By Larry Dablemont
If I had to pick a half-dozen lures to take with me all the time no matter where I intended to fish, one of them would no doubt be the celebrated floating Rapala. While we were in Canada a few summers ago, my wife lost one of my Rapalas to a hungry smallmouth, which came up from deep water to engulf it only a few feet from the boat. The drag was set properly, but when there’s only a few feet of line out, the drag doesn’t always keep a four-pound fish from breaking a four-pound line.
She said that she would get me another one for my birthday but I don’t know if I came out ahead that way. If she hadn’t lost that lure, I could have got one for my birthday and then had two! Believe me, you can’t have too many Rapalas. These are unique lures that have never gone through the rise and fall that most lures have experienced. They have never stopped appealing to fish and fisherman alike.
There’s quite a story behind the Rapala. And by the way it is not pronounced like most of us pronounce it. The lure was first made in Finland by a man named Lauri Rapala back in the 1950s. Say Rapala, like you would say spatula. Believe me, no one likes to have his name mispronounced… no one knows that better than me, with a name having a long “a” pronounced almost always incorrectly, with a short “a.”
Lauri Rapala’s whole family worked to make the lures, each one handmade and tested in a tank before it was sold. There was a small clothing store in Duluth, Minnesota, whose owner was the Minnesota Finnish Consul, and he brought in several of the lures to sell. In 1959, a Minneapolis fisherman named Ron Weber went through on his way to Canada for a fishing trip and he bought several of them. He was amazed at the way fish engulfed them, and when he got back to Minnesota, he ordered 500 from Lauri Rapala. He then started the Normark Corporation here in the U.S. just to import and sell the new lure. But Lauri Rapala didn’t mass produce the lure, and in the early days, there just weren’t enough to meet the demand. “There are so many of you,” Rapala told Weber, “and so few of us.”
My uncle Norten was guiding on Norfork Lake in the '60s when the first Rapalas were seen there. He told me that some docks acquired a few and refused to sell them because they could make so much renting them on a daily basis. The lures were rented to customers who paid a deposit of $10 in addition to the rental cost of $5 per day. If you lost the lure, you didn’t get the deposit back, and ten bucks was a lot of money back then.
The casting reels back in the fifties and early ‘60s were filled with braided nylon and most of them were old Shakespeare and Pflueger casting reels, incapable of casting any light lures. So there were few small lures used, you wanted the big ones, about 10-inches long. One of my uncle’s clients could only throw the Rapala 15 or 20 feet, so he would back-paddle away from the lure while the angler would play out the line until they were a good distance from the lure.
Then the fisherman would wiggle and dart the lure slowly across the surface, and the bass would go after it as if they hadn’t eaten for a week. Eventually, everyone copied the Rapala, and today you’ll find imitation floating minnows from two inches to 12 inches, used for everything from bluegill to muskies. The Rebel Lure company has long made a very good Rapala imitation, but when you are using a true Rapala, you are using a lure that just can’t quite be equaled. And I don’t know any species of fish that can’t be taken on a Rapala of one size or another, either a floater or a deep-running version. And they make a pretty good birthday gift for avid fishermen!
I go over to the nearby lake in the summer with a little switch of a rod, light line and a small Rapala lure, and walk along the bank, or run my boat along just fifteen feet or so out away from it and catch a tubful of small green sunfish and other panfish to use for summer trotlines. The catching of a freezer full of catfish filets starts with that little short Rapala.
But on any Ozark river, above or below a swift flowing shoal the last two or three hours of the day, an ultra-lite spinning reel with four-pound line, and a four-inch silver Rapala will catch Kentucky and smallmouth bass one right after another. Most aren’t really large, but two pounders aren’t rare. And every now and then, standing out waist deep in that cool current, you hook a bass that makes you think you might not get that Rapala back. In such a case, I wouldn’t even think of letting Gloria Jean use one.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Dablemont is an outdoor writer from Bolivar, Mo.