“We don’t know, but we’re going to have fun,” says Bajio Sunglasses founder Al Perkinson, who is wandering back into his company’s New Smyrna Beach, Florida, headquarters.
Not far from the interstellar launchpads of Cape Canaveral, Perkinson has nurtured the upstart sunglasses company into one of the hottest lifestyle brands in the fishing and surfing industries.
After manning the Bajio Sunglasses booth at a Winter trade show for two days, he is tired and his mind is drifting to another trade event – one in the summer that he has several months to prepare for and one he says is the best one going today – ICAST.
“Some of the other trade shows are a shadow of their former selves,” says Perkinson. “But ICAST is doing great. It still feels like people are still having fun there, like the fishing community is there and represented.”
ICAST, the world’s largest recreational fishing trade show presented annually by the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), is where the sportfishing industry comes to connect. And according to Perkinson, ICAST is where the best reunions in the fishing community takes place every year.
Since 2021, Bajio has been expanding its footprint at ICAST alongside its footprint in retail stores across the globe. Less than five years after Perkinson founded Bajio, the young company’s reputation has been cemented in part by the best eyewear award in 2022.
Perkinson, a Floridian by way of Memphis, Mississippi, New York and Montana, has spent his life by the water – be it the muddy Mississippi River, the mesmerising white water of Big Sky country or the aquamarine flats of the Atlantic coast from which the company draws its name (bajio means shallows in Spanish).
His long, grey hair hints to the revolutionary ethos of Bajio, a self described group of ‘punk rock’ anglers who proudly wheeled a school bus tattooed in fish art onto the show floor at ICAST last year.
“We have our booth divided into two parts,” adds Perkinson. “We call it the mullet booth. It’s business at the front and party at the back. We have got to bring the party back to fishing if we want the industry to be healthy and survive.”
Last year 13,346 attendees from 50 states as well as 80 countries made the pilgrimage to ICAST, where more than 630 exhibitors constructed a playground of trade show booths brimming with new fishing tackle, apparel, lifestyle products and boating equipment.
And while Bajio did not feature the largest booth at the show, the bus, built for company video creator Jay Johnson to fish around the country from, became one of the most talked about booths of the year.
With hundreds of exhibitors occupying booths ranging from the resplendent to the humble, ICAST can represent a rogues gallery of fishing brands. On the floor, tattooed school buses will blend with sleek marine electronics and professionally lit display stands spotlighting the most sophisticated rod and reel technologies on the planet.
Established brands with generational legacies in the industry sit alongside start-up success stories. Meanwhile, the most fledgling of companies can still be spotted with simple tri-fold displays like the one sported in 2022 by Overall Best of Show winner PacBak.
At booths of all sizes, annual Happy Hours have become an ICAST tradition doubling as one of the best ways to make connections within the fishing community. And if you ask Perkinson, that’s where ICAST truly shines.
“I think with trade shows, what we have forgotten about and what is been undervalued is the reason they exist,” he says. “It’s not only to do business. In fact, that is probably one of the less important aspects of it. I think these shows exist so the community can come together. They exist so people can tell stories, reconnect and build both friendships and business relationships.”
Exhibitor registration for ICAST 2024, scheduled for July 16th to 19th at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center, is already open at ICASTFishing.org. For exhibitors like Perkinson, the dates can’t come fast enough—even if he’s not sure what shape this year’s booth will take just yet. “We’ve done pinball machines. We’ve done the school bus. I’m not sure what’s next, but we’re going to have fun.”