Remembering Don Butler

The meeting of the Tulsa Bass Club on Jan. 5, 1968, was getting unruly as Ray Scott was giving a boisterous pep talk to the members about his idea to start an organized society for bass fishermen. Understandably, the idea was met with skepticism because Scott was talking big: He would make bass fishing a professional sport like golf and make anglers wealthy through his tournaments.One member stood up and brought order to the meeting before it got completely out of hand. "Everybody shut up and let this man tell us what he wants to do," asserted Don Butler, a lumberyard owner, whose store included a wall devoted to fishing tackle, including an obscure spinnerbait called the Okiebug.

 That bold comment fortified Scott's belief that he'd found an ally and disciple in Butler, a man with whom he'd only recently become acquainted. Early that day, as they drove across Tulsa in Butler's pickup truck to the meeting, he listened as Scott rehearsed his spiel. Impressed, Butler asked Scott to sign him up as a member, unaware that he would be the first to join BASS. "What are the membership dues?" he asked Scott, who was taken aback when Butler reached into his wallet and placed a $100 bill on the car seat. The BASS membership role recorded its first member after Scott had Butler stop at a drug store so he could purchase a receipt book to record the money exchangeAnd with that, Don Butler became not only the first BASS member, but its first member for life."I did it more to encourage him than to have the elite status of being the first to join," recounted Butler in an interview with Bassmaster. "I thought that if I could fire him up then it would inspire him to get the idea going. And I wanted to be part of it. I didn't know where it was going, and neither did Ray, but I believed in him and his idea to bring us all together."Months later, Scott was struggling to push BASS over the top and send it on its rollercoaster ride to growth and success. The two talked over the phone on a frequent basis, and during one call Scott told Butler about a warranty card list he needed to buy from Abu Garcia for a direct mail campaign. Valued at $10,000, the list was much too pricey at the time for Scott. The next morning, he received an anonymous Western Union Telegram directing him to go to a local bank. There, he was shocked to collect $10,000 from the unknown giver, which later proved to be Butler. "Ray has never met a stranger, no matter where he goes," said Butler. "And I subscribe to that philosophy myself. I had never seen anybody work harder at achieving a goal than Ray."One of those goals was to bring a world championship to the sport of bass fishing, and it was Butler who won the second Bassmaster Classic — held on Percy Priest Lake, near Nashville, in 1972.Butler used his namesake S.O.B. (Small Okie Bug) spinnerbait to win the $10,000 first place check and as a result, he unknowingly ignited the tournament-driven tackle industry as it is known today. Recognizing a business opportunity, Butler started a wholesale tackle business as a means of selling tackle to retailers. Appropriately, it was called Okiebug Distributing Co.In 1974, a station wagon bearing Missouri license plates and towing a U-Haul trailer pulled into Butler's parking lot. The driver was Johnny Morris, known only to Butler as one of the young hot shots who'd joined Scott's tournament bandwagon. Morris loaded the car and trailer with the latest tackle used by the "pros," including Lowrance depthfinders, Abu Garcia reels, and other gear unavailable at discount department stores."Johnny would come down here and buy a Lowrance for $100 and then turn around and sell it for $90," recalled Butler. "I didn't realize what he was doing at the time, but it obviously made sense over the long-term."And with that, Bass Pro Shops was born. Butler's own business prospered with the parallel and explosive growth of bass fishing through BASS and its tournaments. He eventually retired from tournaments due to business obligations and then waning health. When interviewed by Bassmaster, Butler reflected on the intrepid proclamation made by Scott before the members of the Tulsa Bass Club, which today is part of the BASS Chapter Federation's global network of bass clubs."It was hard to believe what he said back then. Some were cynical and others believed in it like I did. Now, to see it really happen has been a great, fulfilling reward to me."He then paused to reflect on the past "Back then, pros were nothing more than guys like me with successful businesses and plenty of time and money to spend on traveling around to the tournaments. So it wasn't at all about making money. It was about making new friends, trying out new lakes." Never one to mince words, Butler also recognized that the power of the media has driven the stakes higher to not only compete, but succeed. And that has added the element of greed to the sport."It scares me a bit about the attitude of some of the young guys who are getting in this only to make a quick buck, be famous at the expense of their sponsors and anyone in their way," he said. "It's not a serious problem, but it could become one. I still think for the most part that the guys who do this for a living are sportsmen in the true sense of the word."When asked how the first member of BASS wanted to be remembered, Don Butler had this to say:"I'd like to think that I made an impression on some of the young guys, like Johnny Morris, about how important it is to give something back to the sport, which he has and continues to do. These pros today have that opportunity to have more of an impact through ESPN and Bassmaster. So I'd like to think that legacy will be passed on to the next generation."And finally this: "Ray still has the energy of a young man. He is my best friend and a true friend to this sport. I hope that his legacy lives on forever in the minds of bass anglers for what he achieved for this sport." Ray Scott feels the same way about a man who restored order to a rowdy meeting back in 1968 that planted the seeds for what grew into the world's largest fishing organization. Don Butler will be greatly missed.












Also By This Author