Iconic fishing lure had very simple beginning – Toledo Blade

It is the endless journey of any angler, full of excitement and frustration, with fits and starts, Pyrrhic victories and humbling defeats. We seek to think like a fish, so that we might outwit that shrewd German brown trout that refuses to leave its log-strewn lair, or seduce a strike from a largemouth bass that brushes away your offerings like a habitually haughty debutante.

Those very sentiments were likely bouncing around in the head of Lauri Rapala some 80 years ago as he fished Lake Paijanne in his native Finland. Rapala, who would often row 30 miles a day while fishing, and drag a trotline rigged with a thousand hooks, fished to feed his family. He caught perch and pike, netted whitefish, and occasionally landed a trout.

During his many hours on the water, Rapala had the good sense to do what too many fishermen fail to do — he took time to watch what fish do. He saw the predators in the water use the skill of military tacticians to first concentrate minnows into a tight school, and then attack the cluster of panicked baitfish.

Rapala also noticed that, without exception, the big fish then would pick off any minnow that swam irregularly. Any wobble, wiggle, or indication that a baitfish might be injured would send the predator on a full-speed assault. Thinking like a fish, Rapala set out to recreate that trigger mechanism that would induce a big fish to strike.

He used a shoemaker’s knife and sandpaper to whittle away on a block of cork and sculpt his first lure. The tinfoil wrappers from chocolate bars were used to create the surface of the lure, while melted photographic negatives made up a protective layer on the outside of the lure.

The raw materials and simple tools gave his lure its shape and crude cosmetics, but it was the engineering that made it change fishing forever. Rapala designed the lure to float and wobble, and closely mimic the movement of a wounded minnow. As his story is told in the folklore of Finland, Rapala would sometimes catch hundreds of pounds of fish in a single day with that lure he created.

Lauri Rapala was convinced that although the color, shape, and design of a fishing lure was important, the action was the vital element. So as he made more of his fishing lures, Rapala painstakingly tested each one to be certain it demonstrated the movement of a wounded minnow.

“Our father really understood fishing,” Rapala’s son Risto once said. “He recognized the relationship between bottom structure and where fish are located. He learned how fish fed, and how they moved from one location to another.”

Rapala, pronounced Rap-a-luh, is not his real name. When a very young Lauri and his mother moved to a new village, the clergyman at their parish could not recall their last name so he entered the name of the Finnish village where they had previously lived.

Today, the word ‘Rapala’ is part of the international language of fishermen.

The Rapala in its original form and numerous subsequent variations is the most-used lure in the world. It also holds more world angling records than any other lure. Rapalas are sold in more than 140 countries, and about 20 million are made each year at factories in Finland, France, Ireland, Estonia, and China. Each lure is still tested to assure it has the proper action.

Since 1959, Normark Corporation has distributed Rapala products in the United States, and local fishing tackle supplier Jann’s Netcraft has sold thousands of Rapalas. Netcraft owner Bob Barnhart said that in a business where the competition is fierce and the market has seen a parade of “the next great fishing lure,” Rapala has history, reliability, and a lot of stringers of fish.

“The Rapala certainly has that natural physical appearance, but its success goes much deeper, in my opinion,” he said. “The action in the water is the key. It is just unimaginable to me how this person hand-carved those early ones, and got it to do that kind of action. The brilliance that went into this lure at the start has a lot to do with why it has been such a strong performer for so many years.”

Lauri Rapala died in 1974 and his family continued the tradition of creating lures that met the specifications of the iconic patriarch. By 1988, 100 million Rapalas had been manufactured, and the range of lures the company created expanded. The family sold the company about 20 years ago, and now Rapala USA produces lures, rods, reels, knives, and fishing tools.

But it all started with that one fisherman, and his simple, hand-carved lure.

“That floating Rapala is a staple, and if you check the tackle box of just about any fisherman in any part of the country, you will find one of those in there,” Barnhart said. “I can’t think of anyone I have ever fished with that didn’t have one or two of those in their box. It is one of those things that just always seems to catch fish.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.


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