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Bassin' for Bucks

Competitive bass fishing started right here in Texas, and it's still on the rise.

By Larry D. Hodge

It’s a winning catch, and fans spring to their feet with a roar as photographers jockey for position, trying to get that front-page shot or 10-second prime-time sound bite. But no end-zone dance ensues, and instead of spiking an oblong spheroid into the grass, the athlete hoists aloft a football of another sort, a wriggling, thick-shouldered fish with a gaping mouth, bulging eyes and flaring, blood-red gills.

Another bass fishing tournament has reached its climax, and the epilogue follows shortly: presentation of a prize that can be as much as $500,000.

Something about bass fishing lights a fire in the bellies of young and old, rich and poor, men and women — and it’s not just about money. “It is a challenging pursuit, and no matter how good you are at it, you are always trying to be better—and you never really get there,” says Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Angler Sportsman’s Society, or B.A.S.S. “You’re constantly trying to work the puzzle, and the bass is a provocative critter. There is a hunger for knowledge on how to catch that fish, an affliction shared by the poorest and the richest people in the world.”

Scott was the first entrepreneur to recognize the potential bass fishing held as a competitive, money-making enterprise, but it was a Waco sportswriter who came up with the idea of pitting angler against angler to see who could catch the most fish on a given day. The only prize? Bragging rights as the best bass angler in Texas.

In the mid-1950s new reservoirs were beginning to come online in Texas, providing fishing opportunities theretofore unknown in a state with just a few natural lakes. One new water body was Lake Whitney, impounded in 1951 and centrally located in the state. It was a magnet for anglers, and coffee-shop arguments about who was most adept at catching fish from the lake reached the ears of Earl Golding, outdoor writer for the Waco Tribune-Herald. Sensing a story, he got his editor’s permission to stage a bass fishing tournament on Lake Whitney in 1955. The Central Texas Invitational drew 73 teams, and the next year Golding dubbed the event the Texas State Bass Tournament, the name it carries today.

This mother of all bass fishing tournaments celebrated its fiftieth anniversary at Sam Rayburn Reservoir in April 2005. Carl Knox was there, just as he has been for every single one since the beginning. “We don’t have any money involved, just friendly competition among a great bunch of people,” Knox says. “It’s turned into a big family, and the tournament is like a reunion. Our bull sessions around the campfire at night are out of this world.” Knox counts among his most treasured memories getting to know Earl Golding, his wife Martha and their dog. “What nice people Earl and Martha were,” Knox muses. “Even the dog was nice. They had no children, and that dog was their kid.”

Although he didn’t know it, Golding had started something whose effects rippled across the nation and touched the lives of millions of people who never heard of Golding or the Texas State Bass Tournament, yet owed much to both. As new lakes continued to open in Texas, bass clubs sprang up around the state. New lakes in other states were attracting attention, too, and an Alabama insurance salesman with an addiction to bass fishing decided a hot new lake in Arkansas — Beaver Lake — was the place to try out a crazy idea he had: Get 100 anglers to pay $100 each to fish for a top prize of $2,000.

The insurance salesman was Ray Scott, and as he tells it, he had no thought of starting a bass fishing organization in the beginning. “I was busy trying to get to next week and keep my head above water,” he recalls. His first tournament almost didn’t happen. The chambers of commerce in Rogers and Springdale, Arkansas, declined to sponsor it. But a local doctor from Springdale who also owned a marina came to the rescue. “He asked if I could get 100 people to come fish,” Scott says. “I told him I was certain I could. He looked me in the eye, wrote me a check for $2,500 and said, ‘If you do it, pay me back. If you don’t make it, don’t ever tell my wife I gave you $2,500.’”

That grubstake paid for a phone line for a month and a secretary named Darlene Phillips, and she and Scott started working the phone. “When they came to yank that phone out, I had 106 entrants,” he says.

An event at that first tournament started wheels turning in Scott’s head. “One boat had the trolling motor mounted on the bow instead of on the stern, where everyone put them in those days,” Scott says. “People were standing around in the parking lot looking at it, and the owner, Stan Sloan, explained that he figured it was easier to pull a chain than to push it. Sloan won the tournament, and at the next one, all the trolling motors were on the front. I realized we don’t learn new things from our usual fishing partners. We only learn when we fish with a stranger. So I started thinking about some kind of organization where people could learn and share skills.”

That organization became B.A.S.S., and today it has 650,000 members who come from every state except Alaska. According to B.A.S.S., Texas ranks first in the number of members; 1 household of every 188 in the United States has a member; and 1 of every 373 Americans belongs to B.A.S.S.

But all that was in the future in 1967. Scott quit his job of 10 years and started trying to recruit members for his new organization. His family and friends thought he’d lost his mind. “Every Wednesday night, my church was praying I’d get over it,” he laughs. “I just kept chunking and winding. I almost went broke many times, but every time someone would step in and help me.”

One of those people, whom Scott refers to as his angels, was an insurance salesman from Texas, Ray Murski, who fished in Scott’s first tournament and introduced his own innovation there, a tractor seat mounted atop the boat motor that became the prototype for the seats used in bass boats today. Bass clubs were beginning to boom in Texas, and Scott came down on a recruiting and fact-finding mission. “We made a two-week tour of bass clubs around Texas,” Murski says, and Scott found Texas to be fertile ground. “I later got a lot of those people to join B.A.S.S.,” he says.

Something else came out of that trip, too, a lifelong friendship and cooperation. “Nobody knew about electronics, so we started traveling around the country giving seminars on fishing techniques,” Murski says. “A neat idea that Scott came up with was having a group of pros give onstage presentations on how to use electronics, how to Texas-rig a plastic worm, how to fish different kinds of baits. He packed them in. I couldn’t believe how many people paid to get in. That was the beginning of the bass fishing explosion as we know it.”

The tournaments and seminars showcased the skills of many future bass fishing superstars like Bill Dance, Roland Martin and Tom Mann. More importantly, they fanned the flames of the bass-fishing fervor in people looking for a star to hitch their wagon to. One of those people was Johnny Morris, a part-time clerk at a discount store who wanted his boss to stock the kinds of gear the pros were using to catch bass. His boss turned him down, so he went into business for himself using money borrowed from his father.

“Ray was creating a frenzy for tackle, and he was also creating heroes in the sport,” Morris says. “Fishermen simply couldn’t find the stuff at most of the big mass-market merchants, because they weren’t tuned into what was going on. Because I was competing as a regular on the early B.A.S.S. tournament circuit, I had a good insight into which products were really hot. There was a tremendous demand. That’s what gave birth to my business.” That business became Bass Pro Shops.

Demand for fishing gear and angling knowledge was insatiable. “About that time Texas was building a lot of big lakes, and we showed people how to fish them,” Murski explains. “Texas had a jump on fishing, because all the new lakes were such great fisheries. The big lakes and the beginning of competitive bass fishing were what fueled the interest in fishing among the masses. The combination of both made fishing grow.”

“We took that fish and the fishing process and made it glamorous,” Scott says. He started a magazine, Bassmaster, and used articles written by anglers rather than professional writers. “These were guys who proved themselves in tournaments, and everybody wanted to know how they did it. I sucked the brains of all these people who were so talented and distributed that knowledge through Bassmaster magazine.”

Murski parlayed his interest in fishing into a career selling sporting goods; one of his early customers was a man from Arkansas who had a few stores and plans to someday be bigger than Target: Sam Walton. The chain he founded, Wal-Mart, became one of the major forces in shaping competitive bass fishing through its sponsorship of pro bass fishing tours.

At this same time in the mid-1960s, another man whose name was to become a household word synonymous with fishing was taking people on guided fishing trips on rivers and lakes in Arkansas for $8 a head. “We needed something to do in the winter, so I decided to build a lake boat,” says Forrest Lee Wood. Looking for a name that people would associate with strength, integrity and commitment, Wood thought of the legendary Texas Rangers. Six Ranger boats went out the door the first year, 600 the next, thousands the next. “The reason for that growth was the birth of competitive bass fishing going on at the same time,” Wood explains. “I happened to hear about some of the tournaments, and my guides and I went to them. Some of the first I remember were on Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn. We were the right people in the right place at the right time. I would like to say we did a study and saw the demand coming, but we were just trying to make a living.”

Ranger was actually a johnny-come-lately in the bass boat business. The first boat specifically designed for bass fishing was built in Marshall in 1948 and named the Skeeter for its needle-shaped nose. Now located in Kilgore and owned by Yamaha Boats, Skeeter continues to be a leader in the industry.

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and today the ideas of tournaments and bass boats have been copied and spread until it seems we’ve always had them. A key factor was television. Jerry McKinnis, who hired Forrest Lee Wood as a guide for his first fishing trip on Arkansas’ White River, started the Arkansas Sportsman Show in 1963 and went national with The Fishin’ Hole a decade later. In 1979 he met the leaders of a fledgling cable television network in their headquarters building, a single-wide house trailer, and told them he wanted to buy a half-hour block of time. The Fishin’ Hole has been on ESPN ever since, and in 2001 ESPN bought B.A.S.S., assuring ex-panded television coverage of bass fishing tournaments.

It’s no surprise that an organization founded on competition should have its own rivals. FLW Outdoors, founded in 1979, started a weekend bass tournament trail later named for its sponsor, Red Man chewing tobacco. In 1997 Wal-Mart took over the sponsorship. It was the first sponsorship of any kind for the marketing giant, and the infusion of cash led to dramatic increases in prizes. Champions of the Bassmaster and FLW tours take home $500,000. “The past 10 years have been phenomenal, as sponsors like Wal-Mart, Land o’ Lakes and others have become interested and gotten involved,” says Wood. “Young people have the opportunity to prove themselves and live their dream of becoming a professional angler.”

With the establishment of the Women’s Bassmaster Tour (WBT) in 2006, female anglers have a better shot at sharing that dream. Women’s pro tours of the past never attracted the sponsorships and media coverage necessary to elevate them to the level of the men’s tours. “We needed help in that area,” says Kathy Magers of Waxahachie, a professional angler for 18 years who approached B.A.S.S. about establishing a women’s tour. “The WBT is the Cadillac of all the women’s trails,” she says. “It will benefit women by giving them an outlet, it will benefit B.A.S.S. as a business and it will grow the sport. That’s very important to me. I have a seven-year-old granddaughter, and I wanted to know that she can grow up and do what Grandma did.”

Communities where bass tournaments are held win, too. In addition to the value of hours of television coverage, direct spending by anglers, sponsors and spectators at a major tournament is estimated to be as much as $600,000.

But the biggest winners of all are the fish and the weekend anglers who pursue them not for money but for fun and food. Concern for the resource led B.A.S.S. and other fishing organizations to lobby for laws protecting the environment, and professional anglers took the lead in promoting catch-and-release. Perhaps the most significant development was the expansion of the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Program, which channels a federal tax on sporting goods to the states for use in conservation. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has received more than $237 million from the fund, annually receiving about 20 percent of its budget. Ray Scott credits help from then-vice-president George Herbert Walker Bush for getting the tax expanded to cover more categories of sporting goods in 1984. “The amount of money generated is four to six times what it would have been otherwise,” Scott says.

Competitive bass fishing has come far since those first tournaments, but new challenges lie ahead. Both B.A.S.S. and FLW have tournament trails for anglers not yet ready technically or financially to fish the top pro circuits. “They are like farm clubs for baseball,” says Ray Murski. “It gets more people involved and improves the level of competition higher up. I envision we will someday have a senior tournaments trail and perhaps even a Super Bowl of fishing.”

Some may wonder why bass fishing went from being a pastime for barefoot youngsters armed with cane poles and cans of worms to a way of life for professional anglers, a weekend addiction for millions and fodder for countless television shows. Why did we take something simple and make it complex, in the process changing what is really a competition between a fish and a fisherman into a contest between anglers in which fish play only a supporting role?

For Kathy Magers the answer is simple. “It’s the challenge of testing yourself and your abilities. Many people view fishing as a hobby, but some want to make it a career. It’s been said that if you find your passion in life and make it your work, you find eternal happiness. I’m living proof of that.”

Hitting the Tournament Trail

Tournament fishing, either as participant or spectator, is available to everyone regardless of age or level of ability. The following information will get you started.

The Texas State Bass Tournament is open to all, amateurs and pros alike, and includes individual, team, couples, senior and adult/child divisions. See <www.texasstatebass.com>.

The Bassmaster Opens. See <http://sports.espn.go.com/outdoors/bassmaster/index>.

For information on the FLW Tour, go to <www.flwoutdoors.com>.

American Bass Anglers, the largest tournament trail for weekend anglers, schedules dozens of tournaments in Texas and emphasizes close-to-home, low-entry-fee events. See <www.americanbassanglers.com>. Two other tournament organizations geared to the weekend angler with Texas events are Media Bass (<www.mediabass.com>) and Bass Champs(<www.basschamps.com/basschamps/>).

The Couples Association of Sport Tournaments (C.A.S.T.), founded so that couples could fish together, lists not only their own tournament schedule but also those of other major tours at <www.fishcast.com>.

If you can’t travel to a tournament, both ESPN and Fox Sports Network offer extensive television coverage. For detailed schedule information see <www.espnoutdoors.com> or <www.fox sports.com>.

Ray Scott tells the story of the rise of competitive bass fishing from his perspective in Bass Boss. The hardback book is available for purchase at <www.rayscott.net> or call (800) 518-7222.

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