In late November, Kevin VanDam, Roland Martin, Jimmy Houston and Larry Nixon stood on the dock at Long Creek Marina just before blast-off for the most lucrative tournament in bass fishing history. And every one of them knew that he had no chance whatsoever to win.
Nor did Bill Dance, a venerated bass fishing tournament competitor in his own right, and the host of the most popular bass fishing TV show of all time.
Behind Dance, Randy Howell, the 2014 Bassmaster Classic winner, talked to Brent Chapman, the 2012 Angler of the Year. They too were out of the running before the derby even started. Not because of any lack of talent, but because they weren’t eligible.
The pros were brought to Table Rock Lake as figureheads. And to support Johnny Morris’ mission of spreading the conservation message far and wide. But the two anglers leaving at the end of the weekend with the million dollar “Happy Gilmore” check in the back of their truck would be pure amateurs.
That was by design. Morris wanted to reward the weekend anglers who purchase his brands, like Ranger, Nitro and Triton boats, by putting them front and center.
A Bigger Purpose for The Bass Fishing Tournament
Throughout 2021, Bass Pro Shops held eight qualifying events around the country. These events were open only to qualified “amateurs” with top teams at each one moving forward to this event. The catch is that the entry fees from the regional events were placed into a giant pool. This money was to be donated to habitat restoration efforts, Morris’ true passion.
He is celebrated throughout his career for his conservation efforts. Not just writing checks, but actively serving on boards, committees and other efforts. He never sits idly by, preferring instead to take an active and innovative role in everything he touches.
“He loves this,” VanDam says. “And he’s particularly proud that the money is going to conservation. He proves how effective that model can be. Think about how in our lifetimes the way people have come to view catch and release has changed exponentially. Our lakes have more pressure than ever before. The only way to recruit and keep anglers is for them to catch fish. That starts with great management.”
In 2007, Bass Pro Shops and other partners started the science-based Reservoir Fish Habitat Partnership program at Table Rock. While this wasn’t the first building block in the plan to set a national standard, it was by far the biggest. It doesn’t hurt that Table Rock, and indeed the Bass Pro Shops home base of Springfield, Missouri, sits smack dab in the center of the country.
Had Morris hailed from South Florida or the Columbia River Basin, he might still have had an equally meaningful impact on the outdoors. And bass fishing in particular. Nevertheless, while he could have had a bass fishing tournament in either of those places, it might not have drawn such a geographically diverse field. Anglers from both coasts, and as far away as Europe, Japan and South Africa were among the 350 teams vying for the top prize.
The Perfect Tournament Location – Table Rock
Morris was in a giving mood. This was seen by the oversized check for $1.58 million donated to conservation side-by-side with the bass fishing tournament’s top prize of $1 million to the winning team, but this was also an opportunity to show off Table Rock.
“I’m proud that this is my home,” Morris says. “Our base camp is 45 minutes from here. The granddaddy store is an hour from here. I love to watch the sunrise and the sunset here. It’s in my heart. I also know that one third of all freshwater fishing days are on Corps of Engineers and TVA reservoirs. The Corps’ first priorities are flood control and to generate power. Recreation is a distant third. They’re not making any more lakes, so it’s really important that we work to make new habitat. I’ve been so blessed. It’s important to me to know that kids can catch fish and that they can catch them in public waters.”
While the big prize was headed to the conservation coffers, there was still a tournament to conduct and Table Rock was the perfect place to do it. “It’s the gem of the Ozarks as far as I’m concerned,” nine-time Angler of the Year Roland Martin says. With miles upon miles of shoreline, two river arms and seemingly endless coves to explore – not to mention largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass – it swallowed up the field.
“It’s so expansive,” 1985 Bassmaster Classic champ Larry Nixon says. “You can hide from people. But at the same time you don’t have to go far to catch them if you don’t want to.” That meant solid catches throughout the days of competition from a wide range of areas, using a far-ranging palette of fishing techniques.
“This lake is over 60 years old, and look at the fish coming in,” Morris said from the stage. He was celebrating the lake that he’s called home for a lifetime. But what everyone should have known is that it was his efforts, collectively with his conservation partners, that will enable their grandkids to enjoy similar success. He could have taken the credit himself. Instead, he deflected to those people who “have committed their lives to conservation.”
Ryan Roberts, the Program Manager for the National Fish Habitat Partnership, expressed hope that “a model like this sets an example for funding conservation across the country.”
A Multi-Generational Event
The ultimate goal at this event was not to “win” the first two days of competition, but rather to get to Day Three. It didn’t matter if you were in first place, or barely squeezed into 50th place. Because all 50 teams that made it to the final day of competition saw their weights zeroed out. Some made it with two days of consistent catches, while others turned in lopsided efforts. But as Sunday dawned, they were all tied for first.
Morris, it seemed, was itching to give away more prizes. While Sunday afternoon would come soon enough, there were other winners to be rewarded. As the qualifying events took place earlier in the year, Morris had arranged a contest among kids nationwide. The kids were required to produce a video describing what fishing meant to them.
Now the 10 winners, ranging from five years old up to their teens, were invited for an all-expenses paid trip to Missouri. He arranged for each of them to come up to the stage. Their video was shown to the assembled crowd, and Morris gave each of them the keys to a new Tracker Boat.
The kids were excited, to say the least, but Morris himself was the figurative kid in the candy store. He was seen chuckling at their on-stage answers and engaging them effortlessly. You might have thought he was the one being gifted his first watercraft.
The next day, the assembled White River Marine Group bass pros took the kids out in the prize boats and taught them to operate them. There was a big bass fishing tournament among the group. And the winner was awarded an extra $5,000 per pound for the big bass. This meant an extra lagniappe of 15 grand. Two veterans also received boats from Morris, who emotionally thanked them for their service.
And the Winners Are…
In the end, two 20-somethings from Alabama, Tucker Smith and Logan Parks, weighed in the biggest limit of bass on Sunday. They claimed the big check, the two boats and the two trucks to pull them with. They relied on forward-facing sonar technology to pinpoint and assess the mood of each fish that they caught. But perhaps more importantly, their win showed the value of intergenerational mentoring and gifting.
Before matriculating to Auburn University and its celebrated bass fishing team, Smith attended Briarwood Christian School with the daughter of iconoclastic bass pro Aaron Martens, a three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year. The elder Martens, who had taken Smith under his wing and tutored him in the sport, passed away just a few weeks earlier at the age of 49 after a 19-month struggle with brain cancer.
As the bass world struggled to come to grips with the loss of the universally admired pro, Smith and Parks employed his teachings. They relied heavily on finesse tactics that were the calling card of the California native. Bringing the story full circle, Martens’ last victory as a professional came at Table Rock.
Changing Lives at Every Turn
The format of the bass fishing tournament may have stressed a “winner take all” scenario. After all, two amateurs had their lives changed by winning a cool half million apiece. Along with fully rigged Toyota trucks and Nitro Boats. That headline didn’t tell the whole story, though. After all, the second place team also got six-figure checks, and money extended down the line.
Furthermore, the veterans and youth who received boats can’t be characterized as anything but winners. But the largest scale victors coming out of this Woodstock-style celebration of America’s bass fishing heritage — were all of the people who already fish or who will someday fish on American reservoirs.
“This is far more important than any new store we can build,” Morris says.