Drive into Eufaula, Ala. and you can almost feel the rich bass fishing history that oozes from this pleasant little town deep in the American southland.
For starters, there is 45,181-acre Lake Eufaula, site of this week’s 2017 Major League Fishing Challenge Cup championship, an event that has brought the top anglers in the world to a lake that has held a number of major fishing events over the years.
While Eufaula – officially known on maps as the Walter F. George Reservoir – has certainly notched a place in angling history because of those competitions, what really put the eastern Alabama town on the fishing world’s map was a pair of famous local residents, one who sold tackle, the other a bad attitude largemouth bass who ate it.
Hailing from nearby Florida and cutting his tournament fishing teeth across the southern U.S., MLF pro Shaw Grigsby fondly remembers them both.
“The little grocery store right by the marina, we were talking about it driving down here (today), that used to be Tom Mann’s Fish World, (home of the late and legendary tournament pro and lure maker Tom Mann),” said Grigsby.
“That was before Bass Pro Shops, that Tom developed this and put in an aquarium that had Big Bad Leroy Brown, the bass that he had in there (for several years).”
If Eufaula’s big bass fishing reputation wasn’t enough to lure in a visitor after it was impounded in the early 1960s, then a visit to Mann’s tackle store was.
“You could come by and see the fish swimming (in the aquarium),” said Grigsy. “(And Tom) had all of his trophies – some of the trophies were six feet tall back in those days – and he had all of the plaques from doing so good (in tournaments).”
In short, it was like walking into a bass fishing museum and adventure park, something of a precursor to the Bass Pro Shops destination fishing store experience that so many people enjoy around the country today.
But back then, such an experience was really only available in one place and that was Eufaula, Ala.
If Tom Mann’s store and pet bass inspired some, his tackle inspired others like Grigsby.
“Tom Mann invented Mann’s Bait Company and the Jelly Worm,” he said. “That was what really started a lot of people fishing, it’s what I started fishing (with) as a kid. And he also invented the lead tailspinner lure known as a Little George.”
Mann, a former Alabama game warden, turned his love of bass fishing and tackle making into a multi-million dollar career that included several components.
For starters, Mann was one of the early pioneers in the tournament game, winning two B.A.S.S. events, finishing second in the very first Bassmaster Classic, competing in six other Classics and ultimately winning a good amount of career money in a day and time when only the top few anglers in an event did so.
Add in his lure company – especially the Jelly Worm, a soft plastic worm that came in several fruit scented flavors – and Mann’s fame became even more widespread.
There was also a TV and sports media component as Mann hosted a long-running and popular television show on such networks as TNN, ESPN, Sportsman Channel and Outdoor Channel among others. He was also a well known subject in newspaper and magazine stories, not to mention a regular on radio programs around the South.
And don’t forget Leroy Brown, the bad attitude bass that Mann once caught on a strawberry flavored Jelly Worm, a bass that he put into an aquarium at his Eufaula tackle shop.
The feisty largemouth bass – named after one of the hit songs of the day – became quite the tourist attraction, voraciously eating minnows and such when Mann would feed him in front of shop visitors.
In fact, so recognized was Leroy Brown that a look-alike lipless crankbait was produced by the company, a bait that was named after the fish and one that can still be found circulating on E-Bay to this day.
While Mann and his pet bass were fixtures in the local community, the superb fishing that Eufaula was known for also added to the region’s fame. So good was the bass fishing action for hefty lunkers that Eufaula became known as the “Bass Fishing Capitol of the World.”
And all of that was in Grigsby’s mind as he prepared for his first round of MLF competition this week on one of the sport’s most historic venues.
“It was an honor to come here and hang out and do things, all through the late 60s, the 70s, the 80s,” said Grigsby. “To show up now (for this MLF event) and it’s all gone, it makes you go ‘Wow, how things change!”
Part of that change began with the death of the bass Leroy Brown on Aug. 20, 1980. With a bass fishing tournament arriving at Eufaula, there were local and national press stories written, articles that were carried by newspapers all across the country.
There was also a local funeral service that drew several hundred observers, several pallbearers, a choir humming to the popular Jim Croce song Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, letters of condolences that were read aloud, and of course, a heartfelt eulogy from Mann.
In fact, in outdoor writer Steve Price’s superb book, The Fish That Changed America, he noted that at the conclusion of the funeral service, people walked by and dropped a strawberry scented Jelly Worm in Leroy Brown’s satin-lined tackle box casket.
Years later, Mann himself would pass away in February 2005 when complications set in after his second open heart surgery procedure. While Mann’s famed tackle company continues thriving to this day – he sold the operation in the late 1970s – the loss of the hall-of-fame bass angler took its own toll on Eufaula’s lofty status in the fishing world.
Add in the northward and westward expansion of tournament bass fishing over the years, not to mention the numerous big tackle stores and Internet sites across the country today, and the legacy and lore of Mann and his famous bass have slowly faded with the passage of time.
In fact, Grigsby admitted that it had been a while since he had actually visited this Alabama town and its namesake reservoir.
But he and the other MLF pros are back this week, eager to make some new history, albeit at a time of the year that many of the anglers aren’t used to since most previous events were staged in the spring and summer months.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever fished it in October and that’s probably a tough time (to be fishing here),” said Grigsby.
“It’s (fall) transition time (here as we fish),” he added. “It’s cool right now – it’s supposed to be in the upper 40s by tomorrow morning and that’s the first little cool snap of the fall (here).”
Because of that cool front and the date on the calendar, Grigsby predicted that the bass will be scattered as they transition from summertime haunts to their fall pattern locations.
Loosely translated, that probably means more of a one here, two there type of angling day is ahead for the MLF pros, not a catch-a-fish-a-minute approach that some call a bass catching “whackfest.”
Even so, Grigsby is almost always in a good mood when he has a graphite fishing rod in his hand and he’s going bass fishing, even with the pressure of a MLF derby lying ahead.
“It might be tough, but I’m going to go have a good time,” said Grigsby. “It’s a neat lake and I don’t want any past experience to influence what I’m doing today. I just need to figure them out.”
Grigsby plans to do so by looking at the electronic mapping on his boat, trying to find spots where fish are migrating from the main lake towards the back of creeks in preparation for the fall feeding binge on baitfish.
As he does all of this, Grigsby said he’s quite certain he’ll fish the present while fondly remembering the past.
“Things change, things move around, but it’s still Eufaula and it’s still got so much history,” he said. “That’s what kind of makes (this place) special.”