At first, Dr. Jeckle set out to be Mr. Hide.
But as he transformed from duck hunter to fisherman, his tactics took a flip-flop that only a scientist – or a sportsman – might appreciate.
The strange story started when Milan Jeckle, a 67-year-old Spokane physician, was driving to a waterfowl hunting spot a couple of years ago and it dawned on him that an article he’d just read in a science magazine might make his decoys more effective in attracting ducks and geese.
Researchers had discovered that while humans see three colors – red, green-yellow and blue – birds as well as fish species that have skeletons see a fourth color in the ultraviolet range.
Jeckle also had learned that many man-made products, such as duck decoys, are highly reflective to UVA light.
The doctor, who was a chemist before he went to medical school 40-some years ago, theorized that reducing the amount of reflected UV light from decoys and camouflage clothing would help reduce the white glow that UV apparently translates to a bird’s eyes. This would let waterfowl react more naturally to the decoy paints and camo colors designed to fool them.
However, by the time Jeckle had looked into the ingredients that might be applied on waterfowling gear to absorb UVA, the duck season was over. It was time to go fishing.
Whoa, he thought: Anglers are always trying to attract attention with their bait, lures and flies. What they need is a chemical that would reflect UVA.
That’s how the home-grown line of Fool-a-Bird and Fool-a-Fish formulas was conceived. But months of research followed before the products debuted last December.
“He’s an avid fisherman and hunter and I do none of that,” said David Cleary, a professor of physical chemistry at Gonzaga University. “When Dr. Jeckle approached me to help with some of the technical problems (in creating the products), the initial conversations were about the challenges of hunting and fishing, and I was learning a lot.
“The more he explained, the more plausible it seemed,” Cleary recalled. “He was interested in the practical application; I was interested in the technical challenge of making a formula that wouldn’t dissolve or wash off the lure in the water.”
Both men tapped the 30 years of research in sunscreens to help them come up with answers.
Eventually they settled on basic formulas and made a small test batch in Cleary’s lab.
The result, as Jeckle puts it, “is the leading edge and application of new knowledge about bird and fish vision.”
The main ingredient for Fool-a-Bird absorbs the UV wave length. For simplicity, however, let’s focus on the product with perhaps the broader appeal.
Fool-a-Fish is based on titanium dioxide, which is considered by dermatologists to be one of the most effective sunscreen ingredients.
“UV has a short wavelength that humans don’t see,” Jeckle said. “We just get sunburns from it. Titanium dioxide reflects it. In simple terms, the wavelength of light humans can see is absorbed quickly by water, but UV light penetrates into water a half a mile.”The ingredient comes as a white powder. Professor Cleary developed a plastic carrier to make it stick to the bait, lure or fly. Eventually you have to spray on another application because the titanium dioxide is like miniscule grains of sand and it comes off little by little in the water. I imagine it looks like a shooting star to a fish.”
Traditional uses of fluorescent colors to attract fish might still have some credence in shallower water, but Fool-a-Fish seems to shine in deeper water.
“Light visible to the human eye penetrates clear ocean water to a depth of about 30 feet,” Jeckle said. “At 40 feet deep in a lake it’s black as the inside of a cow, but UV light travels up to half a mile.
“Lures and baits sprayed with a thin layer of with Fool-a-Fish reflect UV light in every direction, just like a spinning ‘Disco Ball.’ “
Doug Holcomb of Northside Fishing and Outdoor Supply got his first batch of Fool-a-Fish last winter and it quickly became a staple on his guided trout fishing trips to Lake Rufus Woods.
“When the fishing is slow, the fishing is slow no matter what you have on,” he said. “But I think this stuff really works. One day we were trolling and not catching a thing when one client sprayed this on his plug. It wasn’t in the water seven minutes when he caught a 20-pound rainbow.
“If a guy comes in the shop looking for Fool-a-Fish after he’s been fishing at Lake Roosevelt, I know that he’s been fishing next to a guy who’s been using the stuff and catching more fish.”
“I think it gives you an edge,” Jeckle said, noting that he’s asked numerous anglers to test the product. “I was with fishermen who trolled two identical Wedding Rings and we caught nine on the one that was sprayed and two on the other.
“The guys using it seem to catch more fish and larger fish than their buddies who aren’t. I’ve also heard this from several halibut fishermen in Alaska.”
Jeckle recruited his wife, two daughters – one a veterinarian, the other a teacher – and his son, a lawyer, to make the first 50-gallon commercial batch of Fool-a-Fish last Christmas.
His medical practice has wound down and half of his Valley office is now devoted to packaging and providing the product to local sport shops and through the Internet to sites as far away as Africa.
Meanwhile, he’s still experimenting.
“I tried to add glitter, which might improve the formula’s effectiveness but mostly to give humans the impression of what the fish are seeing,” he said. “But the glitter plugged the spray bottle so I dropped that idea.
“I don’t claim that this is a miracle. It’s just an aid. We know it doesn’t chase them away, but we’re seeing lots of evidence that it attracts more and bigger fish.
“The issue,” he said in the tradition of a true scientist, “is not whether the idea is sound, but whether I’m using it in best form.”
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