We’ve covered a lot of stories about the original tournament anglers here on the Bass Fishing Archives. What we haven’t covered are the kids who travelled with them, or as the subject of this piece referred to them, the original tournament brats. In today’s piece, Joey Breckenridge – The Original Tournament Brat, we’ll learn about some of those memories from one such kid. Joey Breckenridge, son of Rayo and Marilyn Breckenridge, was dragged to bass tournaments during his formative years. Those experiences allowed him to hang with people like Ray Scott, Tom Mann, and Harold Sharp.
Several of today’s anglers do the same. Prior to an event, campgrounds fill with families, many of which have small children. What may look like your typical family outing is far from it. Mothers are preparing school lessons or booking the next seminar engagement for their husbands and the men are either out on the lake working or at the campground preparing for their work the next day. The kids? Well, they’re either studying or just being kids.
This scene takes place at every major tour-level bass tournament across the nation and has since the start of professional bass fishing. The scene back in the early days was a lot different, though. There was no internet or cell phones, and home schooling was a few years away. Parents had to get their children’s homework for the week, maybe longer, and have a good supply of #2 pencils and paper for homework. Such was the case for the Breckenridge family of Rayo, Marilyn and little Joey.
Joey Breckenridge, without a doubt, was one of the first tournament brats. One of those snot-nosed kids who helped Harold Sharp at the weigh-in distributing weigh bags or hanging out at the pool during competition. This is his story.
The Road to Competition
Breckenridge’s earliest recollection of his father’s fishing happened at an early age.
“In the late 60s I remember sitting on the floor of our house holding a spool of line as my dad restrung his reels,” he said. “I was six or seven years old at the time. I also remember some boxes of gear he got when he joined a bass club at Lake Norfork and I also remember the packet he received when he joined B.A.S.S. That was back around 1970 or ’71.
“In 1971 dad fished all the tournaments at Norfork and was the highest finishing angler for the year. He won three out of five of those events and placed high in the other two. One of the prizes for that accomplishment was a paid entry fee into a Bassmaster event. In that event he finished in 35th place out of more than 200 entries.”
That got the ball rolling for the Breckenridges as they seriously contemplated professional bass fishing as a livelihood.
“It was something my dad and my mom wanted to pursue. They prayed on it, and they looked at the good and the bad. They wondered if it was just a passing fad or the real thing.
“Dad really wanted to know if he could compete on that level so after thinking hard over it, they took out a small loan to fund the ’73 season and they set off with me in tow.”
The B.A.S.S. Brat
As a small kid, driving from tournament to tournament, being away from your home and friends could be a dramatic time. No one close to your age to play with or talk to – only grownups to watch your every move. Such wasn’t the case for the young Breckenridge.
“Looking back on those times I have to say it was a great opportunity for me to grow up around,” he said. “It was fun to meet Jimmy Houston’s daughter and Virgil Ward’s grandson. We grew up around a pool and as we got older, we got to venture out more on our own. We were the original tournament brats.”
One of the memories that sticks in his head probably warrants the term brat too.
“One time I remember Mike Ward and I went to the convenience store and convinced some guy to buy us a 6-pack of Bud. It probably wasn’t the best decision either of us ever made but we were young kids and looking for a good time.”
Still he considers other times more crazy than that.
“The wild moments were actually the times I spent with dad in the boat. Sunday through Tuesday I would go out with him to practice. This was when I was 14 or 15 years old. My options at the time were to fish with my dad or hang out at the pool and attempt to meet a girl.
“The days could be pretty long. On practice days, there is no start or stop time so the fisherman can go out as early or late as they want. Dad had a tremendous work ethic, so we were usually on the water by 7 AM and often stayed out until Dad accomplished what he wanted. And it wasn’t unusual for us to get through with supper and go back to the motel where Dad would go through his tackle boxes, change the line on all his reels, and study the topo maps until midnight – then be up at 4 AM to start all over again. Mom always said that one of Dad’s “skills” was that he just plain “outworked and out-prepared” the other fishermen. Me, I just fished and ate all day while out in the boat.
“As for the girls, I can’t say I was a real “babe magnet”, but of course I thought I was! Usually the girls wanted me around for the comic relief, as I tend to be somewhat dorky sometimes.
“I fished with my dad from New York to Mexico, Florida to Texas and everywhere in between. I’m so thankful for that because not too many kids have had the chance to spend that much time with their dad like I did.”
But not all his time was out fishing with Rayo. His mom made sure the important work was also done.
“My mom was a teacher and when we’d go on these trips, she’d make sure I did all of my homework. It wasn’t all a vacation.
“The cool thing about it was I got to see a lot of the places we were studying in school. I’d come home from a tournament, and we’d be studying about some place, and I’d say, ‘I just saw that on my trip.’ The time I remember most when that happened was when we had just come back from St Augustine, FL. Being a kid, I climbed the rock walls there and the next week we talked about it in school. How many other kids can say that?”
But Joey’s coolest experiences had to do with the people he hung out with and forged lifelong friendships with. He got to rub elbows with the elite of the sport of bass fishing.
“People I considered my friends back during that time were Mr. Ray (Scott), Tom Mann, Bob Cobb and Harold Sharp, although Harold always scared me. He didn’t smile much and was always looking to make sure things were getting done.
“Tom Mann will always hold a dear spot in my heart – he was my idol. It seemed I was always getting a box of tackle from him, and he’d always address it to ‘My Little Buddy Joey.’ One time when I was stationed at Fort Benning, GA I stopped by Tom’s shop and said hi to him and his wife Ann. That was around 1987 or ’88. He meant that much to me.”
Breckenridge also got into the work-end of B.A.S.S. too. At least as much as a kid could get involved with.
“At the time I wanted to have a job with B.A.S.S. so they let me hand out weigh-in bags or dock boats. I remember Roland Martin because you could see his blond hair 300 yards away as he was coming to the dock. Roland was a great guy and was always nice to me. That meant a lot.”
Memories of His Parents
“As a kid back then I was so caught up in what was going on,” Breckenridge said. “We’d generally arrive on a Friday because the pre-tournament banquet was on Saturday. Mr. Ray would talk, and the event was filled with people we mostly knew. It was very family oriented. Then practice would be the next three days, the tournament Wednesday through Friday and then the big awards banquet Friday night. That was always a big event. No one knew anything except who won so it was fun to see where everyone placed.
“That first year dad fished B.A.S.S. he finished in 14th place overall and got a trip to the Classic at Clarks Hill, SC. At that tournament he came out of the starting gate strong, led the second day and won it. The rest is history.
“I don’t remember this but dad winning the Classic upset Bill (Dance) a lot. Bill came on strong the last day and thought he’d won until dad came up to the scales. Another thing I didn’t know until recently was what Bill’s wife Diane told Bill after dad beat him. This came out when Bryan Brasher did a story with Bill on dad’s induction into the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame in 2012.”
You see, at the time Rayo won the Classic, Marilyn was losing her eyesight due to Diabetes. Here’s an excerpt from Brasher’s article.
“‘Diane told me that Rayo had had several bad years as a farmer in Arkansas and that his wife, Marilyn, was losing her sight (to diabetic retinopathy),’ Dance said, ‘She told me the money from that win would help her restore some of her sight.
“‘She said, Everything happens for a reason.‘
“That was reason enough for Dance.”
“They were such great parents,” Beckenridge said. “Everyone liked them. I’ve never heard a negative word about them, nor did I ever hear them say anything negative about others.
“If my dad were still here, I think he’d talk about his relationships with people and not about his accomplishments. That’s just the kind of people they were.
“Dad fished his last tournament in 1981. During that event he was called back to Arkansas because my mom was in the hospital. I think he knew what was coming. He quit to be with mom – he loved her more than fishing.”
[Editor’s Note: Rayo Breckenridge, while also being a tournament angler, also hosted a television show titled Rayo Breckenridge Outdoors. The show started as a regional show in January of 1974 and in 1979 turned into a national show from 1980 to 1985. Breckenridge was also a teacher of good outdoors ethics and environmental concerns. He often went to local schools teaching that one had to give back to the environment. He also helped start the Bass Research Foundation. Rayo and Marilyn Breckenridge were high school sweethearts and were married for 29 years before her untimely death in 1981. Rayo himself passed in 1995 and was inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2014.]