The 35 most influential people of bass fishing

The caption written in faded blue ink across the yellowed label of the small green box reads, "Fisherman File, 1967." Inside is a stack of worn index cards arranged in alphabetical order with handwritten addresses and names that include Don Butler, Bill Dance and Jack Wingate.

The cardboard box belongs to Ray Scott, and 35 years later it remains one of his most prized mementos. And rightfully so, considering the file box and its contents were a keystone for what has become the world's largest fishing organization.

Before it was a piece of bass fishing history, the obscure box held the names of 106 bass anglers who fished the first All-American bass tournament. By the next year, the crude filing system was upgraded as Scott launched a new organization with 2,000 members. He called it B.A.S.S., an acronym for the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.

Scott's intent was to energize America's bass fishermen with a common cause, namely through the spirit of fellowship and competition. As B.A.S.S. (now BASS) took off, Scott served as its visionary leader. Yet he attributes the early success that fueled the phenomenal growth of his organization to a uniquely qualified cast of believers. They showed unwavering support and passion for Scott's vision of making bass fishing a legitimate professional sport, complete with heroes of its own.

Some worked quietly behind the scenes, satisfied to stand in the shadow of the glaring spotlight following Scott, the quintessential promotional wizard. Others served as front men and became successful entrepreneurs and superstars.

"I call those early people 'my angels,' " Scott says. "If you think about it in today's terms, my idea was ludicrous to anyone but myself. There was no business plan, nothing. Just a vision. But these people came forth when I was struggling just to make ends meet."

Topping the list of Scott's "angels" is Don Butler, who paid $100 to become not only the first member of BASS, but also its first lifetime member. Butler fished the All-American, won the second Bassmaster Classic in 1972, and then built a successful fishing tackle business in Tulsa, Okla.

"He was like a father watching a son learn to ride a bicycle," Scott says of Butler. "He was always there, quietly watching in the background."

Scott recalls when, in 1968, he used an Abu Garcia warranty card list for a direct mail campaign, something he knew nothing about. During a phone call with Butler, Scott said he couldn't possibly come up with the $10,000 needed for postage. The next day, an "anonymous" source wired the money. Knowing it was Butler, Scott paid him back two weeks later.

The turning point came in 1970, when Scott hired Bob Cobb, Helen Sevier and Harold Sharp. BASS had morphed from a network of good ol' boys into the makings of a successful, profitable business venture.

Cobb took the reigns of Bassmaster Magazine and served as its editor until 1984, when he became the first producer of The Bassmasters TV series. He had no television experience, but he made the show an overnight success, patterning its format after the BASS flagship publication.

Hired as "chief break-even clerk," Sevier added her mail marketing savvy and put the business side of BASS solidly in the black. Sevier bought BASS from Scott in 1986 and built the membership from about 250,000 to nearly 600,000 by the time she sold the company to ESPN in 2001.

Sharp quit his railroad job to become tournament director, a post well-suited for someone with a penchant for making things run on time and precisely by the book. Along with Scott and Cobb, he helped create the Bassmaster Classic and make it into the premiere event in competitive fishing.

As BASS tournaments gained momentum, some of the hottest contestants capitalized on their success. One of them was Bill Dance, a furniture salesman from Memphis, Tenn., who quit that job to become one of the first full-time pros. Tournaments were beginning to have a profound effect on how — and with what brand of gear — Americans fished. Pros like Dance set trends and influenced the buying habits of bass fishermen.

After Dance won an unprecedented eighth BASS title in 1970, plastic worm innovator Nick Creme hired the young angler to teach seminars, entertain key vendors, and otherwise compete on behalf of Creme Lures. The job even came with a company car. The sponsorship relationship between the pros and lure companies was now in motion.

The bar was raised when Cotton Cordell called on Dance to start a TV show in 1970. That year, Bill Dance Outdoors appeared on Memphis television sets and then grew into syndication throughout the South. Dance somehow managed to juggle sponsor commitments and tournaments with the demands of filming 208 shows a year at the rate of four each week. By 1980, he was forced to decide between tournaments and television commitments. The latter won out, although to this day Dance misses one aspect of the tournament trail.

"Fishing is a spiritual thing that brings the people who do it closer together," he says. "As for the business side, it has close ties that you will not find in any other industry. This is a very unique business that is competitive, but grounded in close relationships. And that is what I miss the most about the tournaments — the people."

Among those people was Johnny Morris, who parlayed the growing popularity of BASS and its tournaments into a business that is now a household name. Morris and Scott crossed paths in 1970 during the BASS seminar circuit, a cross-country bus tour of one-night stands in which Scott, Sharp, Dance, John Powell, Roland Martin, Tom Mann and other pros preached the gospel according to BASS.

After attending a seminar in Springfield, Mo., Morris jumped aboard the tournament trail. Excited about all of the unique lures he saw other anglers using, he would search local sporting goods stores but could find none of what he wanted.

Recognizing an opportunity, Morris began selling his favorite lures in a corner of his father's liquor store near Table Rock Lake. Nationwide demand for bass lures and tackle inspired Morris to print a mail-order catalog in 1974. And so, Bass Pro Shops was born, forever changing how fishermen buy their tackle.

"Ray created a frenzy for tackle through the tournaments, just as he created heroes in the sport," says Morris. "There was a tremendous demand, and fishermen simply couldn't find the stuff anywhere else. That's what gave birth to my business."

Scott, too, is in the tackle business nowadays (in addition to serving as a consultant in the fishing industry). Always the innovator, he is championing light line fishing with 4-pound-test line. He has designed a special Sportackle spinning rod and helped develop a signature Ray Scott SuperCaster 225 spinning reel by U.S. Reel.

Volumes have been written about the historical milestones that shaped the 35 year history of BASS. Each chapter begins with a unique individual who shared one man's vision to turn bass fishing into a competitive sport. That sport has become a multibillion dollar industry, a nationwide obsession and the source of countless hours of pleasure for generations of anglers throughout the world.

In addition to the pioneers and visionaries mentioned above, longtime leaders in the sport have identified the following as among the most influential people in the recent history of BASS and bass fishing:

Tom Bedell

What began as Berkley Bedell's fly tying operation has been transformed by Berk's son, Tom, into Pure Fishing, encompassing the brands of Berkley, Abu Garcia, Fenwick, Johnson and Mitchell. Tom Bedell is one of bass fishing's most influential businessmen, with a track record for clever marketing campaigns. Team Trilene, launched in the late 1970s, signed the largest pro team at the time with the likes of Hank Parker, Jimmy Houston, Larry Nixon and other stars.

Earl Bentz

Bentz was first to drive a V6 outboard on a bass rig, and predicted that 150-hp-class engines would power the bass boat market. He founded Stratos Boat Co., sold it to Outboard Marine Corp., then started Triton Boats in 1997, carving a major niche in the marine industry.

George Bodenheimer

President of ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports, Bodenheimer presided over the 2001 acquisition of BASS by ESPN. Under his leadership, BASS and the sport of bass fishing have reached a broader audience. In the past two years, BASS has enjoyed enhanced television productions, increased purses and tournament opportunities, attracted a variety of new sponsors, produced same-day telecasts of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer, and been spotted on SportsCenter. He championed BASS as a cornerstone of the ESPN Outdoors initiative, increasing BASS resources through cross-promotion with the Great Outdoor Games and the ESPN Outdoors television block.

Denny Brauer

A former bricklayer, Brauer is the all-time leading money winner on the BASS tour, with more than $1.6 million in earnings. He has won every major bass fishing title and is credited for developing lures and techniques that are standard fare among professional and recreational anglers alike.

George H.W. Bush

In 1984, then-Vice President George Bush made good a promise to Ray Scott that he would support passage of the Wallop-Breaux Amendment. It passed with new provisions extending the Dingell-Johnson excise taxes to previously untaxed items of boating and sportfishing equipment. As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars are generated each year to finance state fisheries programs throughout the nation.

Rick Clunn

The Bassmaster Classic is branded with the name Rick Clunn, who qualified 28 straight years for the world championship, winning it four times, including back-to-back victories in his first few years on the tour. One of the sport's most respected pros and innovators, Clunn was the first to expound on the mental aspects of competitive angling.

Cotton Cordell

Cordell built from scratch what at one time was the largest lure manufacturing plant in the world, making lures used by top BASS pros. The Hot Spot lipless crankbait and the plastic version of the Big O were among the familiar brands he created.

Nick Creme

Although he invented the plastic worm in 1949, Creme recognized the marketing power of the first BASS pros, signing Bill Dance and John Powell as spokesmen for his worms. Creme also was the first to offer slip sinkers in the late 1960s.

Bobby and Garry Garland

In the mid-1970s, the brothers invented the Gitzit tube jig and the Spider Grub, a collared grub fished on a leadhead jig. Gary Klein used the latter to win the 1979 Arizona BASS Invitational, bringing the Western creation nationwide notoriety and launching a revolution in soft plastic baits.

Blake Honeycutt

Honeycutt set a 15 bass-tournament limit record weight of 138 pounds, 6 ounces at the 1969 Eufaula BASS National on Alabama's Lake Eufaula. He fished the first All-American and was a structure fishing pioneer who helped launch the Humminbird depth sounder.

Irwin Jacobs

Chairman of Genmar, the world's largest boat builder whose brands include Ranger, Champion, Stratos and Javelin, Jacobs created the FLW Tour and, among other notable marketing moves, enabled Denny Brauer to become the first angler to appear on a "Wheaties" cereal box.

Bryan Kerchal

In 1994, at the age of 23, he became the first BASS club angler to win the Bassmaster Classic. Kerchal was killed in a commuter airplane crash only three months after joining the tournament trail as a pro, and his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of bass club anglers. The BASS Federation Championship trophy, presented to the sport's top amateur, is named for him.

Bill Lewis

Lewis incorporated the first sound chamber into a Rat-L-Trap in the early 1970s, starting a trend that has since spilled over into just about every other family of bass lures. Since its introduction, this lipless wonder has emerged as one of the top go-to baits of the pros.

Al Lindner

Lindner is a Minnesotan who qualified three times for the Bassmaster Classic before launching In-Fisherman magazine in 1975. He is credited for using Southern-bred bass techniques and lures to popularize the sport in the Midwest. The multimedia company he founded with brother Ron became a success and continues (under new ownership) catering to what it calls hardcore "fish heads."

Darrell Lowrance

After introducing the "Little Green Box" portable sonar unit with his father, Carl, in 1959, Lowrance introduced in 1965 the first sonars capable of high speed performance. Lowrance also unveiled the first graph recorder in 1974, among many other electronic innovations for bass fishing.

Tom Mann

Mann was an Alabama game warden who started making Jelly Worms and Little George tailspinners in his home. He founded Mann's Bait Co. with 30 lures in 2,400 color variations, which were marketed by the early 1980s. Mann was also a founder of Techsonic Industries, maker of the Humminbird depth sounder that he helped invent.

Roland Martin

A former bass guide with an unprecedented 19 BASS wins and nine BASS Angler-of-the-Year titles in 33 years on the trail, Martin also hosts a long-running and popular television show. Sometimes called the father of pattern fishing, Martin helped develop the first water clarity meter and was instrumental in making depthfinders standard equipment on bass boats. He also invented numerous lures and refined old standbys.

Jerry McKinnis

A Little Rock, Ark., angler, McKinnis organized a multispecies fishing tournament that predated the first All-American. He competed briefly as a BASS pro, quitting the tour in the 1970s to refine his talents as an outdoor TV host and producer. McKinnis' first show aired in 1963, and his Fishin' Hole remains the longest-running program on ESPN besides SportsCenter, having joined the fledgling network in 1979. He is producer of The CITGO Bassmasters on ESPN2.

Bobby Murray

Murray became the first Classic champion and won again in 1978. He went on to become an executive with Hydra-Sports Boats, and then a lure and fishing tackle inventor and promoter.

Larry Nixon

A Toledo Bend guide who turned pro in 1976 and became the first professional angler to earn more than $1 million in BASS earnings (much of it from four MegaBucks victories), Nixon is one of the most consistent pro anglers of all time. He made jig-and-pig fishing a year-round affair. Nixon has invented lures, refined techniques and is one of the all-time BASS legends.

Hank Parker

One of the four anglers to win at least two Classics (1979, 1989), Parker was one of the most sought-after pros, both on the seminar circuit, and among sponsors. He launched TV's Hank Parker's Outdoor Magazine in 1985 and retired from pro fishing in 1991.

John Powell

Powell was one of the first bass fishermen to gain industry sponsorship when he was signed by Creme Lures in 1967, prior to the Dixie Invitational — Ray Scott's second tournament. The following year, he rewarded Creme by using Shimmy Gal worms to catch 132 pounds, 12 ounces from Lake Eufaula, Ala. Powell was one of the sport's first stars and became a popular seminar speaker.

Stan Sloan

After winning Scott's first tournament in 1967, this former Nashville policeman launched a business to build Zorro Aggravator spinnerbaits and other lures. The spinnerbait took off when Bobby Murray used it to win the first Bassmaster Classic in 1971 on Lake Mead. Sloan's Zorro Bait Co. remains successful after more than three decades.

Dee Thomas

This California angler left an indelible mark on bass fishing when, in 1975, he won the Arkansas BASS Invitational, held on Arkansas' Bull Shoals Lake. Using a 7 ½-foot rod to propel a bait with precision accuracy into tight cover, Thomas used the event as his stage to reveal the flipping technique, which he invented. Innovative anglers modified flipping to create another mainstream technique, pitching.

Kevin VanDam

At the age of 35, this Michigan native has been called the Tiger Woods of bass fishing. He joined the tournament trail in 1991 at the age of 22, finishing in the money in his first 23 pro events. He earned $1 million in BASS events in barely a decade, qualifying for 12 consecutive Classics and winning BASS Angler of the Year three times — a feat exceeded only by Roland Martin. VanDam defined the art of "power fishing" and has added his name to the sport's legends.

Jack Wingate

Owner of Wingate's Lunker Lodge on the Georgia side of Lake Seminole, Wingate provided Scott with 20 of the 106 original contacts who fished the 1967 All-American, himself included. Scott held the 1968 Seminole Lunker tournament at Lunker Lodge, with the fish camp now a legend in bass fishing lore.

Forrest Wood

Forrest Wood took one of his first boats to the 1968 BASS Dixie Invitational in Alabama and returned to Flippin, Ark., with a shoebox filled with orders for what became Ranger Boats. The company started by Wood and his family went on to set the modern standard for bass boats, including the first built-in livewell system. Wood validated his early "built by fishermen, for fishermen" ad slogan by fishing the BASS tour for nearly two decades. Ranger, the most popular boat on the tournament trail during that period, was the official Classic boat from 1972 until 2001.

Fred Young

In 1967, this 65-year-old whittler from Tennessee carved the first Big-O fat-bodied crankbait, almost single-handedly creating a major lure category. He sold his homemade baits to fishing buddies. A few found their way into the hands of the early BASS pros. The secret came out with the handmade baits in such demand, they sold for $10 apiece on the fishing circuit black market.

Other bass fishing pioneers

It is impossible to come up with a definitive list limited to only 35 people. The following bass fishing pioneers received numerous mentions for their contributions to the sport:

Lew Childre

This south Alabama tackle company owner made his mark on the tackle industry by designing and importing casting tackle from Japan — including Lew's Speed Stick rods and Speed Spool reels. He helped develop the pistol grip rod. He died in a plane crash in 1977.

G.H. Harris

In 1961, Harris devised a way to maneuver his trolling motor by foot. The crude invention caught the attention of a Starkville, Miss., grandfather clock company. The match-up evolved into the first production model foot-operated trolling motor, the MotorGuide, with a thrust of 10 pounds.

Jimmy and Chris Houston

Jimmy is in his third decade of BASS competition; his wife, Chris, won numerous world championship and points titles on the Bass'n Gals circuit, which was launched in 1976. Jimmy Houston Outdoors debuted that year and remains one of the popular outdoor shows on television.

Tommy Martin

Martin won the 1974 Classic as a rookie and fished his 19th world championship in 2002, a true testament to his stamina and passion for professional bass fishing. He was a mentor to Nixon and other young pros.

Ray Murski

A tournament trail pioneer who recruited countless BASS members for Scott during the early years, Murski also attached a metal seat from a hay baler to the top of his 60-hp outboard, and thus created the first casting seat in a fishing boat. Murski is currently co-owner of Strike King Lure Co. and president of Bliss-Murski, a fishing industry rep group.

Vojai Reed

The wife of 1986 Classic champion Charlie Reed became the first woman to fish a Bassmaster tournament. She finished 58th among the 234 competitors in the 1991 Missouri Invitational.

Billy Westmorland

Westmorland competed on the tournament trail in the 1970s, but is most recognized for promoting smallmouth bass fishing. Born and reared on the shoreline of Tennessee's Dale Hollow Lake, where the world record was caught, Westmorland died in 2002.

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