‘Biggest, most important happening in bass fishing’ marks 50th anniversary
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. —
A half-century ago, when Ray Scott of Montgomery, Ala., wanted to entice outdoor media to cover his upcoming press conference, he didn’t soft-sell the event.
He invited the journalists to meet him in Springdale, Ark., and learn about “The Biggest, Most Important Happening in Bass Fishing History.”
The “happening” was the All-American Bass Tournament on Beaver Lake, Arkansas, an event many mark as the beginning of the modern era of bass fishing. The tournament was held June 5-7, 1967 — 50 years ago next week. The tournament was successful enough to launch the professional fishing careers of Bill Dance, Stan Sloan, Don Butler and others, and it inspired Scott, an insurance salesman turned promoter, to conduct a “tournament trail” of events across the country.
And it spawned the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society — B.A.S.S. for short — which would grow into the world’s largest fishing organization with more than 500,000 members and a magazine, Bassmaster, currently read by 4.5 million people each month.
BASS BORN IN CHATTANOOGA
Right alongside Scott was Chattanooga's Harold Sharp. Sharp passed away in 2015 at the age of 88.
Sharp was Tournament Director for BASS for nearly two decades. It was the late 1960's when Sharp first heard about Ray Scott and received an invitation to fish one of the BASS pioneer's first tournaments at Smith Lake, Ala.. Sharp came back to Chattanooga with the idea to put together a bass club.
Later Scott shared his dream of creating a national bass fishing organization. Sharp told him about the Chattanooga meeting and Scott headed here to share his idea with local anglers.
"I found him a (motel) room and there was terrible ice storm that day in Chattanooga," said Sharp in an interview many years ago. "He and I sat in that room all day and wrote the first bylaws for BASS. That night I became the second member of BASS and Scott left here with 18 other charter BASS members, all from Chattanooga."
That was 1968. Two years later Sharp decided to shoot for the moon, giving up his career with the railroad for a new career helping build the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. Sharp remembers, "When I handed in my resignation from the railroad to go work with Ray my boss said, 'I wish had the nerve to do that."
MARKING A MILESTONE
Bassmaster’s June issue marks the milestone of tournament fishing with a cover story written by Bob Cobb, who, alongside Sharp, contributed greatly to the All-American’s success.
“This article is special because it pulls back the curtains and offers never-before-released details of how Scott was able to pull off a bass tournament that probably should not have happened,” said Bassmaster Editor James Hall. “Secondly, it is written by Bob Cobb, the first editor of Bassmaster Magazine, who was standing in the crowd during the weigh-in of the All-American event. Cobb was there, and he is one of only a few people on this earth able to tell the story in vivid detail from firsthand experience.
“The celebration of Ray Scott’s first tournament is vital to our sport,” Hall said. “Ray and his small band of supporters legitimized bass fishing competitions and spawned an industry. That’s a big, big deal. Almost every tournament organization today still uses the basic rules developed for the All-American event held 50 years ago. That effort became the constitution for bass tournaments.”
THE FIRST BASS CLASSIC
Sharp vividly recalled the very first Bassmaster Classic held in 1971 on Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border.
The rules were also very different from today's Classics. When the 24 Classic contenders took off on a plane from the Atlanta airport, none of them knew where they were going. BASS founder Ray Scott didn't tell them the ultimate destination until they were 10,000 feet in the air.
"The Classic was designed for the press," said Sharp. "BASS membership had slowed down after the initial surge when it was announced in 1968. Ray, Bob Cobb, me and Dave Newton in Las Vegas were the only ones who knew the location in advance. We never had any doubts that it would work. We would decide to do something and Bob would send out a news release announcing it, then we would look at each other and say, 'Now, how are we going to make it work."
He said they had the help of Dave Newton with the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce for the first 1971 event. He said the pretty girls on hand to meet the anglers and the press were Newton's idea.
For the first six Classic competitions the anglers were never told in advance where they were going to fish. They were simply allowed to bring fishing rods and no more than ten pounds of lures. Of course that meant their boats had to be provided.
Sharp remembers one particular Classic on J. Percy Priest Lake in Nashville.
"I met the trucks delivering the Ranger boats at 2 am and led them to a vacant warehouse," said Sharp.
It was a very clandestine meeting as Sharp said he would "blink his headlights" at the trucks as they exited the interstate.
"I took the drivers to a hotel to sleep for the night. The next day we showed them the railroad cars behind the warehouse and told them the boats would travel by rail the rest of the way, but we needed them to take them off the trailers and start assembling them as quickly as possible. As soon as the trucks were unloaded and boats assembled, we sent them back to Ranger believing we were going to take the boats somewhere else on a train."
CATCH & RELEASE IS BORN
In 1971 the limit was ten fish per angler and at that time catch & release hadn't occurred to them.
"Ray visited a trout event and saw the trout angler releasing their catch, and we quickly put together the catch and release plan," said Sharp. "The first catch & release event was the following March 1972.
Of course aerated livewells hadn't been invented. Sharp said that Alabama Game & Fish Director Sam Spencer explained how aerators added oxygen to the water.
"I went to a store and bought a small, round lawn sprinkler and mounted it upside down in the top of the livewell in our boat, than mounted a small bilge pump in the live well and a short hose connected to the lawn sprinkler," said Sharp. "You filled the live well with water, turned on the bilge pump and the spray from the sprinkler boiled the water in the well with a zillion bubbles. I sent the anglers a drawing showing how to make one. A BASS member named Ray Coyle contacted me and said he and Don Butler wanted to start selling a kit to install in a well or cooler using my idea. I told him I hoped they made a fortune. Soon every boat was making them."
A year-and-a-half after surviving a horrific car wreck, Bobby Murray won the very first 1971 Bassmaster Classic. Over the three-day event he brought 43 pounds and 11 ounces to the scales. Ray Scott wrote out the winner's check to Murray for a $10,000. It was a winner-take-all tournament, so no one else made a dime.
Sharp said no one, even their families, could ever figure out where the first six Classics were going to be held until anglers were on the plane headed that way.
"After milking it for six years we decided it was worth more to announce it in advance," said Sharp.
B.A.S.S. will mark the 50th anniversary the organization's milestones with a yearlong celebration of the history of bass fishing, beginning in January 2018.