Ranger Boats founder Forrest L. Wood died Jan. 24 in Flippin, Ark., after a brief illness. He was 87.
Wood, who founded Ranger in 1969, built the company into a national brand before selling it in 1987. Ranger is considered the world’s first bass-boat design.
Keith Daffron, Wood’s oldest grandson, said Wood passed away peacefully with his family by his side. “The family would like to express their sincere thanks to the team at Baxter Regional Medical Center and the many friends who have provided comfort during this difficult time,” wrote Daffron on his Facebook page.
Wood’s death prompted sympathetic messages from Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Senator John Boozman, among many others.
Born in Flippin in 1932, Wood started his career as a carpenter and home builder. As a young man, he also worked on the construction of the Bull Shoals Dam outside Kansas City. The White River on the dam’s downstream side became a trout fishery where Wood served as a fishing guide. Wood had planned to start a business making fiberglass telephone booths, but one of his clients convinced him to make fiberglass boats. Wood and his wife, Nina, launched Ranger Boats in Flippin, building the first six boats behind a service station downtown, according to the Baxter Bulletin.
Considered to be the first bass-boat design, the Ranger name grew so rapidly that Wood moved production into an old nightclub in Flippin. Within two years, Ranger had sold 1,200 units. The facility was destroyed by fire in 1971. As the building burned, Wood crawled into the factory office through a window and located a notebook with 60 boat orders. Bass fisherman Roland Martin, also present, remembered the scene as an inferno where barrels of acetone ignited in the factory around them.
After retrieving the orders, Wood secured a $60,000 loan and resumed production in 40 days. Sheffield Nelson, who later served on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission with Wood, told the Sentinel-Record that the fire demonstrated Wood's toughness and compassion. “While he was rebuilding, Forrest made it possible to keep his people paid and take care of their families,” Nelson told the paper. “I don't know how he did it, but that was almost unheard of.”
Ranger boats were also among the first to have aerated live wells so tournament bass anglers could bring their catch alive to weigh-ins and then release them. That catch-and-release philosophy became common across competitive bass-fishing and other types of tournaments.
Wood was a serious angler. He qualified for the first-ever Bassmaster Classic in 1971. Grasping its marketing potential, Ranger became the BASS event’s official boat from 1972 to 2000. He qualified again in 1979 and won prize money in more than 100 other tournaments during his career.
In 1996, Irwin Jacobs bought Operation Bass, a rival to BASS. Jacobs invited Wood to be the circuit’s namesake. Jacobs named the organization FLW — Wood's initials. FLW quickly went from being a weekend tournament circuit to the only organization ever to pay $1 million to the winner of its annual championship.
Kathy Fennel, executive president and general manager for FLW, said Wood's integrity defined the organization. "Forrest was a self-made man whose vision, kindness, integrity, work ethic and pioneering spirit defined our company and, in many ways, the entire sport," Fennel told the Sentinel-Record. "As FLW's namesake, he was the embodiment of all that we strive to be — a beacon of hope for hard-working men and women who share a passion for fishing."
In 1998, Gov. Mike Huckabee appointed Wood to serve a seven-year term on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Wood and other commission members helped convince Congress to establish minimum flows on the White River to protect the river's trout fishery.
"Forrest is one of America's true fishing legends,” Huckabee said at the time. “Forrest has been a true champion of taking care of and enjoying the great natural resources Arkansas offers."
Wood was inducted in the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2006 and into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. He was also a member of the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, the International Boating Hall of Fame, National Marine Manufacturers Hall of Fame, Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame, Arkansas Game and Fish Hall of Fame, and Arkansas Walk of Fame.
Hutchinson called Wood’s death a “deeply sad moment” for Arkansas. “Forrest embodied the best of Arkansas,” he said. “He was an entrepreneur who brought thousands of jobs to Northern Arkansas with his founding of Ranger Boats. His contributions to the world of fishing and recreation have made Arkansas a destination point for fishermen from all over the world. He loved Arkansas, and Arkansas loved Forrest Wood."
Ranger Boats is still headquartered in Flippin, employing about 1,000 workers.
Wood is survived by his wife, Nina, and four daughters.