Multiple anglers who learned the art of making balsa crankbaits at Sonny’s knee said they didn’t have his number. A noted remaining contemporary likewise demurred. One day “he was just gone,” said another former friend. Even Rob Cochran—who has known McFarland since he was 8 years old, virtually grew up in his shop, and effectively inherited McFarland’s business—can’t get his mentor to answer the phone. When I repeatedly pressed Cochran for a number, he ended the conversation by saying, “I’m not supposed to give it out. He would kill me if I did.”
McFarland started his lure company in 1974. It’s been nearly a decade since he’s produced a crankbait for sale. One rival suggested that his sudden disappearance was an attempt to escape from the law, or creditors, but without further substantiation, it might simply reflect that he got tired of pouring his heart and soul into a craft that paid poorly and left him with little more than callused hands and the perpetual aura of paint fumes. By leaving his tools to Cochran, he provided a treasure map and little more. The fact is that no one is getting rich off of balsa, but in a world of disposability, many bass fishermen still value tools with a distinctive regional imprint. Plastic baits are cheaper, more durable, and catch fish, but for many anglers, balsa inspires a confidence that cannot be mass-produced. The Carolinas and a few other states contribute to the cult and have their own respected builders with their own devout followings, but the biggest strongholds in the craft remain in East Tennessee and the Ohio River region.