Luring in the Lunkers – Columbiametro

Jeff Amberg

Without the right bait, fishing becomes a fool’s errand. Plenty of lures are available — live bait, hard bait, soft bait, spinner bait, top water — but ultimately Mother Nature will decide if an angler made the right decision when, and if, a fish hits their line.

In 1936, the late Lauri Rapala decided he would work smarter, not harder, by observing nature and using his knowledge to craft a bait for catching fish in the waters of Finland’s Lake Paijanne. During his outings, he observed how bigger fish consistently attacked smaller wounded fish more readily than an able-bodied specimen.

Lauri began crafting a lure from cork with a shoemaker’s knife to mimic the wounded minnows he saw being devoured by the larger fish he wanted in his live well. He used the tinfoil wrapping of chocolate bars as a shiny outer surface and melted photographic negatives as a protective coating for his prototype. Legend has it he once caught 600 pounds of fish with his lure. As Lauri’s eminence grew, everyone in the area wanted one of his lures, and from these humble beginnings, one of the largest corporations in the world of sport fishing was born.

Though the sport fishing company known as Rapala pre-dates World War II, it hit its stride with Lauri Rapala’s “Original Floating Minnow” in the 1950s. Anglers around the world were catching more fish with Lauri’s minnow than with anything else in their tackle boxes. This lure, created in the 1930s, is technically still in production today but now is made of balsa wood and offered in a variety of colors. It is marketed and sold as Rapala’s No. 1, go-to lure due to its versatility and capability of being employed as a top water, shallow runner, or bottom depth bait, depending on how the anglers decide to rig their lines. Today it comes in color schemes representative of several species of fish from all over the world — a far cry from its prototype model of chocolate bar tinfoil. When rigged correctly, the lure still resembles a wounded minnow for a hungry lunker seeking an easy meal. The company also continues its practice of hand tuning each “Original Floating Minnow” by testing them in a dunk tank, ensuring they swim true to Lauri Rapala’s intended form.

Columbia’s Steve Gibson sustains the innovative traditions of the internationally renowned Rapala brand by creating his own designs for the company. He landed his first job in the sport fishing industry 20 years ago after graduating from Clemson University with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and then answering a newspaper help-wanted ad for Shakespeare Fishing, based in Columbia. The company was looking for an engineer to design fishing reels. Steve, originally from Orangeburg, moved to Columbia and built a strong bond with his supervisor, who left Shakespeare Fishing a couple of years later and took Steve, along with a handful of his coworkers, to Rapala, which by then had become an international Finland-based conglomerate of fishing gear and tackle brands.

With a corporation as large as Rapala, it is a safe bet that plenty of their lures lie in the tackle boxes of South Carolina anglers, but Steve is not at the company to design products specific to fishing in the Palmetto State. Rapala began distribution in the United States during the 1960s, and though its headquarters for U.S. operations is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Steve works from his home in Columbia.

“I’m in Columbia because I like Columbia. The winters are hard up there in Minnesota,” Steve says. “None of us from Shakespeare wanted to leave Columbia, and our boss at Rapala said, ‘No problem.’”

Steve’s home office looks well-equipped for the task of creating fishing lure designs for an international company, with several fully stocked bookshelves and a large desktop computer pushing four monitors and complex engineering software at high speeds. Steve has a project support team, but he is the only chief engineer based in the United States, designing everything from hard and soft bait, spinner baits, jigs, and top water baits. His designs span all major categories of lures used by anglers all over the globe.

When sport fishing relates to lures, lines, and hooks, very little in the angling world is without Rapala’s fingerprint. “We have bait manufacturing in Finland, Estonia, and Indonesia. We make hooks in France and fishing line in Taiwan,” Steve says.

According to Steve, the company has grown exponentially since he started there 18 years ago. “When I started, we were only a few brands — Rapala, Storm, and Blue Fox. Now, we have four times that many.” Steve designs for all 12 brands currently under its umbrella.

Designing an appealing bait for fish in their natural environment entails a complex task of blending art, engineering, and biology. Steve chooses his own path while designing a lure, starting with a concept of what he wants the lure to do, something not offered in any of the current lineup of Rapala’s brands. He also looks for trends in the sport fishing world on which to base his initial designs. For example, fishing from kayaks and paddleboards in fresh and salt waters is becoming more popular. Thus, Steve might see a gap in the product line and attempt to fill it with one of his designs.

“There’s no engineering handbook for how to design fishing lures,” he says. Lures made by competitors also weigh into his design process. “We don’t want to wind up copying something already out there. We want our own ideas. We’re trying to build a better mouse trap.”

After the conceptual stage, along with internal and external market research, Steve relies on the scientific studies of marine biologists, in addition to his own 20 years of industry knowledge, to help him flesh out his concept. His collaboration with marine biologists informs him of the species-specific characteristics of the fish he wants to attract. Armed with this information, Steve now knows how the lure should look and act in the water. “Fish eat different things at different times of the year, and they live at different depths during those times of the year,” Steve says. As such, he might choose several different color schemes for a single lure, which is left to his discretion.

At this stage, Steve’s concepts become designs. He sends his work to one of the factories for a prototype. His design is then tested and revised several times before reaching the market. Getting a design this far in the process usually takes one to three years. Even after his lures matriculate into Rapala’s inventory, they are not guaranteed to stay around.

“You hate to put something out there and see it go away in a couple of years,” Steve says. He understands the sport fishing market will ultimately decide the fate of his work, but he cannot help but feel some level of personal attachment to each lure he creates. “They’re all my babies!”

He has had more successes than failures, and his first project for Rapala’s “Storm” brand of lures, one of his soft baits called “The Storm WildEye Swim Shad,” has been featured in its lineup since 2002, remains a strong seller, and still ranks as Steve’s best-selling design. “That lure has been in our catalog for more than 16 years, and every year we still sell hundreds of thousands of them. What has surprised me the most is its versatility. We designed it primarily for the bass market, but it gets used for multiple species in fresh and saltwater,” Steve says.

Each lure presents a unique set of challenges for Steve, but one of the most challenging lures he has developed during his career was his “Terminator Walking Frog.” He spent two years fine tuning it for production. “The frog market is very crowded and very competitive, and it was a new category for us. To make something successful for that market, it had to be unique, and it had to be better than all of the other baits in that segment,” Steve says.

Dan Quinn, field promotions manager for Rapala, shares, “Steve’s most recent successful lures would be the ‘Terminator Walking Frog’ and ‘Popping Frog.’ He was more involved in the engineering of those lures, but typically has a hand in most.”

Shortly after the success of his “Terminator Walking Frog,” Steve created a similar lure called the “Terminator Popping Frog,” which he considers one of his greatest designs. “We introduced that one about a year after the ‘Walking Frog,’ and our pros tell me it is hands down the best popping frog on the market. They use it regularly in tournaments, and when guys depend on these lures to catch fish with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, it is indeed high praise.”

From the designs on his desk, Steve selects one of his artificial frogs and explains how it is being used in both Southeast Asia and Florida to catch snakehead fish, which is considered an invasive species in the United States but remains a wildly popular catch in the Far East. “They’re a very aggressive species, so people over there love to fish for them with top water baits like these,” he says.

Steve enjoys wetting a line when the opportunity presents itself, but having two busy children and working for an international business monopolize most of his schedule. “I love to fish when I can, but it’s tough finding the time,” he explains. Hopefully, Steve can manage to sneak away for a quick jaunt on the water to test his designs.

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