Ray Scott: One of America’s Best Conservationists

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Ray Scott: One of America’s Best Conservationists

I made a trip to the place I grew up this past February, and on a cold north Alabama day I was kicking around in our old workshop, now fal

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I made a trip to the place I grew up this past February, and on a cold north Alabama day I was kicking around in our old workshop, now fallen to packrats and squirrels and jumbles of rusted chainsaw chains and logging cables and parts of tractors long ago sold or junked. On a shelf above the row of coffee cans nailed to the wall and full of old bolts and nuts and washers was my second tackle box—a multi-tray yellow plastic model with the Bass Angler’s Sportsman’s Society (B.A.S.S.) sticker still resplendent on the lid.

Ray Scott in Field & Stream magazine
For our 110th anniversary issue, Ray Scott came in at No. 14 in our list of the “Legends of Fishing.” Field & Stream

There was not much usable tackle in it (48 years represents a lot of attrition). I don’t know what I had expected to find in there, after all these years, but the sticker took me back to 1974, the year my parents bought me a membership to B.A.S.S. for my tenth birthday. The tackle pack that came with that membership was as good as Christmas morning: Mann’s scented Jelly Worms in blackberry and motor-oil color, Bill Norman crankbaits, a small frog-pattern Devil’s Horse, bullet sinkers, spinnerbaits, monofilament, you name it… It was a smorgasbord of the greatest lures and tackle of the time. I used them all—learned to slow-fish a plastic worm, weighted and unweighted; to twitch the Devil’s Horse along the weedlines of local ponds or the county fishing lake, or in the local creek for scrappy little bass and shellcrackers. I read Bassmaster Magazine cover-to-cover with the fervor of a religious convert memorizing sacred texts. I was obsessed with fishing. I had no idea that I had become a member of one of the premier conservation organizations in America.

Fueled by “Bubba Power”

BASS founder Ray Scott died last month, at the age of 88, closing a preternaturally energetic and successful life as a businessman, angler, promoter, showman, raconteur, and family man, a paradigm of vision and achievement. He won the annual Horatio Alger Award in 2003, an award given to Americans whose lives exemplify the Alger ideal of profoundly self-made success achieved with unusual tenacity against great odds. Field & Stream named him, along with Teddy Roosevelt and Rachel Carson, among the top 20 conservationists of the 20th century.  He never abandoned his roots in hardscrabble south Alabama—he said, from the beginning of his career in the profession he invented, tournament bass fishing, that he ran it all on “Bubba Power.”    

Scott’s story has the quality of legend. Born in 1933 in Montgomery, Alabama, his father was a busted cattleman and dairy-worker who found relative prosperity running his own business selling nickel ice cream from handcarts on the streets of Depression-era Montgomery. He found time to teach his son to fish. For much of Ray’s growing-up years, the Scott family, including in-laws, lived in a one-bedroom apartment, everybody working at whatever jobs they could find. Ray sold peanuts at the baseball stadium, delivered groceries, mowed lawns, and created a Bluegill Fishing Society when he was old enough to drive. Membership cost a quarter, which paid the expenses of group fishing trips in his father’s car. 

He struggled mightily with the dyslexia that made schoolwork intensely difficult, but he would win a football and track scholarship to Samford University, ponder becoming a preacher, serve a stint in the US Army, and then use the GI Bill to get a business degree from Auburn. His personality and his life experience made him a superb salesman, and he sold insurance—very successfully—for a decade through the end of late 1950s and ’60s.

Through it all, he fished for bass every chance he got. In 1967, he took what must have seemed to his peers an insane leap of faith. He was convinced that a bass fishing tournament, modeled on golf tournaments, with an entry fee and prizes for winners, would draw anglers from around the South, and give him the chance to do what he wanted most of all—to make a living fishing for bass. The idea, the legend says, came to him on a fishing trip, while waiting out a rainstorm in a motel room in Jackson, Mississippi, and trying to find something to watch on television. There was no fishing-related content, although other sports—football, golf, baseball—were all covered. Here was a niche, waiting for the right entrepreneur to come and take it. He quit the insurance business and threw himself and what funds he had headlong into the new endeavor. “Frankly,” he would say to an interviewer, “poverty was my greatest asset. It is very motivating.”

Birth of Pro Bass Fishing

As the saying goes, luck favors the prepared mind. Ray Scott, the lifelong and very skilled angler, and Ray Scott, the salesman, blended perfectly with Ray Scott, the businessman and the Alabama working man raconteur (Bubba Power!). It was a powerful mixture. The vision from that rainy-day motel room was sound. There were thousands of dedicated bass anglers who were eager to connect and swap skills and stories. There was a rising awareness among them that water pollution and the declining health of the fisheries posed an existential threat to the sport they loved most. Many of these same anglers were also ready for competition once the possibility was presented. The first tournament was the All-American Invitational Bass Tournament held June 6-8, 1967, on Beaver Lake in Arkansas. It drew 106 contestants. The Bass Angler’s Sportsman’s Society and professional bass fishing were born.    

At its height, Bassmaster Magazine would reach 650,000 readers. Today, BASS has about 515,000 members, making it the largest and most successful angling organization on the planet. From its inception, it united bass anglers across the U.S. into an unprecedented force, and from the beginning, Scott used that power to save the two resources that the organization was built upon—clean water and the fish itself.  BASS now has conservation directors in all 47 states in which it has chapters.    

Gene Gilliland is currently BASS’ National Conservation Director, and he was traveling to the Bassmaster Elite Series Tournament on Lake Fork near Quitman, Texas, when I reached him on the phone. Gilliland was a biologist with the Oklahoma Wildlife Department for 32 years, and a volunteer with BASS for most of those, helping tournament anglers learn to release bass that will survive to fight again. He said that part of Ray Scott’s effectiveness as a conservationist was the simple fact that without clean water and healthy bass populations, he had no business. “He had a direct financial incentive, of course, and he could bring that same showmanship and energy,” Gilliland said. “He had that ability to get people on his side.” From the beginning, Ray had the philosophy of the three-legged stool. “Fishing competitions, engaging youth in fishing, and conservation,” Gilliland said. “The third leg was always conservation. None of the legs work without the others.”   

Fisherman nowadays enjoy so many benefits of the work done then, maybe to the point where most people have forgotten how it was achieved, Gilliland said, adding: “When Ray was starting out, even for that whole first decade, BASS was the only real voice for the bass fisherman. There were all kinds of issues then, and the main one was to get the federal Clean Water Act passed, and to get legal enforcement of existing [clean water] regulations. To identify and report polluters and to call public and political attention to these crimes. And a lot of times it was just him, testifying in front of Congress. We didn’t have these groups like the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation, or TRCP back then.”

An Army of Conservationists

Gilliland told me to look up Bob Cobb, who was with Ray Scott from the very beginning and had written a book about the first 50 years of BASS, title, The B.A.S.S. Story Unplugged. Cobb is retired now and has left Montgomery for a life closer to his family in Atlanta. He says that, of course, he doesn’t fish as much or as hard, as he used to, but his voice on the phone is strong, and, with almost no prompting or small talk, the stories roll forth just as they do in his book. A couple of times, he chokes up, pauses, and starts in again. “Ray’s passing has brought back so many memories for me. He always said, ‘Put that B.A.S.S. patch right over your heart.’” His book, he says, “is Ray’s life.”

“I was the outdoor editor of the Tulsa Tribune, which was the afternoon paper back on those days,” Cobb tells me. “I was also the PR director for Zebco, which meant I sometimes had coffee money. Ray was in town promoting his first tournament, ‘The world’s richest bass tournament.’ I was eaten up with bass fishing in those days, and Ray was the messiah of bass fishing, so I took the leap and threw in with him.” Cobb became the editor of Bassmaster Magazine and would take it upward and outward to become the world’s most-read fishing-specific magazine.

Cobb said that addressing water pollution was primary to the founding of B.A.S.S. “There was that saying then that the solution to pollution is dilution,” he says. “Well, the solution to pollution is NOT dilution. We had people dumping in public waters, and it needed to be stopped. [Note: this was before the 1972 federal Clean Water Act.] Ray found an old statute that banned dumping in navigable waters. It was based on ships dumping ballast. He brought suit against 241 companies that were dumping at the time. What he did with that was so influential. The EPA, the Clean Water Act, all that came after this.” 

Suddenly, there was an army of fishermen out there, paying attention and demanding change. “We called it ‘Peg a Polluter,’” Cobb said. “Go around, find the sources of pollution, and call them out.”

When the federal Tennessee Valley Authority continued to spray herbicides to control hydrilla on Lake Guntersville in north Alabama and Lake Chickamauga in Tennessee, the Chattanooga Bassmasters organized a parade, Cobb explained. “They built a big coffin with a banner on the side that said, ‘Here Lies Lake Chickamauga – Killed by the TVA.’ That ended the TVA spraying campaign.”

Taking a Cue from Fly Anglers

The clean-water work was an essential part of the third leg of the stool, and it was effective. But it was Ray’s vision of catch-and-release bass fishing that got the most press at the time, simply because it seemed, to so many bass anglers, as a challenge to the oldest paradigm of simply fishing for a fish fry: it was a sport, and it was a passion, but the goal was a plate of fried bass and hushpuppies.

“It was the trout fishermen that put that thought in Ray’s mind,” Cobb said. “Ray was invited to speak to the Federation of Fly Fishermen in Colorado about his work confronting polluters. Ray might have thrown some poppers for bream or something, but he didn’t know fly fishing, and he was playing Rodney Dangerfield, poking fun at the chest-waders, the little puffs of feathers, the landing nets, and the tiny fish. But that was the first time he saw catch and release first-hand, all these guys watching somebody catch this little fish on the fly, net it, then carefully revive it and let it go, with everybody cheering him on. Well, on the plane home to Montgomery he started wondering, Could he ever get a hairy-legged bass fisherman to release a 6-pound bass?”

The answer turned out to be yes. “We had our first ‘Don’t Kill Your Catch” tournament on Lake Tohopekaliga in Florida right after that, adding two ounces to your total weight for every fish released.” Ray, he said, regaled the crowd with a tale at the end of that day, “He said, ‘I just saw an old boy in overalls giving mouth to mouth to a five-pounder!’” The practice of catch and release in tournaments gave rise to a revolution in live wells on boats, techniques to revive caught fish, and a change, almost worldwide, in the old catch-and-kill paradigm of sportfishing.

“It’s hard to believe it now, but most bass boats when we started out did not even have live wells,” Cobb said. “They might have had a place to keep live bait, but that was it.”       

The success of B.A.S.S led Ray Scott into a much larger world, and into friendships with other business leaders, politicians, and influential people from all walks of life. One of his fishing buddies was George H.W. Bush, who was Vice President under Ronald Reagan in 1984 when a crucial piece of federal legislation called the Wallop-Breaux Act got hung up in Congressional infighting.

The Wallop-Breaux Act was an amendment to the Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950, which established a small tax on fishing tackle and other recreational fishing gear to support the restoration and management of healthy game fisheries. (It was modeled on the highly successful Pittman Robertson Federal Aid in Restoration of Wildlife tax on firearms and ammunition, passed in 1937.) Wallop-Breaux provided for a tax on recreational motorboat fuel, specifically to increase access for the public to waters and fishing. When Wallop-Breaux stalled, it’s supporters in Congress called in Ray Scott. “Ray was able to call on the Vice President, who was a friend and a member of B.A.S.S.,” Cobb explained. “It was brought to the attention of the right people, and it ended up passing.” Today, Wallop-Breaux funds almost a third of the costs of boat ramps and other access provided and maintained by state fish and game agencies. If you have a boat and go fishing, you almost certainly benefit from the passage of Wallop-Breaux.

An Enduring Legacy

It is difficult to imagine, especially for a southern bass fisherman, a world in which Ray Scott did not exist. When my interviews with Gene Gilliland and  Bob Cobb ended, I was left with a conviction that these were Americans who had truly changed our world for the better, who had worked for decades for and with a cowboy-hatted visionary, Ray Scott, on the right side—the side of life, of clean water, and of fish and the adventure of chasing them, catching them, learning about them. It was about bringing young people into a sport that is undeniably healthy and positive. By any standards, Bubba Power worked, and it is working right now.     

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