For as long back as they can remember, David Jones and Carl Svebek had one another’s backs.
In the early 1980s when they played baseball together at Woden High School in east Texas, Svebek was a standout pitcher and Jones an equally adept catcher. They may have disagreed on pitches Jones called behind the plate from time to time, but they seemed to always get the job done.
They stayed in touch when Svebek left to play college ball at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, and Jones stayed back in Texas to play for Ranger Junior College. They remained friends when they both transferred to Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, but they lost track of one another after college.
Svebek, an avid fisherman throughout his life, wound up qualifying for the Bassmaster Top 150 Series back in the mid-1990s, though he didn’t fare well initially. He was about to quit the sport, but he won a qualifier to get into the FLW Tour, and he fished on that circuit for 13 years.
Amazed at his own luck, he often wondered what happened to his old friend Jones, who didn’t have much as a young man – “a bicycle and a basket of clothes,” as Jones put it. Svebek’s family was one of several back home who helped young Jones through some lean years.
Then one day, Svebek’s phone rang. It was Jones who had seen Svebek on Jerry McKinnis’ ESPN television show The Fishing Hole. McKinnis is a former minor league baseball player (and co-owner of B.A.S.S.) and their shared passion for baseball and fishing helped them strike a rich friendship that has lasted through the years.
So here was Jones after some 20 years of not seeing his old friend, and he had a proposition. Svebek found it odd, as he figured his old friend would be “working at a Burger King, or something like that” given the tough start to life Jones had been dealt.
Far from it, however. Jones since had founded Gopher Industrial, a large equipment supply house headquartered in Orange, Texas. Jones wanted Svebek to participate in a bass tournament being staged on the Sabine River by the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce in 2012. It was a small affair, but ultimately one with much loftier aspirations.
Though Svebek (and likely Jones) didn’t know it at the time, the small city of Orange, Texas, would soon be vying to enter the big-time world of professional bass fishing.
The first discussion of the subject came when the chamber tournament was complete, and Svebek, Jones and others were enjoying a backyard barbecue at Jones’ home. Jones said Svebek mentioned the possibility of trying to lure a B.A.S.S. event to Orange and the Sabine River. Svebek remembers that Jones asked him about the chances as they sat beside the fire that evening.
Regardless, both men’s wheels were set in motion. While driving back home to Arkansas (where Svebek lived at the time), he couldn’t dismiss from his mind the idea of a B.A.S.S. event on the Sabine River. So when he had cell service somewhere near Jasper, Texas, Svebek pulled his truck to the side of the road and called McKinnis. He told his friend of how the city planned to stage a festival around the tournament which would bring additional people to an already popular traveling show like a B.A.S.S. competition.
Ninety minutes of conversation later, and McKinnis was sold. He promised to call Jones about it, and the next day, he did. Only a short time after that, Jones, members of the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce, and representatives from B.A.S.S and McKinnis’ Little Rock-based JM Associates were hashing out the details.
Orange would have its tournament – an Elite Series event that took place in March 2013. Getting the highest-caliber professional bass anglers in the world to the Sabine was a coup, Jones said, considering the area previously had been known almost exclusively as a saltwater fishery.
“We were thinking maybe we’d host a B.A.S.S. Nation event, something like that,” he said. “To get the Elites in town for our first tournament put us on the map right away.”
The City of Orange, Texas, dates back to 1836 when it was called Green Bluff. Its name was changed to Madison a few years later, and eventually Orange in 1858. It is said to have taken its name from the orange groves that thrived in the south Texas sunshine, though eventually, the town became better known for shipbuilding and its military presence – logical choices given the deep-water port of the Sabine River.
A U.S. Naval Station opened in Orange during World War II and the facility was used to store reserve boats in peacetime. Aerial photos taken mid-20th Century show dozens of Navy destroyers on the Sabine shoreline in downtown Orange, and hundreds of tidy rows of houses fanned out along the crescent of the river. The population swelled to more than 60,000 at one point, and Orange was the center of a booming economy.
When the Navy base became a reserve facility in 1975, Orange’s population began to drop precipitously. By the time the base was decommissioned altogether in 2008, fewer than 20,000 residents remained. With the national economy also trending downward at the same time, Orange fell on some fairly significant economic hardships.
It was about the same time that the local chamber of commerce began brainstorming different ways to “sell” the community to people looking to visit or set down permanent roots in the area. Naturally, local officials turned to the river, which is why the city was settled in the first place. And the chamber bass tournament was a way to highlight the myriad economic possibilities the Sabine River offered the people of Orange.
Enter Jones, who as one of the area’s leading businessmen, had not only a vested interest in promoting the local economy, but also wanted to give back to an area that supported him and his business so well.
He teamed with Greater Orange Area Chamber President Ida Schossow and fellow members of the chamber and business communities to get a readiness team together for the B.A.S.S. visit. Jones also reached out to longtime friend John Gothia – a civic-minded son of Orange who happens to be an avid angler.
Jones and Gothia co-chaired that first event and both admitted it took some convincing to get the chamber and local businesses to bite on the prospect. But after relentlessly pitching the idea that money spent would replace itself many times over (not to mention the benefit of national exposure a Bassmaster event brings to a community), the 2013 tournament was a go.
OUT OF THE BOX
The 2013 Elite Series event on the Sabine River was woven into the inaugural Orange River Festival. It featured live music by popular country and western acts, a Carnival midway, games and ample food and drink, to go along with numerous vendor booths seen at all Bassmaster tournaments. People flocked to the event, and the four-day crowd of 33,650 people was the largest in Elite Series history until it was passed later that year by a tournament in Waddington, New York.
“We thought if we had 5,000 people total, we’d call it a success,” Gothia said. “To have as many people as we did blew us away. We knew the people would turn out, but to have that many was incredible.”
It didn’t hurt that Todd Faircloth, who lives in Jasper about 70 miles upriver, won that tournament. On stage after the victory, Faircloth asked people in the crowd how many of them had fished against him in small bass tournaments through the years. Literally hundreds of hands shot into the air.
“East Texas is outdoors country,” Faircloth said. “Hunting, fishing; it’s what we do. I wasn’t surprised to see that many people at the 2013 tournament even though it was the first Bassmaster event on the river. It’s still my most special victory, being able to win in front of so many family and friends.”
Faircloth’s win also helped galvanize support for professional bass fishing in the area. When the Elites returned to the Sabine in 2015, more than 33,000 people turned up at the weigh-ins, even though the tournament was impacted by bad weather. Jones, Gothia and company weren’t sure if the Central Open No. 2 held in Orange June 15-17 would top 33,000-plus people, but they did predict that it would be the best attended Open tournament in B.A.S.S. history.
“People are serious about this here,” Svebek said. “Besides the fact they are anglers themselves, but I think because the Sabine is challenging, it makes for compelling stories. There are lakes where B.A.S.S. typically goes where catching a 9- or 10-pounder is nothing. This is river fishing. It’s harder. I think it’s kind of like the Masters (golf tournament). You’re not going to tear that place up. You have to work hard at it. The person who wins here probably is the person who’s working the hardest.”
Jones, Gothia and the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce lined up more than 100 volunteers to staff this year's Central Open No. 2. They said it’s fairly easy to get people interested in helping because the tournament, with the concurrent Orange River Festival, is one of the biggest events of the year in Orange County.
Organizers already have seen the impact their work has had on the sport both locally and nationally. Representatives from several towns across the U.S. have visited tournaments in Orange to see they also can be a successful bass tournament venue. In fact, when it was announced the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic was to be held in Houston, officials from that hosting organization sought advice from Jones and Gothia, as well.
“Houston,” Jones said in with some wonder. “Can you believe it?”
In Orange itself, the city hosts a half dozen regional or national-level bass tournaments each year now, and hopes to attract more. The influx of tourism dollars will help finance erection of a pavilion on the river near the Orange Boat Launch, Jones said, which is needed since the launch and surrounding park are humming with activity most days now. That’s a far cry from a decade ago, when that area of town largely was silent.
“People want to be a part of what’s happening here with fishing,” Schossow said. “In 2015, there was an 85-year-old man who was trying to wade through rainwater to make it over to see Kevin VanDam. He told us Kevin VanDam was his hero…We took Kevin over to him and they took some pictures together. Kevin told the man ‘No, you’re my hero.’ The man had been in the military.
“It was just a really great moment. You can tell how much this means to people here, and being able to bring it to them, while helping our local economy in the process? Well, you just can’t get much better than that.”
Jones agreed. Gopher Industrial sponsors several pro anglers, including Faircloth, Davy Hite, and of course, Svebek, who moved to Orange 18 months ago to work for Jones in business development.
Svebek had been out of professional fishing for several years while raising three young children. Now that the kids are older, Svebek’s back in it and fishing the Central and Southern open circuits this year. Jones made sure his old friend had the financial backing to do what he loves – go fishing.
As a token of their friendship, Jones bought two pitching mound rubbers when Svebek returned to professional fishing. He scrawled the words “Taking Back the Mound” on both rubbers, and one rides on Svebek’s boat whenever he’s on the water.
It was a sign of solidarity, and a reminder that Jones has his old friend’s back.
The City of Orange, Texas, can’t help but feel the same way.