By Zell Rowland

I have been very fortunate. I have loved fishing all my life, and grew up in a family that shared the love and helped me live my dream. My first tournament experience came when I was only 13 years old.

For my birthday that year, my father bought me two custom-wrapped bass rods and two reels: a gold-plated Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 and one of the black-bodied Ambassadeurs.

He also bought me a life membership to B.A.S.S. -- and a very special “life” membership it has been! He paid Ray Scott, B.A.S.S. founder, $125 for that membership. Every time I see Ray today, I tell him that I got dad’s money back from him 100 times over.

Dad knew what that membership meant to me. I wanted to fish a B.A.S.S. tournament, and I wanted it badly. The organization had set no age limit, so a 17- or 15- or, yes, even a 13-year-old like me could enter, provided he could come up with the entry fee, which, I believe, was $125 at the time.

The All-American
My target was the All-American Table Rock Lake tournament out of Kimberling, Mo. Scheduled for Nov.12-14, 1970, it was the last event of the year.

I still carry a lot of memories from that tournament. One was that it snowed, and I froze my ass off! How I got there, though, still warms my heart.

We had a good friend, Emmett Chiles, who owned farmland near us outside Memphis, Tenn. He fished the seven-event B.A.S.S. tour. I’d see Emmett all the time. He knew my grandmother, and he knew I loved to fish, too.

So I called Emmett and explained that I wanted to fish a tournament. He helped talk dad into paying my entry fee, and, soon after, I was driving with Emmett to Table Rock Lake for a day or two of practice and the All-American!

Launch!
The “bass boat” was a new concept back then. You didn’t see many of them on the water yet. Choices were few. If you didn’t have a Monarch or a Ranger or a Skeeter, you didn’t have a bass boat.

An 85 horsepower motor was a lot of power in 1970. Most guys still were fishing out of aluminum boats. On Thursday, I drew my partner. He owned a “big” 85 horsepower Mercury, but it was mounted on an aluminum boat.

“Don’t worry about those fancy fiberglass boats!” he told me. “Before they reach that first bend in the river, we’ll pass them all.”

Believe me, that was the ride of my life!

Topwater talent
I didn’t catch a lot of fish those three days, but I did catch one memorable fish. Looking back, it might have been the most important fish I’ve ever held in my hands.

It caught a lot of attention, too. Despite the cold and the occasional snowflakes that day, I was fishing a Rebel Jointed Minnow near the surface. I would twitch it…then let it float back up.

Now, even as a kid there was something special for me about watching a fish come up and eat the bait right before my eyes.

For me, nothing in freshwater fishing is more exciting than seeing a bass strike while you are working your lure…watching a bass explode on a bait out of pure violence. That’s far more exciting than getting a bite on a worm in 20 feet of water. I don’t care if that bass down 20 feet is 4 pounds, I would rather watch my 2-pounder bite a topwater.

So there I was in November, twitching my Rebel Jointed Minnow, just pulling it under the surface and pausing to let it rise…when one grabbed the bait!  

I hooked that fish. I landed it, too, and it weighed 3 ½ pounds.

Weigh-in wonder
The tournament fish limits aligned with the state limits back then. I think ours was 10 fish with a minimum length of 10 inches, so you saw a lot of small fish hanging from stringers at the weigh-in. (We didn’t have bags for our fish yet.)

I walked up to the scale with my partner, who had a stringer with seven or eight fish stretched across his back, and the press just ate that image alive. Here was this 13-year-old kid with his big fish competing against seasoned tournament fishermen that were 28, 40…50 years old.

The reporters made a big deal out of it. In fact, the Springfield newspaper ran a big photo of me with my 3 ½-pounder and the guy with the little bass beside me. And the best part of it was that all his fish together didn’t weigh as much as mine! I’ll never forget that as long as I live.

My romance with topwater fishing took flight that day. I also knew that, when I got out of high school, I was not going to be an accountant.

I wasn’t going to frame houses.

I wasn’t going to start a company.

I was going to be a professional bass fisherman.