Ranger, The Rolls-Royce of Fishing Boats, Marks 40

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, May. 26, 2008 12:00 am  

Forrest Lee Wood has kept Ranger Boats afloat for 40 years.

When Forrest Lee Wood and his wife, Nina, founded Ranger Boats in Flippin in 1968, they were just trying to keep themselves and their fellow fishing guides in north-central Arkansas employed during the off-season.

What they built has evolved into the largest and most respected manufacturer of bass boats in the nation. It had revenue over $200 million in 2007 and is a brand that one fishing guru called the "Nike of our world" and others describe as either the Rolls-Royce or Cadillac of fishing boats - take your pick.

And with a genius for fishing, friendship, promotion and boat building, the Woods helped pioneer the sport of professional bass fishing, a sport that now awards seven-figure prizes.

Although the Woods no longer own Ranger Boats, Forrest Wood's influence on the company and on the sport of fishing remains profound, so profound that it's hard to separate the company from the man called the father of the modern bass boat.

"Forrest Wood is one of the most amazing men in history," said Jerry McKinnis, host of "The Fishin' Hole," which ran on television for 44 years, 27 of those on ESPN. "That's a pretty powerful statement. But I'm telling you, this guy is incredible."

What may be more incredible is the story of Forrest Wood, Ranger Boats and tournament fishing. It's a story that has grown to include one of the best-known corporate raiders of the 1980s, Irwin L. Jacobs, CEO of Genmar Holdings, No. 392 on Forbes magazine's 2007 list of the 500 largest private companies.

The story also encompasses the development of the multibillion-dollar fishing industry; the creation of FLW Outdoors (named for Wood), the largest fishing tournament entity in the world; and the creation of FLW Outdoors Fantasy Fishing, the first fantasy sports league to award a $1 million prize. As Mark St. Amant in the online magazine Salon.com put it recently: "FLW is blowing away all previous fantasy leagues by giving away more than $7 million in cash and prizes. Yes, folks, we've officially reached the point in sports history where people can win millions of dollars for watching other people watch out for fish."

And to think that this true-life fish tale began with the construction of six boats in the back of a gas station.

Angler's Paradise

The area surrounding Flippin in Marion County is an angler's paradise. This part of the Ozarks is home to Bull Shoals Lake, the Buffalo River, Lake Norfork, the White River, the North Fork River and the Spring River. It long has attracted fishermen from around the country, eager to cast for bass or trout.

Forrest Wood's family was one of the first families to settle in Marion County. His father raised cotton and corn in this beautiful but rocky region of Arkansas, and Wood, born in 1932, performed the expected chores, fishing when he could. "Every spare minute I was fishing," Wood said in a telephone interview with Arkansas Business.

After graduating from high school, he worked for two years helping build Bull Shoals Dam, which, when it was completed in 1951, created Bull Shoals Lake. Nina Kirkland was born on a farm now occupied by the dam, Wood said. The two married in 1951. Nina, too, loved to fish.

By 1968, the Woods had been operating their fishing guide and float trip service on Bull Shoals Lake, the White River and Crooked Creek for more than a decade. Forrest Wood also worked as a contractor, building houses and commercial buildings. "Anybody who wanted something built, I'd bid on it," Wood said. In addition, the couple raised cattle and would buy property whenever they had a few extra dollars.



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