Recalling a Trip to Ray Scott’s Trophy Bass Retreat -- a Consummate Storyteller & Conservationist
Ray Scott passed away on Sunday, May 8 at around 11:30 p.m. He died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes. Scott was 88 years old.
Most bass anglers today likely can’t recall the days when the black bass was considered a second-class citizen. Tournaments, if any, were usually small, local, small money events where the fish that were weighed in were dead and hanging on a stringer.
That all changed about 55 years ago when a 36-year-old insurance salesman from Alabama had a big idea. Ray Scott's concept for national, big money (for the times) bass fishing tournaments quickly bloomed into the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or B.A.S.S. for short. Founded in 1967, the organization grew to more than 600,000 members under his leadership.
For nearly two decades, Scott was a perpetual motion machine, running big tournaments and seminars around the country, and inspiring a now multi-billion-dollar American industry. Scott’s dream helped many anglers became household names as they caught lunker bass, pocketed unbelievable money for catching fish, and often became media darlings with their own television shows.
Beyond the personalities, there came a revolution in the gear, with bass-specific boats and countless innovations in lures. Scott has been a kingmaker, someone who transcends bass fishing royalty. His B.A.S.S. knighted fishing legends such as Johnny Morris, Hank Parker, Roland Martin, Rick Clunn and countless others.
Fishing Ray Scott’s Lake
An unexpected mix of awe and anxiety began building in 2015 as my truck cleared the gates fronting Ray Scott’s expansive Trophy Bass Retreat in Pintlala, Alabama.
Viewed from the main road, the 200-plus acre property, with three intensively managed small lakes surrounded by live oaks laden with Spanish moss, didn’t look all that different from other rural countryside south of Montgomery.
But, it was...
“I’ve seen grown men get tears in their eyes when they first come through the doors; they can’t believe they are really here,” said Jim Kientz, then the retreat’s executive director.
Now, I’m far from a largemouth bass fishing expert. “Occasionally enthusiastic novice” is more appropriate. As I watched the other three outdoors communicators on our trip pull in with several rods and reels each, as well as formidable arrays of largemouth lures, I wondered if I was in over my head. Heck, I didn’t even bring a rod with a baitcaster reel, worrying I’d spend most of the time plucking at embarrassing backlashes while the godfather of American bass fishing watched from his front porch and chuckled, “Loser!” So, I brought a single spinning combo.
George Slept Here
My fishing pucker factor ticked up when toting my luggage into the cabin where we would stay. Next to my bed was a small bronze plaque that read, “George W. Bush slept here…” The cabin, aptly named “Presidents Cabin,” was on the shore of, what else, “Presidents Lake.”
Scott caught a 13-pound, 7-ounce bass from the lake in 2007. Legendary angler Rick Clunn owns the lake record at 13-pounds, 15-ounces.
I fished with my friend Richard Simms, a Tennessee-based writer who is not only a superb communicator but also a seasoned fisherman and guide – a big catfish specialist. We had had visions of behemoth bigmouths dancing in our heads as we finished lunch and loaded into the boat.
Sometimes fish don’t share your vision; at least, not the bigger fish. Bites were sporadic and the lake’s lunkers never loosened their lips for our lures. Still, we boated about 20 bass between us over two half-day outings. Simms used a topwater buzz bait to catch our boat’s biggest fish, a nice bass around 3 pounds. While catching a huge “picture” fish would’ve been nice, it wasn’t the main goal for any of us. A big fish would have been a little “lagniappe” or “something extra” as the Louisianans say. The real fun was sharing meals and drinks with Scott.
Scott was 82 years young when I visited. Longtime associates note he has always had a knack for reading and entertaining a crowd. The man has countless stories and probably told each innumerable times. Still, his eyes lit up as he took us behind the scenes and shared insights, anecdotes and history of how it all came to be.
He regaled us with stories about his work trying to get George H.W. Bush elected president, and his relationships with legendary lure makers such as the late Tom Mann. A favorite story was about the death, funeral and, if you can believe it, the next-day kidnapping of the corpse of Leroy Brown, the star bass in the 38,000-gallon aquarium at Mann’s now-closed “Fish World” in Eufaula, Alabama.
“Tom called me and said, ‘You won’t believe this, but Leroy Brown is dead!’” Scott said. “I told him this was an opportunity for a big funeral.” Scott, ever an entrepreneurial showman, helped pull in some of fishing’s biggest names to serve as pallbearers for the bass, which was carried in a velvet-lined tackle box casket between two fishing rods. Scott delivered the eulogy. “Hundreds of people came to that funeral,” Scott recalls, with the event drawing considerable media attention.
A photo in Scott’s office showed him and an angling friend with an impressive catch of bass, all of which were dead. “We thought those days would never end,” Scott said. He related that he realized sustainable fisheries were essential to preserving the resource, not only for his tournaments, but for all future fishermen. Catch and release became the rule at his events.
Quality fish can’t live without quality water and Scott was increasingly disturbed about the polluted waterways he saw around the nation. In 1970 and 1971, he filed more than 200 lawsuits against polluters in Alabama, Texas and Tennessee, using provisions of a federal law called the 1899 Refuse Act.
Scott’s conservation tenacity led to Field & Stream magazine naming him one of the 20 greatest outdoor Americans of the 20th Century, alongside people such as Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson.
He was inducted into the inaugural class of the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2001, the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame in 2004 and the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 1987. He was named the 1988 Sport Fisherman of the Year by the Sport Fishing Institute.
Many people don’t know that the “godfather of bass fishing” served an Army tour in Europe toward the end of the Korean War. He calls the two years spent with the 2nd Armored Division some of the best of his life and shared his view that every young person should serve for at least two years.
He benefited from the GI Bill, earning a business degree from Auburn University after leaving active duty. And to this day, helping put smiles on the faces of service members and veterans remains one of his greatest passions.
Scott maintained a strong relationship with both Presidents Bush, each an avid fisherman. Upon hearing of Scott’s planned 2004 trip to Kuwait and Iraq to spend Thanksgiving with the troops, President George W. Bush asked him to first come to the White House, where he gave him a personal letter that he asked
Scott to read to the troops on his behalf at every stop.
During Scott’s 10-day trip, he visited numerous duty locations, sometimes staging entertaining seminars, telling “war stories about bass fishing,” as he termed it…and reading that letter.
Kientz recalled Scott staging a fishing tournament for military members at one of Saddam Hussein’s compounds. Soldiers fished with makeshift fishing rigs as well as spinning tackle. “One soldier even tried his luck with a broom handle and strands of line from parachute cord rigged with a bobby-pin,” Kientz said.
“There were so many incredible stories and opportunities as a result of the trip that it takes our breath away,” Scott said. He called the visits “the most emotionally heartfelt and humbling experience in my life.”
Beyond that war zone visit, Scott stayed connected to the troops, hosting fishing trips by organizations such as the Semper Fi Community Task Force, a volunteer organization dedicated to honoring the patriotism and sacrifice of wounded veterans by providing them quality hunting, fishing and outdoor-related activities.
There isn’t enough space here to touch more than peripherally on some of Scott’s stories and deeds, but there is a book called “Bass Boss,” by Robert H. Boyle, published in 1999 that lays out the more detailed story.
Rest in Peace Mr. Scott. The fishing world will miss you.