February 27, 2018
In the early 1900s, our bassin' forefathers were thankful for the introduction of exciting new lures. Seems James Heddon of Dowagiac, Michigan, had been whittling various hardwoods to create bass plugs. Wood lures cast far better than those of wire, sheet metal, and feathers, and had lifelike action on top and realistic swimming movements when cranked below the surface. His first design was a frog, carved from a pinewood broomstick. On its initial test a bass demolished it, so the story goes. In 1902, he applied for his first U.S. patent for his invention of "new and useful improvements in fish-baits." For the first decade, James Heddon and son Will produced surface lures. He introduced the Wiggle King in 1918, a shallow-diver, with the promo, "The wobble makes 'em gobble."
Success brought competition, notably three gentlemen from Garrett, Indiana, who founded the Creek Chub Bait Company and opened a factory in 1911. Just five years later, their Wiggler went into production with a metal diving lip that could be considered the world's first lipped crankbait. The Wigglefish, credited with luring George Perry's record largemouth in 1932, came a few years later.
Jumping ahead about 25 years and some 4,400 miles, Lauri Rapala, a commercial fisherman in Finland, fashioned a lifelike minnowbait from bark and foil, with a coating of melted photographic negatives. As the story goes, he caught more fish by trolling his delicately balanced, lipped lure than with gangs of trotlines baited with live minnows. After the end of World War II, he taught his four sons the art of luremaking and his business was born.
Rapala's lures filtered across the sea, some acquired by Olympic athletes at the 1952 Summer Games. With its large Finnish population, the first lures became available in northern Minnesota in the late 1950s, attracting the attention of Ron Weber and Ray Ostrom, fishing tackle retailers who teamed up to import Rapalas in 1960. Eventually, Rapala became the world's largest lure company.
The Rapala family settled on balsa as the wood of choice to make Lauri's minnow. Its buoyancy gave the lures a delicate flutter and quick rise to the surface that was like his original hand-crafted model. Today, Rapala continues to be a world leader in producing balsa lures, though they also make lures of various blends of plastic. The original lure, now called the Original Floating, is still one of the hottest sellers after some 77 years on the market. Mark Fisher, Director of Field Promotions for Rapala, says the Original Floater has withstood the test of time. "The #9 and #11 sizes remain as popular today as when they first became available to retail in the early 1960s," he says. "Despite trends in lure color over the years, the original gold and silver models remain the best sellers, over a million pieces annually."
All woods offer challenges to lure makers. Compared to plastic baits, it's much harder to maintain tolerances, since hardness and moisture content vary among trees and even within parts of the same tree. If it wasn't for the unique characteristics of the Central American balsa tree, no one would carve lures from it. But given its unique buoyancy and ability to make lures come to life, Rapala and many other companies, large and small, continue to use it.
"Rapala owns a series of balsa forests in Ecuador," Fisher reports, "where we replant and rotate plots to maintain stable production. From there, the wood is sent to Finland where it's graded. For lures with most delicate action, such as Shad Raps and Original Floaters, we use only wood from the core of the tree, where texture and density are most consistent. These characteristics vary more toward outer part of the tree, but that wood is fine for lures like crankbaits. Lures like the DT series of divers or the Tail Dancer exhibit powerful action that overcomes any minor variances in wood makeup. And that's why it's no problem to include a rattle chamber in those models.
"Trees are cut into working lengths, such as a 12-foot length that's 1¼- X 1¼-inch, that are fed into lathes programmed for each model and size. After a series of steps, out come dozens of Shad Rap shapes, for example. Then precision saws cut slots for lips and hook hangers. After at least seven coats of clear coat and paint, they're shipped to Estonia, where workers attach split rings and hooks and conduct final testing in 40 identical tanks. From tree to package, the process can take months.
"We're often asked why we don't make a balsa lure that suspends," Fisher continues. "The fact is, it would be nearly impossible to produce a quality product of that sort. We've learned that it's hard enough to make plastic lures that consistently suspend at various water temperatures. Given the variability of any wood, and particularly balsa, it would not be economically feasible, even if it was physically possible."
About seven years ago, Rapala offered the first encapsulated lures, the BX Minnow and BX Swimmer, a jointed lure. "Basically, they're balsa lures encapsulated by an outer plastic shell," Fisher explains, "like an M&M. The outer plastic uses the balsa body for support. Sonic welding the left and right halves provide superior strength, as well as protection for the delicate balsa. The tolerances to manufacture these components have to be incredibly accurate for it all to fit perfectly." He also revealed the upcoming introduction of the BX Brat, an encapsulated balsa bait with a square lip, available in two sizes.
"I was always a balsa nut," admits Phil Hunt, owner of PH Custom Lures as well as his Old School Balsa Baits brand. "Along with fishing, I began crafting them as a hobby. I got to know Lee Sisson who designed lures for Bagley Bait Company and he helped me out." After anglers gave his custom balsa lures a positive response, he retired from his career as a paramedic and went full-time three years ago. "The custom lure business has gotten huge," he says. "I recently built a new building and just hired four new people. The bulk of our business is in balsa, but I make several topwater lures of the Malaysian wood, jelutong, and also have added some resin lures.
"It's hard work and I'm not getting rich. And I don't get much time to fish anymore," he rues, "but it's rewarding to get so much great feedback from anglers." Hunt offers two lure lines of balsa baits, both from select-grade wood. PH Custom Lures are more labor-intensive, with circuit-board lips, premium VMC hooks, special painting and drying treatments, and are air-brushed in multiple hues by Hunt himself. One layer of clear coat has a UV inhibitor to prevent fading. They're also hand tuned in a tank and guaranteed to hunt right and left, out of the box. Production requires 41 steps and takes two weeks to complete a lure. They retail from $23 to $25.
Old School Balsa Baits also are hand-made and hand-painted, and have VMC hooks. Dipping and painting are not as extensive as with the Custom Lures and lips are polycarbonate, except for the Wesley Strader Series, which have circuit-board lips. They may need minor tuning and retail for $10 to $14. "It's interesting that I sell almost 10 times more of the Custom Lures than the Old School models," he says. "I have tens of thousands of these lures going out the door, and each year is bigger."
Rebirth of Bagley Baits
Entering the tackle business in 1954 with a line of pork rind, Jim Bagley of Florida became intrigued with balsa lures, including the sensational new Rapala or Finnish Minnow.
He recognized its light and lively action as key to attracting bites, and he also wished to increase lure weight slightly to allow easier casting. His Bang-O-Lure first offered in the early 1960s was a great success, as were his diving lures, the Diving B, Balsa B, Small Fry Series, and more. Pros and weekend anglers embraced the brand and Bagley baits accounted for four Bassmaster Classic wins in the 1980s.
Bagley sold the company in 1998, and several groups and individuals owned the brand over the next 12 years. Anglers complained that favorite styles didn't match the old ones, and the classics were treasured by pros and collected. Today, some rare models sell on eBay for over $1,200.
In 2010, Jarmo Rapala, grandson of Rapala's founder and former CEO of the Rapala Group, along with a new ownership group, bought the company and began to reenergize the brand. As an admirer of Jim Bagley for his attention to quality and product ingenuity, the younger Rapala incorporated a new production process and quality control, with Don Hultstrand, a former Rapala executive, as president.
The centerpiece of the new production model is Heat Compression Molding (HCM), a multi-step process that yields a consistent top-quality lure. "After balsa wood from Ecuador is brought to the factory in Serbia, it's cut to specified lengths and widths," Hultstrand says. "The balsa then goes into a CNC router where lure bodies are formed, then they're sectioned in half, lengthwise.
"The balsa halves are then placed in a heated metal mold and compressed together. Heat causes the body to shrink and the grain to tighten, resulting in a smooth and harder exterior and a truer consistency in lure weight. This allows use of fewer layers of clear coat and paint, keeping it more buoyant as well as creating a harder exterior.
"The HCM process also carves internal channels where pieces of lead are positioned, along with a wire harness for hardware. The halves then are joined and sealed, hand-sanded, then primed and painted. Finally, they're tank-tested to ensure alignment of the lip and eye. This process means that each lure is precisely weighted and balanced to achieve the subtle action designed into each one." In addition to classic designs like Diving B2, Bang O Lure, Crawfish, and Small Fry, new models include the Balsa Shad, Balsa Minnow, Rumble B, and Sunny B, as well as a couple of new surface lures. Thanks to the efficiency of the new process, they retail from $7 to $9.
The Deflection Connection
It should be no surprise that wood lures are at home among the trees. We recognize the importance of contacting cover when fishing crankbaits. The collision causes the lure to veer off to one side, then return to center. There's something about this motion that seems to imitate the erratic kick often exhibited by a wounded baitfish.
While rocks offer a target for banging, standing timber offers cover at a range of depths. Remaining limbs are bass magnets but now are scarce in our aging reservoirs. Often only stumps remain, especially in impoundments that fluctuate frequently in water level.
"It's a challenge for even expert casters angler to hit such a target on a long cast," says David Fritts, who has pocketed well over a million dollars in tournament winnings with his crankbait acumen. Over the years, he's worked with Poe's cedar crankbaits, and was closely involved with development of Rapala's ever-popular DT lineup. He's recently worked with Berkley to create a large series of plastic crankbaits, incorporating the appeal of wooden baits with the practicality and advantages of plastic. From the mid-1990s to 2008, he dominated numerous tournaments where he dialed in a deep cranking pattern with Rapala DT10, DT16, and DT20 divers, targeting individual pieces of cover from 10 to 20 feet deep. When he got dialed in, he not only won events, but often crushed the field by 10 pounds or more.
"You're basically trying to put that lure into a 2-foot by 2-foot window, at a distance of maybe 35 yards," he says. "The art of triangulating spots has been almost lost, with new GPS applications. But if you mark a stump you pass over, you need another marker to define where to cast from. Many of us old-time crankers would line up tall trees, barns, or bridge abutments to locate offshore spots, sometimes no more than a stump or two or a big rock in 12 to 15 feet of water. We'd sketch drawings of the location, with notes on angles, distance, compass orientation, and depth.
"Today, side-imaging makes it easier, since you can spot a stump from 80 feet away and pop a waypoint on it. As long as you clearly label your waypoints, you can approach from any angle and get pretty close. Still it may take half a dozen casts to contact such an object. Moreover, the best deflection comes when a lure is traveling in open water and bangs into it, creating a sudden turn and momentary change in direction. It doesn't work as well if you root along the bottom, then bump into the cover."
Fritts has always been a fan of low-geared baitcasters for his deep work, originally the Lew's Speed Spool with a 4.7:1 ratio. "You need to let the lure do its work," he says. "Once it gets down there, let it hunt and bump at a pace that makes it easy for a bass to eat it." In contrast to the frenzied pace of many of today's pro anglers, Fritts fishes deliberately, with a mental image of the cover as he dissects it with his crankbait. He believes an angler's feel of a lure is enhanced with a slow, steady retrieve.
A Need for Speed
Of course, shallow square-bill bangers are most effective when bounced off cover, too. The Original Big O, carved of balsa by Fred Young in 1967, was the first true square-bill. It gradually developed a cult following and within 10 years, avid crankers were paying up to $20 for one. Cotton Cordell bought Young's patent and made the lure of hard plastic.
But with the change in material and new models from competing companies like Norman Lures, Bagley Baits, Rebel Lures, and more, the Big O had lost its magic. But square-bill crankbaits continue to be one of the hottest lure categories as companies design new models of wood and plastic, knowing that in the right cover conditions and in the hands of experienced anglers, nothing can match their fish-catching ability.
As Young always pointed out, one of the keys to the square-bill is a fast retrieve that keeps it wiggling and bouncing through cover, deflecting and returning to center. His choice of balsa meant the lure's buoyancy helped it keep from snagging. Veteran shallow crankers develop a keen sense of feel to tell the difference from a treble hook starting to bury in a branch and a bass bite. In the case of the former, momentarily stopping the retrieve and pushing the rod toward the lure allows it to back off the cover. The buoyancy of balsa helps greatly in this regard. A firmer stoppage generally means a fish, and a hook-set is a mere sideways pull of the rod.
But most experts don't rely on fast reels for such fishing. Cranking ace Rick Clunn favors models with a retrieve ratio of 6.1:1 to 6.3:1. "The old 5:1 models we used to use are not fast enough. But with reels having a ratio of 7:1 or higher, you're fighting the lure's pull too much and losing sensitivity of what it's doing," he says.
Combining the natural appeal and traditional values of wood lures with today's new technology and worldwide trade agreements brings anglers wonderful lures of new and old designs. Enjoy them for their tradition, their looks and feel, and most of all the bass they catch.