I was just 24 years old when I took over as outdoors writer for The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Georgia back in 1997.
Since it was located just 45 minutes down the road from Lake Eufaula, one of the first people I dropped in on was legendary B.A.S.S. angler, lure designer, television show host and Eufaula, Ala., mainstay Tom Mann.
One of the first stories he told me was about Leroy Brown.
Leroy hung out at Tom Mann’s Fish World in Eufaula and was so popular that people often drove from several states away just to see him. When he died in 1980, more than 1,200 people — some weeping and sobbing — attended his funeral.
Oh, by the way … Leroy Brown was a bass.
That he was a largemouth is known for sure. But the bulk of the Leroy Brown story has been — and will be — debated for years.
Mann was one of the greatest inventors in fishing history, having had a hand in industry staples like the Jelly Worm, the Lil George and the first Humminbird flasher that would ultimately spawn much of the advanced technology we have today.
Tom was an incredible storyteller, too.
Not a liar. Not by any means.
But by his own admission, he would sometimes pull a little nugget from one story, a little nugget from another and eventually craft one big phenomenal story that made you simultaneously say, “Wow!” and “Huh?”
The story of Leroy Brown began when Tom was fishing Lake Eufaula one day and landed a 1-pound bass on a Jelly Worm. He instantly felt the fish was special, so he released it into one of his smaller aquariums at Fish World.
That fish was mean, and he impressed Mann so much that he named him Leroy Brown after the tough guy in the old Jim Croce song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Mann eventually moved Leroy to the centerpiece 38,000-gallon tank at Fish World where he grew large and entertained visitors by chasing off other fish, engulfing the lures he thought looked good and swatting away the ones that he saw as a turn-off.
The story up to that point doesn’t sound so fantabulous.
But in 1980, after a seven-year life in the tanks at Fish World, Leroy Brown was found floating dead in the aquarium.
“It felt like I had lost a family member, it really did,” Tom told me. “It just tore my heart out, and a lot of people felt the same way. He was a town favorite, a worldwide favorite. There had been stories written about him in other countries.”
Back when he first told me the story in 1997, I would swear Tom told me “about 500 people” attended the funeral he held for Leroy. iPhones didn’t exist back then, and I wasn’t making enough money to afford a tape recorder, so maybe I just heard him wrong.
But it sure does seem like that number has grown through the years with each story written. The last figure I read was “more than 1,200.”
Supposedly, condolence telegrams rolled in from celebrities around the world, including country music stars like Hank Williams Jr. and Porter Wagoner — both of whom were big fans of Lake Eufaula.
Stay with me.
We haven’t gotten to the weirdest part yet.
Tom said he didn’t bury Leroy on the day of the funeral because the space he’d picked out was too wet and muddy. Instead, he put his casket inside a freezer at Fish World, and it was promptly stolen.
In the fishing world, the case is akin to the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa — except they did actually find Leroy, even if they never found his abductors. The fish was found, according to Tom, at the baggage claim of the Tulsa Airport.
His body was eventually returned to Eufaula and given a proper burial underneath a monument with the now-famous inscription, “Most bass are just fish. But Leroy Brown was something special.”
The statue was relocated for a while to B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott’s place in Pintlala, Ala. But it now sits in the middle of the town square in Eufaula.
One of my last trips to Eufaula before leaving to be the outdoors writer for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis was to attend Tom’s funeral in 2005. He was a hard-living guy from rural Alabama who dealt with many hardships — despite his vast success — before his death at age 72.
What I can verify for certain is that Lake Eufaula was as empty that day as I’d seen it in years. It seemed everyone in town was at Tom’s funeral — and the out-of-town attendees included Ray Scott and Bass Pro Shops founder and owner Johnny Morris.
Tom had that kind of effect on a lot of people, including me.
When I went for my second interview at the Ledger-Enquirer in 1997, I was as green as a tomato on the vine in March. The paper wasn’t sure about me, so they asked me to go out and audition by actually writing a story — and since I didn’t know anyone there, I cold-called Tom.
Though we hadn’t met at that time, he set me up with a guide and pointed me to a story that would eventually win first place in the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association’s annual contest. If not for his help, I don’t know what I’d be doing today.
Anytime people tell me someone they know is a “character,” I think, “Man, you haven’t met a character unless you knew Tom Mann.” Through the years, he told me he’d been bitten by a rattlesnake, struck by lightning twice and once pushed a doctor out of the way to save someone’s life with a defibrillator when that person was in cardiac arrest.
I don’t know how much of that stuff was 100% true — just like I don’t know how many people actually came to Leroy Brown’s funeral.
What I can tell you, however, with a great degree of certainty is that I don’t care. Great stories by great storytellers are too few and far between.
I can say this for sure as well:
When the Bassmaster Elite Series visits Lake Eufaula next week, I’ll travel to the town square to visit the gravestone monument of a fish I never met. One that died when I was 7 years old.
And as I drive those roads, I’ll miss the colorful friend who made that story into a legend that I hope will forever continue to grow.