Classic Rewind: Humminbird’s legacy

Between 1979 and 1991, the official sonars used in the Bassmaster Classic were made by Humminbird. One of the Classic’s longest sponsors started an electronics revolution that redefined how bass were caught offshore.

Deep water patterns evolved from Classic wins, such as the famous kneel-and-reel pattern used by 1982 Classic winner Paul Elias, who fished deep river channel ledges to win the tournament. Jack Chancellor relied on his Humminbird Super 60 to find bass on river ledges to win the 1985 Classic, and so did Charlie Reed the next year on the Tennessee River. Like all Bassmaster tournament innovations, the average angler benefited the most by finding ways to catch bass in deeper water than ever before.

The Humminbird legacy began long before the brand’s presence at the Classic, although it was the early Bassmaster tournaments that helped launched the most famous of all depfhfinders of the day. Here is the story behind that iconic product. 

By the mid-1970s the bass boat revolution was revving at full throttle, and the Bassmaster Tournament Trail was the reason. The 150-horsepower outboard was the standard. Comfort and functionality were embraced as necessities, not luxuries in bass boat design. By comparison, depthfinder technology was crude. 

Recognizing an opportunity was Tom Mann, a B.A.S.S. pro and lure maker from Alabama. His idea was for a waterproof depthfinder capable of operating faster to find fish quicker. In 1974, his idea became the first waterproof fishfinder known as the Humminbird Super 60. 

Like many iconic American companies, Humminbird has humble beginnings. Hatched in a modest Eufaula, Alabama, garage-like facility in 1971, Mann and a handful of investors known as Allied Sports Company began modifying Heath Kits into the first Humminbird depth sounders.

Former Humminbird CEO Jim Balkcom recalls: “Around 1970 there was a Eufaula Hospital radiologist making changes to the electrical design of Heath Kit Depth Sounders to shield interference from the bigger outboards making their way onto bass boats. Tom Mann was impressed and they started placing foil over the Heath Kit logo and selling the modified units to a buddy here, a buddy there. Before they knew it, they were creating serious demand.”

Humminbird’s stable of pro anglers quickly expanded to include Bill Dance, Jimmy Houston, Hank Parker, Al Lindner, and numerous others. Through print, TV and tournaments, the team taught the average angler how to locate and catch fish faster, creating significant brand buzz.

The Super Sixty, which became one of the best-selling fishfinders ever produced, altered the trajectory of sport fishing forever. Sales numbers grew exponentially and an entire new market segment was born.

In the late 1980s, anglers were seeking the next generation of fish finding sonar. Humminbird answered the call. Engineers were tasked to work on a display that could be read in bright sunlight. By 1984, they unveiled the LCR series, the industry’s first Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) fish-finder.

Said Balkcom: “We introduced the first fish-finder that used a microprocessor to process signals, so we were able to display a chart-like appearance on an LCD screen that could be seen in bright sunlight with only two buttons on it. One button turned it on and off and the other sequenced through features. It was that simple. And it took off like a rocket ship. We went from $6 million to $75 million in revenues within three years and grew from 0 percent to 48 percent market share, revolutionizing the industry.”

Then Humminbird went back to its pros and consumers to find out what would come next. Balkcom describes what did come next.

“We sent out questionnaires to every angler who’d filled out a warranty card asking what they wanted in a follow-up unit. Fishermen wanted a unit that could distinguish fish from the bottom, rocks, and other clutter. So, we went to Hitachi and brought home a recently-developed two-color display. Our engineers then figured out how to make the display show fish in red. The next year we came out with the LCR4ID. Our byline was ‘If it’s a fish, it’s red’.”

By 1987, the Humminbird LCR 4ID fishfinder became the No. 1 selling product in both the sport fishing and marine industries.

Humminbird PR manager during this time, Larry Columbo, recalls: “The LCR 4ID became so popular that we’d build and ship the same day. We never put one in inventory for 18 months. Bass Pro Shops wanted to buy out the entire production but Tom Dyer, our VP of marketing and sales, said everybody gets their fair share. It was one of those deals where Bass Pro had customers putting money down on promised units, they were so popular.”

The era of the LCR 4ID saw Humminbird employees working 50 to 70 hours a week to keep up with product demand.

Today, the ground-breaking innovations continue with revolutionary 360 Imaging, Mega Imaging and the Solix family of big screen units, along with integration with Minn Kota trolling motors.

From early visionaries, engineers, factory workers, dealers, to customers, all melded together to shape not only a company, but an industry. Eufaula, Alabama is still home to Humminbird’s engineering, manufacturing and technical support.

This is a story of American ingenuity, passion and perseverance as told through the recollections of the fishing industry pioneers who lived it.