Keeping a legacy afloat
When the phone rings at ODP Tubes in Oklahoma City, the question often asked is “if we are the direct descendants of the Fishmaster tubes,” says Kirk Smith of Edmond, co-owner of the business that makes float tubes designed for fishing.
“As soon as I say, 'Yes,' they say, 'Here is my credit card number.'”
Fishmaster float tubes were once a big deal in Oklahoma and the region. They were manufactured in Oklahoma City on north Portland Avenue near the Oklahoma State University Extension Center and owned by the late Bob Brown, a legendary angler in his day who was a fixture at the Oklahoma City Tackle Show.
“He got float tubing going,” Oklahoma City tube fisherman George Edwards said of Brown. “I cut my teeth on a Fishmaster in 1969, and I still use a Fishmaster.”
The birth of Fishmaster
Bessie Brown of Yukon, who was Brown's employee for 20 years, said her former boss was not only a pioneer in the business but a heck of a fisherman, as well.
“He had the reputation that he could catch a fish out of a kitchen sink,” said Brown, who was not related to the Fishmaster creator. “He was a great fisherman. He knew where to catch ‘em and how to catch ‘em.”
Brown couldn't afford a boat, so he built himself a float tube in his garage. People would see him fishing in it and want one of their own.
“He said it (Fishmaster) just started from there,” said Bessie Brown, who worked as a seamstress for the company.
Brown often could be found on lakes in the Oklahoma City area, paddling around in his float tube in perfect comfort.
In 1988, former Oklahoman outdoor writer Covey Bean featured Brown in a story about tube fishing in the dead of winter. Brown would bundle up in four pairs of long johns, a down vest and four pairs of heavy socks under chest waders of his own design, Bean wrote.
Brown would put on jeans over his waders for protection and wear waterproof gloves, warm headgear and shoes five sizes too large to accommodate four pairs of socks to complete his winter fishing outfit.
Passing the baton
Fishmaster Manufacturing is no longer in business, but its DNA can be found in ODP float tubes, which are being made today in a building near Memorial and Santa Fe in north Oklahoma City.
In the early ‘90s, Brown sold Fishmaster Manufacturing. The company had two sets of owners after Brown before eventually closing.
Bessie Brown intended to find a new job, but the fishermen wouldn't let her. Even though Fishmaster was no longer in business, people kept calling her and requesting that she make them a float tube.
“I had so many orders, I just went and bought me a brand-new sewing machine and Bob gave me the name of places where I could get the material, and I just started making them,” she said. “It grew into a real nice business.”
Bessie Brown said her former boss helped her get started and wanted her to call her new business Fishmaster II. To avoid any legal entanglements, she decided to name her business “Outdoor Pride.” She made and sold the float tubes out of her home in Yukon.
She kept sewing the tubes for almost 20 years before selling her business. It was bought a year later in 2014 by Smith and Paul Matthews, both of Edmond, who each own commercial construction firms.
Both Smith and Matthews have a passion for fishing, and Smith competes on several of the regional bass tournament trails. One of the first things they did after buying Outdoor Pride, which they have re-branded as ODP Tubes, was to call Bessie Brown.
“She trained our seamstresses,” Smith said.
Carrying on the tradition
Smith said they sell between 15 and 20 float tubes a month. The tubes can be ordered over the internet at odptubes.com and are sold at Lucky Lure Tackle in Oklahoma City.
They also sell the "paddle pushers" or "kickers" that helped make Fishmaster famous. The paddle pushers are attached to boots to help anglers steer the tube.
Smith and Matthews never met Bob Brown, but they hope to continue his legacy. Both of them owned Fishmaster float tubes in the past. They thought about renaming the business Fishmaster, but a boat company in Florida already had the name.
The pair wouldn't have bought the business if they didn't love to fish and fish from a float tube.
“This is simply a side business for us," Smith said. "It's not one we use to make our living. I owned a Fishmaster in the '80s. Lot of memories.
"Before we bought (Outdoor Pride) we talked to a lot of people and they said, ‘Yeah, those were the greatest things ever made. Those things are bulletproof.
“We couldn't find anyone to say anything negative about the product. We did not want to see this Oklahoma legend go by the wayside. We wanted to keep it alive. That's why we bought the company.”