sport make sure he’s covering all aspects of safety and knows where to launch and what they are biting. I think of tinkering in the garage or at the kitchen table on a new DIY contraption. I think of road trips to a kayak fishing tournament, not for the prizes as much as for the comraderie and the cause.
Another interesting thing is that it’s a close knit group that, even now, has a pretty flat heirarchy. There are some “celebrities” in the sport who have accomplished great things, but they are also the folks we fish with. That’s pretty cool.
Though the dynamics are changing as the sport becomes more mainstream, I think a lot of today’s kayak anglers are still people who like blazing new trails, and who find the unconventional element of the sport and the “You fish out of a what?!” comments appealing. It makes it an awesome thing to be a part of.
Tell us a story, any story.
How about how YakAttack got started? I have a friend, Bob Fulghum – he’s the guy who introduced me to the sport – and we were both getting more involved with rigging our kayaks. Bob made a light for night fishing and tied a couple of flags to it. I made one too but it was not as cool as his! Anyway, when we went out fishing a lot of people asked about it and some asked if they could buy one. I suggested: why not make a commercial version and see where it went? Bob and I worked together for years in manufacturing, and both have design backgrounds, so we put our heads together and came up with the original VISIPole. We had no brand, no money, no investors, and no idea what we were doing on the business side, but we gave it a try.
We needed a name, so Bob suggested we use my screen name at Fishyaker.com, which was YakAttack. It had a cool ring to it, so in January 2009 YakAttack LLC was born.
The VISIPole did really well. I called every kayak fishing shop I could find and asked them to carry the VISIPole. Out of 50 or 75 cold calls I would get one or two that were willing to try it. I had many shops tell me that they weren’t interested because they just didn’t sell many lights. I remember one shop telling me that they would try it but to keep our expectations realistic because they only sold about 10 stern lights each year. They sold about 80 VISIPoles in 2009.
Although the VISIPole did well, our customers helped us identify where we could improve. We used that input to design the VISICarbon Pro. Sales from the VISIPole enabled us to set up the manufacturing, and we launched it in late May 2010 at our annual kayak fishing tournament. The VISICarbon Pro really took off, and pretty soon we were selling them all over the world. Bob got really busy with his other job, so in late 2010 we came up with an agreement for me to assume 100% ownership of YakAttack.
Once again, sales of one product enabled us to tool up others. Chad Hoover and I collaborated on the design of the ParkNPole, and I developed the Mighty Mount and PanFish monopods. Soon after, we developed the GearTrac and Dog Bone, which we are in the process of launching now. We have a lot more coming and will continue to roll out products between now and Spring 2012. We recently moved to Farmville, VA into a much larger building, and the future is bright!
Your business is known for sponsoring a myriad of tournaments and charity events, including those associated with Heroes on the Water. Why do you feel it is important to support these events?
From a “giving” aspect, I think most people try to find a way to give to others in some way or another. For us, charity tournaments are a natural avenue for that. From a business aspect, these tournaments are a great way to say thanks to our customers. We really enjoy participating in these events and appreciate the hard work of the tournament organizers. It’s a lot easier for us to box and ship product than it is for these folks that spend countless hours organizing these events and making sure things run smoothly and everyone has a good time.
There is a special place in my heart for our veterans. I think most of us, at times, take for granted the amazing country we live in and the sacrifices that have been made for us to have the comfort and security that we enjoy. Our veterans and their families have given so much. There is nothing we can do for them that holds a candle to what they have given for us, but we can show them that they are loved and appreciated. It’s not really even charity. They have served us, now it’s our turn to serve them. That’s why we are involved with Heroes on the Water and similar outreaches.
Many of your products, like the VISIPole, have garnered a cult-like following. What design are you most proud of?
Again, that’s quite a compliment. I hope our products live up to it! At this point in time, I’m probably most proud of the VISICarbon Pro. But the rigging system we’re working on will likely take that spot next year. The Mighty Mount and GearTrac are pieces of the puzzle, but as more pieces drop in place and the picture becomes clearer, I think it will change the rigging game completely.
More than the products, what I’m really proud of is the relationships we have with our customers. I feel we have unparalleled customer service due to a “do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may” mentality. That’s all real easy to say but there are times when doing the right thing costs money or extra time and effort. When you’re trying to run a business it’s easy to start making exceptions to your principles and before you know it, you’re the company you never wanted to be. I’m proud that we have stayed true to our values and that it resonates so well with the kayak fishing community.
What does the future hold for you?
If I only knew! Seriously though, I can tell you what I hope it holds for my involvement in the sport of kayak fishing. I hope there continues to be a place for what we are doing at YakAttack and that we are able to continue to develop our product line and grow our little company. I’ve been in domestic manufacturing in some form or another for 18 years, and I’ve watched it get gutted as more and more companies source products and labor overseas. I’m certainly not the guy to judge how things “should be,” but I can tell you that for us, keeping our components and labor domestic is not negotiable. It’s almost impossible to keep 100% of everything in a product domestic these days, but we really do try, and we do a good job of keeping the vast majority domestic, even when we can find imported substitutes for a fraction of the cost. I hope to grow this thing into something that creates jobs for as many Americans as possible, for both YakAttack and our suppliers.
2011 has been a year of sacrifice for my family and for my fishing. We’ve spent a lot of time at the drawing board and workbenches, and I hope in the coming years I am able to spend more time on the water and attend more charity tournaments and shows and things like that. With the opportunities that the business and that social media provide, I have become friends with a lot of really great people in the sport that I’ve never actually met in person. It’s time to shake some hands and go fishing.
I’m definitely not complaining, though. I have thoroughly enjoyed this ride. I get a great deal of enjoyment out of designing new products and even out of the long, hard days we’ve spent building this little company from scratch. The feedback from customers, the constant stream of pictures and comments from our customers, and the acceptance the sport has had for YakAttack has been amazing and makes it all worthwhile.