The Shy Millionaire
Whose Legend Lives

by William Farmer

   If you're a fisherman, you know the Rapala--the lightweight lure that mesmerizes fish. But you may not know the story of the man who invented it--an obscure, simple Finnish fisherman named Lauri Rapala who made a fortune from his device only to end his life in tragedy.

     Born out of wedlock in 1907, Lauri never knew his father's identity. He had no last name until he was five years old, when a minister christened him "Rapala" after the town where he was born. The word, which is derived from the Finnish expression for "mud," seems in retrospect all too appropriate for the short, blond lad destined to live most of his life in poverty, to fight the Russians and Germans in the same war, and finally to experience both the glory and irony of success.

     In 1936, Rapala created a floating lure with a unique twist. For years he had fished in the forest lakes two hours north of Helsinki. From his rowboat he had studied the watery struggle for existence, watching for countless hours as bait minnows flitted past the poised jaws of patient game fish, mostly trout and northern pike. "I saw that the big fish would wait to select a particular minnow from all the rest," he explained. "The minnows struck by the gamefish invariably had a flaw in their swimming rhythm." Training his eye, Rapala learned to predict which minnow would be the victim--the weakened member of the school.

     These were not idle observations. Rapala relied on fish for a living in the harshest of conditions. After brief stints in farming and lumberjacking, he had settled down to fishing and married life with his wife Elma. They raised seven children in all, and the entire brood lived through 21 years of depression and war in a 13-by-13 foot, single-room log cabin. Furnishings included one bed and, after electricity arrived in 1939, one lamp.

     Rapala fished hard. In the lakes near Vaaksy, Finland, he would row a wood boat for days at a time, supplementing his nets with live bait on hundreds of hooks (he never owned a fishing rod). Sometimes he returned with 600 pounds of trout in two days; other times, nothing. In the winter, his son Risto recalls, Lauri skied for miles across the snow and ice, dragging a sled and cutting holes through 23-inch ice, then dropping bait lines into the freezing water.

     It was during his summer rowing ordeals, however, that Rapala conceived his idea for a lure. While he waited for his lines and nets to fill with fish, Lauri tied cord to his hand and trolled bait as he rowed so as not to waste a precious moment of harvesting from this aquatic field.

     He hit upon the idea of a lure that would imitate a wounded minnow so realistically that game fish could not resist attacking. After experimenting, he determined that lightweight materials allowed for the keenest duplication of a minnow's natural swimming motion. Using pine bark at first--later improved with balsa from Ecuador--Lauri carved a lure body, which he wrapped in tinfoil peeled from candy and cheese wrappers. He glued the tinfoil over the body and, to make it resemble a minnow, drew scales on it one at a time with an old-fashioned ink pen.

     The lure was an astonishing success, greater even than the inventor's expectations. Word spread locally, and Lauri made no secret of his discovery, generously sharing newly made "Rapalas" with fishing friends and neighbors.

     Good news travels fast in the fishing world, and demand soon prompted Lauri to start selling a few lures.

     It all came to a sudden halt in 1939, however, when the Russians invaded Finland and Lauri enlisted in the army. It was five years before Lauri could return to his cabin, where Elma had kept their five boys and two daughters alive against lean odds.

     With peace and the increase in leisure, fishing regained its popularity--particularly in North America--and Lauri resumed making lures in his spare time.

     By the mid-1950's the Rapala had reached the United States. Lauri had sent several lures as gifts to Finns living in Florida and along Canada's border country, where game fishing abounds. In the northern fringes of Minnesota, where Finnish heritage is particularly strong, the name "Rapala" became celebrated--reflecting both national pride and spectacular fishing results. Finns traveling to the old country were petitioned to bring back some of the prized lures. The Rapala seemed able to catch almost any gamefish--trout, pike, even bass were falling for it in prodigious numbers and sizes.

      Although it was handmade and rare, the Rapala became almost a craze. In the United States, the lightweight lure's introduction coincided with the appearance of lightweight rods, spinning reels and mono-filament line. Fishermen found that the Rapala's feathery lightness permitted it to be cast, trolled or floated with ease.

     There were stories of fishermen stealing the lures from each other. Enterprising owners along Lake Superior's north shore rented the new "phenomenon" to eager anglers wanting to try them out for a weekend. The "gifts" from abroad soon were selling under the counter for more than $25.

Ron Weber, a young tackle salesman in Minnesota, had heard gossip of the lure and was intrigued by its manic popularity. In 1959, Weber and his partner, Ray Ostrom, wrote to Lauri asking if they could sell some of the lures in North America.

     By this time, residents in cottages throughout little Vaaksy were converting their kitchen tables to workbenches as Lauri's family and friends tried to keep up with the soaring demand. Lures were sent to Weber and Ostrom, and they sold quickly. Letters passed back and forth across the ocean until an agreement was solidified. In July 1962, the 55-year-old fisherman made a contract with the two Americans. They were to distribute Rapalas in North America as quickly as the industrious Finns in Vaaksy could turn them out--because each lure, Lauri stipulated, had to be handcrafted.

     Then it happened. Life magazine had learned of the lure. "The Lure Fish Can't Resist" was ballyhooed in the headlines in the August 17, 1962, issue. On the cover, Marilyn Monroe flirted with the readership, and Life broke circulation records.

     "The phones started ringing," recounts Ostrom. "We couldn't believe it." Orders piled high as demand for the quality lure seemed insatiable. A year earlier, sales had approached 100,000. They totaled 800,000 by 1964 and soon were into the millions.

     This year more than 5 million Rapalas will be sold worldwide. But even today, with more than 130 sizes, colors and model variations, Rapalas are made, tested and adjusted with painstaking care by workers at the Vaaksy factory.

     Lauri moved into a larger home in the countryside. He was a local hero, an overnight success after half a century of hard labor and suffering. Yet he remained unaffected by his fame. A simple man, he accepted his new station cheerfully with friends but shyly with visiting dignitaries, who included the president of Finland and Great Britain's Prince Philip.

     "He did not care to travel," says his eldest son, Risto, now 46 and director of production at the Rapala factory. "In fact, he went only to the United States once for two weeks and fished in Lake of the Woods on the Canadian border of Minnesota." Recalls another son, Enzio, 44, who is managing director: "He carried little or no cash. If he went home in a taxi, he told the driver to go to the bank and get his money."

     In 1965, a younger son, Kauko, drowned in one of the lakes where his father had fished and tested lures. Kauko's boat hit a piling in the night, and he fell into the water. Searchers found the body a week later. Snagged into the trouser leg of the 26-year-old was a Rapala lure. The tragedy shook the old man to the marrow. "He never was the same after that," says Risto. "To him, it meant simply that the waters which had been so good to him had now demanded a gruesome repayment in the death of Kauko."

     Whatever his reasoning Lauri began drinking heavily after the death of his son. He kept at it for the next nine years. He turned over the thriving lure business to his surviving sons and took only limited interest in its progress.

     His small, once-powerful body was unable to overcome the inroads of disease. On October 20, 1974, Lauri Rapala died at the age of 67. His personal estate totaled only $27,000--he had given the rest away.

     Lauri was buried beside his son Kauko. But his name lives on, immortal among fishermen. And the Rapala is still pulling in the fish.

Hand-Tuned, Tank-Tested

     This is true angling history; the story of the revolution wrought by Lauri Rapala. As Bill Farmer's fascinating story in Parade    magazine relates, Lauri Rapala would stop his rowing on a remote Finnish lake to study the schools of minnows and the large predator fish waiting to feed on them. He took special notice that out of the hundreds of minnows in a school, only a few would become prey to feeding fish. What was it about these few minnows that attracted the fish? Lauri Rapala's answer lay in the basic law of nature itself.

     In his mind's eye, Lauri Rapala visualized that the minnows had only one real line of defense. From beneath the school, where the gamefish stalked, the light underside of the minnow was virtually invisible. Against the light and glimmering surface of the lake, the minnows were carefully camouflaged and safe from attack.

     Only the few minnows that showed irregular behavior could be seen by the feeding gamefish. From the fish's point of view, it looked like a dark flash of silhouette as the weak minnow struggled to swim normally.

Lauri Rapala's Secret

     Flashing his darker topsides, the minnow showed its fatal flaw. It was only a matter of time before he flashed his last time and was swallowed up in nature's law: survival of the fittest. It is this lifelike swimming action, which exactly imitates the motions of a weakened baitfish, that is the Rapala lure's secret to catching more and bigger gamefish. It is Lauri Rapala's great discovery and it is built into every Rapala lure.

     Until Lauri Rapala discovered this secret of why gamefish strike--that slightly off-center wobble of a doomed, struggling baitfish--lure technology was a largely hit-or-miss proposition. Many lures looked real or attractive in the box but proved anything but effective in the water. They lacked, either in design or execution, the vital difference in action: an action that cannot be duplicated by all the automated production lines and superficial surface appearance in the world.

     If the action is the key, and Lauri Rapala proved once and for all that it certainly is, then each lure must not only be manufactured with that lifelike, quivering action built in, but each lure must be individually hand-tuned and tank-tested to guarantee that action. To this day, every Rapala (and only Rapalas) are tested and tuned, by hand, to produce the action that causes a gamefish to single out one minnow from the multitude of baitfish available to him.

The Technology That Revolutionized Fishing

     To make sure of that distinctive action, Lauri Rapala experimented with different kinds of wood. He finally settled on balsa as the ideal material. Its lightness, buoyancy and grain structure proved perfect for the living action he sought. And as the old Finnish fisherman shaved, honed and tuned his prototypes into life, today's manufacturing processes in the several Rapala plants duplicate his concern with precision.

     Before each lure reaches the end of the production line, it has been subjected to no fewer than 30 different quality assurance tests. Only the finest materials and techniques have been employed in production: Stainless steel wire exactly circumscribes the selected Ecuadorean balsa and firmly secures the needle-sharp hooks. The finest plastic lip materials, metal foils, plastic coating and trim are precisely melded so that no lure emerges from the testing tank without the action discovered by Lauri Rapala.

     A final word on imitations: While hundreds of lures might purport to look  like the Rapala, none has achieved its uniquely realistic action. The reason is that none of the imitators is made with the same fine attention to detail, the handcrafting, the balancing and adjusting that goes into each individual Rapala without fail.

This article is reprinted in its entirety from the April 8, 1979, issue of "Parade" magazine, the Sunday newspaper supplement that reaches millions of homes each week. The author, Bill Farmer, is a nationally syndicated writer and columnist for the St. Paul "Dispatch" and "Pioneer Press" who traveled to Finland to cover the story of the legendary Lauri Rapala.

Vol. 1, Issue 28, June 28 '98

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