Dennis Anderson: Like fish, Ostrom bit hard on Rapala

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2012 - 10:25 PM

The fishing world changed forever when Ray Ostrom and Ron Weber first imported these lures.

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The late Ray Ostrom, above, took orders for Rapala lures in his south Minneapolis sporting goods store (below) after a story about the then-novel baits appeared in an issue of Life magazine commemorating Marilyn Monroe, who had recently died.

Photo: , Photo provided by Ostrom family

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An era passed Saturday with the funeral of Ray Ostrom, 85, of Bloomington. His life story, and that of his business partner, Ron Weber of Edina, is uniquely Minnesotan -- and one every fisherman might recall when reaching into a tackle box for a Rapala lure.

Ostrom and Weber changed fishing forever here and throughout the world beginning in 1959 when they asked Finnish lure maker Lauri Rapala for the U.S. and later Canadian and U.K. rights to distribute his hand-carved baits.

Born in Minneapolis to Swedish immigrant parents, Ostrom hunted and fished -- the latter, particularly for muskies -- with great vigor from the time he was a boy until recent years, when kidney failure tied him to a dialysis machine three days a week.

Of humble beginnings, he married his wife, Norma -- who died just last month -- in 1948. Their initial "home" was the basement boiler room of the first Minneapolis sporting goods shop Ray opened, at 3006 35th Av. S.

Later, when the Ostroms' daughter, Cathy, was born, their landlord felt sorry for the new parents and moved the young family into an apartment above the store.

Now a history instructor at the University of St. Thomas, Cathy Ostrom Peters recalls easily her first outdoor experience with her dad, when she was 3.

"Dad was duck hunting, as I would find out, but I didn't really understand what we were doing," Ostrom Peters said. "All I knew was that I saw the birds. I said, 'Get the bird, Daddy! Get the bird!' And he shot one -- which was a total surprise to me. I thought he was going to capture it alive. I cried and cried, and Dad felt so bad."

Ambitious, Ostrom soon opened a bigger sporting goods and marine store at 3540 E. Lake St.

From it, he sold Johnson outboards and hunting and fishing gear, and chartered buses for customers' weekend fishing excursions to Lake of the Woods.

• • •

In the late 1950s, Ron Weber lived in Minneapolis and owned a fishing tackle distribution company, R.W. Weber sales, whose territory included Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

Originally from Duluth, Weber, like Ostrom, was an experienced and avid fisherman. His special interest, over time, became river fishing for steelhead.

Quite by accident, in August 1959 Weber tied on a "Finlander plug" while fishing in Canada, and later he purchased a few of Lauri Rapala's lures from a small shop in Duluth.

The baits, largely unknown in the United States at the time, caught fish, and Weber in turn gave a few to Ostrom -- a customer of his -- to try.

Subsequently, Ostrom and Weber wrote a letter to Lauri Rapala at his home in Finland, asking to purchase "Original Rapala" lures for distribution in the United States.

In the 1930s, Lauri Rapala --every bit the fishing nut that Ostrom and Weber were -- had noticed that fish often dart into schools of minnows to attack one that is sickly or injured, or otherwise didn't move like the others.

Attempting to replicate the injured minnow's "wobble," Rapala carved a prototype lure made of cork, wrapped it in tinfoil and coated it with melted photograph negatives. Hand-trolled behind his rowboat, the bait was attacked aggressively by pike and perch.

The letter from Ostrom and Weber arrived at an opportune time. Already Rapala's lures were gaining popularity in Finland, and some were finding their way to America. But they had drawbacks. They were much lighter than such popular lures of the day as the Lazy Ike, making them a challenge to cast. Also, their retail price in America would have to be nearly $2, or twice what most baits cost. And they didn't pair well with leaders, which changed their action.

But Weber and Ostrom pushed ahead, buoyed by the development then of nimbler rods and reels, and of monofilament line, all of which they knew would facilitate casting of lighter baits.

On Feb. 10, 1960, Ostrom and Weber wrote Rapala requesting 1,000 lures, and shortly thereafter ordered another 2,040.

Remarkably, the Rapala family gave their new American distributors permission to register their U.S. firm as "the Rapala Company," a name that in time would be changed to Normark. Headquarters at first were the basement of the Lake Street store, where Ostrom holed up taking and filling orders, while Weber peddled the baits throughout the Midwest, using his contacts in the fishing tackle business.

Soon, luck shone again on this seemingly charmed pair of Minnesota fishermen when a story about Rapala lures -- headlined "A lure fish can't pass up" -- appeared in Life magazine in an issue commemorating the life and recent death of Marilyn Monroe, whose photograph graced the publication's cover.

Virtually overnight, orders for more than 3 million Rapalas poured in -- requests that sometimes arrived in envelopes stuffed with cash.

In response, Ostrom sold his sporting goods store, and Weber divested himself of his company. Selling Rapalas would be their full-time business. Not only Original Floaters, but, in the years to come, also Shad-Raps and other Rapala lures, as well as knives and other Rapala-branded fishing gear.

• • •

Fast-forward to 1984, when Ostrom sold his share of Normark to Weber.

"Dad used to tell me: 'Life is like a ruler. It has only so many inches, and we have only so much time,'" Ostrom Peters said. "Normark was demanding more of his time, and it just wasn't worth it anymore, the loss of his hunting and fishing opportunities."

Ostrom went on to build the "NormaRay," a massive houseboat (some would say small ship) he anchored near Cyclone Island on Lake of the Woods. And he fished and hunted, the latter oftentimes with Bud Grant.

"Ray was real easy to be with," Grant said. "We hunted in Kansas together three times for turkeys, and in Iowa for deer. He always said, 'I like going with you because you're not in a hurry. Everyone nowadays is in a hurry.' I'd tell him, 'We'll go whenever you want to go, and stop as often as you want to stop.' He was just good to be with."

Almost immediately after Norma Ostrom died May 23, Ray suffered a heart attack. He was struck again June 14 and died June 16.

Weber, meanwhile, lives in Edina. In the 1990s, he sold Normark to the Rapala family, retiring to fish and to focus on other interests, including philanthropy to the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he and his wife, Mary Ann, met.

From Minnetonka, Rapala USA still imports and distributes lures from Finland.

At Ostrom's funeral on Saturday, perhaps everyone present had fished with a Rapala lure at one time or another.

In that respect, it mirrored the recreational interests of hundreds of thousands of other Minnesotans, and of millions of anglers worldwide, who since the first shipment of Rapalas arrived here in 1960 have helped the brand earn more world fishing records than any other lure.

Which, in addition to being a father to Cathy and her brother, Kirk, and husband to Norma, made Ray Ostrom -- the Swedish kid from south Minneapolis -- happy.

And proud.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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  • Chart: The Rapala file, a Minnesota story

    Saturday June 23, 2012

    Ray Ostrom, whose funeral was Saturday in Edina, and partner Ron Weber changed fishing in Minnesota and throughout the world when they began importing Rapala lures from Finland in 1960.

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