Fishing Rapala-Like Lures

In this article I will discuss fishing with Rapala-like lures (also referred to as minnow plugs). I will use the word Rapala like folks use the word ping pong to describe table tennis. Ping pong was merely the name of a table tennis equipment company and Rapala is merely the oldest (since 1936) brand name of long minnow-like lures that both dive and wiggle.

The lure I am referring to includes any of the long diving stick-like artificial baits that have a lip that imparts a life-like wiggle to the lure. I am not advertising any particular make or model. Go to any tackle shop and you'll see dozens of them on the shelf.

My favorite is the Husky 13 Floating Minnow. It is 5.25 inches long, but never fails to catch fish large or small. I've caught 18-pound carp and five-inch smallmouth bass at Flaming Gorge on Huskies and they're my favorite lure for lunker trout on the Green River. Over the years I've spent hundreds of dollars on minnow plugs–and I'm convinced they work.

Rapalas have long been my favorite lure. I first used them some 25 years ago and I've been hooked on them ever since. I own and use more than 30 of them in most colors, sizes and styles available. And, although I use many of them, I prefer the floating non-jointed models the most.

Rapalas were first designed to look and act like live fish and over the years they have evolved into a variety of makes, models and colors to imitate a wide variety of fish in almost any water condition. They can be found in sizes ranging from a few inches to almost one foot long. I have caught bluegill to mahi mahi and everything in between on Rapala-like lures. Here in Utah I have caught virtually every fish species on them except mosquito fish, minnows and the protected fishes of the Colorado River system, although I'm convinced even some of these might go after these lures.

They are useful in lakes, ponds, streams and rivers and also the ocean. They can be fished deep, shallow, downstream, upstream, fast, slow and even dead still. They can even be fished backwards for top-water ocean fishes!

Rapalas were designed to imitate live healthy prey fish and, unfortunately, they do just that. However, most predatory fish (and most fish species are predatory) are opportunists and don't relish the challenge of chasing down quick, healthy prey unless they are truly hungry and aggressive. The problem is that fish are not always hungry or aggressive, so they are more likely to attack sick, slow or unusual acting prey that is easy to catch and swallow. It is also true that larger, rather than smaller, prey is more desirable as predators would rather eat one, or a few, food items rather than expend a lot of energy catching a lot of small items.

The upshot of these two considerations is that larger lures with unnatural movement, but with real-life appeal, will usually work the best in most situations. To attain the real-life appeal, I use patterns and colors that imitate the common prey of the fish species I am trying to catch. The clearer the water, the more precisely I try to match lure color, and even size, to the probable available prey. At night, in more turbid water, or deep water, I use larger and more brightly colored lures to get the attention of fish.

To impart unnatural movement to a lure that has been designed to swim naturally can be done by either altering your retrieve, altering the lure itself, or by simply altering how you attach it to your fishing line. I alter my retrieve by either pumping the rod as I reel or troll, or by varying my reel cranking speed. The stop-and-go or fast-and slow techniques are more sure to work for hesitant fish that tend to follow but not strike the lure.

The most common way to alter a Rapala-like lure, to increase its action (wobble), is to bend the nose eye down slightly with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. This must be done carefully, however, because you don't want to make the lure run to either side or to roll towards the surface. The idea is to make the lure wobble so that it flashes at the slowest of speeds.

The following technique is by far my favorite and has resulted in more fish for me than any of the others. A Colombian acquaintance showed me this method, claiming that it increased his chances of catching peacock bass on a tributary of the Amazon. Instead of using a snap swivel or loop knot advocated by most Rapala fishermen, he taught me to tie the line directly to the eye without a ring. I use a good knot, usually a Trilene knot or any knot where the line goes through the eye twice. Once the knot is cinched down tightly, it is slid down the eye until the lure concurrently wobbles and runs straight.

The advantage of tying the lure directly to the line without a loop becomes obvious in time. First, the lure doesn't flip around in a cast and catch the line nearly as much as with other techniques; and second, by simply adjusting the knot up or down, or side-to-aide, the lure can be made to wobble more or less, and can even be made to run left or right.

The main problem with this technique is that it requires constant attention to make sure the knot is tight and properly adjusted. I recommend that the knot be retied occasionally (after a snag or after landing a fish, etc.), and that its position be checked after every cast.

The optimal line pound test to use depends upon the conditions and the fish being pursued. However, I usually use the line appropriate for the size of Rapala I'm using. I use six-pound test for the smaller ones and up to 10-pound test for the larger freshwater models. If you use line too heavy or stiff, you will reduce the action of the lure.

A common question is: "Do I use a single body or jointed body model?" Although I often use jointed bodies for trolling because of their unique action, I seldom use them when casting. With the flexible tail, the trailing hook on the jointed body often swings around and hooks the line, rendering the cast useless and often spooking fish like brown trout.

Another common question is: "Do I use sinking, neutral buoyancy, or floating Rapalas?" I seldom use sinking models as they have reduced action and are more prone to snag up on the bottom. To get deeper, I either add split shot to the line 12 to 24 inches above the lure or use a deeper diving model with a larger lip. One appropriate use of sinking models is casting from a boat to a steeply sloping shoreline or wall but, even then, I prefer weighted floating models. I really like the new neutral buoyancy models because of their versatility. They are especially valuable when "killed" (stopped dead on the retrieve). "Killing" is a great technique for catching difficult-to-catch fish.

I favor the floating Rapalas for most of my fishing because they are lighter for their size and have more action. They can be retrieved slower, giving fish a better target, and you a better hooking percentage. They often float free after hanging up on the bottom and can be more easily freed from brush on the opposing banks of streams. They can be floated downstream into places that could never be reached by casting. They can be cast out on calmer waters and left motionless until ring waves disappear and then twitched tantalizingly to elicit strikes from fish like largemouth bass or bluegill.

I prefer to troll them deep and extremely slow for mid-summer hard-striking rainbow trout. Non-aggressive lake trout laying on the bottom will often grab a slow moving, bottom-scraping Rapala. And, slow-trolled, long-line floating Rapalas weighted with split shot or pencil lead are great on early season brown trout in lakes or along shorelines or riprap for shallow walleyes or channel catfish. Long lining without weight is a great way to find schools of white bass on Utah Lake. A Rapala tied on in conjunction with a jig is an excellent way of catching walleye during their spawn. If the jig hangs up on the bottom, the floater will often allow you to work it loose.

One other aspect of the Rapalas is that they have from two to three treble hooks. Even largemouth bass cannot easily throw a Rapala if the angler uses a lighter action rod, which also aids in more accurate casting ability. But, for most species, all of these barbs (from 6 to 9 of them) do little more than decrease hook penetration or rupture more blood vessels when removed. So, l please, if you plan to release your catch, either file or bend down the barbs on all of the hooks. If I'm worried about snagging or picking up too many weeds, then I often bend the bottom hook on each gang inward, or simply cut it off.

The versatility of uses and the diversity of fishes that can be caught on them make the Rapala-like lures some of the best all around artificial fishing bait you can use.