Growing up in Springfield, Missouri, the son of Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris, it’s no surprise that John Paul Morris grew up with a love for the outdoors.
“I was a young kid running around in a diaper with a fishing pole in my hand,” says Morris. “I got my first deer with a bow when I was 9 years old. I really took to it. I loved being out in the woods, and I loved the challenge of it. I was very lucky being part of our family and Bass Pro I’ve gotten to travel around and hunt in different locations.”
One place the Morrises love to hunt is Kansas, and that’s where young JP, as he is known, met a friend who first introduced him to the sport that would change his life.
“I was 17, and I met a buddy in Kansas who would deer hunt in the fall and in the summertime he loved to go bowfishing,” Morris says. “He told me about it, and I drove to Oklahoma one weekend and joined him. We went out two nights in a row, and I was just hooked.”
That next Monday, Morris went to Bass Pro’s boat plant in Lebanon, Missouri, home of the Tracker brand. “I got with those guys and said, ‘You’ve got to build me a boat,’” Morris says. “They helped build me my first Tracker boat. … When you’re 17 and you’ve got your own boat, it’s awesome having that freedom. I think that’s what appealed to me in the very beginning.”
That truly was just the beginning. In the ensuing 14 years, Morris has become an ambassador for bowfishing, expanding Bass Pro’s (and now Cabela’s, which Bass Pro bought in 2017) lines of bowfishing and other equipment, founding the U.S. Open Bowfishing tournament and watching his once fledgling sport continue to grow and draw participants from all over the world.
“It’s the perfect blend of hunting and fishing,” says Morris, now 31. “When you go fishing, you never know what you’re going to catch with the next cast. And I love to hunt because you have the pressure of making it happen when you finally get the opportunity. … And there’s just something really cool about it, being out on the water at night.”
From that first weekend he went bowfishing, Morris basically never stopped. He got his business degree from the University of Mississippi, and in 2007, a college friend invited him to the world bowfishing championship in Venice, Louisiana. “It was so cool, because I met guys from all over the country who traveled there with these cool airboats and all this crazy stuff, and they went down there to compete, and it kind of got the tournament side in my blood,” he says. “Everyone was real welcoming, real nice, not that they were going to tell you where the fish were, like any other fishermen. They started giving me pointers, and I started learning more and more about it.”
Morris is an affable, down-to-Earth guy, and he loves to tell a story, particularly when it comes to his bowfishing exploits. He still fondly recalls a trip he made with his father, where they fished with bowfishing celebrities the Gar Guys on the Trinity River in East Texas and he caught the “coolest fish” he ever caught.
“We spent two-and-a-half days on the river in Texas in August, and it was like 100 degrees,” he says. “Halfway through our second day, I happened to be looking down, and I saw this shadow coming up and this giant alligator gar rolled right in front of me. I got the bow back and let it go and got a good shot on her and we fought for about 45 minutes. We ended up getting it on the boat, and it was 8-foot-4-inches long and bottomed out a 250-pound deer scale we had.”
In 2017, Morris broke Missouri’s bowfishing record when he caught a 58-pound bigmouth buffalo while bowfishing with friends. “I have the fish mounted in my house,” he says. “It was definitely a pretty cool moment. I got it with one of my Oneida bows (Morris bought the company in 2015) out of a Tracker boat, so that was a pretty neat deal.
Though a few states allow bowfishing for species you might put on your dinner table, bowfishing is mostly about carp, gar and other rough fish. “It’s a good conservation tool for a lot of these lakes,” Morris says. “A lot of the fish that we’re targeting are non-native fish species.”
Bowfishermen will be hunting in force during April’s U.S. Open Bowfishing Championships, to be held in Bossier City, Louisiana. Morris started the hugely successful tournament seven years ago.
“My goal was to get 40 boats there, and we signed up 120 teams that first day,” Morris recalls.
The tournament, held at different locations every year and usually on multiple lakes, now draws 250 teams, both male and female, from around the country. The first-place team earns $25,000, and the biggest fish is worth $5,000. In addition, the tournament gives away a Tracker 1860CC Sportsman ready-to-go bowfishing package worth more than $20,000. (For more information, go to basspro.com/usopen) Morris won’t compete in his tournament, but he will definitely be on site. With his involvement in Bass Pro and Cabela’s, as well as starring in the TV series “The Habit” and a heavy social media presence, he has become one of bowfishing’s prime movers and shakers.
“There were definitely guys that came before me, but I really love this sport and I want what’s best for it,” say Morris. “I love promoting it and getting new people involved. I take a ton of people out who have never even drawn a bow back, and it’s really fun to watch them miss and miss and miss and miss. Then they finally hit one, and you see their eyes light up and they’re all excited.”
It can also be relatively inexpensive to get started, Morris says. “You can repurpose pretty much any bow,” he says. “There are also a lot of different packages we sell at Bass Pro and Cabela’s, from an entry-level $50 package to a couple of hundred dollars.”
Morris, who says that playing golf is just about the only other thing he does other than hunting and fishing, likens his love for bowfishing to another family love that led to Bass Pro Shops.
“It’s a passion thing, probably no different than my dad and his bass fishing,” says Morris, who says he “plays hooky” from his day job to hunt, fish and bowfish as often as he can. He lives in Springfield with seven large reservoirs within a one-and-a-half-hour drive. “As my dad said early on in his career, he spent a lot of time out bass fishing. He said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to be close to your customer, and you’ve got to deliver what your customer wants.’ So my spending time outdoors and traveling to these tournaments, it gives me a good pulse for the community and what the customer is looking for and how we can improve our products.”
Morris says Bass Pro isn’t big on titles, but he works on “a little bit of everything.” But mostly, he’s just a guy who likes hunting and fishing just like anyone else, which surprises some people.
“Especially around these tournaments, they think Bass Pro and that we’ve been successful, and they don’t expect me to be just a normal guy,” Morris say. “I’m a redneck who likes to shoot fish right beside them. I’m not afraid to work. I’m not afraid to get dirty. I think people meet me, and they think that this guy isn’t just acting like he likes this stuff, he really likes it. If there was no social media, no tournaments, I would still be out there bowfishing.”