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The Making of a Legend: How the Original Floating® Rapala® Transformed Sportfishing Around the World

 

The legend of the Original Floating Rapala began back in 1936 when Lauri Rapala, a Finnish fisherman, carved his first homemade fishing lure.

 

Every day, around the world, on lakes, rivers, oceans and farm ponds, millions of anglers tie on a Rapala® fishing lure. Whether it’s the new OG Slim® 6 or an Original Floating® Rapala® in classic black and silver pattern, there’s an expectation of quality that few other fishing lures must meet. Built with balsa, hand-tuned and tank-tested, the Rapala fishing lure and still featuring its distinct wobbling action that fish of all species find irresistible, the Rapala continues to remain legendary for its ability to catch more and bigger fish.

 

Like most great products that we have come to rely upon and cherish, the story of Rapala fishing lures is a rather humbling one that demonstrates the power of observation, the will to preserve and the twists and turns of success. It also demonstrates the power of teamwork. The RapalaVMC Corporation today relies on several thousand employees who are all passionate about the products they make and the joy they bring to anglers worldwide. It is through their continuous, collaborative efforts to innovate and to keep seeking better solutions for anglers that the memory of Lauri Rapala, the inventor of the Original Floating Rapala, rings true and strong.

 

Humble Beginnings

Rapala is probably the most well-known Finnish word in international use. The story begins on a cold November day in 1905 when a simple serving maid named Mari gave birth to a healthy boy in Sysmä, a small town located about 2 hours north of Helsinki. She named him Lauri.

 

 

Lauri was born in central Finland, a flat land of evergreen forests peppered with thousands of lakes, much like the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin or the province of Ontario. Since the lakes were that far north, they are very poor in food and very cold. The fish – pike, perch, trout, whitefish and minnows grow very slow. The minnows are black on top, gold on their sides and white on the belly – just like a Rapala fishing lure.

 

At the age of seven, Mari and her son Lauri moved to the municipality of Asikkala and in writing the extract from the Sysmä register, the clergyman forgot the surname “Saarinen” and instead wrote the name of the village from which Mari and Lauri had come – Rapala. Ironically, in Finnish, “rapa” means “mud.” But who would have known that carrying the name, Lauri Rapala would one day create employment for people around the world as well as the people of Asikkala or that the name would one day bear the mark of one of the most legendary fishing lures ever imagined.

 

Upon arriving in Asikkala, Mari took a job as a serving maid and net-minder in the household of Santeri Tommola in the Asikkala village of Sarkijarvi.

 

As for Lauri, as soon as he was able, he was put to work, as most other Finnish children of that time. There were no schools in Asikkala nor any of the subsidies that are offered to single mothers and their children as there are today. There was only long, hard, backbreaking work to earn a simple crust of bread. Lauri survived and he radiated a natural strength and keenness.

 

 

In his early twenties, Lauri met his future bride, Elma Leppanen, who served as a maid in the Tommola household. In 1928, they married and moved to the nearby village of Rihilahti to live in her parent’s house, where they would live until 1933.

 

The Daily Struggle

The early years of Lauri and Elma’s marriage were dominated by poverty and hunger. Times were tough and became more difficult as the impact of the Great Depression was felt in Finland.

 

In those years of shortage, Lauri worked in the forest during the winter as a lumberjack for a lumber business. In the summer, he fished. He netted whitefish and set long lines for pike and perch. He’d also trail a baited hook behind him for trout because he could get more money for trout than the other fish caught at the village market. Three of them, totaling eight pounds, would earn the equivalent of two weeks factory wages.

 

 

The work was hard, risky and lonely. It was a living that constantly tested the young man each and every day. But at least Lauri was a “free” man who strongly believed in maintaining his independence at any cost.

 

To catch the northern pike and perch that lived in Lake Päijänne, Lauri used a trotline with about a thousand hooks on it. He would trail the trotline behind his soutuvene, the traditional Finnish fishing boat. Lauri had no motor, so he had to row about 30 miles every day, except in storms, of course.

 

Lauri would bait the hooks with minnows and other bait fish from Lake Paijanne and a nearby forest lake. Since he was constantly either fishing or cleaning his catch for market, Elma would carry buckets of bait fish from the forest lake to Lauri. She typically would make three trips a day, walking an average of 20 miles a day, in addition to caring for the couple’s four young boys.

 

At times, according to his son, Ensio, Lauri would fish for trout with a homemade rod. When a trout would hit, he would throw the rod overboard and row after it, allowing the fish to tire itself out. That’s how much a trout was worth.

 

The First Rapala

As Lauri’s first model to create the proverbial “better mousetrap,” he experimented with a well-worn wooden lure from America that he had obtained.

 

He tried to create an imitation of the lure but the effort proved fruitless. The lure simply did not catch fish. What they needed was a live model.

 

Together with his friend Akseli Soramaki and hermit Pylvalainen, who lived out on an island in the middle of Lake Päijänne, the three men observed that the wooden lure did not have the same action as a live bait fish. Over the years, Lauri noticed, while looking at a school of bait fish, that a trout would always strike the slightly wounded or sick minnow among the hundreds of minnows. It was the minnow’s action – its erratic, wobbling swimming action – probably inspired by fear, that made it a target.

 

For several years, Lauri experimented. He fiddled with hook assemblies and gutta-percha sheets looking for that right swimming action. Finally, with a shoemaker’s knife, a file and sandpaper, he shaped the first successful lure from cork in 1936. Tinfoil from the neighbor’s cheese packets and chocolates formed the surface of the lure. To create a protective coating, Lauri melted unwanted photographic negatives on the lure, since no lacquer was available. The first Rapala still exists today – it’s black on top, gold along the flanks and white on the bottom – just like the minnows in Lake Päijänne.

 

 

When he completed that first lure, Lauri trolled it with the line tied to his thumb. Eventually, he would troll several at a time. It mimicked a minnow with an injury so well that salmon, trout, pike and other game fish would attack it in earnest. As fish tales go, some of his sons say that Lauri caught as much as 600 pounds of fish a day with his new lures.

 

Of course, many people have invented fishing lures. Sportsmen are always looking for a better way to increase their ability to catch fish. What’s different about Lauri Rapala’s story is that he was a subsistence fisherman. If he and his family did not eat the fish Lauri caught, they sold them to pay the bills. The Rapala lure was born out of necessity. It had to work…or else.

 

Near the end of the 1930’s, war began to break out throughout Europe. Supplies of imported cork and balsa ended. Shortages of everything worsened and Lauri Rapala’s large family needed food. Fortunately, his new invention worked, and he caught lots of fish with it from Lake Päijänne. As a man knowledgeable about nature, Lauri switched from cork to pine bark to create his lures.

 

Lauri obtained the bark from pine stumps and from logging sites. Some owners may well have been surprised when Lauri wanted to buy crooked pine trees overshadowing their fields. And even more surprised when he left them the tree, while he took the bark, which he carefully removed.

 

The War Years

The war moved closer to home when the Soviet Union army invaded Finland. Lauri left his home and four children to defend his homeland, as so many other Finnish men did. When Nazi Germany declared war against the Soviet Union, the enemies switched, as the Finnish people fought against the invading German army.

 

 

It was during these lean years that one can see the value of having a strong wife and a large family because, although Lauri had that basic drive, it was Elma who provided the backbone of the family.

 

She taught Lauri to read and write. Elma made tree-root brooms and brushes to be sold at the Lahti market as extras at Lauri’s fish stall. During the war years, she painted pinecones gold and silver for Christmas tree decorations and had the couple’s boys sell them to neighbors in order to raise money for the family. Later, Elma created the cardboard boxes for his lures. At the same time, she played “supermom,” handling the bills and correspondence, cleaning and tidying the household and in the process, bore the couple two more girls for a total of six children.

 

After six years of serving in the Finnish Army, Lauri Rapala returned home for good.

 

Word of Lauri’s lure had spread during the war years. He would frequently use his lures to catch fish for himself and his Army friends. His lure really got a bang of a promotion one day when he challenged his Army friends to a contest. During those times, the fastest way of bringing up fish was to throw a stick of dynamite into the lake. Lauri said his lure could do better. After several hours of fishing, he caught 78 pike, far exceeding what his friends had caught with dynamite.

 

Starting a Business

Demand for Lauri’s lure increased, particularly among summer vacationers to Lake Paijanne. Lauri was surprised that anyone would pay him for his lure, but he didn’t mind taking money from rich people. Word of mouth advertising for the lure also spread with word of the number of fish that Lauri caught and the awards his lure earned at local agricultural and industrial demonstrations. Eventually, he had to give up fishing to concentrate all of his effort on whittling his lures.

 

 

To keep up with the demand, Lauri added his sons to the work force. And neighbors joined the work force too. At one point, more than 25 people were hand-whittling the lures.

 

Some machinery helped the situation. The first sign of mechanization was the introduction of an old spinning wheel, with a strip of sandpaper around it. The spinning wheel was used to smooth and polish the lures and greatly increased this process. Ensio also developed a special circular saw and a band saw to create identical lure blanks.

 

 

As mechanization gradually crept into the lure making process, Lauri maintained one rule above all others. All the lures would be hand tested for that “wounded fish action” which made Lauri Rapala’s lures unique, before they would be sold. Lauri tested the lures in a shed belonging to a timber company during the winter; in the summer, he tested the lures in the lake. Today, that tradition continues. All Rapala lures are tank-tested and hand-tuned in more than 40 test tanks at the company’s factory in Vääsky.

 

Despite the increase in demand, Lauri’s lures still did not have a name. At times, the lures were simply referred to as “wobblers” for their action. It was not until the demand became so great that the Rapala family had to have the manufacture of the lure’s boxes transferred to Lahti. Ironically, the clergyman who gave Lauri Rapala his name was house manager of the printing company and suggested that the best name on the box would be Rapala.

 

 

During the years after the war, Lauri’s “Rapalas” gradually made their way across the Atlantic to the United States. A friend of the family, Vihtori Tommola, who had moved to the U.S. in 1912, frequently vacationed in Finland and brought the lures back to other Finnish friends who had moved to North America. The lures were also given as gifts by the Rapala family to friends who had moved to America.

 

The lure’s reputation received another boost in 1952 when Finland hosted the Olympic Games. A couple years earlier, during the summer of 1950, a Helsinki merchant, Fritz Schroder, noticed Lauri Rapala testing some lures in Lake Paijanne. At first, Schroder thought that Lauri was a poacher, but when Lauri explained what he was doing, Schroder bought three lures, right then and there. Schroder tied one of his new lures onto his fishing line, cast it, and immediately hooked a trout.

 

Schroder bought more lures and stocked them in his store in Helsinki. American athletes participating in the Olympic games purchased the lures and brought them home as gifts for their loved ones. Word of the lure’s success continued to spread.

 

The Discovery

The biggest event that would solidify the Rapala lure’s place in fishing history came in 1959. A Finnish consul, Aleks Kyyhkynen, sold Rapala lures in his clothing store in Duluth, Minnesota, and that is where a young businessman, Ron Weber, a fishing tackle sales representative, purchased his first Rapala following a Canadian fishing trip. It was during that trip that Weber saw first-hand the power of the Rapala fishing lure to catch fish.

 

 

Upon his return to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area he sent an order to Finland for 500 Rapala lures and sought a relationship with Lauri Rapala.

 

When Lauri received the order, he had to have the strange-looking foreign language translated for him by a schoolteacher at the village school in Kalkkinen. Lauri and his son, Ensio, hastened to Helsinki to the Foreign Trade Association to arrange the export of Rapala lures to America.

 

Rapala Fever

After establishing a relationship with Lauri Rapala, Weber formed a partnership with Ray Ostrom, a local fishing tackle store retailer, to market the lure. Together they formed the Normark Corporation to distribute the Rapala lures in North America. Normark would later be merged into the Rapala company and is today RapalaVMC.

 

 

As Normark distributed the lure to North American anglers, the lure’s reputation grew and grew and the need for more Rapalas became painfully evident. The problem lay in the Rapala company’s painstakingly detailed manufacturing process. Each lure was personally hand-carved, tested and tuned. In addition, Lauri Rapala continued to spread his time between making lures and commercial fishing. To alleviate the pressure, Weber flew to Finland and through an interpreter, persuaded the Rapalas to build a factory, hire more employees, and concentrate on making lures. Weber personally advanced his family’s life savings, approximately $10,000, to the Rapalas as seed capital to build the factory.

 

 

Weber’s trip couldn’t have come at a better time. In 1962, Life magazine published a two-page article about the Rapala lure – “The Lure Fish Can’t Pass Up”. Coincidentally, that article ran in the same issue which featured a cover story on the recent death of Marilyn Monroe – in what was to become Life’s largest-selling issue of all time.

 

 

“Rapala ‘fever’ spread like wildfire throughout the U.S. The telephones were ringing off the hook at Normark,” said Ron Weber in a 1992 interview. At the time, Normark was only prepared to distribute the lures to Minnesota and Wisconsin, although the company planned to expand its distribution to the rest of the country. Normark’s inventory was quickly exhausted and it logged a backlog of more than 3 million lures.

 

“We went national overnight,” Weber said, “and we were totally unprepared.” Subsequently, many cheap “rip-offs” of the Rapala were created by other companies that hoped to cash in on the bonanza.

 

Fortunately, many of these didn’t survive because they lacked Rapala’s commitment to quality and the secret “ingredient” – Lauri Rapala’s “observation” that is built into every lure.

 

 

At the same time, some enterprising bait shops and vacation resorts rented their Rapala lures for $5 a day with a $20 deposit, which added to the mystique of the lure. And some people were selling their Rapalas for as much as $20. Lauri Rapala and his sons soon found themselves facing the seemingly impossible task of filling orders for more than a million Rapala lures.

 

As a result, Lauri achieved “hero” status in his land and finally overcame nearly half a century of poverty and hard labor. With his earnings, Lauri bought a new house for himself and Elma. But his success didn’t change him. Even though Lauri finally found the “good” life, he remained shy and simple in his new life, even when visited by the president of Finland and Great Britain’s Prince Philip. He only took one trip outside of his homeland — he spent two weeks in the United States along the Minnesota-Canadian border, fishing for pike and walleye with Ron Weber and Ray Ostrom.

 

Growth of Rapala®

As the demand for Rapala fishing lures grew, the folks at Rapala listened carefully to the needs of anglers and began a long history of not only introducing innovative variations on the Rapala lure, but also connecting anglers worldwide with other proven fishing brands, such as Vibrax® spinners, VMC® hooks, Sufix® fishing line, and much more.

 

Today, RapalaVMC® markets hundreds of products – lures, knives, scales, hooks, fishing line, ice augers — in dozens of countries worldwide, meeting the demanding needs of freshwater and saltwater anglers.

 

Like the Original Floating Rapala, innovation has played a critical role in the growth of RapalaVMC®.

 

After the Original Floating Rapala was firmly entrenched in North American tackle boxes, the company came out with several new innovations based on the action of the Original Floating Rapala. Each lure redefined fishing by adding new dimensions to catching fish. And yet, all relied on the same basic observation that Lauri Rapala made more than 50 years ago – “out of a school of baitfish, a trout will attack the wounded or sick minnow first.”

 

And then, as though history were repeating itself, the company introduced the Shad Rap®. After eight years of development, Rapala had designed what many believed to be the most perfect fishing lure. Modeled after the threadfin shad, a popular baitfish in the United States, just 350,000 lures were released in 1985. The reaction was unbelievable. Shad Raps were being sold for as much as $45 on the black market and resorts and baitshops were renting them for as much as $20 a day with a $20 deposit. Normark once again faced backorders for more than a million lures.

 

 

Throughout the years, RapalaVMC has gone on to introduce an incredible array of fishing lures and products that have redefined modern sportfishing – the Husky Jerk®, the DT® Series, the Skitter Rap®, the X-Rap®, the OG Series, and many more.

 

Through it all, though, the Original Floating Rapala continues to be RapalaVMC’s number one selling lure, year-in and year-out. And over the years, the reputation of the Rapala has grown, not only for its meticulous quality, but for its ability to do the one thing it was built to do, very, very well – catch more fish and big fish. In fact, according to the International Game Fish Association, the Rapala holds more world records than any other fishing lure ever made.

 

 

All the world is your honey hole. There’s a reason more fishermen around the world put their faith in Rapala®. It’s a confidence that stretches through 140 countries and is validated each year by the 20 million Rapala lures sold. Simply put, Rapala products make good anglers great. Nothing rushed to market, but carefully crafted from years of experience. No shortcuts. No gimmicks. No flash in the pan, next greatest things. It is a legacy of unwavering quality that can be seen in every lure, every fillet knife, every tool, and every cast of our premium fishing line. A legacy that continues with new Rapala offerings of more lures, new actions, new sizes, new colours, new finishes, new tools, new accessories and new ways of catching more and bigger fish.

 

At RapalaVMC, we are fishermen first, we know not only what our fellow fishermen need, but what they can’t live without. We feel it’s our responsibility to provide anglers with their tools of the trade. The lures, tackle and accessories they need to be effective anglers. We don’t take that responsibility lightly. In fact, it’s our mission to always maintain the integrity of design and manufacturing that has become our trademark. Our promise is that no Rapala® item will never reach the eager hands of an angler if it is not extremely effective at its intended function.

 

As the story of Laurie Rapala demonstrates, we learned a long time ago, that there’s no substitute for quality and ingenuity.

 

See Rapala® Original Floating®

 

See Rapala® Shad Rap® Series

 

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