When it comes to black bass, Ray Scott of Montgomery, Ala. has a silver tongue and a golden touch. Scott is the president and chairman of the board of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, succinctly known as BASS, and when he talks about bass—largemouth, smallmouth or Kentucky spotted—he comes on like a revival preacher painting the glories of paradise gained. "I can inspire people!" Scott exclaims. "I can make them dance!" Scott has what he calls "bass on the brain." He sends out color photographs of himself hefting a string of lunkers inscribed "Bass wishes," and he sometimes ends letters to fellow enthusiasts with "Lures truly." A foe of pollution, he often starts a speech before luncheon clubs by flinging a streaming roll of toilet paper across the room. "On a real good pitch," he says, "I get a rebound off the back wall."
Six feet two and country-boy handsome, Scott can move almost any crowd. The choice phrase, the folksy drawl and the ring of conviction come naturally. Now 36, Scott worked as an insurance man after graduating from Auburn, and a decade of selling policies to doctors and dentists, the toughest group there is, gave him countless opportunities to polish his ways of reaching people. In one three-year period he racked up $3 million in sales of life insurance and health policies, which he dubbed "living death" insurance. Then, two years ago, Scott, a fanatic fisherman since boyhood, quit insurance to found BASS. He rented a four-by-four-foot office, hired a secretary and set out to recruit members at annual dues of $10 a head.
Employing the same referral system he used to find insurance prospects, Scott began soliciting members, and BASS now stands at more than 7,000 strong. "Nobody believed there were that many fisherman crazy enough to join," he says, "but bass fishermen are crawling out from behind every rock and stump in this part of the country. By next year we should have 25,000 members in every part of the country. We're gettin' these people. We're smokin' 'em out! My idea is to organize. The polluters are organized. Now it's the turn of the bass fishermen."
A new member of BASS gets a personal letter of welcome from Scott (who asks toward the end for the names and addresses of any bass-fishing friends), a silk embroidered jacket emblem showing a leaping bass, decals of the same, a membership card (accompanied by a calendar "useful in planning your next fishing trip") and a year's subscription to The Bassmaster Magazine, a 36-page quarterly edited by Scott and given over to such heady inside stuff as how to catch bass with the single-spin spinner in brush-clogged shallows or how to rig the floating plastic worm for some real productive down-deep fishing. "People are hongry for information," Scott says. "We don't give you seven paragraphs about azure sunrises. We go for know-how. I had one of the best top-water masters in the country, a railroad man up in Tennessee, do an article. He said he didn't know how to write an article, but I told him to write me a letter and tell me exactly what he did. I got a letter, and there were sentences 30 feet long and only two paragraphs. I told my secretary to take a pair of scissors and make some more paragraphs, but I didn't monkey with it otherwise. It was 2,000 words of real fireside talk. The reader can look at the slaughtered grammar and get the wisdom, and, buddy, you can't put it down. We deal in the truth. Truth is a rare commodity. Not many people sell it anymore."
For BASS members, Scott also maintains a "real earthy information service." Any member bound for unfamiliar territory may write or phone Scott for the names of the best nearby bass lakes, motels, marinas and guide services. Scott also provides the name, address and phone number of a local BASS member who can offer up-to-the-minute information on fishing conditions.
Another attraction for members is the BASS tournaments that Scott stages. For years fishing tournaments generally have been in bad repute. Entries were not screened, rules were loosely drawn, supervision nil and opportunities for cheating boundless. Scott wanted none of this. He aims to see BASS tournaments become the PGA tour of fishing. Each tournament is limited to the first 100 members who apply, and there is a stiff entry fee of $125. "This stops riffraff," says Scott.
The rules are thorough, and Scott and a squadron of officials enforce them impartially and to the letter. Contestants from different states fish in pairs and are assigned a new partner for each day of the three-day tournament. Electronic fish locators are allowed, but trolling and live bait are prohibited. Scoring is based on weight, with every ounce of bass worth 10 points. No bass less than 12 inches may count in the scoring, and the limit is 10 bass per day. All bass caught go to charity. In the event of a tie for first place, there is a "sudden-death fishoff."
So far there have been exactly a dozen BASS tournaments, of which the most recent was the $7,000 All-American Invitational on Lake Ouachita near Hot Springs, Ark. late last month. Previous tournaments had been held on "hot" bass lakes, such as Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas, but Scott purposely picked Ouachita for a time of year when fishing was difficult. The schools of bait-fish were sure to be scattered, and so would the bass that prey upon them. Moreover, the moon would be full, prompting bass to feed at night rather than during the day when contestants were out on the lake. "We want a real test," Scott said before the tournament. "We want to bring out the talent in a man. A fisherman can't get lucky on a lake with these conditions."
Bass masters on hand for the All-American included Blake Honeycutt, an electrical contractor from Hickory, N.C. who won the Eufaula (Ala.) National at Lake Eufaula in July with a record catch of 139 pounds of bass; Tom Mann of Eufaula, a former game warden who manufactures one of the best-selling lures around, a lead minnow spinner named Little George after Governor Wallace; and Bill Dance of Memphis, Tenn. Only 28, Dance probably is the greatest bass fisherman in the world. Scott discovered him two years ago while on a trip to Beaver Lake, Ark. "I had an hour and a half wait at the airport in Memphis," Scott recalls, "so I got me a pocketful of nickels and started workin' the phone booth. I remember the name from the Yellow Pages, Lake View Marina, and I said, 'We're lookin' for some sure-'nuff high-class bass fishermen,' and the manager of the marina said, 'There's a young feller here named Dance, and he's better than anyone.' " Dance joined BASS, and up until Lake Ouachita he had fished 10 tournaments, ending up with three first places, four seconds, a fifth, a seventh and 19th. (He would have finished third instead of 19th, but he was set back in the standings when he was late for a weigh-in.) Dance's favorite lure is a purple plastic floating Creme worm rigged behind a sliding slip sinker. He has become 50 proficient "fishin' the worm" that a year ago he gave up his job as a furniture salesman to become a field-research and promotion man for the Creme Lure Company in Tyler, Texas, the leading manufacturer of plastic worms.
Many of the contestants trailered their own boats to Lake Ouachita. There were Skeeter Hawks, Rangers and Kingfishers galore, all now very popular in the South. Specially made for bass fishing, they have low freeboard and swivel seats fore and aft for easy casting. Some of the boats could really move. Bill Dance hits close to 50 mph in his 16-foot Ranger powered by a 120-hp Chrysler. Ron Bo-brow's customized 13-foot Boston Whaler, equipped with 80 horses, all but flies.
Most fishermen arrived at the Crystal Springs Fishing Village several days before the tournament in order to scout Ouachita, a 13-year-old 48,000-acre artificial impoundment with 975 miles of shoreline. Bill Dance studied both the lake and a topographical map of the bottom, looking for drop-offs, submerged islands and humps, stands of flooded brush and timber, abandoned homesteads and even cemetery sites. "After the graves are removed, there are depressions in the bottom three to five feet deep," Dance explained. "Bass may drop down into the depressions because the water is a little darker and cooler."
At 6:30 Thursday morning, the first day of the tournament, all contestants reported to the marina where Scott and white-hatted BASS officials, members of the host Spa Bass Club, inspected equipment, boats and anglers. At 7:16 Scott fired a flare gun, and the boats ("Jus' like buzzin' bees") roared off. Dance headed for a point of land he had explored and cast his floating purple worm into the water. He slowly began working it along the bottom. A 2½-pound-largemouth sucked it in, and Dance felt the nudge. He drove home the hook and landed the fish. With a bright sun on the clear lake, Dance figured the bass were lying in cooler water deep below the surface where the water temperature was 82°. He caught all his bass 30 to 37 feet down where the water temperature was 70° to 72°.
In the first day Dance landed a total of 15 bass. He kept the 10 best, released the rest alive, and at 6 that evening, at weigh-in time, he found himself in second place with 11 pounds one ounce of bass worth 1,770 points. The leader, with 2,040 points, was a barrel-chested veteran named J. D. Gray from Mableton, Ga. who had skipped out of a hospital bed, where he was to undergo surgery, to make the tournament.
On Friday, the second day, Dance fished flooded timber at the upper end of an inlet. He caught 18 and kept the 10 best. At the weigh-in J.D. eyed the catch skeptically. "Two of 'em are short," he said. Scott placed the bass on a measuring board and both were exactly 1/64th of an inch less than the required foot. J.D. gave a big guffaw, and Dance, an old friend, grimaced. Still, Dance's catch weighed enough to move him into first place ahead of J.D., 3,870 points to 3,540.
On Saturday, the final day, Dance fished the current side of a bend in a drowned creek bed. He came in with 10 fish. At weigh-in his final point total came to 5,800, good enough for the first prize of $1,500 and a new Ranger bass boat. J. D. Gray dropped to third, worth $500, and Bill Rose of Bull Shoals, Ark. finished second, winning $1,000.
That night at the awards dinner at the Vapors, a former gambling casino in Hot Springs, Scott presented Dance with a check and the first-place trophy. "Bill," he said, as everyone whooped and hollered, "you're the only man I know who makes more money out of this deal than I do."
Scott is now back in Montgomery raising hell about some fish kills on the Tombigbee River, putting the finishing touches on a new issue of The Bassmaster and completing arrangements for a couple of tournaments. In mid-November, Scott will hold the first BASS team tournament at Lake Eufaula. In December BASS will hold a small tournament at Lake Novillo, Mexico, 160 miles south of Douglas, Ariz. "You can smell the fish from the border," says Scott. All in all, Scott's time is completely taken up with bass, and he would not have it any other way. "I used to tell my wife I was goin' fishin'," he says. "Now I just say I'm goin' to work."