NMMA Hall of Fame Award
1994: Forrest Wood, Ranger Boats and John Rybovich, Rybovich and Sons Boat Works
Forrest Wood produced his first custom-built boat in 1968, and soon became known as the father and inventor of the bass boat. What he built, however, was more than a boat named Ranger. He developed a craft that armed fisherman with the tools needed to excel in their sport.
Wood’s milestones in the bass-boat manufacturing industry included the use of steel conduit to encase electrical wiring, level flotation — now required in all small outboard boats by the Coast Guard — aerated live wells to allow catch and release without harming fish, and the use of powerful engines.
Wood and his wife, Nina, operated a fishing guide service for 14 years, which provided the hands-on experience to put toward development of Ranger Boats. Flat-bottomed Jon boats were fine for fishing the White River near Wood’s home in Flippin, Ark., but something different was needed for lake fishing. In maintaining his wooden Jon boats for the guide service, Wood discovered he could increase their durability and water tightness by stretching sheets of fiberglass cloth over the bottom of the boats and laminating them with resin. Almost instantly, friends pestered Wood to make versions of the boats for their own use.
The first Ranger, 16 feet long with 18-inch sides, was propelled by 55-horsepower engine. Numerous modifications quickly followed, as Forrest, an avid fisherman himself, maintained contact with other anglers and made a special point of learning their preferences for the ultimate bass boat. Participating in fishing tournaments provided opportunities for Wood to show off his boats and to gain further insights from fellow competitors.
Forrest chose the name Ranger for his boat for several reasons. He admired the law enforcement capabilities of the Texas Rangers, and always considered himself a cowboy; still at home today in boots, blue jeans and a cowboy hat. Wood and his wife were cattle ranchers long before the development of the bass boat, and they continued to raise cattle long after Ranger became a household word for anglers.
In 1971, just when Wood Manufacturing was taking off, fire gutted the facility, with drums of gel coat and resin exploding like enormous Roman candles. Everything was lost, except for some business records Wood managed to retrieve from the burning building. Without business insurance, many people predicted the company’s demise, but as Wood saw it, he still had a work force and orders for 60 boats. By the next morning a telephone was installed on a tree to keep the boat orders coming in, and within 40 days, the company was back in full operation.
Wood, who once considered voice training to eliminate his thick Arkansas drawl before appearing on a TV commercial, insisted that his greatest strength in business was listening to others. “I don’t know how in the world we could have figured out what people needed if we didn’t listen to them. I think that’s been a mistake some of the big companies made early on. It’s a lot easier to sell something that somebody wants rather than something you already have and want to sell”.
Not only did Forrest Wood make outstanding contributions to sport fishing boat design, but he also took a leading role in conservation efforts and catch and release programs. His involvement in fishing tournaments went far to promote America’s appreciation for sport fishing. And for those in the boating industry, Wood’s tenacity and vigorous entrepreneurial spirit stand as a model of achievement.