Scootin' down the road on an errand 25 miles from home on Tuesday, June 21, 2011 and there it sat! It was at least 125 yards off the road, but as I flashed by, I saw the Bassmaster Classic decal standing out against a red hull. I saw it was an inboard-outboard and sensed that it was old.
I tapped my brakes. "That looks interesting," I thought. Want to stop but need to complete my errand. Tapped my brakes again. OK, I'll check it out on the way back … won't be gone long! As I drove on, I was thinking, "I've only ever seen a couple of inboard-outboard bass boats. Weren't they all Rangers?"
Errand completed, I returned to begin an amazing quest that is without doubt a blessing from God. And, it just keeps getting better!
The rig was chained to an equipment trailer with no house nearby. There was a very small sign reading $3,000 (or best offer) and a phone number. I stood beside the boat calling the number while looking at the "Bass Master Classic" logo and decals, noticing Rebel (model "Fastback") of Fort Smith, Ark., as the manufacturer.
It had an impressive patriotic red, white and blue color scheme. There were two large 17s — one on each side of the cowling. I had no way of knowing their significance at that moment.
Mr. Tommy Jeffries answered my call and seemed like a very nice guy as he said he had owned this boat a long time, and that it was used in the very first Bassmaster Classic! I was skeptical, knowing (I thought) quite a lot of B.A.S.S. history. After all, I've been a B.A.S.S. member since 1972. I assumed that all the early Classic boats had been Rangers.
I told Mr. Jeffries I would call him back in a bit.
Went to my office hastily, searched Rebel/PRADCO website and found a Rebel history page there that revealed more than I could have imagined. The page read: "Rebel was not only limited to lure making, in 1971 they had begun making "Bass" boats. In fact Rebel furnished the boats for the very first Bass Master Classic…."
Well knock me over! On this page was a picture of Classic contender Glin Wells fishing during the Classic, and very visible on the Rebel Fastback cowling was a big "14." As the mental lights began to come on, I grabbed my phone and called Mr. Jeffries. "What is the story on that number 17 on the cowling of the boat?"
He said, "Oh, folks at B.A.S.S. said they numbered them all at Lake Mead, and my buddy and I never took it off."
Have Mercy! I nearly fell out of my chair. I made an appointment with Mr. Jeffries right away!
As my mind began to spin at this piece of history, I could not recall ever seeing one of these boats in an article with pictures and definitely not in person. Mr. Jeffries could meet the next day, Wednesday, June 22, giving me time to hunt information before our meeting. I didn't learn a lot, but did find video of the first Classic on Bassmaster.com. There they were — 24 identical Rebel Fastbacks and Ray Scott firing a flare gun from one of two outboards to start the tournament.
I also saw Glin Wells on video in the exact spot the picture on the Rebel history page was taken. In trying to think why and how Rebels instead of Rangers at that first Classic, I remembered a story about Forrest Woods' Ranger facility burning to a total loss. That was in May of 1971. Wood couldn't get enough Rangers made for the first Classic (in October), so Ray Scott had to seek boats elsewhere.
The pieces began to come together as the quest continued. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about meeting Mr. Jeffries the next day.
I arrived early so I could look closer at the boat before meeting him. I was astounded at the overall condition of the exterior fiberglass. It had full interior carpeting and some on step areas of the trailer, which didn't appear to be factory installed.
I counted five pieces of wood inside that looked to be teak (and they are). The dash, console door and various panels would need refinishing. The red trailer with white pin striping had little fading and virtually no rust or corrosion. How could this be? I had seen lots of bass boats only a few years old that all looked much older than this one.
There was a sonar bracket on the console but no unit. Lifting and peeking under the cowling, all of the motor that was visible was shiny!
Mr. Jeffries (79) arrived and was an exceptional gentleman who plainly said he felt the boat had value because of its history, and wished to sell it. He began to give me information that answered questions I had before I even asked. Explaining he had owned the boat since 1973 (38 years at that time), buying it from the original owner, his friend Bobby McNeill, who kept it only a few months before selling it (more about him later). He said the engine was original and still ran great the last time he cranked it. Even the seat cushions were original! He said that the trolling motor (a Rebel Rambler clearly marked with original decals) was the one that came on the boat when Mr. McNeill bought it.
He walked around the boat, pointing and explaining, touching the sonar bracket on the console and saying, "The original Lowrance flasher is sitting on a shelf at home. I take it off after each trip. It was working fine the last time I used it. That shelf is in a building I've always kept this boat in with the door shut."
Say what? I'm wondering how all this can be real.
Since his sign said "$3,000 or best offer," I asked if he'd accept $2,500 on the spot. He explained to me why he needed $3,000 and after hearing his story, I felt bad to have offered less. We went to his bank and completed the sale and title transfer.
Now, at this point I had not told my wife of all this because I was busy verifying as many facts as possible as quickly as possible. So I called her to say, "Guess what? I just bought a boat and it was in the first Bassmaster Classic ever!" I went on and on about it, and she wasn't at all surprised. Dealing with me for 41 years has prepared her for most anything and shown me that she's the best of the best!
I struck out up the road with my acquisition (never even took it home!) to my trusted friends at Overby Marine in Henderson, N.C., to get the boat checked out. There were so many questions running through my mind that it was hard to concentrate: Will it run? Who used it in that Classic?
Then I remembered that I had a business card in my wallet.
A few months earlier, my best friend, John High, and I had been Marshals at the Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Johns River in Florida. While we were there, my friend Shaw Grigsby invited us to dinner. Less than a week earlier he had won the first Elite tournament of the year on the Harris Chain of Lakes.
"I'm bringing someone with me", he said. "You'll enjoy meeting him." He introduced Ken Duke, the Senior Editor of B.A.S.S. Publications. We enjoyed a great meal and traded numerous fishing and hunting tales for quite a while. Ken's recall of everything B.A.S.S. was enormous! As we left, he said "If I can ever help you with anything, give me a call," and he handed me the card I was digging for in my wallet.
"Little" things happen in your life and you can have no idea what they'll mean to you later on. As I dialed Ken's number, I was looking in my side view mirrors at "sheen" on 40 year old gunnels!
He answered right away.
"Do you remember me from dinner with Shaw in Florida?"
"Sure," he said.
I told him about the boat and its condition and the number on it.
"You have got to be kidding me!" he said. And that began the mission to learn more about the boat that it still ongoing.
Ken determined that the boat was used in the Classic by Dennis Pope of Haysville, Kan. Pope finished 17th in the Angler of the Year standings that year, and that was the basis for the boat numbers. He finished 22nd out of 24 competitors, and I've heard that he has since passed away. If you know something more about him, we'd love to hear it.
Two years of boat restoration and historical research brings me to today. I have been fortunate and honored to talk with many truly influential people. I just sat down at Bobby McNeill's home (the original owner of boat) and his story, along with Tommy Jeffries' (who sold it to me), is a fascinating one for perhaps another time. I've talked numerous times with Ray Scott and traded emails with Harold Sharp, B.A.S.S.'s first tournament director.
I've had a couple of super conversations with Bill Wilson, who was president of Rebel in 1971, and who personally delivered all the Rebel Fastbacks to Lake Mead. I've even talked with Bobby Murray, who won that first Classic. I've talked with Bill Rice, a renowned sportswriter from the west, who rode with contestants and covered the 1971 Classic. He graciously shared many pictures from that event.
As of this writing — a few days before the 2014 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by Diet Mountain Dew and GoPro — the super folks at Carlisle Tire and Wheel Company have asked to place the boat (and me!) in their booth at the Expo in the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). Ray Scott will be there, too!
Stop by and see us at Booth 1936!
Editor's note: Check out this video of Doyle's boat.