Texas has been a fertile breeding ground for pro bass anglers ever since the dawn of tournament fishing. That’s largely because some the very best bass fisheries in America are here.
Texas bass fisheries are ripe with all sorts of cover and structure. It’s been said more than once that the lakes in Texas are so diverse that a bass fisherman who takes the time to get a good education here can take that knowledge and apply it just about anywhere in the country.
Some of the sport’s biggest names hatched their careers in Texas decades ago, and a seemingly endless stream of talent has been coming ever since.
To wit: Texas has produced way more Bassmaster Classic qualifiers than any other state in the country. According to Bassmaster stats released prior to the 2017 Classic on Lake Conroe, 310 qualifying spots have gone to Texans since the first world championship way back in 1971. Neighboring Arkansas runs a distant second with 191.
It’s no secret that East Texas lakes such as Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend have been the incubators of much of that talent. That’s true, particularly when it comes to some of the sport’s elder statesmen—guys who were casting for cash long before many Texas Fish & Game readers were born.
Many of them were charter members of “The Hemphill Gang.” That’s the moniker BASS founder Ray Scott tagged on a salty group of Texas pros who guided out of Pendleton Harbor on Toledo Bend back in the 1970s and ’80s. Among them were Tommy Martin, Larry Nixon, Harold Allen, John Torian and Jon Hall.
Other Texans among that generation of big sticks include Randy Dearman, Zell Rowland, Rick Clunn, Lendell Martin, Jr., David Wharton and Randy Fite, who was arguably among sport’s most deadly offshore anglers prior to the advent of modern electronics technologies.
I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to share the front deck with the majority of the Texas legends over the years, several of them more than once. I recently caught up with several of them and asked them to share some tidbits about the good, bad and ugly of them formidable careers. Here’s what they had to say:
Home: Onlaska, Texas
Years Full-time Pro: 23
Still Competing? Yes, local team and individual events
Former Occupation: Fishing guide/welder
Biggest Tournament Win: Dearman fished 234 Bassmaster events and his only win came in the 1993 Bassmaster Invitational on Sam Rayburn, where he boated 15 bass weighing 67 pounds, 13 ounces.
The fishing line Dearman used to win the event nearly a quarter century ago ignited a trend that continues to evolve today. “I won that tournament using competition kite string on my reels to flip jigs into willow and buck brush,” Dearman said. “After that tournament, Terry Oldham, Joe Rinosky and myself started a line company called Lynch Line. It was the first braided line marketed to bass fishermen.”
Most Memorable Moment in a Tournament: “I drew Bill Dance on day two of the second Bassmaster tournament I ever fished, the 1980 Mississippi Invitational on Sardis Lake.
“Bill was my hero back then. He didn’t catch much on the first day, but I caught ‘em pretty good. When we drew out he let me take my boat. I’ll never forget it.
That relationship we developed that day eventually lead to a long-time sponsorship with Strike King Lures.”
Worst Moment in Tournament Fishing: “That’s easy. It was the Texas Invitational on Lake Livingston in 1989. I lost the same bedding fish twice on a gitzit (tube lure) on the first day. I went back to that fish on day two and I broke her off.
“On the last day I went back to her again. She still had my tube stuck in her mouth from the second day. I had to work her for a while, but I finally got to her bite again. I got her nearly to the boat when she got into some grass. I actually got a hand on the fish, but she broke off before I could get a grip and swam away with a second tube stuck in her mouth. I was one fish shy of a limit that day and ended up finishing second to Gary Klein by a little more than pound. That one hurt.”
Specialty: Flipping and throwing a spinnerbait.
Home: Montgomery, Texas
Years Full-Time Pro: 37
Still Competing? Yes. FLW Tour
Former Occupation: None
Biggest Tournament Win: Rowland fished his first BASS tournament in 1970 at the age of 13, after which Ray Scott implemented a rule that required anglers to be at least 18 years old to compete. Roland had to wait another five years before fishing another BASS event and eventually turned pro in 1980.
Rowland has since won five BASS events. The first, he said, is the highlight of his career.
“My dream from day one was to win a BASS tournament and I finally pulled it in off on Lake Chickamauga in 1986,” Rowland said. “I won $75,000, a fully rigged Ranger and Choo Choo Custom Surburban. I’ll never forget it.”
Most Memorable Moment in a Tournament: Veteran Skeeter pro staffer Rowland has qualified for 16 Bassmaster Classics and he led the 1991 Super Bowl on Chesapeake Bay in Baltimore, MD, for two days.
“On the last day I had all the confidence in the world I was going to win,” Rowland said. “I was on my way in and I stopped at a little pocket near weigh-in. Jimmy Houston was sitting there and he showed me the exact spot where he’d lost a three pounder the day before. I made the exact cast and it bit. I had the fish all the way to the boat, and it just came off.”
The fish cost Rowland winning the Classic that the late Ken Cook of Oklahoma won.
Worst Moment in Tournament Fishing: Rowland has logged a passel of bad memories he had rather forget. Perhaps the worst occurred during the final round of the 1981 BASS North Carolina Invitational at Ablemarle Sound near Elizabeth City. Rowland was running a Eldorcraft bass boat and was making a 20-mile run to his fishing area each day. He and his partner found the fish biting particularly well on the last day.
“By 8:30 I had 25 pounds in the livewell,” he said. “I felt like I had the tournament won at that point, but they were biting so good that we stayed and fished right up until the last minute. My partner had more than 20 pounds, too. On the way back to weigh-in, the hull on the boat delaminated; and it filled with water. It was only four feet deep, and the boat went down to the gunnel. I was able to idle over to a boat ramp and get help, but we didn’t make it to weigh-in. By the time we got back it was over. I would have won by over eight pounds. I’ll never forget seeing Forrest Wood standing there when I got in. When I told him what happened he told me it sounded like I needed to get in a Ranger. I fished out of one for the next 18 years.”
Specialty: Topwater fishing.
Home: Huntington, Texas
Years Full-Time Pro: 15
Still Competing? Yes, Local events Sam Rayburn/Toledo Bend
Former Occupation: Heavy Equipment Operator
Biggest Tournament Win: Stanley is a well-known lure maker from Huntington, he won two bass Bassmaster events and qualified for five Bassmaster Classics during a career that dates back to the early 1980s. His first win came on Florida’s Harris Chain, and it was a biggie.
“It was the Bassmaster Mega Bucks and I won $108,000,” Stanley said. “That was the first time I’d fished the Harris Chain. A cold front came through right before we started, and it dropped the water temp 15 degrees. It was a really hard tournament. To go down there and beat Shaw Grigsby, Hank Parker, Ken Cook and several of the top-notch pros from Florida was pretty special.”
Most Memorable Moment in a Tournament: “Qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic the first time in 1982 and getting to walk up on the stage with Ray Scott. I could barely talk I was so nervous. The feeling you get just to be there one time is hard to explain. It’s a memory to put in the bank that will be there forever.”
Worst Moment in Tournament Fishing: At one time, Bassmaster Classic qualifications were based on the total pounds anglers caught over the course of the season, rather than points. Stanley said his most haunting memory was losing a 3 1/2-pound bass late in the final round of a tournament that caused him to miss qualifying for the Classic by a meager 1 1/2 pounds.
“I can’t remember the year or lake,” he said. “But what I do remember was a terrible feeling I had driving all the way home to Texas from the East Coast when it happened. Something like that really eats on you.”
Specialty: Finessing a jig on bottom in shallow and deep water.
Home: Hemphill, Texas
Years Full-Time Pro: 45
Still Competing? Yes, BASS Opens, FLW Costas and local team events
Former Occupation: Finance/Insurance Company Manager
Biggest Tournament Win: Martin is a warrior from way back. He launched his career in the early 1970s and was fast to rise to the top, winning the 1974 Bassmaster Classic on Alabama’s Lake Wheeler. “It paid $15,000 back then, but it’s been worth $1 million plus over the course of my career,” Martin said. “Before I won the Classic I didn’t have any sponsors other than a few companies giving me some line and a few worms. That win enabled me to start generating some income through some cash deals. I helped form the first Berkley Fishing team with Jimmy Houston, Jack Haines, Ricky Green and Roger Moore. They paid me $500 a month. Other companies began to follow suit not too longer after. It helped jump start my career and lead to a long relationship with Bass Pros Shops and Johnny Morris, who I’ve been with since 1975.”
Most Memorable Moment in a Tournament: Martin is well known for being the first guy to figure out how to catch bass out of deep grass with a jig on Toledo Bend. He won the 1981 Texas Invitational on his home lake with 81 pounds, 10 ounces, all of which came on a 5 1/2 foot pistol grip rod matched with monofilament fishing line and a 9/16 ounce Stanley Jig. He added a 1/4-ounce slip sinker on top of his jig to make it heavier and help it penetrate the grass easier.
“The grass was matted in 26 feet of water back then and very people knew how to fish it,” Martin said. “I caught 35-12 on the first day, which at the time was a BASS record for one day on seven fish. My partner had 20 pounds plus out of the same spot. He ended up winning a boat and trailer.”
Worst Moment in Tournament Fishing: “Gary Klein and I were in a really tight race for the Angler of Year title going into the Lake Guntersville tournament in Alabama in 1989. I had a good tournament up until the last day. I lost several big fish and made several bad decisions that cost me the title. It was a terrible day.”
Specialty: Jig and worm fishing on bottom.
Home: Shelbyville, Texas
Years Full-time Pro: 29
Former Occupation: Fishing guide
Biggest Tournament Win: Allen never managed to pull off a win at the tour level, yet he was consistent enough to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic 15 times. His biggest win came in the 2005 Bass Open on the Ouachita River in Monroe, LA. “The area I caught them in had a reputation of being good for one day, but I managed to catch them in there three days in a row. I had to run for 20 to 30 minutes, then idle another 30 minutes over stumps, mud flats and cypress trees just to get in there. But it was worth it.”
Most Memorable Moment in a Tournament: “It was the last day of the 2005 Bass Open on the Ouachita River. I flipped into a bush and got a bite, but the hook snapped when I set it. I sat down, retied and caught the fish on the very next flip that had just broke my line. It was my fourth keeper, a 2 3/4 pounder, which is a really solid fish over there. My partner looked at me and said ‘Man, that’s got to be a sign,’ and it was.”
Worst Moment in Tournament Fishing: “I can’t remember the year, but I remember it was on Lake Seminole in a BASS Invitational. The water was gin clear and I found a giant—a 10 to 12 pounder—on a bed in about four feet of water. I fished for her hard. I tried everything I knew to get her to fire, but she wouldn’t bite. Then I got a wild idea. I reached in my box and pulled out at big spinnerbait with No. 7 Hildebrandt willowleaf blades that I’d caught ‘em on at Sam Rayburn a week earlier. I threw past that fish, brought that spinnerbait it by her nose and she mounted it on the first cast. She came up the first time, and all I could see was her huge mouth and head. She was so big, she couldn’t get out of the water. She went back down and came back up about 20 feet from the boat. That’s when my spinnerbait flew out of her mouth because the hook broke. Losing that bass cost me the big fish of the tournament, a check and a berth to the Bassmaster Classic that year. It was a terrible deal. I was sick about it.”
Specialty: Worm fishing away from the bank.
—story by Matt Williams