Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops and recent addition to the Forbes 400, never intended to rule an outdoor sporting gear empire. When he began selling fishing tackle in the back of his father's Brown Derby liquor store, the five-time Bassmaster Classic tournament pro was 23 and subscribed to the philosophy stuck to the bumpers of his customers' trucks: "I'd rather be fishing."
"My intention at first was to avoid work and fish," says Morris, who graduated in 1970 from Drury College with a business degree. "It's just that there weren't many places to get the lures bass anglers wanted."
Even though he's 65 now and that 8-by-8-foot mini shop in the back of his dad's Springfield, Missouri, store has exploded into a kingdom of 58 stores in 35 states, the only thing Morris flaunts now is his Ozark humility. He remains committed to spending just as time with his reel as he does to expanding his business.
"Johnny Morris is the same guy I knew 40 years ago when we were doing fishing tournaments," says Bill Dance, a former professional bass fisherman who hosts nationally televised shows on freshwater and saltwater angling. "He's the most humble guy you could ever meet. He loves his family, he loves his friends, and he loves fishing."
His title at the $3.3 billion Bass Pro is "Chief Fishing Officer." As he likes to say, "Somebody has to test the product."
We recently hooked Johnny Morris into revealing six of his favorite fishing holes, and here they are.
Rio Negro, Amazon Basin, Brazil
Early Amazon explorer John D. Haseman wrote in 1911 that, "Fishing in South America is by far the most dangerous of all forms of scientific exploration. No man over 50 years of age should attempt to enter this region." Unsurprisingly, Johnny Morris ignored that advice.
"The ferocious strike of a peacock bass hitting a top water lure is the most exciting adrenaline rush in fishing," says Morris. "These monsters have spawned their own fishing tourism industry in Brazil's Amazon basin and would rate as my number one freshwater fish."
Johnny was still throwing a line into his beloved Ozarks streams and stocking shelves at the Brown Derby when peacock bass, first described by A.J. McClane in 'Field and Stream,' were being misidentified as bass. They're actually cichlids (tropical, spiny-finned fish) – otherwise known as "freshwater bullies" due to their tendency to attack lures, break lines, and shatter rods. That they flourish in a river full of caimans, piranhas, and catfish the size of Mini Coopers says a lot about these born fighters – and why Morris returns to Brazil every chance he gets. [Floating cabin-based fishing expeditions into the Amazon run from $4,490; riverplateanglers.com]
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