A hall of wonders

Bass fishing has been very, very good to Johnny Morris. As a young man, he launched a promising career as a professional bass angler on the B.A.S.S. Tournament Trail, qualifying for five consecutive Bassmaster Classics and ranking fourth in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race one year.

The 1976 Classic Press Guide identified the 28-year-old Morris as “a fishing bachelor and very active businessman in the sporting goods industry.” By that time, his Bass Pro Shops fishing tackle store was just four years old but beginning to take off.

According to company lore, whenever Morris discovered great, locally made lures during his tournament travels, he would take some back home and sell them out of his father’s Brown Derby liquor store in Springfield, Mo. The concept caught on, and the young ­entrepreneur eventually mothballed his ­tournament jumpsuit and devoted his full ­attention to growing the business.

Today, his empire includes more than 100 retail sporting goods stores, a massive online and catalog retail operation, numerous resort properties and some of the biggest brands in bass boating.

An ardent conservationist, Morris also has been intent on giving back to the resources that have rewarded him so well. And in a grand new way, he is giving back to the sport of professional bass fishing itself.

In late July, he and Donald Howell, president of the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame Board of Directors, announced that the Hall of Fame’s museum exhibits will become part of Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, Mo. The Bass Fishing Hall of Fame will open to the public as a key feature inside Wonders of Wildlife when it celebrates its grand opening on Sept. 21.

This news is exhilarating to me. For more than a decade, I have worked with other  volunteers in the sportfishing industry in an attempt to underwrite and build a brick-and-mortar home for the Hall of Fame. People give millions of dollars to political campaigns, but to causes like ours — not so much.

The Wonders of Wildlife Museum, with 320,000 square feet of exhibit space devoted to fish, wildlife and outdoor sports — a Smithsonian-like museum for hunting and fishing — will provide an ideal showcase for honoring the legendary anglers and others who shaped modern bass fishing.

More than 60 Hall of Fame members will be featured in the exhibits, including Ray Scott, Bill Dance, Roland Martin, Jimmy Houston, President George H.W. Bush and, of course, Johnny Morris. The bass fishing displays include antique lures and historical photos and artifacts from the early days of professional B.A.S.S. tournaments.

I was fortunate to tour the Wonders of Wildlife complex as it began to take shape, and I can assure you it deserves a prominent place on your list of vacation destinations.

If you can’t attend the grand opening, I hope you’ll consider taking part in the annual ­induction banquet for the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. It is slated for Nov. 9 in facilities at the Wonders of Wildlife/Bass Pro Shops complex in Springfield.

Not only will you have a chance to tour the museum and browse exhibits in the bass fishing wing, but you’ll also get to celebrate the newest Hall of Fame inductees. Members of the class of 2017 include Bassmaster Elite Series great Shaw Grigsby Jr., tournament organizers Morris Sheehan and Bob Sealey, and magazine writers and book authors Louie Stout and Wade Bourne. (Bourne will be inducted posthumously.)

Fifty years have transpired since Ray Scott first began to replace fishing derbies with a circuit of big-time, professional bass tournaments. It’s fitting that Morris is making it ­possible for the roots of the sport to be celebrated and remembered in this way.

A couple of years ago, I ran into Morris as he was leaving his Big Cedar Lodge reception area, and he commented to me, “Without B.A.S.S., I wouldn’t be here today.” 

Without Morris, Scott, Forrest Wood, Tom Mann and so many others enshrined in the Hall of Fame, the sport of bass fishing wouldn’t be what it is today, either. For that, I offer my undying thanks.