“At the time there was no better fisherman in North Carolina. He was versatile and could fish deep or shallow. He started me fishing and taught me how to be versatile and to always be on top of what was going on, no matter where it was from. He was my mentor.” 3-Time BASS Master Classic Qualifier Jeff Coble
From weekend warriors to the triple-A level, bass anglers worldwide dream of being in the Bass Master Classic to test their skills against the best in the world. In 1973, unknown to them, amateur anglers’ dreams came true when the first Federation angler would be invited to fish against the best in the nation at the preeminent event in bass fishing.
In 1973 Ray Scott held the first National Federation Championship, then called the BASS Chapter Championship. States held qualifying events to determine their six-man teams and these teams would head to the Championship to be held on Pickwick Lake TN.
B.A.S.S. had set aside some money to present to the top five state teams to go towards their own states’ environmental funds. It was to be a tournament to decide which state had the best bass anglers and make an impact on the environment.
What no one knew at the time was this National Championship would also determine the first angler to go to the Big Show. This story is about that angler – Wendell Mann of Snow Camp, North Carolina.
Mann started fishing with his grandfather before he was able to walk. By the time he’d reached his late teens, he was fishing for bass and pan fish at the lakes and ponds around his rural home.
“Around 1965 I got into a bad accident and was laid up in bed for some time,” he said. “To pass the time I read a lot of books and magazines about bass fishing. Books like Buck Perry’s on spoon plugging and Grits Gresham’s bass book along with Fishing Facts magazine. I devoured whatever I could get my hands on and it got me thinking about how to better catch bass and fish structure.
“After recovering from the accident, I went to the nearest bass boat dealer (Nashville, TN) and purchased a stick-steer Terry bass boat with 18 HP motor and [Lowrance] Fish Lo-K-Tor. I started concentrating on bass as several newly impounded lakes opened up in North Carolina.
“Not many anglers back then fished away from the shoreline – they were bank-beaters. It was a time to learn on your own because there weren’t many anglers who had much information about deep bass fishing. You mainly had the deep-water areas to yourself, to experiment with, having small successes, building your confidence.
“Then in the early ‘70s we put together a fishing club – the Early Times Bassmasters out of High Point, NC. That’s kind of funny because the club was named after the whiskey company [laughs]. We actually sent them a letter and they sent us shirts and jackets. Then our club became a [B.A.S.S.] Chapter Club around 1971. I was actually a charter member of B.A.S.S. I wish I still had my certificate showing that.”
Road to the Classic
“Before ’73, there was no National Amateur Championship,” Mann said. “Then at the end of ’72, B.A.S.S. announced that there’d be this championship and that six-man teams from any state that had bass clubs would be invited to fish it. North Carolina held its only state qualifier on Kerr Reservoir in the spring and I placed sixth out of 136 anglers by fishing a spinnerbait around shoreline bushes and willows.
“Months later when we would go to the National at Pickwick, though it would be summer and I thought the deeper fish would be key. I got a topo map of Pickwick and began studying it. I knew where I wanted to fish before we even left North Carolina.
“There was only one practice day and I was paired to fish with the head of our state federation. I wanted to wait for the fish to go deep so we went to a local restaurant around 9:00 AM to eat. In there was Ray [Scott] and Harold [Sharp]. They saw us, came over and said, ‘You boys ought to be out there now practicing.’
“Later that morning I started fishing deep ledges and the fish were all over them” he said. “I caught a 6-01 smallie, lost a bigger one, and caught several largemouths that day as well. When they’d draw the water, the fish would eat.”
The next day proved to be a tough one, though.
“The first day of the tournament I only boated two fish,” he said. “I lost a bunch of them. The second day, though, I got on them really good and brought in 7 fish (8-fish limit) that went 32-15. That catch included a 7-pound largemouth and another big smallie I’d lost the day before.”
Those fish coupled with his 9-01 from the first day gave him 42-00 and a commanding lead.
“The next day they didn’t pull water through the dam and the fish didn’t show up,” he said. “I sat there all day anchored on my spot because several competitors were all around. I was afraid if I left to look for something else, they’d open the dam and someone could easily have caught the winning weight off my spot.”
It didn’t matter; by the end of the event, Mann had won by an astounding 16-09. The country boy from Snow Camp, North Carolina would be the first Federation member to fish the BASS Master Classic. He’d made good use of Buck Perry’s book and study course and his experience fishing offshore structure had paid off.
“Prior to the Classic I’d never been to a national event before,” Mann said. “Ray (Scott) said I needed to go to Watts Bar because the Classic Qualifiers would be announced after the tournament and I needed to be there so he could introduce me as the first Chapter Champion angler. It was exciting.
“When the Classic came around I was pretty nervous. I was 28 years old and had never been on a plane before. There really wasn’t much to specifically prepare for since no one knew where we were going. We were only allowed 10 pounds of tackle and four rods.
“After arriving at the Classic destination, I had a good practice and got on some deep fish. I was happy about that.
“Then the first day of the tournament started. As I was heading to my spot, a helicopter was following me directly above my head. Here’s this chopper circling me as I’m setting up, the water blowing everywhere and it rattled me. I wasn’t prepared for fishing in that kind of situation.
“These were deep fish I was on and they normally don’t move much,” he said. “I was throwing a Carolina rig and I didn’t even get a bite. I started to panic, leaving and racing all over the place and couldn’t get bit. The next day [Bill] Dance got on my spot and started fishing it a little deeper. He got on the fish. I had made a rookie mistake.
“A funny thing about the tournament was Bass Pro Shops’ Johnny Morris and I roomed together. Johnny owned a million baits and usually drove a Trailways bus loaded with them to regular tour events. Well, it just so happened that Johnny didn’t have the bait he needed at this limited-tackle event but I did. I loaned him a bait and he used it and ended up in 10th place.
“It was a great ‘Classic’ experience – one I’ll never forget. To this day I’m happy I had the chance to participate.”
“After fishing the Classic and not doing well, becoming a pro was out of reach as I didn’t have the time or money. There were few sponsors back then. My dad and I were farmers and also owned and operated a general merchandise store/tackle shop and there was much work to do.”
Not being able to fish as a pro didn’t take away his competitive spirit, though.
“In 1973 I was in the ‘zone.’ I won 10 tournaments and several lunker awards. I made the national championship again in 1974 as an alternate (7th-place state team) and again in ‘75 (3rd-place state team) but didn’t place high in the National Championship. Then something happened that in a way changed my fishing career.
One day in 1976, while I was away from work fishing a favorite lake, three men robbed the store/tackle shop and father at gunpoint sending my father and a customer to the hospital. After that scary, dangerous event, my father no longer wanted to run the store/tackle shop alone. That’s when I almost stopped fishing. If I couldn’t fish much, at least I could still talk and teach people about fishing. After the robbery I just fished club stuff and local tournaments when I could. In 1994 I retired from my store/tackle shop and competed in my last tournament held at Santee Cooper and won the top prize of a nice fully rigged fishing boat. All in all I was fortunate to win 31 tournaments (mostly club events) in my competitive career.”
Mann has been away from tournament fishing for over 18 years now. He still fishes for fun though.
“I don’t fish for bass anymore,” he said. “I mainly fish for crappie and bream these days three or four times a week.”
“However, the best and most fulfulling aspect about my tournament fishing and retail tackle dealer experience was associating with quality people who had a strong desire to be better fishermen. One of those people is Jeff Coble; he was 16 when he started hanging out in my shop. At one point he was my student but, as it should be, he went from student to teacher. I’m proud to have been a part of that, I’m proud of him and I really feel good about the success he’s had over the years. Jeff, a 3-time Classic qualifier and multi large-tournament champion was able to accomplish much that I was unable to do. Thanks, Jeff, for giving me much to cheer about.”
I asked him if he had any regrets not being able to go pro.
“When I was younger it used to bother me that I was unable to fish the big stuff. I think it wasn’t meant to be. Now at age 68 it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m just so happy and thankful that I’m still able to fish and hunt and to still have many fishing buddies who think well of me.”