Tuna fisherman teams up with engineers to build ‘Zombait’ robotic lure

Rigged Pogie

Two years ago over Christmas dinner, Maine tuna fisherman Rink Varian aired a favorite gripe: The tuna he caught vastly preferred live bait fish, but he almost never had enough of the little critters on hand. What if someone built a device that could re-animate dead bait fish into effective lures?

Varian’s musings fell on deaf ears season after season, but this time he snagged a partner. Engineer Matthew Borowski, Varian’s family friend, decided to team up with the fisherman build such a device.

This month, a version of the tool Varian dreamed up is finally on sale. It’s called ‘Zombait’ and looks like a giant crayon with a tail. Place it in the mouth of a thawed-out bait fish, toss it in water, and voila, the wriggling electronics inside the fish create the illusion that it’s come alive.

The Zombait lures on display at the company's workshop in Medford.
The Zombait lures on display at the company's workshop in Medford.
Along the way, Varian and Borowski reeled in Boston project designer Jessy Cusack to join the project and started a company in Medford — Magurobotics — to manufacture the device and sell to recreational and commercial fisherman.

Weekend anglers and commercial fishermen prefer small live bait to the frozen bait they can buy at stores. That’s because big hunting fish like tuna are on the watch for movement, and live fish with sunlight flashing off their scales make for more convincing bait.

“Fisherman know that when they have to fish with dead bait they’re settling,” Cusack said.

A fishing trip begins with a bout of bait-fishing, but sometimes schools of the smaller fish are hard to find. Or, stored in tanks on a fishing boat, they don’t last too long. “Pretty often and pretty universally live bait are a hassle,” Cusack said.

The team kept their day jobs — Cusack at Proctor & Gamble, and Borowski at Draper in Cambridge — but invested in a Makerbot 3-D printer and started prototyping.

Varian’s vision posed a basic engineering challenge, Cusack explained: “Salt water is one of the hardest environments to design for because salt water just eats everything.” So an early goal was to waterproof the device so that it would survive a good dunking in the ocean, while keeping costs low.

The team has visited competitions and fishing shows to allow fishing enthusiasts to sample their product. Cusack reports that many view the Zombait as a backup tool when they run out of the fresh stuff.

Last month, the team began raising money on Kickstarter to manufacture the first models of the device. With 17 days to go, 117 backers have contributed $13,000 of the target $27,000. Magurobotics promises to send a Zombait lure in exchange for contributions of $54. If funded fully, the team hopes to begin manufacturing the lure locally.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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