In his 2002 autobiography, Think Like a Fish, Mann described himself as “a Depression-born boy who grew up to start a business with five dollars that eventually generated auxiliary industries and a multimillion-dollar annual cash flow.”
“This is a tremendous loss to those of us here at BASS, our industry and to everyone who loves the outdoors,” said BASS General Manager Don Rucks. “Tom Mann was a classic example of the American dream and one of the great entrepreneurs that our sport helped to produce.”
Mann was born in 1932 just outside of Penton, Ala., and formed Mann Bait Company in 1958, making the lures himself and having his children package them in his home.
He became an Alabama Conservation Officer in 1960, and it was during this time that he designed a tailspinner lure he called the Little George – after then- Governor of Alabama George Wallace. Mann sold millions of Little Georges over the years and the bait put his company on solid financial footing. In the 1970s, Mann’s Jelly Worms were the industry standards and he started the trend of making soft plastic baits in innumerable “flavors.”
BASS founder Ray Scott called Mann, “one of the most savvy tackle manufacturers I ever met. He was one of the originators of field testing and was highly generous with other fishermen.”
At about the same time that his lure business began to gain momentum, Mann took an interest in sonar. Without ever having taken a course in electronics, he began experimenting with fish-finding technology, ultimately developing and patenting the Humminbird depthfinder.
Mann was also an early supporter of BASS, fishing in the very first event Ray Scott held in Arkansas in 1967.
“Tom was the second man to send me the $100 entry fee for the Beaver Lake tournament that started it all,” Scott said.
Mann recounted the incident in a humorous passage of his autobiography. At first he told Scott that he wasn’t sure he should enter the event.
“I don’t know,” [Mann recounted]. “I don’t think I want to take the time off work, and I don’t want to risk the hundred dollars.”
“You should enter the tournament because you’re sure to win it,” Scott said. “The fact that you win the tournament by fishing with your own lures will help your lure business, especially as one tournament breeds another, and as I build this thing into national competition. Now, come on and enter this first tournament. Just between you and me, you’re the best fisherman I’ve invited. You’re sure to win the tournament.”
Mann finished fourth at the first event and later learned that Scott had told all 100 anglers that they were the best and a sure bet to win.
He went on to become an early star on the BASS Tournament Trail, winning two events and qualifying for seven CITGO Bassmaster Classics between 1971 and 1978, before retiring from competitive angling in 1985. Though Mann never won the Classic, he did manage four top-five finishes, including second place in the inaugural event in 1971.
In 1973, Mann caught a one-pound largemouth on one of his lures that he believed was different from any other bass he had ever seen. He carried the bass home and put it in a swimming pool where he kept giant fish. He named the bass Leroy Brown after the hit song by Jim Croce.
Leroy Brown was the smallest fish in the pool, but also the smartest. Though Mann caught him on a hook, it was the last time the fish was ever fooled by anything with a hook in it. As Mann’s business grew, so did Leroy’s reputation, and when the bass died of old age in 1981, he was the most famous fish in America. Alabama's governor sent a telegram of condolence, and more than 800 people attended Leroy's funeral.
Tom Mann’s Fish World is a longtime attraction located just north of Eufaula on Rt. 431. The museum is an eclectic mix of aquariums and fishing memorabilia as well as numerous American Indian items. Mann was part Cherokee and paid tribute to his heritage through the logos of his tackle company and on the walls of the museum.
He was inducted in the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2003.
Mann is survived by Ann, his wife of more than 50 years, four children and several grandchildren.
The funeral is scheduled for Tuesday, February 15, at 2:00 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church in Eufaula. A memorial service will be held Saturday at the National Guard Armory in Eufaula at 2:00 p.m.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail, which includes the Bassmaster Elite 50 series, is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.