The Biggest Fishing Company Nobody Knows

For a firm that started just 25 years ago in a 20x30-foot basement room with only one product to sell, T-H Marine Supplies, Inc. has come a long way. Today they've grown into their own building with nearly 100,000 square feet and they ship as many as 125,000 items around the world each day.The problem is, if you're not directly involved in the boat building industry, you've probably never heard of them.Those power trim switches, standard on every boat now — T-H made the very first one. The Hot Foot throttle pedal — yep, it's a T-H product, too. Cup holders, drain covers and plugs, battery trays and boxes, Rod Saver straps, trailer backing lights, jack plates, entire aeration systems — this Huntsville, Ala., plant designs, manufacturers and sells all of them. Virtually every boat made in North America, from bass boats to yachts, has some T-H products on it."It's been a delightful surprise to me," laughs T-H Marine CEO Bill Huntley, who became the third employee of the fledgling company in 1983, then in 1994 purchased the firm from his partners Charlie Nix and John Baker. "All we do is build items that un-complicate the making of a boat."Years ago, when a boat was sent to a dealer, there was nothing on it, no steering wheel, probably not a seat, maybe not even a console. All these had to be added by the dealer before he could sell it.

"I saw a lot of ideas that could be put on boats that fishermen would like, and that's really how I got started."

 Huntley, of course, is known as one of the finest smallmouth fishermen in the world. He has caught literally truckloads of 6- and 7-pound bronzebacks from his favorite playground, Pickwick Lake, and even today at age 74, he remains an active bass fishermen. His ideas for the marine industry come from spending several days in a bass boat every week for well over 30 years.Prior to joining T-H Marine, he was already the successful owner of the Bumble Bee Bait Company, producing spinnerbaits, jigs and other lures for both bass and crappie. Huntley was the first to use ball bearing swivels in spinnerbaits so he could fish them slower and still get fast blade rotation, and he created the special deeply cupped Alabama blade that smallmouth couldn't resist. Even today, 24 years after he sold Bumble Bee, he still gets calls from anglers looking for his spinnerbaits.

In short, Huntley knows fishing and fishing boats intimately and has been the perfect man to push T-H Marine forward over the years. In one year alone, T-H introduced 52 new products.

The very first product T-H ever produced was the power trim switch on the throttle/shift lever — the company name "T-H" derives from the words "trim handle" — but they never patented it, and soon after its release, the unit was immediately copied by others. T-H still sells theirs, but it's now just one of more than 1,000 different items they produce.

Of all the items T-H Marine produces, perhaps the best-known is the Hot Foot throttle, of which more than a million have been sold since Huntley designed the first one more than 30 years ago.

I'd had the idea for some time, because back in those days we were running 80-horsepower motors on boats probably designed for 20," Huntley remembers, "and I'm sure we'd have put a 150 on our boats if one had been available. Nevertheless, all of us began to think about safety and keeping both hands on the steering wheel, and today's Hot Foot is basically exactly the same as the original.

As bass boating grew and evolved, I was privileged to work with some of the original boat builders who kept pushing the sport forward. That opened up a lot of room for new ideas, and, because I was a bass fisherman myself, I always thought about improvements from a fisherman's point of view.

 "For instance, when I was spending so much time night fishing, I drank coffee but soon realized I didn't have a place on the boat to put my cup, so I designed one. That's how a lot a lot of ideas have come."

 Because he was spending so much time in a bass boat, Huntley naturally began to pay a lot of attention to boat and motor performance. In the early 1970s he realized he had to somehow position the engine further behind the transom to keep water on the prop. He found a piece of structural aluminum, cut it to size with a hacksaw, drilled some holes, and bolted his outboard to it.It may not have actually been the first jackplate, but it was close. Huntley knows he'd never seen one before he made his, but being the possible inventor of one of bass fishing's most standard engine/boat items today doesn't really interest him.What is more important is where T-H has taken jackplate design today. Their new Atlas Series is without question the most modern unit ever built, and in 2008 it will be standard on all new Triton bass boats. It's already seen extensive testing in saltwater by Venice, La., redfish guide Anthony Rendazzo, and will likely become the standard for those craft, as well.

 In fact, T-H Marine doesn't limit its designs to bass boats. Because virtually every company in America that builds boats — for fresh or saltwater — uses some T-H Marine products, Huntley has made it his mission over the years to personally visit the majority of them. Other T-H reps cover not only every state, but also every country in the world except China, which won't let them in. In a word, just about every boat in the water except the Queen Mary uses something Huntley's company builds.In recent years, T-H has also spent a great deal of time and effort improving livewell aeration systems, and today it's safe to say they have probably designed 75 to 80 percent of the aeration systems now in use by the entire boating industry. Typically, Huntley comes to a plant and designs a system specifically for a builder's line.The newest product Huntley himself has designed is the Oxygen Generator System, which literally separates oxygen from the air and pumps it directly into the livewell. Based on oxygen systems currently used in hospitals, it eliminates the dangerous oxygen bottles some anglers currently use, and the entire unit easily fits into a rear deck storage compartment. Thus far, the system has proven to be extremely popular among redfish tournament pros, and is quickly making its way into the bass market where the loss of a single fish might mean the difference in a payoff of $50,000 or more."When we were testing the Oxygen Generator System, I made a special redfishing trip to Venice in June when the air temperature was 102," says Huntley. "We put 14 redfish weighing between 9 and 12 pounds into one livewell and that afternoon when we finished fishing we released all 14 reds, completely healthy and lively, back into the water."As sensitive as redfish are, that day alone told me the Oxygen Generator System could be a important asset to the sportfishing industry in keeping fish of all species alive, and an invaluable asset to any fresh or saltwater tournament angler."Although he has since built a worldwide company based largely on his own fishing and boating experiences, Huntley still laughs about his own lack of confidence in the sport back in the late 1960s. That's when Ray Scott asked him to become the 10th charter member of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, and he declined."I told him he could never sell that program because tournament bass fishing would never become that popular," remembers Huntley, "and boy, was I ever wrong."