Guy Eaker remembers the boat well: a 16-foot Dixie Special made in Hickory, N.C., not far from his home. It was fiberglass, almost (but not quite) a flat bottom, did not have carpet — but did come with an 85-hp Mercury and a drive-on trailer. It was cream/green in color and on a good day, he could reach 40 miles per hour in it.
The boat had one rod locker, two storage boxes on the rear deck and a livewell just in front of the console. It also had an electric anchor system, designed by another early bass fisherman of note, Blake Honeycutt.
Eaker also put a 12-volt, hand-control SilverTrol trolling motor on his new prize, which meant for the first time in his years of fishing, he would not need a sculling paddle. It was the mid-1960s, and with that boat Eaker launched a remarkable fishing career that continues to this day.
Although he did not take his Dixie Special to Beaver Lake for Ray Scott's inaugural bass tournament, there may have been one or two there in use by other competitors. What most of the anglers who did come to that tournament remember is seeing an amazing variety of crafts in use, many of them hardly more than wooden johnboats.
Don Butler, later to become the first member of BASS, brought a Kinzie Craft with a 33-hp outboard, but John Powell, later to become another of bass fishing's early superstars, did not have a boat and therefore was paired with someone else whose boat Powell later described as "appearing to be made of Styrofoam." Bill Dance did not borrow a boat but he did borrow a 60-hp outboard that easily let him speed away from the others.
Bomber was a popular boat brand of the day and undoubtedly some were present. Forrest Wood fished the early bass tournaments in one of his own Ranger boats, and he spent a lot of time asking other anglers what they wanted in a boat. Wood took their suggestions seriously, incorporating them into each succeeding model, and as he did, sales and the reputation of his boats soared.
No boat had honest-to-goodness livewells in the early days, at least not a livewell comparable to what's available today, since aeration systems had yet to be invented. When Scott began pushing the catch-and-release philosophy, as well as awarding bonus ounces for live fish being weighed in, anglers began designing their own livewells. Butler gets credit for designing and patenting the first true livewell for bass boats, but even today aeration systems are still being improved and frequently are designed for specific boat companies.
Whatever boat an angler chose in 1967, he basically had to rig it himself, or at least assemble the various components he wanted — including an outboard — and have someone put the package together for him. Fully rigged bass boats, as virtually all of them come today from the factory, did not appear until 1972 at the Bassmaster Classic at Percy Priest Reservoir when Wood produced his famous TR-3 Ranger for each qualifier.
Although the brand choice is different today, that original concept of providing fully rigged boats at the Classic continued through 2007.
In 1973 Eaker visited a Nashville, Tenn., boat company named Hydra-Sports, where he met a young man named Earl Bentz, not long out of Formula One powerboat racing. Bentz gave Eaker his first free boat that year, and the two have been close friends ever since. As Bentz pushed the boat design envelope forward, Eaker was frequently the first to test his ideas. The North Carolina angler fished the first Kevlar boat, which came with a 150-hp short-shank Mercury, a combination that allowed him to run in thin water practically like an airboat.
Kevlar, tough as it is, never caught on, however. Neither did tunnel hulls, which Bentz also tried. Over the years and decades, fiberglass has continued to be the primary ingredient in bass boat hulls, and the basic V-hull design has repeatedly been modified to remain efficient as length and horsepower have increased.
Eaker's depthfinder was an Apelco, which he mounted on the console to use while driving with the big engine, and which he then rotated to watch as he fished with the trolling motor. It cost about $125.
Far more famous than Apelco was the Fish Lo-K-Tor, the "little green box" first introduced by Carl Lowrance and his sons in 1958. During his years as a Navy flight instructor during World War II, Lowrance had learned all about sonar, but it was his son Darrell, who, as a freshman at the University of Arkansas studying math and physics, developed the technology to make such units applicable to fishing.
Within a year, the Fish Lo-K-Tor had totally revolutionized bass fishing. Until then, anglers used depthfinders primarily to tell them the bottom depth; the Lowrance unit not only clearly showed them the bottom, but everything between the bottom and the surface, as well, including fish. Other Lowrance improvements quickly followed: transducers that could be mounted inside the boat and that transmitted signals at boat speeds of over 60 miles per hour; back-lit faceplates that allowed low light readings for predawn anglers; and even a printer that produced the sonar readings on paper for future study.
By the 1970s, more than 300 different companies were producing depthfinders, but within a decade that number had shrunk to about two dozen. Today, there are fewer still, but the chase for new technology has never slowed.
Today's units come in a variety of styles and sizes, and the better ones include GPS capabilities, as well.
A unit that never really caught on with anglers but which appeared in various forms from about 1975 on was the pH meter. They were slow to use and required extremely careful handling, something bass fishermen have never been known for. These units measured the alkalinity or acidity of the water, measurements many fishermen thought they could do much faster with a crankbait. If a bass bit, the acidity and alkalinity were fine.
Without question, today's boats, outboards and related equipment bear little resemblance to what anglers used 40 years ago. What's important to remember, however, is that it is the fisherman himself who must catch the bass. The equipment he uses, even a 16-foot Dixie Special, just makes it easier and more fun.