1977: “About a month or two before the Classic, Scott had a Bass Champs Tournament at Percy Priest Reservoir in Tennessee,” Campbell told me. “He placed 20 anglers, the likes of Rick Clunn, Bo Dowden, Tommy Martin, and me, and had us fishing out of 15-foot, flat-bottom aluminum boats. He put steering wheels in them, a livewell, aerated them, put trolling motors on them, and a 5-gallon gas tank with a 35 horsepower Johnson motor.
“We fished the tournament all day long with a 5-gallon gas tank, one battery, trolling motor, and had as big a time as I had in my big bass boat. “All the way home, I thought about how I was going to go back home and draw out a new bass boat, better than Ray’s. I drew out some plans for a bass boat made out of aluminum.” Campbell, in addition to fishing the professional bass circuit, was a boat dealer at that time. A couple of the companies that he purchased aluminum boats from were Appleby and Lowe.
“I bought pontoon boats from them. I took my plans to them and they kind of laughed, saying it costs too much, wouldn’t work good on a flat-bottom.” About two weeks later, the BASS pros fished the BassMaster Classic at Lake Toho in Florida. That was back in the days when the anglers had no idea as where the Classic was going to be held. While talking about the upcoming Classic with Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops fame, Morris asked Campbell how the tournament in Tennessee went. Campbell told him about the little flat-bottomed boats, how impressed he was with them, how he drew up plans trying to improve on the boat, and how he approached a couple of established aluminum boat builders, trying to get someone to build it.
“I didn’t think anything more about it, but about two weeks later Morris called me up,” said Campbell. “Morris had been in the catalog fishing tackle business about five years. He said that he would like to come and talk with me. I had no idea what he wanted; usually we would go on fishing trips together.”
“You know that boat you were telling me about,” said Morris. “I would like you to come up here and work with us, make that boat, and I will put it in the catalog.”
“I told him he was crazy,” Campbell said. “You can’t sell a boat from a catalog. He replied that he thought he could. Finally, he talked me into it.” Campbell and Morris took the original plan, changed a few things, and took it to Lowe, Appleby, Arkansas Traveler, and Delhi, told them to build a prototype.
“We got all the prototypes in, looked them all over, put motors on them, and ran them,” Campbell said. “Finally, we decided that Delhi had made the best boat. We built about 50 boats to start with and equipped them with 35 horsepower Johnson motors.”
Campbell towed a fully rigged boat to Florida for a photo session: “We got pictures of me catching an 11-pound bass. We got some beautiful pictures and we put the pictures of the boat in the catalog.” This was before Bass Pro didn’t retail outlets; all orders were handled over the phone.
“The phone rang off the hook,” Campbell said. “We sold those 50 boats just like that. We didn’t have any trailers. We got people who built the bass boats to build us some trailers. “The trailers would be coming in with the paint still wet on them. People would get halfway out of town and the ball bearings flew out of the wheels.”
There was only one model in the beginning, the Bass Tracker, all in the same color. The idea was simple: If you could put the boat together utilizing the assembly line approach, everything was the same. It was simple to produce a boat in a short amount of time at less cost.
“In a composite boat, they build one boat at a time,” Campbell said. “They go from this spot, to that spot, to that spot. When you build them one at time like that, it takes forever. The Trackers were assembled on an assembly line. All boats had the same paint scheme, the same motors. In the beginning, we had 10 guys working out of Johnny’s dad’s warehouse, assembling all the boats.”
The original Tracker cost $2995. A comparably equipped composite boat was about $2000 more. At about that same time in history, gas prices went sky high (sound familiar?). Anglers started buying smaller cars and trucks to save gas. The lighter aluminum boats were easier to tow with a downsized vehicle. The smaller outboards were cheaper to run. Tracker trailers evolved from the wet paint and loose wheel bearing days into custom jobs built for the boat they carried.
“What really made the Trackers good was that Johnny made sure everything on them was good quality,” said Campbell. As bass fishing evolved and grew, the original Tracker evolved.
“Johnny is really astute in listening to the customer,” said Steve Mason of Tracker Marine. “If you look at all the different boats and watch how these guys fish, that’s how all this started evolving. We designed the bass boats where the wife could sit down low in the boat and the guy could get higher on the front deck and fish. They were a family boat. A couple years later, people wanted different models of the original Bass Tracker. That gave birth to the Tracker 1.
“Most anglers years ago fished out of johnboats. They were standing up fishing out of the boats because you can get a better perspective on the cast, so the decks started coming up. Bass boats with a raised front deck were becoming popular, but the decks were causing some safety concerns.
“When guys are fishing, they don’t look down. Guys were walking off the decks. We decided that you needed a three-inch lip on the sides of the deck.”
“Anglers wanted to be able to maneuver the boat from the front deck, so you got away from the old tiller trolling motors, and foot control trolling motors came into being. Anglers needed to keep their fish alive, so livewells evolved. It used to be you turned the switch on and off every so often to circulate the water in the well. Now we have a timer on it so you don’t have to worry about turning the livewell on and off.”
Aluminum bass boats of the Twenty-first Century are not the 15-foot flat-bottomed johnboats of the 1970s. They are available in mod-V and deep-V hulls no longer put together with rivets, but welded. Some boat models are available in lengths just under 20 feet, some able to handle an engine of up to 115 hp. Although aluminum boat packages have gone up in price, they are still economical for the budget-minded angler. Many of the boats, such as Tracker products, come equipped, ready to add water and go.