Recent headlines brought back a memory.
As a young tournament angler, I had just been given an annual beating by a group of Carolinians on Buggs Island Reservoir. Each season, a big group of us yankees would travel to the region to, basically, give our money away.
As part of a bizarre set of circumstances, those of us fishing around Ohio qualified for the same Red Man Regional as the Carolina standouts, who had the pleasure of competing in their own backyard. For us, going to the massive Corps of Engineer lakes in the Southeast was like taking a trip to the moon, yet, for our competition, it was just another day on the lake.
Cranking was the name of the game back then – probably still is – and the Carolina crankers were changing the sport. Every bass fishing fan in the nation knew the name David Fritts after his Classic win. He was often referred to by the media as the best crankbait fisherman in the world, but a contingent of us traveling hopefuls knew the real story.
Fritts was simply the lead singer of the band, grabbing all the attention by turning his passion into a full-time career. His first win, not surprisingly, came at Buggs Island and, soon after, the stars aligned for a series of Classics dominated by newly refined offshore cranking techniques.
Despite Fritts’ fame and fortune, most of his cohorts never followed his career path, instead choosing to play it close to the vest and fish around home. Who could blame them, as regional and large-scale team events were available several times a year, allowing the best fishermen in the area to compete for five-figure paydays without ever leaving their neighborhood. Guys like David Wright, Jeff Coble, Robert Walser and Gerald Beck cleaned up, using the unorthodox methods of “precision winding.”
Determined not to be an annual loser, I learned all I could about their methods, going as far as quizzing locals at tackle stores and boat ramps while visiting the region. The key to the success of the Carolina crankers wasn’t their glass rods or sit -down approach, I was told.
It was their lures.
“You need to buy you a Tapp,” one good ol’ boy suggested, pointing me to a showcase in front of the store. There, behind the glass, were a dozen hand-painted crankbaits, each with beady little eyes and a strange, four-cornered diving bill. The price tag was four times that of any similar lure of the day.
Determined not to labeled a sucker, I resisted purchasing the baits at first. But, after receiving yet another beat-down the following season by the very gentleman for which the Tapp plugs were named, I gave in.
As I soon found out, the lures were unlike any on the market. They cast well, came complete with quality hardware and had an undeniable wobble that couldn’t be described with words. While not every Tapp lure was a world-class fish-catcher, a few possessed a strange trait, especially when banged off cover or paused during the retrieve, where the plug seemed to come alive, acting like something was really chasing it.
At the time, I didn’t know who made the baits – just that they were garage models produced locally. They carried a unique, hand-carved label on the bill: “Ed C.” followed by the year they were produced, crudely carved with what appeared to be a razor blade. I can still remember the way the lettering looked – that real, old-school “E” that looks like a backward “3” – learned and still used by a generation that values penmanship as a sign of responsibility.
After buying a couple, I purchased more, almost addicted to the mystique of the lures as much as their effectiveness. And there were far more versions than just the Tapp. The Ugly Duckling was my favorite, the 300 and 400 were similar to mass-produced baits, but better, and later I’d uncover a tiny gem a buddy called Sweet Pea.
God, they caught fish!
At the time, things were different in the offshore game. There was no looking around the boat in every direction with Side Imaging, or GPS units accurate to within a couple feet. There were paper charts and miles of river ledges, and the only way to find a bass was to catch him. True-running crankbaits played a key role, allowing anglers to keep it wet, and keep it moving.
The Carolina crankers had it down to a science, licking their lips as the sheep were herded to slaughter each autumn at their local lakes.
This week, they lost a friend.
Ed Chambers, of course, is the mystery man of our story. The legendary founder of Zoom Bait Company, who has probably sold more soft plastics than anyone in the world, had another hobby, and enjoyed making handmade plugs for his hometown heroes. Once the secret was out, he made as many as he could for everyone else.
I still have those old Tapp plugs – according to their bills, a few date back to the late '90s. Today, there are other crankbaits on the market capable of doing the job, but I doubt there are any more Ed Chambers’ or that there ever will be.
The tackle business, bass fishing, the world economy – everything has changed since the first days when Mr. Chambers began laying the groundwork for his empire. And, while many things have come so far, occasionally it’s evident we’ve taken a step back.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)