May 9, 2014 by David A. Brown
Like anyone else who's played the game, bass fishing great Jimmy Houston has seen plenty of fish come unhooked, parted ways with a bunch of hung baits and lost some close tournaments. That stuff happens, but throughout nearly half a century in the fishing industry, there are two things the Chevy-sponsored Walmart FLW Tour pro from Oklahoma has not lost: his appreciation for a gilded career and the humble beginnings from which it emerged.
Houston's career accomplishments on the tournament stage and TV screen are well-documented. Before the Jimmy Houston the world now knows existed, however, there was Jimmy Houston the penny-pinching young angler trying to make ends meet in his quest to succeed in tournaments long before the term "professional fisherman" even existed.
He opened up to FLW recently about what it was like in the early days, and how he came to be the Jimmy Houston that fishing fans so adore today.
A rough road
Houston grew up in Moore, Okla., a classic rendition of Smalltown, USA, before moving to Lake Tenkiller near Cookson, Okla., in his senior year of high school.
The tournament bug bit Houston soon after he arrived in Cookson, while he watched the top national anglers compete in the World Series of Sport Fishing on Tenkiller, where his dad had a lodge. While fishing with some of the competitors during their practice, the young Houston came to appreciate a skill that would become his signature trait.
"One of the things that I noticed was how well those guys could cast," he said. "That's always been my strongest suit - casting accuracy."
After high school, Houston went on to college at Northeastern State University. Majoring in political science and economics, he graduated in 1966, and shortly thereafter financed his tournament career through the insurance agency that he launched with wife, Chris, who is now a bass fishing Hall-of-Famer too.
Back then, times were lean. PB&J was fine dining. Eating out was a luxury the Houstons couldn't afford.
"We nearly starved to death," Jimmy recalled. "There was a time when we went a month without eating anything but what I had caught or shot."
Tournament travel was decidedly non-glamorous back then too. Today, nicer hotels are the norm, and Chevy keeps Jimmy rolling in comfort. That was not always the case. Driving all night and sleeping at boat ramps was common - and even that routine had its share of bumps.
"There were times where I had to win some money in a tournament just to get back home," he said. "There were plenty of times I was pulled over to the side of the road working on my truck because I couldn't afford to take it to a mechanic. I once had to call an auto supply store owner at midnight to come down and sell me an alternator so I could get back on the road."
Picking up steam
Houston's first major tournament wins were the 1966 Oklahoma State Championship when he was a senior in college and an early Project Sports, Inc. (PSI) year-end championship (Classic) on Lake Amistad. Tournament earnings then were a far cry from today's payouts. Houston earned $6,000 for his first national win.
Sponsorships also promised meager support. His first promotional gig: a handful of free Mr. Twister worms and a request to try 'em out.
But the promotional side of Houston's career slowly began to take form in the early years. He supplemented his income with the Jimmy Houston Redman spinnerbaits that he built in the back room of his agency. A personal friendship with another Oklahoman, Sam Walton, got his baits into the future retail giant Walmart.
"It's funny, now there are quite a few products with my name and picture on the package in Walmarts," Jimmy said.
Unquestionably, a national media platform played the biggest role in propelling Jimmy to legitimate stardom and making his a household name.
"Probably the real turning point in my career was when we started the television show ["Jimmy Houston Outdoors'] in 1977," Houston said.
Since then, Houston's successes have been many. He's fished 15 Bassmaster Classics, won the 1976 and 1986 B.A.S.S Angler of the Year titles, collected more than $1 million in career earnings, spent more than three decades on television, and is still one of the most popular anglers on the Walmart FLW Tour. All that while authoring several books, managing a burgeoning business and raising a son, Jamie, and daughter, Sherri.
Of his place in bass-fishing history, Houston says: "I've always felt that the game was much, much larger than I was, and I've always tried to put the game's interest ahead of mine. The game will continue on after all the stars have gone, as long as the important players put the game ahead of their own interests."
So, Mr. Houston, what keeps you coming back for more?
"One of the reasons I keep fishing now at 69 is to pay the game back for how good it's been to me all these years," he said. "The sponsorships we have now are something we could only dream of back in the early years."
Solidifying his legacy
Through the years, perseverance, commitment to a vision and that pleasantly infectious charm enabled Jimmy to build the momentum that has created one of the industry's most enduring and endearing personalities.
He's quick to note the many friends who've helped and encouraged him along the way. A "people person," Jimmy also appreciates the public at large and enjoys the adulation he receives. Watch him at the outdoor shows and you'll see fan after fan receive the same level of warmth and genuine courtesy from one of the outdoor industry's true superstars.
"I think the most important thing is to learn to treat everyone special," Jimmy said. "It doesn't cost any money to be nice to someone. When we have autograph lines for hours, we treat every one of them special because they are."
And that's why they love him.