Who is, or was, the most influential figure in the history of organized bass fishing? Always the subject of debate, this topic comes up each time I visit with other industry veterans at tradeshows and tournament venues.

My answer changes, or perhaps evolves, whenever I’m asked. History buffs will occasionally answer Dr. James Henshall, author of The Book of the Black Bass, the first volume known to be dedicated to the subjects of bass and bass fishing. When it comes to influencing the bass fishing of today, however, I have a hard time giving credit to information written in 1881. But, then again, it was a first.

No, I turn more toward modern advancements. The break-through period of our sport occurred at the same time as a number of others. Not coincidentally, this was when America’s recreation sector opened up for business.

Following World War II, the American lifestyle changed in response to an improved economy and the baby boom. More people began to vacation and fish for sport, instead of merely dunking a worm to catch dinner.

About that time, the concept of fishing tournaments expanded to freshwater fishing. It surprises many bass anglers to learn that saltwater events – often for tarpon and billfish – have been around since the 1930s, well before freshwater tourneys started. That pursuit, however, was out of the reach of most anglers. Through bass tournaments, there became an opportunity for the average Joe to get in on the action.

Ray Scott is credited with creating competitive bass fishing, but his inaugural event wasn’t the first. Scott did, however, introduce the concept of organized bass fishing through his Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. No one before or since has moved the needle as much as Scott. He took what was thought to be a crazy idea and expanded it into an entire subculture through showmanship and simple determination. For years, I voted Scott as the most influential figure in bass fishing.

However, I’ve also considered others. The organizers and executives at Operation Bass, once FLW and now MLF, must be considered, as they’ve organized and held more events than any company in history. Kathy Fennel has been there for over 40 years, helping to grow the company from the Red Man Tournament Trail to the BPT. She’s also been largely responsible for the massive surge in scholastic programs and female participation in bass fishing. There’s a good chance that Fennel and company have put more butts in bass boat seats than anybody.

Celebrity anglers have made their mark, too. It never ceases to amaze me how much draw guys like Roland, Jimmy and Hank still have with the public. I watched them all as a kid, and I’m here to tell you that they got me out the door each Saturday chasing bass. The best tournament performers also influenced thousands of anglers, and still do. Guys like Rick Clunn and Larry Nixon lit many competitive fires. Kevin VanDam still stands at the pinnacle of that influence, with guys like Scott Martin, Jacob Wheeler and Mike Iaconelli also contributing untold impressions.

Lately, I’ve considered Johnny Morris. In my lifetime, no retail enterprise has changed the face of the outdoors more than Bass Pro Shops. Morris literally brought our sport to neighborhoods all across the country, creating both a functional store and a destination in one. While I once waited at the mailbox for my master catalog, now I have every aspect of that appeal just down the street. The massive indoor aquariums at every Bass Pro always start me drooling. Hooking up to the boat becomes an immediate necessity after visiting a store.

What about the luremakers: Heddon, Rapala, Bagley; or Nick Creme, inventor of the most popular bass fishing lure of all time?

Forrest Wood? Possibly. While a number of boat manufacturers have provided quality rides to millions of anglers, Wood took the concept of organization under his wing, and refused to compromise on product. Early Ranger boats brought many innovations to bass fishing that we simply couldn’t do without today.

Doug Hannon, Florida’s "Bass Professor" of the early 80s, influenced a lot of folks, including me. While we often forget the finer details, Hannon was single-handedly responsible for championing the catch and release movement of trophy bass. Magazines – like the late '70s editions of Bassmaster that I own – prove this verbatim. The man was truly a visionary.

For me, though, the most influential figure was Gary Franklin. Never heard of him? Franklin was my dad’s best buddy and early fishing partner. He was the first person I knew who owned a fiberglass bass boat. I was 10.

That rig, a brown metal-flake Venture Vendetta, was where I experienced my first ride and the freedom that bass fishing could bring. Forty years later, I can still see Franklin’s pistol-grip rods strapped on the front deck, hear his reels whine as he cast his favorite crankbait. It was crawfish-colored, with an orange belly and a BB in the lip.

I’m sure you have your own take on bass fishing’s influential figures. Just be sure they know about it.

(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)