When Bob Abplanalp was a boy, he used to go black fishing in Long Island Sound. Other kids might wear themselves out chasing fiddler crabs for bait, but Abplanalp got a better idea from his father. At low tide he sank a row of tin cans in the mud and herded the crabs toward them. Crabs fell in by the dozens.
Ingenuity runs in the family, and Bob picked up a good share of it. Faced with a challenge nowadays, ideas light up in his head, not so much like the bulb in the funnies but more like an exploding theater marquee. He holds more than 100 patents, and 20 years ago he invented the first reliable aerosol valve, the gismo that goes "sssssst" on top of a pressurized can. The company that this single invention started, Precision Valve Corporation of Yonkers, N.Y., now manufactures more than half the aerosol valves used in the world. Not many inventors make money on their brainchildren, but Abplanalp has more than made up for the unfortunate saps who have failed. He is the sole owner of Precision Valve, and last year the company grossed more than $50 million.
With no stockholders due an accounting, Abplanalp has been able to do as he pleases with the profits, and as a result Precision Valve has flipped over fish. By way of example, subsidiaries of the company run a unique trout fishing preserve and hatchery in the Catskills, are planning to raise and market hitherto expensive tropical marine fish for home aquarists and own almost a dozen islands in the northern Bahamas, including Walker's Cay, one of the finest big game fishing camps in the world.
Now 47, Abplanalp is a burly 6-footer built along the lines of a beer hall bouncer. His manner is affable and down to earth, and his employees call him Bob. His idea of a good time is to spend the day fishing and the evening playing poker with friends, such as Joe Trombetta. an old schoolmate who is a vice-president of Precision Valve, and Bill Ruppel, a former mate on Abplanalp's sport-fisherman who now runs the trout operation. One of Abplanalp's closest friends is President Nixon, who sometimes vacations at Grand Cay, seven miles from Walker's. Abplanalp, who acquired Grand Cay on a long term lease, has enlarged a house there for the President's use, but he makes it a rule not to discuss his friendship with Nixon because, he says, the President has a right to personal privacy.
Of Swiss extraction, he was born and raised in the Bronx. His father Hans, known as Pop around Precision Valve, was a machinist. After settling in the U.S. he began fishing in Long Island Sound and often took his son along. At home Pop spent hour upon hour teaching Bob all there was to know about machine tools. '"When I was 7. I knew how to run a lathe," Abplanalp says. "My father and I took care of all the household repairs." Pop earned a comfortable living, and Bob went to Fordham Prep, a Jesuit school, and then to Villanova to study engineering. He stayed only two years, returning to the Bronx, not unhappily, to open his own machine shop, R. H. Abplanalp & Co.
World War II had just started and, as Abplanalp jokes, "I thought I was going to be a war profiteer." Before the profits started rolling in, Pearl Harbor was bombed and he spent three years in the Army where he served with a railroad battalion in France.
After the war Abplanalp went back to his machine shop and all but starved for the next several years. "There were many weeks when I was lucky to take $10 out of the operation." he says. "There were times when I wished I could have gotten the hell out and found a job." He hung on by making all kinds of parts for a variety of machinery, ranging from lace knitting looms to electronic gear. Then one June afternoon in 1949 his luck took a turn.
A washing machine customer, John J. Baessler, stopped by with a problem. He had started distributing a line of aerosol products, which were new at the time, but buyers complained that the valves leaked. Baessler wondered if they could not be made reliable. "After we talked for several hours," Abplanalp recalls, "I said, 'Leave all the stuff here and I'll look at it.' I did and I got absorbed in the problem." For three months Abplanalp devoted himself to aerosol valves. He dissected them to find out why and how they leaked. Having his own machine shop gave him a great advantage. He was able to design a new part, cut it himself and test it immediately. If it did not work, he tried another approach. Baessler introduced Abplanalp to Fred Lodes, who was working for a chemical company, and Lodes gave him a crash course in the chemistry and physics of aerosol containers. By September 1949, Abplanalp had invented a new and dependable valve, made of seven simple metal, plastic and rubber parts, for which he was later granted U.S. patent #2,631,814. That same month, Abplanalp, Baessler and Lodes formed the Precision Valve Corporation as equal partners. Sales were meteoric, and Abplanalp was eventually able to buy out his partners by 1962. Precision Valve now has 2,000 employees, plants in Yonkers and Chicago, additional plants in Mexico, Canada, France, Argentina, Japan, West Germany, South Africa and Australia and a licensee in Great Britain.
Precision Valve's entry into the world of fish came more or less by accident four years ago when a company attorney urged Abplanalp to buy an Adirondack estate on Tupper Lake that belonged to another client. Abplanalp bought the place with the idea of using it as a retreat for Precision Valve employees or customers. Then he wondered if trout could not be raised there. He formed a subsidiary, Adirondack Fisheries, but for various reasons no trout were ever raised there. Instead, two years ago Adirondack Fisheries acquired a privately owned trout hatchery at Eldred in the Catskill Mountains.
The hatchery was enlarged, and public fishing ponds, now stocked with brook, brown, golden, rainbow and tiger trout, were dug. Admission is 50¢, with an additional charge of $2 a pound for each trout caught. A fisherman may sell his catch back to the preserve for $1 a pound or trade his fish for smoked trout. No fishing license is required, and there is no closed season. A snack bar and a picnic grove are on the premises, and attendants are on hand to teach youngsters the art of fly casting.
Although the pond fishing at Eldred was an instant success, Abplanalp realized it was not the sort of angling to attract the dry fly purist. Last spring Adirondack Fisheries opened a half-mile stretch of Halfway Brook, which flows through the preserve, for fly fishing only. Trout average more than a pound, and no more than 10 licensed fishermen a day are allowed on the stream. The charge is a flat $30 a day per angler with a limit of 10 fish.
Inasmuch as the Eldred hatchery can easily raise a quarter of a million trout a year, Abplanalp has plans to establish similar preserves elsewhere. He also has toyed with the idea of shipping live fish to markets and restaurants. "We cannot market frozen fish in competition with trout hatcheries in Denmark or Colorado," he says, "but we can compete delivering live fish. Live fish command a premium because people know they're fresh." For the past couple of years a truck has made a number of trial runs transporting live fish from the Catskills to Yonkers.
When the experiment began, Abplanalp thought about the possibilities of a one-piece aquarium unit to carry the fish. His thinking did not stop there. It so happens that Precision Valve has two subsidiaries, U.S. Thermo-Plastics and Tiros, which manufacture plastics that the corporation uses to make valves. These subsidiaries are headed by Dr. Hans Hafner, a nephew of Baessler and a scientist Abplanalp calls "one of the world's great polymer chemists." Perhaps Hafner and the subsidiaries could make aquariums not just for trout but for tropical marine fish as well. Regular aquarium tanks made of metal corrode when tilled with salt water. There was another problem. A saltwater aquarium, whether made of plastic or metal, is usually a chancy affair, primarily because the self-contained water can become polluted. The whole tankful then goes bad, and everything dies, from sea anemones to angelfish. As a result the market for tropical saltwater aquariums has never come near to realizing its potential.
Abplanalp thought the problems could be solved. While Hafner and the subsidiaries worked on the basic tank, Abplanalp hired a couple of marine biologists, Dr. Henry Feddern and John Sabol of the Institute of Marine Sciences (since renamed Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences) at the University of Miami, and put them to tinkering in a lab at the Precision Valve headquarters in Yonkers. They tested plastic filters and protein skimmers that would automatically remove the wastes. The experiments were a success, and Abplanalp plans to start manufacturing a complete saltwater aquarium unit next spring. All a hobbyist need do is plunk down his money for a unit (a 20-gallon aquarium should cost between $50 and $60), take it home, plug it in and stock it with fish to have instant Caribbean right in his living room.
When it became obvious that a foolproof saltwater unit could be built, Abplanalp still was not satisfied. "What good does it do to sell a unit like this if you don't have fish to put into it?" he asked. There, seemingly, was another problem: most saltwater tropicals have to be netted in the wild and shipped vast distances, with all sorts of attendant dangers, and they are usually expensive and beyond the purse of the average hobbyist, the very customer Abplanalp wants to reach. For instance, the blue angelfish, a common species in the Caribbean, sells for as much as $15 in the aquarium stores of New York City. Abplanalp told Feddern and Sabol to see if some species could be bred in captivity. After scoring a breakthrough in Yonkers with the neon goby, they have since moved down to Miami where Precision Valve is setting up a pilot hatchery.
Two years ago, when Abplanalp first thought of breeding tropical fish, he looked for a native setting where they could be raised in great numbers. He began buying islands in the northern Bahamas. Then he discovered that the islands he was acquiring were zoned against commercial use, and, moreover, the Bahamian government was skeptical of the whole venture, especially since Abplanalp had unknowingly hired a consultant who was wanted for taking protected fish from Bahama waters. To allay fears, Abplanalp discontinued the consultant's services and turned to scientists at the Institute of Marine Sciences for advice. As a result, Abplanalp was able to overcome the skepticism of the Bahamian government, and a new Precision Valve subsidiary bought nearby Walker's Cay, which was zoned for commercial use since it had been a game fishing resort for more than 30 years. "Walker's Cay will serve as the basic site of this whole concept of saltwater fish raising and breeding." Abplanalp says. "We'll be using our own breed stock. We're not going to rape the reefs or exploit the islands. I think this breeding will become a new industry for the Bahamas, and I like the idea of developing something new and different."
Werner Geiser, a former curator of fish at the Zurich Zoo, is in charge of the Bahamian breeding operations. It is coincidence that Geiser happens to be Swiss. Abplanalp simply hired the best man available and, in landlocked Zurich, Geiser demonstrated that he had a truly wet thumb by successfully breeding and raising two dozen different species of marine tropical fish for the first time anywhere. "Ya, I bred, yiiick, two dozen, ya, about two dozen," says Geiser, who is just learning English. "Puffer fish I breed first in der world. Den der spit-mouth puffer from Zambézia." If Abplanalp has any fears, it is that Geiser will not live to complete his work. An enthusiast of nature in the raw, Geiser is fond of chumming for sharks at night in the harbor at Walker's and then diving in to watch them feed.
When Abplanalp bought Walker's Cay, he was uncertain about what to do with the fishing camp. It had been run as a sort of "mom and pop" operation and was in need of repair. After thinking things over and doing a lot of fishing himself, he decided to enlarge the accommodations and make them plush. The camp will reopen on March 1, 1970, and the daily rates are $35 single and $45 double, European plan. A one-day sport-fisherman charter is $130, 22-foot inboards and outboards are $70 and Boston Whalers are $35 a day. Cost of all boats includes guide, tackle and bait.
Without question Walker's is a spectacular island. One hundred acres in size, it is 50 miles to the east of the Gulf Stream, and the weather is delightfully cool. Twelve world records have been set at Walker's, and some of the best fishing is to be had only five minutes away from the old hotel. An angler can wade nearby flats for bonefish, cast off the reefs for snappers, jig in the deeper holes for groupers or troll at sea for blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, dolphin, wahoo, bonito and bluefin tuna.
A year ago last summer, while trying to figure out what to do with the fishing camp, Abplanalp landed a 535-pound blue marlin. As pleasant as this was, his favorite fishing at Walker's is to troll live bait for wahoo or king mackerel. Just before the fish strikes, Abplanalp can see the bait squirm, moving the outrigger; when the fish does strike, it often leaps 25 feet into the air. ""Getting the slack out of the line and setting the hook then takes some doing," says Abplanalp. "I don't know of any fishing to beat it."
This past summer Abplanalp spent more than two months on Walker's, supervising enlargement of the camp, the building of breeding pens and improving the airstrip. One major problem was finding a new source of fresh water, and Abplanalp set himself to the task of seeing what he could devise. To be brief, he has invented what he believes to be a revolutionary way of desalting seawater, and the gismo he thought up can convert salt water into fresh water at a very low cost. Abplanalp's invention, for which he is now seeking patents, obviously has great potential, not just for Walker's but in providing fresh water for arid parts of the world, such as Southern California and the warring Middle East. If it works out as Abplanalp hopes it will, the invention will be one of the greatest boons to mankind since the wheel.
Is Bob Abplanalp, boy crab catcher turned aerosol tycoon, happy about all this? Yes, and maybe no. "You know," he says with a sigh, "I've been so damn busy working on this freshwater thing that I just haven't had time to do any serious fishing."