Remembering Ray Scott (1933-2022)

After a half-century of helping to grow and shape the sportfishing industry worldwide, bass fishing visionary Ray Scott passed away in May 2022 at the age of 88. Scott founded the first national professional bass fishing circuit, the Bassmaster Tournament Trail, in 1967 and the following year founded the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society — B.A.S.S. — which would grow to become the world’s largest fishing organization.

The following is an exclusive interview with Scott that appeared in the January 2019 issue of MidWest Outdoors.

 

IN HIS OWN WORDS: RAY SCOTT
Brainstorm in a Rainstorm Casts Bright Light on Bass

by Dan Basore & Mark Strand

Ray W. Scott, Jr. was the right person in the right place who did the right things for the sport that he and millions of others are passionate about: bass fishing. He also moved mountains for related businesses and conservation causes.

It all began with what he called, “a brainstorm in a rainstorm.” In 1967, while on a fishing trip to Jackson, Mississippi, a rainstorm sent him to the cover of a sparse motel room. Searching the television for a sporting event to occupy his time, the only thing he found was a basketball game. Half asleep, he remembers mumbling, “why doesn’t someone cover fishing on TV? There’s a lot more folks fishing than playing basketball.”

It was an epiphany and he sat up, wide awake.

Much water has flowed over many dams since that night. The story of Scott’s brainstorm come to life, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.), is the history of big-time bass tournaments and chronicles lasting contributions to a growing conservation ethic aimed at improving fisheries and protecting fish stocks.

We think 2019 will be remembered as a huge year for professional bass fishing. There are changes afoot that we are covering closely here in MidWest Outdoors but to know where we’re headed it’s important to remember where we’ve been, and to that end, here we go with Ray Scott, in his own words…

MIDWEST OUTDOORS: Let’s go back to the roots of your love of the outdoors, where it all started for you. What are your earliest memories that led to your passion for fishing?

Ray Scott: I’ve always been drawn to the outdoors and being around water. I fished for brim at a very early age. But it wasn’t until someone took me to a small lake called Bridge Creek, just outside Montgomery, when I was a boy, that I learned about bass fishing. We were just out trying to catch anything we could when I caught a small bass. I didn’t even know what it was, but from that moment on, I had the fever.

MWO: When you were growing up, were members of your family fishing fanatics, or did you take what might have been a more casual interest and push it over the top?

Scott: My family wasn’t really into fishing and the outdoors. My parents were too busy trying to make a living and raising us three boys. I guess it [fishing] was just one of those things that I was drawn to and it grew into a full-blown passion over the years.

MWO: As you were growing up, did you ever dream of making a living in fishing? And if you did, what did it look like in your dreams, compared to what it actually turned out to be?

Scott: For me, fishing was something that just evolved. No one really taught me about fishing, I just sort of picked it up and the more I fished, the more I wanted to explore the next pond or lake and different lures and techniques. It became a real challenge.

MWO: Just so we have it in your words and no details are missed, give us a history lesson on your life in the outdoor industry.

Scott: Looking back over the years, I have to say that I’ve been very blessed. My parents did everything they could to give me a firm foundation of family and faith and I’ve had the great fortune of being able to follow my dreams. It goes without saying that my greatest dream spun out of my “brainstorm in a rainstorm.” That was in Jackson, Mississippi, when I had the idea to create the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.). The idea was that we’d create an environment and opportunity where men and women, regardless of age, race or creed could pursue their love of fishing and competing in honest and fair bass-fishing tournaments.

In 1988 I founded the Whitetail Institute of North America, which was dedicated to deer nutrition. Like B.A.S.S., we pioneered a new industry and it was very successful. As B.A.S.S. celebrates its 50th anniversary, Whitetail is celebrating its 30th.

My mind never stops working and I love to make things happen. Granted, not every idea I have come up with has turned out to be successful. I have a closet full of ideas that didn’t pan out, but I had the fun of testing them.

At 85, on my wife’s orders, there is minimal business side to my life now.

MWO: For somebody just getting started in fishing, lay out the essential foundation of what they would need to know and do, in order to begin to learn the art of fishing.

Scott: So much has evolved over the past 50 years and bass fishing has transformed from a basic recreational sport to a major industry. But the basic element for any angler wanting to pursue his or her dream is to learn from experience of others. Join a bass club. That’s where you learn. It doesn’t matter if it is a high school fishing team, a college level fishing team or a local bass club. As you may recall, the backbone of B.A.S.S. has always been the Federations and similar bass fishing clubs.

MWO: When you break it down to its simplest steps, what is the secret to becoming a good angler?

Scott: Curiosity. What is happening and why. Keep learning, always.

MWO: As another way of asking essentially the same question: despite having better equipment and more advanced tech gadgets than we’ve ever had, are there any fundamental skills, or ways of approaching things mentally, that you think today’s average anglers should focus on, to be more successful?

Scott: Yes, today’s anglers are dealing with a lot of competition and being able to apply technology definitely plays a large part in a person’s success. However, if they want to succeed, they must have dedication, determination and make a commitment to their goal. Bass fishing is no different than golf, tennis or any other sport. If you want to be a good bass fisherman, you have to practice, understand the environment, practice, learn from the mistakes of others and practice some more. Be that in local tournaments or on your own lakes and ponds. I don’t think a person has to have a $400 baitcasting reel, a $300 rod spooled with $50 of the latest braided line and a tackle box full of $20 lures—but must have the passion and heart for fishing if they want to succeed.

MWO: Among all the fishing pioneers who came before you, is there one, or maybe a few, that you can really relate to, and have an especially powerful respect for?

Scott: Clearly one of the true pioneers of our sport – the person that spelled out what bass fishing is all about – has to be Dr. James Henshall and his famous 1881 Book of the Black Bass. Dr. Henshall didn’t just write about the current status of the bass; he saw into the future and his words left an indelible impression on my mind. He said, ”Inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound [the bass] is the gamest fish that swims.” Wow. Nail on the head. That’s why sportsmen and women love the bass.

MWO: Same question, but how about your peers? Who among modern anglers do you feel the strongest respect for?

Scott: My heavens, I have the utmost respect for virtually all of the anglers out there today. As far as the pros, every one of them made tremendous sacrifices to be where they are. But if I had to pick one individual that truly stands out in my mind, it would have to be Don T. Butler, the very first member and life member of B.A.S.S. Don believed in me and stood beside me when others were telling me to quit, telling me to give up this ‘folly’ and go back to selling insurance. I’ll never forget the day I was telling Don about my dream to build B.A.S.S. He listened intently and then, in his deep okie drawl said, “how much are you going to charge to become a member of this new B.A.S.S.?” I hadn’t really thought about it, so I said, “oh, probably $10.” Don reached into his pocket and pulled out $100 and said, “then make me a Life Member.” That was when I knew I could never quit. That was when I became totally committed to building B.A.S.S. By the way, Don won the second Bassmaster Classic. He was an outstanding angler.

MWO: What’s the best piece of fishing advice you’ve ever been given, by somebody else?

Scott: The best fishing advice I ever received came from my good friend and professional angler Tom Mann. Tom was the consummate bass fisherman. He lived on Lake Eufaula and spent his life developing bass-fishing lures. He had every color, design and style of soft plastic imaginable. I asked him one time, “Tom, if you were going to a new lake and could only take one bait, what would that be?” Tom thought about it for a moment and said, “well, I reckon that would be a purple worm.” I was astonished and I said to Tom: “you make worms in every color and design. Why a purple worm?” Tom just looked at me and smiled and said, “Ray, a purple worm will catch bass on any lake, under any condition at any time. I make them other colors to catch fishermen.”

MWO: You’re in the public eye. It comes with the territory. Despite what we know or think we know about you, are you at peace being out front, teaching, entertaining, or do you have to prepare yourself mentally before the lights and cameras come on? Are you outgoing, introverted, or somewhere in between?

Scott: No, I don’t prepare. I love people and I love to entertain. Hard to script me. I’m definitely an extrovert. The last thing that anyone would ever say about Ray Scott is that ‘he is an introvert.’ I’ve never met a stranger and seldom found myself in an awkward environment where I didn’t feel I had something to contribute.

MWO: What is it that makes bass so special?

Scott: For me, the attraction of the bass is about pitting your skill (luck) against one of nature’s most challenging sport fish. Anyone that has spent a day on the water bass fishing can testify that the bass is elusive, tenacious, contrary, temperamental and obstinate.

MWO: Of all the far-flung destinations you’ve ever fished, looking on it as an overall experience, what was your favorite place to fish?

Scott: I’ve had the opportunity to fish for bass all over the United States, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Zimbabwe and Italy. But my favorite place to bass fish has always been my 55-acre President’s Lake right here in Pintlala, Alabama. I guess it is because I personally built the lake, designed the underwater structure and tried to create the best possible bass habitat in North America. The lake record largemouth bass remains at 13 pounds, 15 ounces, caught by Rick Clunn in 1990. My own personal best was 13 pounds, 7 ounces in 2012, caught on a crankbait not 30 yards out my back door. After that fish I just sat back and watched others catch trophy after trophy on my lake.

MWO: Where have you never been, that remains a place you would have liked to fish?

Scott: Probably the best-kept secret and most sought-after and potentially finest fishery to be found is in the lower regions of Africa, as in Namibia, Mozambique and Botswana. Back in 1980 I helped the B.A.S.S. Federation in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) ship over 2,500 fingerling bass to put into their ‘dams’ (lakes). They placed the fingerlings into a hatchery, nursed them along until they were 10 to 12 inches long and then distributed them throughout Africa. Now African bass anglers are routinely catching double-digit bass. I traveled over to Zimbabwe in 2004 to meet Maxwell Mashandure, a local native who caught an 18-pound, 2-ounce largemouth. When asked if that was the largest bass he had ever caught, Maxwell said he caught one maybe 2 or 3 pounds larger! Everyone was stunned and then they gasped and said, “what did you do with the fish?” Maxwell said, “I fed my family.” Granted, Africa is a bit off the beaten path, but I think the next world record largemouth may well come from one of the lakes in Africa.

MWO: What is the hardest part of fishing, in your opinion?

Scott: The most difficult thing in bass fishing is having perseverance. There is no formula you can count on for a successful fishing trip and a lot of that is because no one can control Mother Nature. With all of the elements to contend with, an angler has to call upon all of his senses, consider environmental constraints, apply the logic factor of location, water depth, visibility, water temperature, most likely pattern and lure selection. The days of just grabbing a fishing pole and a Creme worm have long passed us by.

MWO: Do you ever wish you could just walk down the aisle at a sports show, and nobody would recognize you?

Scott: Interestingly enough, I have actually done that. I believe it was a Bassmaster Classic in Birmingham, Alabama when I had my younger brother Danny (who had a striking resemblance to me) put on my vest and cowboy hat, then sat him at a booth to sign autographs and take pictures with people who stopped by. I slipped around back, put on a fake mustache and beard, donned a cap and sunglasses…then went out and walked freely throughout the Expo. Not a soul stopped me or said a word. I even stood in line to get Bill Dance’s autograph. Even he didn’t recognize me. It was a real experience!

MWO: What do you think is the most important advancement ever, when it comes to fishing equipment and our sport?

Scott: To me, there were five key breakthroughs in our sport.
1) The concept of Don’t Kill Your Catch, or Catch and Release.
2) The advent of the livewell to keep our bass alive and return them to the water so future generations can enjoy bass fishing.
3) Mandating Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) be worn whenever the boat was moving.
4) The requirement that kill switches be installed in every tournament boat and attached to the angler’s person whenever the engine was running.
5) Conservation, ensuring that we protect our waters, keep them clean and make the environment a better place for future generations.

MWO: What is the quality you most admire in a great fisherman?

Scott: The thing that stands out most to me, what I look for in anyone that picks up a fishing rod, is not just their passion but their respect for the sport, the fish itself, and its environment.

MWO: What is your idea of earthly happiness?

Scott: At the age of 85, I find sitting on my deck over my lake with a cup of strong coffee in one hand and a dog or two in my lap is absolute fulfillment. I love to see the day being born. And I always say a prayer of gratitude.

MWO: Beyond people in the fishing business, who are your heroes?

Scott: The true hero in my life was my father. He worked long hours. During the depression he worked several jobs at once and he ensured that my mother and us boys had the best life he could provide. The other hero in my life was Ralph K. Lindop, my mentor in the insurance business. He taught me the power of positive thinking in regards to sales and prospecting. When I came to understand and embrace his sales and business philosophy, there was no mountain too high for me to climb.

MWO: If you could be anyone in recorded history, who would you have liked to be?

Scott: I’m glad you asked that. When I was in junior high there was a boy I thought was really cool and I found myself imitating him in every way. And then one day I woke up and decided I didn’t need to imitate anyone. I was myself, Ray Scott. And I never looked back. I don’t want to be anyone else.

MWO: How do you want to be remembered, from a fishing standpoint? How important is legacy to you?

Scott: Very simply I want to be remembered as the man who left the sport of bass fishing better than he found it. Overall, building B.A.S.S. was a tremendous joy and I think along that highway we created some real fishing icons and heroes and advanced the sport. As far as a legacy I hope the greatest thing we did was instill a profound respect for the resource and the environment and a desire to pass on the sport to future generations.

MWO: What is the motto that you live by?

Scott: Teddy Roosevelt said, “believe you can and you’re halfway there.” I have to admit, it’s worked for me.

Check out the fancy scoreboard at the first Bassmaster Classic! Scott, at left, congratulating champion Billy Murray.

United States President George H.W. Bush fished often with Ray Scott.

The two discussed programs to improve water quality and funding for outdoor sports, talks that influenced key legislation.

Rick Clunn wins 1977 Bassmaster Classic, Lake Toho

Rick Clunn, center, was a dominant competitor on the B.A.S.S. circuit for many years and continues to fish tournaments today. Scott interviews him after a Classic win.