The White River Marine Group is said today to be the world’s largest boat manufacturer by volume. Its nine well-known brands include Tracker -- all-welded aluminum boats and claimed to be America’s best-selling aluminum fishing boat for decades -- Ranger, Nitro, and Triton high-performance fiberglass fishing boats. Their portfolio also includes Mako saltwater center consoles, Sun Tracker and Regency pontoon boats, Tahoe family runabouts and deck boats, and Ascend rotomolded fishing and recreational kayaks.
The White River Marine Group (WRMG), formed in 2015, recently added the well-known and highly respected Hatteras offshore sportfishing brand to its portfolio in 2021. Even more recently, the group halted production of Stratos, one of its high-performance fishing boat brands. WRMG is itself part of the huge and diverse Bass Pro Group.
This umbrella organization includes over two hundred retail destination hunting, fishing, and outdoor stores called Bass Pro Shops which collectively generate multi-billion-dollar sales annually. The purchase in 2017 of rival outdoor retailer Cabela’s marked another major acquisition in terms of market share.
Growing up in Springfield, Missouri, Johnny Morris fell in love with fishing from a very early age. He learned from his father not only how to fish and hunt, but also to respect all facets of nature and its need for conservation.
Fishing often took them south to the White River, which, during Johnny’s early childhood, was dammed to form Table Rock Lake just southwest of Branson, Missouri. The White River meanders hundreds of miles through the Ozarks and eventually joins the Mighty Mississippi in southeast Arkansas on the border with the state of Mississippi.
Fishing consumed most of Johnny’s spare thoughts and spare time. Soon his fishing exploits were noticed, and in his early twenties while still in college he began entering professional tournaments. In his first pro tournament, he finished in 21st place. He followed the B.A.S.S. (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society) professional fishing tournament tour and ended up qualifying for five Bass Masters Classic tournaments.
By this time, he knew that the outdoors and fishing would be a lifetime passion for him. Realizing that he could not find locally the type of fishing tackle he wanted and needed, he toured the country in search of the best equipment and brought it all back to Springfield. There he set up a small display in the back of his father’s popular Brown Derby liquor store -- part of Missouri’s largest chain of liquor stores. The sales of tackle soared as anglers began calling to order more over the phone. He called his business Bass Pro Shop.
By the mid-70s, he created his first Bass Pro Shop catalog -- over 150 pages featuring high quality tackle at affordable prices. This grew quickly into a massive catalogue of fishing, hunting, and outdoor products with a distribution list in the millions. It eventually spawned two additional catalogues – one for offshore fishing and one for hunting.
As time passed, Johnny came to the realization that fishermen and hunters spent a lot of time on the water but getting there was somewhat of a chore. They first had to choose a boat from a multitude of potential brands and sources, then a motor of a variety of power and brands, then a trailer from another wide selection, and after all that, choose from a bevy of sizes and features and makes of fishfinders and trolling motors. He thought there had to be a way to make the process easier.
In 1978 at just 30 years old, Johnny Morris and Bass Pro Shops offered the very first complete turn-key fishing boat package called Bass Tracker. It combined a 16-foot aluminum fishing boat combined with a 35-horsepower Johnson outboard, Humminbird depth sounder, Minn Kota foot-controlled trolling motor --all on a “custom” trailer and priced at $2,995 from his store in Springfield.
This was the industry’s first out-the-door ready to launch fishing boat package. The concept revolutionized the boating industry and the Bass Tracker brand flourished. Within a couple of years, Bass Tracker was offering three models of packaged aluminum fishing boats in 16 and 17 feet, all at a nationally advertised price. Sales increased so much that within a few short years, Tracker was building its own aluminum boats in its first production facility in Lebanon, Missouri. Today, Tracker has nine production facilities within the Ozark region of Missouri.
Over the years, Bass Tracker expanded its lineup to appeal to all segments of the fishing market. After almost four years in the back of his father’s store, in 1981, Morris opened the first Bass Pro Shops standalone store in Springfield. By 1983, he saw the need to appeal to the family fishing segment and created Sun Tracker pontoon boats, which could also be packaged to satisfy fishing or cruising, or both.
Next up, Nitro high-performance fiberglass fishing boats became part of the Bass Pro Group in the early 90s. In 1998, to address another market segment, the Tahoe family fiberglass runabouts, deck boats, and fish and ski combination boats joined the Group. In early 2015, Fishing Holdings LLC, which comprised Ranger, Stratos, and Triton Boats, was acquired by the Bass Pro Group, which immediately formed White River Marine Group into which all of the boat companies were rolled.
In 1988, Morris opened a stunning mountain resort -- Big Cedar Lodge -- nestled in over 4,600 wooded acres in the Ozark mountains on Table Rock Lake outside Branson, Missouri. The facility was complete with extraordinary but elegant rustic accommodations of lodges, cottages, and cabins and designed as a unique destination for guests to connect with the beauty of the outdoors.
Offering exceptional outdoor activities, the lodge also features several golf courses designed by well-known professional golfers. One of these, Top of the Rock, was designed by Jack Nicklaus. Another is claimed to be the first-ever public access course designed by Tiger Woods. The lodge hosts over one million guests every year.
In 1990, through a foundation, Johnny started assembling over 10,000 acres that would become the Dogwood Canyon Nature Park within the Ozark Mountains on one of the oldest landforms in North America.
The foundation’s purpose was to promote natural conservation and to protect the natural environment to the benefit of the general public. The rugged landscape has been left untouched, and today incudes a "fully-functioning mill, restaurant, conservation center, bike barn, a treehouse built by Animal Planet's Treehouse Masters and a horse stable facility.”
In 2017, the same year that Bass Pro Shops acquired Cabela’s, Morris spent roughly $300 million to create a 350,000 square foot Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium as part of his Springfield Bass Pro Shop. The facility is now regarded as the largest such attractions in the world. Bass Pro Shops’ non-profit Outdoor Fund has generated well over $100 million to support various hunter and angler charitable causes.
Morris now has almost two hundred Bass Pro Shops retail outlets which claim to be the number one tourist attraction in three U.S. states and in the Top 5 tourist attractions in nine U.S. states! The original store in Springfield, Missouri is said to cater to over four million visitors annually. In many ways, Johnny Morris created and perfected the concept of retail space as a tourist destination.
Opened in 2015, the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid is a sports arena in downtown Memphis, TN that Morris transformed into a one-of-a-kind retail experience. The pyramid includes a wilderness-themed Big Cypress Lodge and a cypress swamp with 100-foot tall trees. Also inside is the Ducks Unlimited charity’s interactive National Waterfowl Heritage Center, not to mention a glass-floored observation deck at the top of the Pyramid some 32-stories high. This store is one of the state’s prime tourist destinations.
In 2019, White River Marine Group and Morris also partnered with Textron Specialized Vehicles to build Tracker Off-Road ATV’s and Side-By-Side (SXS) all-terrain vehicles. Today, Tracker boats itself offers 19 models of Mod V, Deep V, and Jon boats from 16-20 feet, all packaged with a Mercury motor, a trailer built to suit the particular boat, and, depending on the model and its purpose, a depth/fishfinder and trolling motor. WRMG distributes its brands through independent dealers in over 25 countries on six continents.
In 1992, Johnny Morris was inducted into the Sport Fishing Hall of Fame. The International Association of Fishing and Wildlife Agencies also awarded him the President’s Award. He has been a recipient of the Teddy Roosevelt Conversationist Award and served three years as Chairman of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. In 2008, the National Retail Federation named him Retail Innovator of the Year. Then in 2016, he was recognized for founding the Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility (WOLF) School as a national model for outdoor education for elementary school children. These are but a few of the deserved accolades he has earned.
Not bad for a young man in his early twenties who started out by selling fishing tackle in his father’s liquor store. Johnny Morris is a true sportsman, conservationist, and innovator.