Rapala hard baits continue to play a significant role in the efforts of both top-flight tournament anglers and weekend warriors alike. For example, the DT6 contributed to Randy Howell’s winning catch at the 2014 Bassmaster Classic and the DT Series in general has developed a dedicated following. The Shad Rap has been a cold weather staple for three decades. But newer baits, like the DT20, which helped Jacob Wheeler win the 2020 MLFLW Super Tournament on Lake Chickamauga, and the new OG Series, developed by Ott DeFoe, continue to keep Rapala at the leading edge of the crankbait scene.
As a result of these later products, the original Rapala Floating Minnow gets scant attention from the tournament scene, with many dismissing it as a “pond bait.”
Good design combined with decent marketing efforts will almost always win out in creating a successful lure and lure company. If you have good marketing and bad design, or vice versa, you may survive for a while, but eventually things will slow down or dry up.
The Original Floater
Lauri Rapala, inventor of the Original Floater, began making his lures in the 1930s, and as they evolved the Finnish lures became popular throughout Europe, particularly after the Summer Olympics were held in Helsinki in 1952. They were also brought to the United States around that time, a period during which European tackle like Mitchell spinning reels gained wide acclaim stateside. Nevertheless, it took a string of other fortuitous events to get widespread distribution of the Rapala brand in the states. First, the 1952 Summer Olympic Games were held in Helsinki and some visiting athletes brought the lures home with them.
Tackle rep Ron Weber (R.W. Weber Sales) of Minnesota went to Canada in 1959 with friends and was embarrassingly outfished by his friend Al Wallin, who used a lure sent to him by an uncle living in Finland.
“It’s not every day that I get outfished,” Weber told the Los Angeles Times. “When I saw my friend catching fish after fish, I became a believer on the spot. There was something different about this particular lure.” He later contacted the company in Finland, obtained 500 lures and partnered with sporting good store owner Ray Ostrom to create “The Rapala Company” (later “Normark,” short for “Nordic Enterprises”) to distribute the lures stateside, but the comparatively high price of the imported lures as opposed to domestic products – nearly twice as much — created barriers to success. Still, as monofilament and spinning gear increasingly gained market share, there was an opportunity for growth – if only the proper catalyst was stirred into the mix. Ostrom and Weber ordered 1,000 lures in 1960 and 2,040 shortly thereafter.
A Chance Coincidence
That big step came in August of 1962, when Life Magazine published an article about Rapala’s floating minnow entitled “A Lure Fish Can’t Pass Up.” It wasn’t scheduled to happen. Writer Marshall Smith was in Minnesota to research a story about the new Minnesota Vikings franchise when he heard about the increasingly popular lures and recommended to his editors that they investigate the matter further. They did, and the article got put in the pipeline.
The publication alone might’ve spurred sales under any circumstances, but the Rapala team’s efforts were boosted by an unfortunate event – the death of Marilyn Monroe, which became the last-minute cover story for the magazine. According to reports at the time, it became the highest-selling issue in the magazine’s history.
Weber compared the article to “pouring gasoline on a campfire,” adding that “we were overwhelmed with requests for Rapala lures. In no time at all we had orders for about three million pieces.” Mythical stories tell us that demand was so great and supplies (initially) so low that anglers would rent them out to their buddies much like what later happened with Fred Young’s Big O crankbait. Retailers were charging $25 apiece at a time when a typical similar lure retailed for somewhere in the one-dollar range. According to the Rapala website: “The two-person U.S. company began receiving three or more bags of mail a day, some of which contained cash begging for as many lures as it could buy. However, the small company couldn’t handle the requests and nearly went bankrupt returning the money.”
The Finnish company couldn’t keep up with demand, and they weren’t sure if they were ready to expand in response to that demand, but a $10,000 loan from Weber to build a factory was a deal that they couldn’t turn down. Lauri Rapala died in 1974, but his family kept the business going, and Weber, according to the St. Augustine Record, “used sophisticated mass marketing campaigns to bolster Rapala sales” at a time when most other members of the industry took care of such efforts in-house. “He was a marketing genius,” said Norville Prosser, former Vice President of the American Sportfishing Association.”
Rapala’s Legacy Lives On
Ostrom retired from Normark in 1984. Weber continued with them in various capacities until 2000. He built a vast fortune in multiple industries, but told the St. Augustine Record in 2001 that he was “a fisherman first and a businessman second.”
Lauri Rapala was inducted into the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame in 1998.
Weber sold Normark to the Rapala family in the 1990s and the company went public in 1998. He was inducted into the National Freshwater Hall of Fame in 2000 and passed away in 2012.
Ostrom sold his share of the company to Weber in 1984. As his daughter told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Dad used to tell me: ‘Life is like a ruler. It has only so many inches, and we have only so much time.’ Normark was demanding more of his time, and it just wasn’t worth it anymore, the loss of his hunting and fishing opportunities.” He was inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame in 2000 and died in 2012.