Just about 50 years ago, a new and exciting lure hit the bass fishing scene that forever altered the bass tournament landscape as well as the design and shape of almost all future crankbaits. A lure originally cloaked in mystery and seeming unavailability for fisherman just hearing of its success. A bait so valuable and limited that it was “rented” out to hungry tournament anglers for $25 per day, with an additional $25 deposit to ensure its return. An original and unique hand-carved and hand-painted bait that was transported in empty egg cartons for protection. A bait that came along with impeccable timing just as national bass tournaments were coming of age. A lure that eventually inspired countless imitations and almost singlehandedly created the “squarebill” crankbait phenomenon. That lure was the original Big-O and is the centerpiece of today’s feature Fred C. Young’s Big-O.
Fred Young was a resident of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and was employed by the nearby Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960s. Fred was also a fisherman and when two separate serious work related back injuries sidelined him, he continued his hobby of bait carving in earnest. Fred had tinkered for years with both his designs and construction of the bait. He initially used cedar, and then white pine, redwood and yellow poplar before finally settling on balsa wood for the body. He also worked tirelessly on lip design and construction before eventually determining that circuit board provided the best durability and strength.
His brother, Odis, became his “field-tester” and it was in the late sixties that Odis informed Fred that one design in particular was a real fish catcher. That design was the famous “pregnant” plug shape that would ultimately be named the Big-O, after Odis, who was a large, imposing man. Local anglers began to take notice of Odis’ fish catches and like all fisherman wanted to know what he caught them on. One of the area’s top anglers was Bill Nichols, and when he got wind of the new fish catching plug, he made a special visit to Fred’s house to see if he could wrangle some for himself.
Bill eventually began winning local Atomic Bass Club tournaments on the lure, and he spread the word to fellow anglers like Billy Westmorland and Blake Honeycutt. It didn’t take long for word of the plug’s success to reach the increasingly popular Bassmaster tournament trail. By 1972, a few lucky anglers were getting their hands on the baits and having success. Odis Young was actually selling the baits out of the trunk of his car at the Watts Bar Lake BASS Master Invitational tournament that year.
And then 1973 happened.
1973 and Alphabet Soup
The majority of the early BASS Master tournaments had been won using either plastic worms or spinnerbaits. With the success of the Big-O, crankbaits started making inroads into the winner’s circle. In February 1973 at the BASS Master Florida Invitational, Larry Hill of Winston-Salem, North Carolina weighed in 108 lbs. of bass, including a then record 10-bass limit from Rodman Reservoir weighing 60 lbs., 1 ounce. His record limit from Rodman had all come on Fred’s hand-carved Big-O. Demand for the plug was now reaching the boiling point.
At around this same time, Bobby Murray, winner of the first BASS Masters Classic, was working for the Cotton Cordell Lure Company. He was impressed with Fred’s plug and sent one back to Hot Springs, Arkansas to his boss. Cotton was anxious to track down the inventor and discuss striking a deal to mass-produce the plug that was starting to garner national attention.
Apparently, Cotton and Fred bonded well and a deal was struck for Cordell to start manufacturing Fred’s bait, albeit in a plastic model. The lure was an instant success and Cordell sold well over a million baits in the first year of production alone.
Like any new successful fishing lure, the imitators arrived quickly and often, almost every one named with the preface of “Big”. Bagley baits had one of the few balsa plugs, the Big B, which was soon renamed the Balsa B, to highlight its balsa construction. Plastic versions included Bill Norman’s Big N, Rogers’ Big Jim, and later, Heddon’s Big Hedd. There were also some regional variations that appeared. One deserving special mention is the Big E, a balsa creation of Mike Estep, who was a friend of Fred’s from the Oak Ridge region, and apprenticed under Fred’s carving tutelage. Mike’s plug would become a favorite of Roland Martin in the early 1970s. By the end of 1973 the “Alphabet” plug revolution was in full swing.
Fishing the new bait, however, required a bit of technique refinement as Rick Clunn divulged in a 2018 posting by author Steve Price on Bassmaster.com.
“At a tournament at Lake Gaston, Clunn had another dramatic experience that has also shaped his fishing ever since, the day he was paired with Fred Young, the maker of the legendary Big O crankbait”, Price said. “He knew of Young and the Big–O but did not have access to any of them, so Young gave him two to use.
“I wasn’t having a very good tournament, and that afternoon, out of courtesy to him, I tied on one of his crankbaits and started casting it,” Clunn recalls. “Fred was sitting down in the back, and after watching me a few minutes, he said, ‘Son, let me show you how to fish that lure.’
“He made a cast,” Clunn continues, “then started turning the reel handle faster than anyone I’d ever seen before. He made two or three casts, then gave it back to me. ‘You never stop it,’ he said, ‘unless you hit something. When you do hit something, pause it, then you burn it again. Some will hit it slow, but if you burn it, they’ll try to swallow it.’
“At first, I wasn’t sure whether to believe him, but everything he said was absolutely true. Later, I won the Missouri Invitational on Lake Truman, an FLW event on Beaver Lake, and came close many other times, doing exactly what he taught me. I had started my crankbait fishing in the bass club with a Hellbender and felt pretty confident with it, but Fred Young opened a whole new world for me that day, and I still follow his advice.”
A Lasting Legacy
After selling production rights to Cotton Cordell in 1973, Fred still continued to make his own handmade Big-O versions and design and carve various other balsa creations. Little did he or anyone else know how much his famous plug would continue to alter the evolution and design of crankbaits for years to come. After the initial surge of the Alphabet plug squarebills, manufacturers began taking the same design and adding deep diving lips. Bagley’s Divin’ B’s, Cordell Deep Big-O’s and Rebel’s Wee/Mini/Maxi R series of diving baits all sported bodies based on Fred’s original design. This evolution continues to this day; just take a look at the body shape of Rapala’s popular DT series, or Strike King’s lineup of crankbaits. The influence of Fred Young’s creation is indisputable. Even today’s popular squarebills, the 1.5’s that everyone throws are just a smaller version of the Original Big-O.
A Few Notes on Big-O Design Chronology
I was lucky enough this summer to attend the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club (NFLCC) national show in Springfield, Illinois, and view fellow member, Russell Kear’s remarkable Fred Young collection.
In a recent phone conversation with Mr. Kear, he helped clear up some of the chronology of the Original Big O. All of Fred’s early Big-Os were unsigned, unnumbered and were not stamped on the bottom of the lips. When Fred began adjusting the baits with weight, he marked the underside of the lips with B+O, those without added weight, B-O. Once Fred settled on the ultimate design, Big-O was stamped on the underside of the lips. Once his baits began garnering more attention, he started adding his signature to the side. The numbering commenced once he sold the rights to Cotton Cordell and had to keep straight with the IRS how many baits he was building on his own. The numbered baits go well into the 3000’s but it’s unclear how many Big-Os Mr. Young actually carved in his lifetime and put into circulation. Fred C. Young passed away in 1987.
I consider myself fortunate to own a small sampling of Fred’s craftsmanship and have a dozen original Big-Os, which I truly treasure. They are not only a work of art, but also an amazing piece of bass fishing history. They are the creation of a humble Tennessee gentleman and craftsman who carved his way into bass fishing immortality with one truly special bait.
Much like Dick Kotis, who I wrote about in an earlier post, it is a serious oversight that Fred Young is not inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame and hopefully in some small part, this post may help bring about a campaign to rectify that issue. BFHOF nominations will be accepted in mid January of 2023 and I strongly urge nominations for these two outstanding individuals who have contributed so much to the sport of bass fishing.
I would like to acknowledge the grateful assistance and knowledge provided by Russell Kear and the wonderful 1978 Bassmaster article entitled The Story of the Big-O by Larry Mayer.