This past January, our sport lost one of its best. Forrest L. Wood — founder of Ranger Boats — died from a heart attack. He was 87 years old.
Forrest was admired by all who knew him. He dedicated most of his life to developing and perfecting his elite brand of boats, while helping countless others realize their goals and dreams along the way … me included.
Ranger was one of my first paying sponsors, and they still support me today — 35 years later.
Interestingly, it wasn’t Forrest who gave me that initial opportunity. It was his wife, Nina. She thought I’d make a good addition to the Ranger family. The truth is, Forrest wasn’t too keen on the idea. I didn’t look anything like the average bass angler in those days. I looked like I belonged more on a surfboard than a bass boat. But Nina liked me, and she was willing to take the chance. Using her powers of persuasion, she got Forrest to come around.
Not long afterward, their daughter Rhonda pulled me aside and said, “Dad doesn’t trust men who don’t wear socks.”
Back then, I went barefoot or in sandals, maybe deck shoes — nothing about socks. Considering her words, however, I went to the store and bought some. Then I went and found Forrest.
I walked right up to him and said, “Forrest, Rhonda tells me you don’t trust men who won’t wear socks, so … here ya go!” We all laughed and from that point on, I think he was okay with the young surfer from Florida.
Fishing with Forrest
Later, I had the privilege of drawing Forrest as my first-day partner in a B.A.S.S. MegaBucks event on the Harris Chain of Lakes.
Back then, pros were paired together for each competition day. We shared the boat and our fishing waters, hopefully reaching some sort of an agreement … or at least a compromise, where each had equal opportunity.
Sometimes it worked out. Sometimes it didn’t.
Because the Harris Chain was my home water (and I was on fish), I wanted to take my boat. Getting Forrest to agree to that plan was surprisingly easy, too. Although he claimed he had located plenty of fish of his own, class act that he was, he yielded to me.
Looking back, I’m sure it wasn’t because he thought I was on a better grade of fish, or even more fish. It was because I was a young, aspiring pro trying to make a name for myself, and he didn’t want to stand in the way of that. Forrest was more inclined to help than hinder, and I’ll always remember that about him. Nina too.
As our day progressed, we got to know each other better. He was easy to fish with … kind and respectful.
Sometime in the early afternoon, Forrest got a key bite. After setting the hook, it was clear he had tied into a giant bass. The fish never broke water. Instead, it stripped yards of line, crashing through the field of lily pads we were flipping, eventually binding itself in the stems a boat length away. As I struggled to get us closer, the situation became more anxious. Forrest believed the fish was still pinned, so I began digging through the pad stems up to my shoulders, trying to find it.
Eventually, I felt the slime of its body. It was massive, and tightly bound to a cluster of pad stems. I grabbed the fish with both hands, then asked Forrest to free-spool his reel, so that I could pull her free. Reluctant at first, he eventually released the spool and I tore the behemoth bass free and lifted her over the gunnel.
That fish weighed well over 9 pounds, and was the largest of the event. Forrest hugged me like I was his kid, and I’ll never forget the jubilation. It’s one of my best memories in fishing.
Working with Forrest
Several times over my career, I had the opportunity to work alongside Forrest — at dealer in-stores, boat shows and the like. I remember watching how he would interact with people and how generous he was with his time.
I’m sure many of you stood in line at some of those promotions, just to get a minute or two with the cordial man who became a legend. No matter how long those lines might have been, Forrest would stay until he met the last person.
Observing that, I learned the importance of giving people your time, and interacting with them one on one. It’s a lesson that has served me well throughout my career.
Funning with Forrest
I also recall a time when I took my best friend, Bert Tate, to visit the Ranger factory in Flippin, Ark. First, we stopped at Forrest and Nina’s museum. My buddy wanted to meet Forrest more than anything, so we asked the receptionist if that might be possible. She informed us that he was in a meeting, but that he would be available afterward and that we could wait in his office.
What happened next is the God’s truth. I swear.
After spending time admiring Forrest’s collection of photos, awards and other mementos, my buddy decided to try out Forrest’s personal chair. Bert was bold that way. And before I could talk him out of it, he had kicked back in the chair and propped his feet on Forrest’s desk.
No sooner did he get comfortable when — you guessed it — Forrest walked through the door.
In complete horror and embarrassment, Bert sheepishly smiled and removed his feet from the desk. I wanted to die. But, true to his character, Forrest simply smiled and said, “I see you’re making yourselves at home.”
There, together, were two of the most important people in my life. Neither knowing the other before that encounter, yet somehow coming together in an awkward, friendly exchange. Forrest had a way of easing awkward situations, and I think he saw the humor in that introduction.
Lessons from Forrest
What I learned from Forrest is far more significant than any fishing tip. He showed me the importance of sportsmanship, fairness and how to treat people. He exuded class and pride, yet he was humble.
Forrest taught by example, and he inspired others to do and be their best. He was recognized for this and his many achievements — both in boat building and conservation. He was the ultimate role model.
So many anglers like me, wanting to make it in this sport, found their way through the support and encouragement of Forrest L. Wood. And for that, we are all grateful.
Rest in peace, Forrest. You will be missed.