A Hall of Fame day in Texas

The Bass Fishing Hall of Fame enshrined its class of 2017 last Thursday night at the Hall’s new home at the Wonders of Wildlife Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, Mo. All of this year’s inductees are worthy of that honor, and I’ve been told that it was a fantastic event at an unbelievable facility. While I’m a huge believer that it’s critical that we memorialize our sport’s history while many of the originators are still able to help us tell that story, I don’t really regret not being there.

That’s because I have a steel-lock, better-than-a-notarized-note-from-your-mama excuse: I was in Texas fishing with Lonnie Stanley. 

While others were celebrating important segments of our past, I was spending time in the boat with one of them, soaking in as many stories as I could as Lonnie, his friend Randy Hanna and I put steel to the mouths of somewhere north of 150 bass. 

Fishing with Lonnie wasn’t the only reason I took a long weekend sojourn to the Lone Star State. I was scheduled to fish two days with former Elite pro Clark Reehm, who qualified for two Bassmaster Classics and three Forrest Wood Cups. I was also planning to fish two days with Keith Combs, still to my mind the once and future King of Texas. On the off chance that I didn’t get to fish with enough talent during my five days on the water, Clark even enticed two-time Classic qualifier Albert Collins to join us in the boat on Friday. With no disrespect to any of those three exceptional anglers – it would have justified the time, effort and cost of my trip to fish with any one of them – the highlight of my long weekend was the time in the boat with Mr. Stanley.

As a self-proclaimed bass history geek, it was a privilege to get to spend time with him, made even better by the fact that through one of his many connections made in a lifetime of Texas fishing, we had access to a 170 acre private lake that was slap full of some of the meanest bass I’ve ever caught – and no one had fished for them in a couple of months. That made the stories flow, because unlike a day when you’re struggling to get a bite or two, we could laugh off missed opportunities, knowing there would be another one biting just a few casts later. While I caught a few on a Texas Rig and a topwater, it was fitting that the best bait of the day was a 1/2-ounce Stanley Lures Golden Bream spinnerbait. They’re a longtime industry standard and tough as nails, just like Lonnie. My first one lasted through over 40 fish before I broke it off in a deep brushpile, and its replacement worked every bit as well, as my shredded hands will testify.

If anyone was ever born to be a fishing industry stalwart, it was Lonnie Stanley. He was raised in the dot on the map known as Zavalla, Texas, which would be inconsequential except that it allowed him to be among the first to fish legendary Sam Rayburn Reservoir. He was also just a long cast from Toledo Bend and a short drive from other quality lakes like Livingston and Conroe. Several years ago, some of his earliest dates with his wife Patsy around 1961 involved going to observe the construction of the Sam Rayburn Dam. At first I thought that might just be another name for “watching the submarine races,” but knowing Lonnie, I’m pretty certain that fishing was on his mind nearly as much as courtship. 

As we landed singles, doubles and triples last Thursday, he told stories about his tournament days, both when he dominated local events in the 70s, and then as he made his move to B.A.S.S. in 1981. He was the first pro on tour to run a newfangled Yamaha outboard, and it was the deal with Ranger and Yamaha that enabled him to make the leap to the national level. He later won both the 1987 Megabucks event on the Harris Chain and the 1997 Texas Invitational on Sam Rayburn, along the way qualifying for five Bassmaster Classics, but the reason that Lonnie Stanley should be in the Hall of Fame is that he was more than a tournament angler.

Stanley was also a tackle innovator, producing a jig that dominated the category for many years and the Wedge blade for his spinnerbaits, as well as bringing the Ribbit to a broader audience. His lures played a substantial role in numerous pros’ career development, including no less a figure than Rick Clunn, who won the 1986 U.S. Open using a Stanley spinnerbait. Groupthink of that era said there was no way that the Open on crystal-clear Lake Mead could be won on a blade, but Clunn proved them wrong using a novel transparent metalflake skirt that Stanley was testing. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Stanley also hosted a show on ESPN for nearly two decades.

Should or could Stanley be in the Hall of Fame on the basis of his tournament career alone? Unlike his Texas contemporaries like Clunn, Tommy Martin, or Larry Nixon (part of the original Hemphill Gang before moving back to Arkansas), probably not. When you add in his tackle innovations, though, I think it’s a slam dunk. His career is in many ways comparable to that of Gary Yamamoto, who was inducted last year. 

While we didn’t discuss it, I’m not so sure that Lonnie cares whether he makes it to the Hall of Fame – regardless of what hardware or honors you bestow on him, my best guess is that the next day he’ll either be on the water or in his shop tinkering with a new lure design. As he told me on the long ride home from the ranch, “Even at over 70 years old, every time they play that national anthem before a tournament it gets my heart racing.”

Even if the honors don’t matter to him, they should matter to the rest of us, and to the sport, and that’s why I hope that sometime in the near future I get to head over to Springfield to listen to his acceptance speech.

As we left the lake, Lonnie apologized that we didn’t catch any “real great big ones.” It was one of the best days of fishing of my life – between the three of us I’m confident that we caught 40 or 50 over 4 pounds – but I’d fish with Lonnie Stanley anywhere. It could be the worst gar hole or parking lot mud puddle in the country, and we’d still have a good time. If he ever invites you to “a pretty good little private lake,” don’t ask questions, just hop in your truck or buy a plane ticket and get there as soon as you can.