By Todd Ceisner
The web page highlighting the current pro staff of the Zoom Bait Company lists 38 anglers. Ha!
The company might as well post the rosters for the entire Elite Series and FLW Tour (and any other tournament series for that matter) for the last 10 years. Even then, it still would not come close to giving a full representation of how many anglers utilize Zoom’s vast array of soft plastic baits in and out of competition.
It doesn’t matter if a guy’s jersey says Berkley, Strike King, Big Bite Baits or Yamamoto on it – or even if he wore a plain white T-shirt – it’s safe to assume that somewhere in his boat are a few bags with “ZOOM” emblazoned across the front of it in block bright yellow lettering.
Today, we’re all Zoom pro staffers.
Zoom’s ubiquitous reach across the bass fishing landscape, from the top pros on down to weekend warriors from coast to coast and from the aisles of Bass Pro Shops to the smallest outpost bait and tackle shop near your favorite lake, is a result of company founder Ed Chambers’ diligent effort and vision to create quality products that perform consistently.
Chambers passed away early Tuesday morning at the age of 78 as a result of complications that arose after treatment for Mantle Cell Lymphoma. Chambers’ death leaves a massive void in the fishing world. A tireless worker, thinker and tinkerer, Chambers was a pillar in the industry, a reluctant legend.
Despite the popularity of Zoom’s products, he was always content to work in the background, never seeking adulation. He was a first-one-in-the-office, last-one-to-leave sort of guy. Excellence and class were the hallmarks of his craft. On multiple occasions, Chambers was nominated for induction into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. Each time, he declined.
Up until recently, Chambers was still putting in a full work week – for him, that meant seven days – at Zoom’s manufacturing facility, a modest 35,000-square-foot shop tucked away in the trees off Highway 10 just west of Athens, Ga. The rest of his employees worked a four-day schedule and were apt to hear the white-haired Chambers utter his favorite phrases like, “You’re not going to believe this,” or “Let me explain something to you.”
Under Chambers’ leadership, Zoom, founded in 1977, went about its business in a unique way. You never saw a Zoom booth on the floor at ICAST or at the Bassmaster Classic Expo. The product packaging has stayed virtually the same – legend has it Chambers wanted it to resemble the easily recognizable french fry containers from McDonald’s – bright yellow on red. Simple. He didn’t need to stand in the middle of a cavernous convention center and hawk his creations. They sold themselves. Name another brand in the industry that does it that way.
Some of the equipment used to manufacture Zoom’s plastics was built or modified by Chambers to suit his needs – and is still in use today. When machines need servicing, the work is done on site. They get a workout, too, with the machines running 20 hours a day to crank out 40,000 to 45,000 bags of soft plastics each day. The company employs 140 full-time workers with members of the Chambers family and longtime friends running the show.
Chambers’ children, Ed Chambers, Jr. and Kym Chambers, work for the company now. His wife of 54 years, Faye, was instrumental in the company’s growth, but retired several years ago. He’s also survived by three grandchildren.
Eddie Wortham was still in high school when Chambers made him Zoom’s first employee. Today, Wortham is Zoom’s general manager. Production manager Chris Baxter grew up with the Chambers kids and left a job as a car stereo and cell phone salesman in the 1990s to join Zoom, where he’s worked for the past 25 years.
“He appreciated everybody that worked for him,” Baxter said. “He’s very loyal to all of his people. He always said he has 120 families depending on him.”
Kept It Simple
Chambers was a single amputee and walked with a prosthetic lower leg. When he was a kid and working for his father, who was in the jukebox and pinball machine business, Ed used to visit shops where his father’s machines were and collect the coins from them. Since he was always toting a fair amount of money around (mostly coins) in a bag, Ed carried a handgun for protection. One day, while visiting a shop, the bag somehow triggered the weapon and it fired a round that pierced through one leg and went into the other.
The injury caused him to walk with a limp for much of his adult life. Years later, after a persistent wound on his heel wouldn’t heal, doctors recommended amputation below the knee. After being fitted with a prosthetic leg, Chambers’ engineering mind went to work.
“Being an inventor, he fiddled with the prosthetic to make it better and right for him,” Baxter said. “He fiddled with the shims and shocks and took it to the lab where he got it and they made it work for him. He was always trying to make something better. He never gave up and was a fighter. He was constantly trying to improve that. It never slowed him down.”
Simplicity was at the heart of everything Chambers did. When he built the molds that allowed him to pour multiples of the same bait, whatever came out of the mold went into one bag.
“That’s the reason our bag counts are so spread out,” Baxter said. “He wanted a simple process so when we pull a runner off a mold, we don’t have to count them. They just all go into a bag. So it’s 20 Trick Worms or nine 6-inch lizards.”
Zoom’s manufacturing setup is nothing like other facilities where soft plastics are made. The entire process is done in a horizontal/tabletop arrangement rather than a vertical setup.
“The machines are nothing like you’d normally see in another facility,” Baxter said. “Everybody walks in and it’s not what they imagined. It’s just a very well-oiled machine.”
The smoothness with which the soft plastics operation ran allowed Chambers to devote more time to his other passion – building balsa crankbaits under the W.E.C. Custom Lures label, named after William Edward Chambers. They're highly sought after and the demand in the wake of his passing is likely to increase.
“His passion was Zoom and those balsa crankbaits,” Baxter said. “He came in every day to make sure everything was running as it should be at Zoom before going down to his shop to work on his cranks. He is a legend, to be pretty straight forward. He was a humble man who would not consider himself famous. He had done so much for the industry without people realizing it. The biggest thing people don’t know about him are the things he contributed to the industry outside of Zoom. It’s amazing the knowledge he had. He was so well respected by everybody.”
The little boxes won’t be showing up on Kevin Short’s doorstep anymore – an occasion he always looked forward to.
The retired Elite Series angler and longtime Zoom pro staffer had a deep connection to Chambers and each time a little box arrived at the Short residence, it was a symbol of the faith Chambers put in Short’s feedback about his creations. It also helped that Short won two Elite Series tournaments and a Bassmaster Open with WEC cranks.
“For the last 15 years, every time he was working on or tinkering with a crankbait idea or a refinement, he’d call me and say ‘I’m sending you a couple baits. Throw ‘em and tell me what they do,’” Short recalled. “A few days later, I’d get a box with two, six or sometimes eight baits in it. Then I’d go out and fish with them and tell him what they do. That’s what I’ll miss.”
Short said he’ll never forget his first in-person meeting with Chambers. It was 2004 when Short and his wife, Kerry, stopped at the plant to visit the Zoom crew.
“I remember him wearing a light blue polo shirt that had a tear in one sleeve and a stain on the chest,” he said. “You could tell the stain had been there a while. It’s not like he spilled coffee that morning. I remember thinking, ‘This is the guy who started Zoom Bait and this is what he put on this morning?’ His attention to detail was meticulous, but there were some things he didn’t give a rat’s ass about.”
Short said Chambers’ fingerprints are all over the fishing industry, but he operated mostly in the shadows, lending a hand where he could, never expecting anything in return.
“I don’t know if there’s any way to put into words the value of his experience and how many lives and companies that his expertise touched in the fishing industry through the past 35 or 40 years,” he said. “I can’t say how many other companies’ products that he has helped because of his input and insight. The way he did things was the way of doing business that not a lot of people do anymore.”
There are stories about Chambers collaborating with Lew Childre back when Childre was getting his reel company off the ground and also pitching in when other bait companies hit snags in their product development process.
“It’s story after story,” Short said. “He wanted nothing in return. He couldn’t care less. It thrilled him to death to be able to build a lizard or worm or crankbait and put it in someone’s hand and then they went out and caught fish on it.
“I’d like to know how many millions have been won on his baits in tournaments.”
Of all the trophies Andy Morgan has won over his career, this shadow box sent to him by Ed Chambers in 2013 is one of his prized possessions.
Morgan: ‘A Very Kind Person’
Andy Morgan spent much of the day Wednesday cooped up in his home office, answering emails and whatnot. By mid-afternoon, he’d had enough. Off to Lake Chickamauga he went, with a jig and some Zoom Big Salty Chunks at the ready.
“I went through three bags,” he said. “I didn’t catch many, but I had enough bites to burn through some plastics.”
Morgan said he first met Chambers while competing on the Jerry Rhyne Fisherman’s Bass Circuit when he was a teenager in the mid-'80s.
“Ed fished it and so did Wortham,” Morgan remembered, adding that’s also how he met Gerald Swindle. “They’re just all old country people and we just hit it off. I could always tell Ed was a hustler. He was wide open with ideas that the world needed a better plastic worm, and by God, he gave us one.”
Morgan recalled a visit to the Zoom facility a few years ago and being invited into Chambers’ sanctuary, the little shop where he built and painted his crankbaits.
“He’d perfected the Zoom plastic thing and he was on to the next frontier so he started building crankbaits and painting them,” Morgan said. “That was his getaway. He had that little shop that not a whole lot of people got to see. That’s where it all took place. That’s where the BS flew and those baits got made.”
After he won his first FLW Tour Angler of the Year title, Morgan received a package in the mail. Inside was a shadow box Chambers had made for him, displaying four handmade crankbaits, all of them signed by Chambers. It hangs in Morgan’s house. It’s those little touches of kindness that Morgan says he’ll miss.
“He was just a very good kind person,” he said. “One of those hard-working people that you can never replace. The whole industry is gonna miss Ed. Not just his friends, but the whole industry. He’s just one of those characters you never forget.”
Fritts: ‘Nobody Will Ever Be Like Him’
Some say David Fritts is the ultimate authority on crankbait fishing. He begs to differ. Much of his knowledge was gained by talking to and working with Chambers over the years. Several of Fritts’ tournament wins, including his Bassmaster Classic victory in 1993, could be attributed to baits made in Chambers’ shop, those made under the W.E.C. Custom Lures label.
“Ed used to brag on me and say I was the best crankbait fisherman ever,” Fritts said. “I’d won so many tournaments on his product.”
Fritts was always amazed by Chambers’ ability to visualize a better finished product, then backtrack through the steps to get there and then make it all a reality. The VMC Scorpion or Sure Set hook was a product of brainstorm and tinkering sessions between Fritts and Chambers.
“He was a perfectionist and a genius in the fishing world as far as lure manufacturing and designs go,” Fritts said. “I spent days and days with Ed just playing around. He’d spend every day tinkering, even on weekends, figuring out the little things.”
Those little things eventually led to big things like the Zoom Lizard, which was a breakthrough in the soft plastics world in Fritts’ mind.
“He had worms and the Meathead and he had worms for (Lake) Lanier, but when he made the lizard, it exploded,” he said. “It sounds simple now, but back then it wasn’t thought of.”
Fritts doesn’t know of another person in the industry who's made as meaningful an impact as Chambers.
“He’s someone who can never be replaced,” Fritts said. “He was always a one of a kind guy. Everything he touched works. There has never been anybody ever like Ed Chambers and nobody will be ever be like him.”
Fritts said when he signed on with Berkley to help the company develop its new line of crankbaits, he had to cut ties with Zoom.
“I’d been with him longer than anybody, but I had no choice if I wanted to keep fishing,” Fritts said. “It was a hard one to swallow. It was one of the saddest days of my life.”