There are a handful of bass fishing pioneers who have been talented and lucky enough to leave a lasting legacy to the sport we all love. Most, if not all, left their mark and will be remembered for a specific contribution. A few shining examples include Ray Scott for the creation of a nationwide tournament organization, Forrest Wood for bass boat evolution, and Stan Fagerstrom for writing excellence. Very few have made their impact felt in more than one specific area. One such pioneer and innovator who did was William “Ed” Chambers, who left a significant contribution not only in the soft plastics industry, but also in the custom and handcrafted balsa baits that carried his initials. His innovations and craftsmanship merited him a posthumous entry into the prestigious Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, and with ZOOM and W.E.C. Baits-Remembering William “Ed” Chambers, we will take a brief look into his life and enduring legacy.
During his 2019 posthumous entry into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, Ed’s son, Eddie, described his dad as a “tinkerer.” This trait would suit him well throughout his life, as he pursued many interests, finally settling on making innovative and productive bass fishing baits. Starting out in high school and college, his interests initially were devoted to semi-professional drag racing. About 1960, he did an abrupt change of gears and suddenly decided to get into breeding, training and showing Tennessee walking horses.
When his interest in this pursuit dwindled, he started to devote more time to bass fishing and became active in the Athens, Georgia bass club. When one of his favorite spinnerbaits suddenly became discontinued, he contacted the company, bought the remaining components and started making the lure under his own company, Hornet Custom Lures.
The Birth of ZOOM Bait Company
Ed also started making molds and pouring his own plastic worms under the auspices of Hornet Custom Lures. About 1980, he started a relationship with three individuals who were making “ZOOM” worms out of Atlanta, Georgia. Initially, Ed provided machinery to run the molds and eventually assisted in making “ZOOM” worms and sending them in bulk back to Atlanta. When the original owners of Zoom worms had a falling out, Ed bought the company in 1981 and renamed it ZOOM Bait Company. Over the next forty years, ZOOM Bait Company developed into a true softs plastics innovator and industry leader.
They hit the scene quietly initially. I recall reading about tournaments being won with a unique new, skinny finesse worm with a funny name, ZOOM. It was not long until their innovative products and colors were soon competing for space with the likes of Fliptail, Creme, and Mann’s Jelly worms, in bass fishermen’s tackleboxes everywhere. ZOOM Bait Company truly was at the forefront of ushering in a new and exciting era of soft plastics development, and William “Ed” Chambers was at the helm moving it forward.
Innovative Designs and Colors
After purchasing ZOOM worms and rebranding as ZOOM Bait Company, Ed Chambers got to work designing many soft plastic creations, some of which ultimately formed entire new bait categories. One of his early successes was the Fluke, a soft plastic minnow imitation that featured thin flat sides and a forked tail. Taking the design a step further created the Super Fluke with an exaggerated belly section and eventually the Swimmin Super Fluke, which featured a boot tail. The Fluke spawned many imitators and helped build what is now the soft plastic jerkbait category.
Another of Ed’s creations was the Brush Hog, a rounded plastic worm front section that ended in two swimming tails. The bait also featured two side appendages with flappers and two smaller curly legs near the head of the bait. Soon there was a Baby Brush Hog and eventually a Tiny Brush Hog. The success of this bait once again created many imitators and became the start of the “creature” bait category.
More recently, the ZOOM Horny Toad hit the scene and became the first soft plastic frog designed for buzzing with two swimming legs. Although many rubber and plastic frogs had been marketed for years, their design was primarily as floating frogs that were to be fished much like top-water baits. The ZOOM Horny Toad was Texas-rigged and designed to be fished much like a buzzbait. Again, after its initial success, many companies followed suit with their own versions.
Zoom Bait Company was also at the forefront in many other categories including multiple and innovative plastic crawfish imitations, jig chunk style trailers and one of the first hook tail type swimming worms, the Speed worm. They were also one of the first companies to make injected flat-bellied plastic worms like both the Trick and Finesse worms. This gave the baits a better gliding action and are still top sellers today. Although somewhat lost in today’s variety of soft plastics, the Zoom lizard was a Carolina Rig staple and a tournament winning bait for many years.
Along with innovative products, Ed also introduced many new colors to the plastic worm industry, including pumpkin, pumpkinseed, and green pumpkin. Like many successful inventions, the color pumpkinseed was born out of “mistake”.
Per Eddie Chambers, Ed’s son, ZOOM was selling and sending a grub to California, in a color called “California Pumpkinseed.” It took three separate colors blended together to make this hue and when a batch got messed up due to a pigment supplier mix-up, retailers in California returned the baits to ZOOM. Instead of disposing of them, one of ZOOM’s salesman at the time was able to sell them to local retailers and they caught on fast; fisherman and fish gobbled them up and a new and successful worm color was born.
W.E.C – Handcrafted Balsa Baits
If Ed Chambers had rested on his laurels with Zoom Bait Company, he still would have maintained a prominent spot in our sports history. Ever restless and inquisitive, however, the born “tinkerer” decided to begin making handcrafted balsa baits and another success story was born. Starting around 1992 Ed began carving and painting baits, including a flat-sided, coffin billed deep diving bait made by Steve Blazer. But let’s go a little deeper into how this bait got its name.
The “Tapp” bait was named with a nod to Ronnie Tapp, a successful South Carolina angler. He shared the original design of Knoxville, TN bait maker, Steve Blazer, with some of his North Carolina crankbait aficionados, such as David Wright, David Fritts and Gerald Beck. Then, when Blazer quit making the bait, Wright went to Ed Chambers. Chambers picked up on the design and named it in honor of Ronnie Tapp.
This version of the lure became a favorite with the Carolina cranking fraternity and and eventually the country.
Ed began automating some of the process and using a machine Lee Sisson had originally built for him, but that Ed revamped some for his needs, he began to put out additional designs and increased quantities. One of the most successful was a balsa squarebill modeled closely off the classic Bagley Balsa B. Offered in three sizes that closely resembled the original Bagley baits, they were appropriately called the EI, EII and EIII.
Originally these baits were mostly an underground secret, but once former tournament pro Kevin Short won three national B.A.S.S. tournaments in a span from 2009-2011 utilizing the EI, the proverbial cat was out of the bag, and sales took off.
At the height of production, W.E.C. was producing about 31 different models and approximately 4000 baits annually. Every single bait was hand painted by Ed himself, and he engraved the model number, year of production and his initials into every bill.
During Ed’s lifetime, most of his baits sold in the $20-$25 range. Now that he has passed on, his lures sell for 2-3 times that if you can find them. His small, flat-sided crankbaits like the Mutt and Hicky often sell on eBay for over $100.
Some Final Thoughts and Reflections
William “Ed” Chambers died at 78 years old in 2018 but his lures and legacy continue on. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the many knock-offs of ZOOM creations give testament to their intelligent design and fishing effectiveness. Even more so, it never ceases to amaze me how many professional anglers, those sponsored by other soft plastic manufacturers, always seem to have several of the iconic red and yellow ZOOM bags of product in their boats. Thankfully, due to Ed’s creativity and invention, his baits live on and still enjoy continued bass catching productivity. For that, we should all be grateful.
The zoom horny toad and the zoom trick worm are always with me no matter what!! Thank-You Mr. Chambers, Jim.
Wow, this is just a wonderful look into the story of someone I was completely ignorant of. I learned a lot from this article, Mike. Thanks so much.
Thanks for your kind comment, David. This post was a pleasure to research and complete. Mr. Chambers is just another example of a real pioneer behind the scenes, who created quality and productive bass catching baits that are still effective today.