By Zell Rowland

When I was 14 years old, my dad made what he later joked as being “the biggest mistake in my life.”

He bought me a bass boat.

It was a gift that launched my career in bass fishing. It came wrapped up in luck and a legend, in tears and disappointment, but most of all, in family love.

Meeting Jack Wingate
You know what they say about being your grandma’s first grandson. You have grandma’s heart.

I was the apple of my grandmother’s eye. When I got out of school each year, I was either on a plane or driving from my home in Memphis with my dad to my grandma’s home in Tampa, Fla. Together she and I would drive back to Arkansas where I would spend the entire summer with her.

As I have mentioned before, I had fished my first tournament – the All-American at Table Rock Lake – at the age of 13. (Click here for that story.) I caught one of the biggest bass in the tournament, and the local press featured my photo with that fish at the weigh-in. Still, I had no idea what that fish would mean to my career.

When school adjourned the May following that event, Dad and I left Memphis on our way to Tampa. Near Tallahassee, he made the “mistake” of stopping at a little restaurant along the highway.

I was wearing a B.A.S.S. patch on one side of my windbreaker and the patch from the Table Rock tournament on the other.  While we were eating breakfast, a man walked over to us. Believe it or not, it was the world-renowned Jack Wingate, who was then guiding and operating a marina and Lunker Lodge on Lake Seminole. He also owned a boat dealership. He introduced himself and said that he remembered me fishing the All-America tournament.

I told him that I wished I could fish more tournaments, but, heck, I had to go to school!

Jack talked to my dad for a while, and then he turned to me and said, “Zell, do you have a bass boat?”

Now, Dad would take me fishing for crappie and bream with him in an aluminum boat, but I would always fish for bass. So I said, “No. Nobody bass fishes but me.”

So Wingate looks at dad and tells him, “You should get this young man a bass boat.”

Dad said, “He doesn’t really need one right now.” But it was too late! Already I was on him, and I convinced him that we should at least look at them.

You can only imagine what happened when we pulled into Jack’s dealership. My eyes popped out of my head! I was a kid turned loose, my imagination running wild.

I picked out one bass boat almost immediately. It was a center console MonArk with a 65-horsepower Mercury, a 12-volt MotorGuide trolling motor and a Ray Jefferson depth finder on it.

Dad’s next mistake was looking at it too long and pricing it out. I can’t recall what it cost, but it was certainly far more than what most people could afford back then. He told Jack that he would think about it and get back to him.

Well, the minute we got back in the car, I started acting like a little kid that had dropped his ice cream cone on the ground. I didn’t want to leave without that boat!

I guess I got to him. It wasn’t long before he tripped up and said that he was going to get that boat for me! I almost cried.

But some hours later, the weight of that decision got to him, and he had a change of heart. He said, “Son, we’re just not going to get that boat right now. I will get one for you some day, but not right now.”

I said, “But, Dad, you already said you would get it.”

He said, “Well, I just changed my mind.”

I was crushed…like a kid beat up and robbed of his candy! I almost cried.

In the arms of the angel
You know where I went when we arrived…straight to Grandma. By then I was crying.

She asked what had happened. I told her that Dad had said he was going to buy me the boat and, just before we got here, he changed his mind. He was not going to get it now.

My Grandma – Dad’s mother – looked him dead on and said, “Is this true?”

He said, “Yes, it is.”

She ate him up like there was no tomorrow, saying “I would never tell my son he could have something and then turn around and tell him I won’t get it for him.”

She was on him so hot and pressing that he finally said to her: “I tell you what I am going to do. If you will put a hitch on your car, get the boat and haul it back to Arkansas to the farm, I will buy that boat.”

I knew immediately what he was thinking – that Grandma would never put a trailer hitch on her car and that she had never towed a boat in her life. But this one backfired.

She looked him straight in the eye and said, “We’re going to get a trailer hitch put on my car right now!”

And, sure enough, we had it done. We picked up that boat on our way to the farm.

The gift that keeps on giving
That was a special time. By the time I was 15, I had an Arkansas driver’s license, so I could pull the boat and go fishing by myself. Kids could do that back then.

In high school, I would haul the boat to school and after our football games on Friday night I would pull my boat to the lake, sleep in the trailer or under the stars, and fish all Saturday and Sunday morning and get home Sunday night.

For years, every time my dad looked out at that green MonArk bass boat, he would say, “That is the biggest money-loser I have ever bought in my life!”

Ironically, my Dad got into the marine business himself later. He would fill an 18-wheeler with four or five boats, park them in a lot in Memphis and sell them.

When I graduated from high school, Dad asked, “Are you going to go to junior college and play football?”

I said, “No. I am going to fish for a living.”

He looked at me – sincerely -- and said, “I wish you all the luck in the world.”

Thank you Dad. You helped me live the life of my choosing. And thank you Grandma. Without you it wouldn’t have happened.