More Than A Fishing Tournament: The Story of the US Open

The grandest tournament in the history of fishing is a celebration of heritage in the birthplace of Bass Pro Shops.

The Johnny Morris US Open Bass Fishing Championship will crown its first winner in a nationally televised event on NBC on Nov. 21, 2021. Much of the story of the US Open however, has already been written. It is a history that started more than 50 years ago in the first Bass Pro Shop in Springfield, Missouri. The US Open brings Bass Pro Shops full circle, to the place where it was born — when Johnny Morris competed in the 1970 All-American Bass Tournament on this very same Table Rock Lake.

Fishing legends, from left to right, Roland Martin, Tom Mann, Bill Dance, Johnny Morris and Ricky Green at one of the first national bass tournaments.

More than a fishing competition, the US Open represents an invitation. It invites teams of fishing buddies, fathers and their kids, wives and their husbands, and those comprised of old timers and young guns to spend time with people they care about, doing something they love. Teams from across the country and from all walks of life get to experience a fishing spotlight that is normally reserved only for professionals. There are life-changing stakes for the team that claims the title.

Fishing buddies Neil Vandebiezen and Jakob Zona celebrating victory at the Lake St. Clair qualifier in Michigan.

Everything about the US Open — from its conception in the minds of Johnny Morris and his son JP, to the execution of the eight preliminaries and the final — is derived of passion and community. The US Open is a way of thanking and giving back to the community of owners of some of the most beloved boat brands on the market. It is a way of celebrating partnerships with great companies, like Toyota, who support the outdoors and the people who care about it.

Whether or not they take home first place, participating teams from across the United States will make memories for a lifetime.

The US Open is about many things. Conservation. Giving thanks, introducing kids to fishing, and supporting veterans. It is a grand event that takes place in the birthplace of Bass Pro Shops. It is a celebration of the past, present and future. In all of these contexts, it is an exhibition of the joy of fishing at its most pure and authentic.

Supporting Conservation

The US Open is also about conservation. All of the tournament’s entry fees — 100% of all entry fees from every event in the series — fund the work of the National Fish Habitat Partnership. An effort co-initiated by Johnny Morris and the US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Fish Habitat Partnership has executed projects across all 50 US states. Currently the largest freshwater program in America, the partnership is proof that conservation is not just good for lakes and fish, but for communities and fishermen.

Read the story of how the National Habitat Partnership grew into the most comprehensive freshwater program in the United States.

The origin of the National Fish Habitat Partnership is a great story. It involves Johnny Morris’ realization that reservoirs across the United States suffered from chronic habitat deterioration. Declining habitats were negatively affecting fish populations and the anglers and communities who depend on them.

Johnny Morris hosting a gathering of the National Fish Habitat Partnership at the Big Cedar Lodge—overlooking Table Rock Lake.

In response, Morris spearheaded a partnership of federal and state agencies and staked $2.5 million in seed funding for a pilot habitat project on this same Table Rock Lake. The project commenced with a fish fry at the Big Cedar Lodge for officials of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Arkansas Department of Fish and Wildlife and others. The dinner showcased the passion and commitment to improving habitat—and morel mushrooms that Morris collected around the property.

A specialty-built Tracker habitat barge deploying structure on Table Rock Lake.

Since the first project in 2007, the National Fish Habitat Partnership has executed more than 1,000 projects across all 50 states. It has generated an economic value of more than $1 billion and established a national model for improving submerged habitat. Today the partnership is stronger than ever — and the entry fees from the US Open series of tournaments support it’s word-changing work.

Passion and Community

The US Open Bass Fishing Championship is fueled by passion and informed by community. It provides an invitation for teams of ordinary people from all walks of life to take to the water to compete against anglers from across the United States.

Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops (right), with Ray Scott, the father of the modern bass tournament.

By inviting qualifiers from around the country to fish the finals on Missouri’s Table Rock Lake, Johnny Morris extends an invitation to share of the same experiences that shaped his early years. Morris grew up fishing with his parents on the White River in the heart of the Ozarks. This is a wonderful part of the world. The natural beauty of Missouri is not only home to some of the best bass fishing in the country but has informed much of the character and evolution of Bass Pro Shops.

With teams comprised of fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and long-time fishing buddies, the US Open celebrates fishing heritage.

The US Open is a celebration of this fishing heritage. Johnny Morris fished in the 1970 All-American Bass Tournament on Table Rock Lake. It was here — fishing for these same bass on these same waters more than 50 years ago—that Morris was inspired with the idea that would become Bass Pro Shops. Bill Dance won that tournament. Roland Martin took home second. Both Dance and Martin will attend the US Open — along with many other legends of the bass fishing world.

The first Bass Pro Shop in Springfield. For the company’s first 13 years it was the only location

The US Open is not just about communing with your fishing heroes, however, but provides the occasion to share time on the water with friends and family. It is also an invitation to meet and compete against people you’ve never met, but whose passion for fishing and the water will almost certainly match your own. This is part of the reason that bass fishing is so universally beloved.

The excitement of tournament morning is as palpable as the fog.

The US Open Bass Fishing Championship is an invitation from Johnny Morris and Bass Pro Shops to partake in the same Ozarks fishing experience that has brought so much to Morris’ own life … all while trying to win $1 million. It is a celebration of fishing — hosted in the birthplace of Bass Pro Shops.

It is a celebration of passion and of community. It is a celebration of great partnerships — with companies like Toyota, who understand the sportsman’s heritage and do wonderful work to support it. It is also giving away lots of boats, Toyota trucks and millions of dollars in prize money.

Amateur Only

The early tournament landscape lay the groundwork for what has grown into an international industry. These days professional bass tournament anglers come from all over the world. The skill, consistency and resources available to pros are such that the average amateur cannot compete.

There is nothing better than sharing a day on the water with someone you care about. That is what the US Open is all about.

This is part of why the US Open is so unique. It makes the quest win a major fishing championship — and take home $1 million in the process, open to people from all walks of life. High school and college students, accountants, coaches, contractors, everyday grandfathers now get the chance to experience a fishing spotlight normally reserved only for professional tournament anglers at the height of their profession. Each participant can feel good knowing that they are supporting conservation in the process.

The finals of the US Open, aired on NBC on November 21, promises to be action packed.

One Life-Changing Prize — Thousands of Lifelong Memories

By the time that the 350 qualifying teams make their first cast in the US Open finals on Table Rock Lake, each will have already made memories that will last a lifetime. The emotional measure of these experiences extends far beyond the weight of bass caught in the tournament.

Tournament day is a celebration of friendship and hope.

It was once said that the charm of fishing lies in its continual series of opportunities for hope.

This charm is magnified when the hope is shared by people you care about. The hope is more exuberant when the stakes can change the lives of your children. The memories are that much more powerful when they will be recalled in terms of friendship and time on the water with family.

Bass fishing, family, hope and heritage: the US Open has many story lines.

Any time there is a million dollars on the line — and multiple opportunities to win Toyota trucks and Bass Tracker boats— the prizes take their share of headlines. Rightfully so. To consider the US Open only in terms of what’s at stake, however, misses much of the point. The event is about supporting conservation and showcasing the benefits of introducing kids to fishing. It is about the creation of thousands of lifelong memories for teams and families from across the United States.

Big fish, a million-dollar prize, and a national spotlight. These are what fishing dreams are made of.

The US Open has been called the grandest tournament in the history of fishing. It certainly is grand and certainly has featured some great fishing. The tournament is, however, about much more than just catching fish and trying to win money, boats and trucks. The Johnny Morris US Open Bass Fishing Championship is a celebration of passion and of the 50th anniversary of Bass Pro Shops. It is full circle and it’s going to be a great time.