If any item holds special mysticism among fishing gear, it’s the lure. Some anglers spit on them for good luck; many have favorites (my dad and I still call one spinner, which will be kept secret to protect innocent fish, our “secret weapon”); rules abound for their use, like “light on dark days, dark on light”. Or was it vice versa? There are spoons and buzzbaits, tubes and cranks, jitterbugs and streamers (and dry flies, wet flies, and a million other flies) to choose from. It’s a lot to keep track of.
It’s understood that at their basic level, lures are deceptions meant to replace live bait, which are hard to gather and often expire prematurely, escape or are used up before the day’s work is done. But beyond that, a surprising majority of fishermen don’t really understand lures — and in this vacuum, myths abound. So we spit on them. And worship them. And generally pick them from our tackle boxes without much sense of why they’re the right choice.
And the lures (the good ones, at least) tend to work, maybe not every time, but on the whole — which, given recent findings about the intelligence of fish, is more impressive than we might have realized. In a recent study, biologist Culum Brown found that “fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates.” Turns out they don’t
have five-second memories. More like a year, and maybe more. Brown has even written that certain fish species like the wrasse show similar tool use to primates and corvids (birds).
Fishermen have long known that fish are often smarter than they. But the rest of us probably haven’t given the lures used to catch these clever creatures their due. In fact, the best lures are really works of inventiveness, science, utility and even art.
Of any fishing lures, those used by fly fisherman seem to most readily fit this impressive description. Fly fishing has been around for many centuries, and for as long as they’ve whipped a line back and forth, fly fishermen have tied their own special lures. They’re called flies, but they’re actually representations of
everything fish eat, from crayfish to minnows to aquatic bugs, larvae and mayflies.
Fly tying exudes studiousness and skill: it’s done on a fly tying bench, where a bare hook, often numbingly small, sits clenched in the teeth of a clamp. The tier adds fur, feathers, and synthetic materials to the hook, fastening them with fine threads of different colors.
Some tie artistically, creating miniature works of art; some apply the sciences, studying the different genuses of bait, referring to them in their Latin names and striving for the perfect imitation to trick hungry fish; many are pragmatic, tying standard patterns they know will work, patterns that have been tied for years and can be found in many fly-tying books.
The true greats, like Lefty Kreh, combine them all. Kreh is a legend among fly fishermen most of all for his casting technique, which is one of the sport’s several leading theories on the skill. But he’s also a writer — having published 32 books or so on various fly fishing topics — and a prolific fly tier. He gave fly fishing one of its best modern lures: Lefty’s Deceiver. Out of the water, the Deceiver is a silly-looking thing, and drastically simple: relatively large, in the “streamer” style, with a small epoxy head whose eyes sit near the front of the hook’s straight shank, its body pillows out in a rainbow of feathers and hair, usually bright on top and shading towards a white bottom. Looking at it inspires the same nose-wrinkling sensation one often gets when viewing modern art — what’s so special about that? I could do that!
But then, you didn’t. As Lefty tells it, the Deceiver was born from a fishing trip for striped bass at the Crisfield crab packing plant in the Chesapeake Bay. “At that time”, Lefty explains, “there were millions of stripers, and at the crab plant it was unbelievable. Crabbers caught the crabs, then brought them to the factory. They got the meat out. Then they would take snow shovels and throw the shells into the water off their docks.” Lefty was dispatched by a Baltimore newspaper to write about the fish’s feeding frenzy on those discarded shells.
“The fly was like a wine bottle in a jail cell”, he says. “But if the [fly’s] wing was fouled [tangled] on the hook, the fish wouldn’t take the fly. I told [my editor], I’m gonna make a fly where the wing doesn’t foul, has a bait shape, and when it comes out of the water, sheds water and is aerodynamically easy to cast.
I wanted it so you could make it any color combination or size.”
Lefty’s fly built upon other saltwater lures, but his slight alterations made all the difference. “A lot of things you do backwards are better than other ways to do ’em”, he explains. “Everybody put the wing on the front, I put it on the back, put a collar on it for a bait shape. It doesn’t foul.” Kreh calls it the most imitated fly ever, and he’s probably right.
Though hand-tied flies can be impressive works of art and inventive design, fly fishermen don’t have the monopoly on great lures. Take Rapala, for instance, a mass producer of lures used by spin fishermen (the common fishing method, with a straightforward rod and a spinning reel). The Finnish company’s creations have caught more world-record fish than any other brand’s. Their baits all stem from a lure made by Rapala’s founder, Lauri Rapala, in 1936. The Finland native caught fish not for fun but to eat and survive; much like Kreh, he used a moment of inspiration and the tools he had to create something that would catch more fish. The story sounds simple, and it is: his original “floating minnow”, the first lure of its kind, was a hand-carved a piece of bark shaped like a minnow, wrapped in tin foil to flash like a live bait and studded with hooks. By the 1950s, Rapala’s baits had been refined
to pieces of painted balsa wood. They had also migrated to America. Rapala was still making them by hand in Finland and couldn’t keep up with demand, so fishermen rented rather than bought them at a going rate of $5 a day, plus a $20 deposit — lose the lure, lose the deposit.
The basic premise of Rapala’s lure has remained much the same since those days. Each is made with wood from Rapala’s own balsa forest in South America, cut to different shapes and sizes, and fitted with a small plastic lip. All of these configurations define their “action”: whether they dive deep, zig-zag, float near the surface, or all three. They have a huge variety of paint jobs, from realistic silvers, browns and blues to ostentatious “tiger” orange and bright greens.
The company uses field testers to gauge their lures’ effectiveness, but Rapala’s design process is no longer solely dependent on the guess-and-check method in the field. The entire brand is still centered in Finland, but now a product development team works with engineers to come up with prototypes based on computer schematics. Once those designs are cleared by the field testers, the lures go into production. On the production line, the lures are touched by about 40 different people and spend three to four minutes each in human hands. Finally, a tester puts the lure on a rod and
runs it through a test tank before it’s individually packaged. Each lure costs between $4.49 (for the “Rattlin’ Rapala”) and $20.89 (for the “Clackin’ Magnum”).
Rapala’s lures and Lefty’s Deceiver share a surprising companion: luck. If Kreh hadn’t been sent to the Chesapeake to write his story, his Deceiver might have never been made. And Rapala has a similar tale of fickle fate playing her hand. The lure took off only after the brand advertised for the first time ever, in Life magazine in August of 1962. The cover happened to be Marilyn Monroe, who had just shocked the
American public with her sudden death. That issue sold in record numbers, bringing Rapala to households across the nation.
While Rapala makes 20 million lures a year and fly fishermen still tie Lefty’s Deceiver by hand (though they can also buy pre-made Deceivers, which cost $3.95 a pop), both lures share a simple universality: fish try to eat them, all over the world. In a way, that’s all that matters.