Looking through the old “New Tackle for…” issues of Bassmaster, it quickly becomes clear that few new lures survive the open market for even a couple of years, let alone two decades. Of those that do live to fish another day or another year, many take a long time to gather a meaningful following. In that respect, the Bomber Fat Free Shad is something of an anomaly, a lure that was popular almost from the start, due in no small part to good design, a solid pro-staff and more than a bit of on-the-water advertising. While many of us can still remember its introduction, this year it celebrates its 20th birthday.
In 1994, PRADCO introduced the Pro Autograph Series of hard lures – proven baits that each bore a particular pro’s name and his suggested modifications or special paint schemes. They included the following lures:
• Larry Nixon Bomber Model A
• Bill Dance Bomber Fat A
• Jim Bitter Bomber Long A
• Kevin VanDam Suspending Bomber Long A
• Zell Rowland Rebel Pop-R
• Zell Rowland Heddon Zara Spook
• Denny Brauer Heddon Baby Torpedo
• Jimmy Houston Cordell Super Spot
The Exclaibur rotating trebles were new, but perhaps more surprising was the marketing effort that it took to bring this project to fruition. As Steve Price wrote in the November 1994 issue of Bassmaster, PRADCO had developed a “new marketing ‘alliance’ with a competitor, Strike King, which it said will benefit bass anglers.” While there were certainly cross-marketing efforts by other fishing companies before and since, this one stands out insofar as the two companies were direct competitors.
The lures were met with varying degrees of success, and while the lineup eventually fizzled out, some, like Rowland’s three-hooked Spook, remain highly coveted on ebay.
The Series was expanded in the 1995 calendar year for the 1996 sales year, to include a Bomber Flat A designed by Mark Davis, among others. While Davis was now firmly entrenched in the series, the lure that bore his name was not the one he would make famous. Instead, he popularized a deep diver that bore Dance’s name – not the Fat A from the original series, but rather the Fat Free Shad. That year Davis became the first pro to win the B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title and the Bassmaster Classic trophy in the same year. He’d leapfrogged Shaw Grigsby in the final event of the season to take the AOY title, and the latter achievement came in the first week of August on North Carolina’s High Rock Lake.
Davis caught his winning fish in the Classic on several lures, including a Pop-R and a 1 ounce Strike King spinnerbait, but a dropping water level made the crankbait bite shine, and he ably employed a new ¾ ounce Bill Dance signature Fat Free Shad in the Citrus Shad pattern. He came back from 7th place after Day One and 3rd place after Day Two to win the title.
Several fortuitous events helped push Davis to his 1 pound 14 ounce victory margin. As Steve Price pointed out in the November 1995 issue of Bassmaster, his wife Tilly kissed the crankbait for good luck prior to the final day of competition. Runner-up Mark Hardin lost a 4-pounder late in the day that would’ve put him over the top. And as JM Associates editor Steve Bowman, then writing for an Arkansas newspaper, recently told me, on the final day Davis hooked two fish on one cast with the Fat Free Shad. As he went to swing them into the boat, the larger of the two, a 4-pounder, fell inside, while the smaller 2-pounder went back in the drink.
While Dance was clearly the bigger name at that time, the 31 year-old Davis might’ve been a better spokesman for the lure even had he not used it to win the Classic. He’d competed in B.A.S.S. tournaments since 1986, with four Classic appearances already under his substantial belt, and had guided on Lake Ouachita much longer than that. But rather than being known for his exceptional fishing skills, he was primarily known for being a gentle giant – 6’3” and nearly 400 pounds. The result, he told outdoor writer Covey Bean in 1996, was that he “was in some sort of pain all the time. I’d take 20 Advils a day to get through a tournament.”
As John Husar of the Chicago Tribune wrote,
BassMaster emcee Ray Scott never missed a chance to unload on the weigh-in stands about Davis’ prodigious eating habits.
“We had to pack box lunches for all the fishermen,” Scott would dead-pan. “And then we’d double ‘em to accommodate Mark.”
Davis would be needled about how he tied a dinghy to his boat to cart the lunches. He was said to be the only angler ever rescued by the Coast Guard with a McDonald’s truck.
Davis had tried to lose weight before, but the rigors of being on the road prevented him from keeping up with a serious health regimen so he elected to take the drastic step of gastric bypass surgery. Over the course of the next two years he lost nearly 200 pounds.
“I am learning I can fish and feel good,” he told the (Virginia) Daily Press right before the 1995 Classic. “When you feel good you think better, and when you think better you fish better. And the Classic is a strategy game.”
Despite the apparent connection between his own weight loss and the lure’s catchy appellation, Davis told Bean that he couldn’t take credit for the Fat Free name: “It was named by Bill Dance,” he said. “But I don’t have any idea where he came up with that. It had nothing to do with me. Bomber sent me the bait. It wasn’t even out at that time, but it couldn’t have been marketed any better.”
As BassFan reported in 2008, Davis has continued to struggle with his weight, and has tried strategies including Weight Watchers and a low carbohydrate diet to keep things in check, especially since he’s now over 50. His fishing remains solid, though. He’s qualified for the last three Bassmaster Classics, and five of the last seven.
While he has struggled in that sense, the crankbait’s popularity has not ebbed. Ken Duke pointed out on Bassmaster.com three years ago that an intrepid seller had put the crankbait that Davis used for the win up for sale on ebay for the princely sum of $1,500. “[R]emember that it comes with free shipping!” he wrote.
In the two decades since the 1995 Classic, Bomber has introduced several new models of Fat Free Shad, including larger and smaller versions, a square-lipped version and one called the “Switchback” that has a rattle that can be turned on or off with a flick of the wrist. The original BD7 – the same size that Davis used – is still available, however. In fact, it may have caught more fish than any other super-deep diver in bass fishing history – with more years under its belt than the Strike King 6XD and the Rapala DT20, and more widespread appeal than lures like the Hot Lips or the Mann’s 20+.