Jarmo Rapala sat at his desk, a pencil in one hand and an old slice of balsa wood in the other.
He carefully put lead to paper and began drawing. Here, in a workshop in Finland, charcoal lines slowly etched themselves on the page under his hand. The master was recreating a relic—tracing its dimensions, replacing the faded paint of decades past and making it vibrant once again.
In another world in another life this would have been illegal. Rapala was once the CEO of Rapala Group Worldwide, one of the largest lure companies on the planet.
The small, bass-catching carving on his desk was an original work of Bagley Bait, Co. And it was nearly 50 years old—the product of another world. In that world, the lure belonged to his competitor. In that world, Bagley was one of the few balsa bait manufacturers that stood toe-to-toe with the Rapala family’s own meticulously crafted creations.
But Jarmo Rapala is no forgery artist; he’s a restoration expert.
Decades ago, when Rapala was still growing into the family business in Finland, Bagley was building a balsa wood empire 5,000 miles away in the southeastern United States. The two companies were giants with common ground. They shared the balsa-lure industry separated by the sea, but always in step—and like Rome and Carthage, always with an eye towards the other.
But the world has changed since those early days. Jarmo left the family empire he was born into to pursue a quieter lifestyle of fishing and family. And Bagley Bait, Co., some say, has lost a step.
Jim Bagley was an American success story. An electrician turned lure-manufacturer, Bagley was a master craftsman and one of the first major adopters of balsa wood baits. He built his buoyant, wooden empire straight from a shed in Winter Haven, Florida.
Bagley Baits brought their first balsa lure to market in 1960, and it didn’t take long to establish a following on the emerging bass tours of the southeastern United States. Bagley’s lures—the Bang O Lure stick bait and Diver B and Balsa B crank baits— were a little heavier than their contemporaries, which meant they casted farther with less effort. Their unique composition gave them a distinct, lively action in the water.
They could also take a pounding. Bagley Baits became known as a heavy duty lures for heavy duty largemouth bass. They become known as the kind of lure that wins tournaments.
And win they did. Bagley Baits quickly collected four championships at the ultimate prize in fishing—the Bassmaster Classic.
Tournament success earned early endorsements from vocal anglers like Bill Dance and Roland Martin, and those endorsements meant Bagley became the bait every serious bass fisherman had to have in the 60s and 70s.
The hand-built crank baits and jerk baits from Florida really worked.
But in 1980, Jim Bagley sold his homegrown empire, and his company’s reputation lost much of its former luster in the following decades. Throughout multiple ownership changes, Jim Bagley’s original designs were tweaked and distorted.
The anglers Bagley built its reputation on began to notice—people began paying big bucks for older, original models that weren’t manufactured anymore.
For a long time, Bagley became a symbol of what once was—a great tackle company that lost its way.
But even if they were a symbol, Bagley was not forgotten. Even into the 2000’s, some tournament anglers were still breaking out the old Balsa B and Bang O Lure originals. Those who couldn’t afford them were waiting on a return.
And that return came in 2010 from a most unlikely place—Finland.
Back in his workshop, Jarmo Rapala puts the final touches on his sketch. Here, near the same places he learned to compete with him, Rapala has finished redrawing the life’s passion of a man he never met, but always admired. “He was an innovator and an ambassador of fishing worldwide,” he says of Jim Bagley.
The drawing is going off to a rendering facility to become a 3D Model. It will soon be carved into physical form—a balsa wood reincarnation of the original Bagley Balsa B from all those years ago.
This new lure will have the same characteristics first designed by the Florida electrician who created the original. It will have the same movement, the same vibrant colors, and it will catch the same monster bass.
This is the lure tournament anglers have been waiting 30 years for.
It is an authentic, expertly-crafted resurrection of the original Jim Bagley design. This is the lure of Bassmaster Classic lore. This is the lure of legend that anyone can buy.
“We think there are enthusiasts out there that who are ready to re-experience the Bagley of old,” says Rapala, who along with Bill Cullerton purchased the Bagley Bait, Co. in 2010. Since that purchase, Rapala has busied himself and his team with the restoration of an old rival. According to Rapala, it’s a process that can take some time to perfect:
“There are many rounds of design, sampling, redesign and testing. The process typically takes two to three years and involves many hands and a lot of input and evaluation. Our focus has been to replicate the original intended actions of the Jim Bagley baits. That action is unique to Bagley lures. It is a more aggressive, hunting action that has been admired by anglers for years.”
If Jim Bagley’s designs are now safe in Rapala’s hands, the renowned quality of his lures is protected by Cullerton.
Cullerton is a lifelong outdoor sporting salesman and by heritage a fourth generation lure manufacturer. His great-grandfather started out in the early 1900s at the Jamison Lure Company. It was Cullerton who initially oversaw Bagley’s revived production facility in the in the Dominican Republic, where a team of around 30 people hand craft every single new Bagley lure. “If somebody spends seven to nine bucks on a Bagley lure, we want it to run. We want the guy to be happy with it,” he says.
In total, Cullerton and crew built over 50 fixtures to ensure quality at their new shop in the Caribbean. 50 fixtures to ensure the details of fine lure building were covered: details like the lip slot being cut into the lure’s throat perfectly straight, details like a tank test on every single bait.
Priority number one for the new owners is bringing the famous Bagley action back to life.
The message is clear: Rapala and Cullerton are making a serious go at this.
Along with the old champions like the Balsa B, Diver B and Bang O Lure, Bagley Bait, Co. plans to release a series of new lures for 2015. Rapala says his team is ready to roll. From that slow and painstaking start in the Dominican, Bagley is now expanding its production to other factories to be to meet the growing demand for classic Bagley baits and the high standards of quality expected by Bagley fisherman worldwide.
“We have been busy,” Rapala says, “The products will be wide ranging and address a range of fisheries—bass, walleye and in-shore.”
With an army of tournament pros waiting in anticipation, you can bet that Bagley’s new owners aren’t the only ones ready to roll.