Bagley's Balsa B ad from the 1974 Okiebug catalog.

Today in The Bagley’s Big B we’re going to dive into the history of Jim Bagley and his famous Balsa B line of squarebills.  It’s never been a question that the Balsa B was developed to compete with the Big-O.  The question that no one has bothered to ask is how did Jim Bagley get the pattern in the first place?

One guess would be he got one of Fred Young’s Big-Os and used it.  That would be the obvious answer.  But the obvious answer isn’t always right.

For nearly a year I have been wrapped up in a project documenting another lure maker by the name of Mike Estep.  I’m not going to go deep into Estep’s history here, you can watch the documentary on our YouTube channel here.  What I will say is Estep was taught by Fred Young to make baits in the late 1960s and when Fred got too busy to supply his customers, he’d send work to Mike.

That is how Roland Martin got wind of Mike Estep and his Big E crankbait in 1972.

The Bassmaster Trail was scheduled to head to Watts Bar Reservoir in Tennessee in late June of 1972.  Roland, being the competitor he was, had done his homework and knew about the Big O.  Problem was, he couldn’t buy any.

As luck would have it, he’d had a guide trip on Santee-Cooper earlier in the year with a Tennessean by the name of Hal Clements.  Hal gave him Mike Estep’s information and Roland got ahold of some Big Es for the tournament.  Roland won the event and the rest is history, so to speak.

Although Roland won the event on the Big E, he didn’t disclose that.  And, because several of the top anglers used the Big O, including the big fish for the event, Fred Young’s bait got the press.

Roland went on to place third at Ross Barnett and then won the All-American on Lake Eufaula with the Big E.  Again, there was no mention of the Big E.

Then the 1972 BASS Masters Classic was held on Percy Priest where Don Butler utilized the Big O for some of his fish and the win.  B. J. Woods also caught one of the daily big fish on the bait and said, “it’s like throwing a pork chop when you cast it.”  The Big O got more press.

Roland then approached Estep on going into production with the bait.  Estep was only able to carve four or five baits a night by hand and that’s what held up production.  Roland offered to go down to Winter Haven, Florida and talk with Jim Bagley about making the bodies.  Estep agreed.

The timeline now is the later part of 1972.  Roland calls Estep telling him that Bagley can make the bodies, and Estep tells Roland that he can’t go into business due to his security clearance.  The deal was done.

At this point, Bagley calls Roland and Roland gives him the news.  Bagley decides to make his own bait and enter the market.

The Big B

During my research for the Estep article, I was able to find several articles on Jim Bagley and his copy of the Big E.  Called the Big B for the first year, his bait was nearly 4-inches long, slightly bigger than the Big E.  It also came with a lexan lip, which differed from the circuit board lip found in the Big E.

The bait was first debuted at the 16th Annual Sportsman’s Show in North Carolina in February 1973.  This means that Bagley most likely had the prototype bait done by the end of 1972.  In the article, there was mention of the Big O, but no mention of the Big E, the model Bagley went off of.  The picture of the bait from the Charlotte Observer is shown below.

The first peek at the Bagley's Big B from The Charlotte Observer Wednesday February 28, 1973.

Inspecting the bait, it features what looks like a rounded lip, commensurate of the Big O and Big E of the day, but its body is longer and thinner at the tail.  It’s not a direct copy but there’s no doubt it was to compete with the Big E and Big O.

The next article I found was from the Tampa Time dated April 8, 1973, announcing the release of the Big B.  By this date, the lure was already on back order and the first shipments hadn’t left Winter Haven.  The article is printed in its entirety below.

Bagley's announces the release of the Big B in The Tampa Times Sunday April 8, 1973.

Next I found an article from Florida Today dated May 27, 1973 where Bagley was talking about the new Big B.  Again, there was no mention of the Big E, which was a marketing ploy most likely since few knew of Estep’s bait.  Say it was designed off the Big O, where all the hype is, and then say you improved on it.  Jim Bagley knew how to market baits.

In this article was the first mention of Cotton Cordell buying the rights to the Big O and manufacturing his version out of plastic.  Also mentioned was Bill Norman’s Big N.  By May 1973, the copycats were coming out of the woodwork.

Jim Bagley talks about the development and release of the Big B in the Florida Today Sunday May 27, 1973.

The Bitty B

The next bit of confusion coming out of Bagley’s history is what bait was next.  You’d think it might be the Balsa B3, but that might not be the right answer.  Again, my research shed light on another bait that was written up in the news, the Bitty B.  peek

First I found a short piece in The Tampa Tribune Sun from December 16, 1973 announcing the Bitty B.  This piqued my interest because the Bitty B was a bait Bagley’s made after they discontinued the Honey B.  I wondered if they’d initially called the Honey B the Bitty B and kept searching.

That’s when I came across an article in The Tennessean from January 27, 1974.  The picture accompanying the article showed Bagley’s salesman John Blue holding up the new Bitty B, which was much bigger than the Honey B.

This led me on another search for an ad I found some years ago.  The ad was from the 1974 Okiebug catalog and featured some early Balsa Bs.  That ad is the lead-in image of this post and shows three different sizes of Balsa Bs, the four inch, three inch and the 2 inch, called The Little B in this ad.

The first annoucement I was able to find for the release of the Bagley's Bitty B, the forerunner to the BB1. The Tampa Tribune Sunday December 16, 1973.
John Blue announces the release of the Bitty B. The Tennessean Sunday January 27, 1974.

This Okiebug catalog was printed for the 1974 season, which means it was put together in late 1973.  So, in late 1973 Jim Bagley had three different sizes of Balsa baits he was making.

Also in late 1973, Bagley changed the name of the baits to the Balsa B, giving each size its own model number, the BB4, BB3, and The Little B.  The Little B or Bitty B would end up becoming the BB1 and in 1975 they’d fill out the lineup with the BB2.

That’s the history of how Jim Bagley got into the squarebill market.  It may have been because of Fred Young but it was Mike Estep’s bait he modeled his creation after.

Bagley’s Balsa B would go on to become one of the best crankbaits ever and when Lee Sisson joined the team in 1975, he took the Balsa B to even higher heights by designing the first deep diving crankbait on the same Balsa B platform.  But that’s another story for another day.