Big boss bass or big fish tale?
By Emmett Burnett
In the heart of lovely Eufaula, Alabama, stands a statue like no other. About waist high, under shady trees, it is a testament to a town hero, Leroy Brown. What’s so unique about that you ask?
Leroy Brown is a fish.
Leroy was a larger than life, livin’ large, largemouth bass. This is the story, his legend, a fish tail – I mean tale.
On a sunny Eufaula Lake day in 1973, Tom Mann caught the bass that changed his life. “Dad knew something was different when the line yanked,” recalls his daughter, Sharon Mann Dixon. “Leroy weighed less than two pounds but fought hard because he was a king and knew it.”
Now most fish caught in Eufaula – “Big Bass Capital of the World” – are either destined for the trophy case or a rendezvous with tartar sauce. In addition, the boisterous bass was not reeled in by an angling amateur. Tom Mann was an expert, owner of Mann’s Bait Company, Tom Mann’s Fish World, and a fishing lure inventor.
Tom Mann with the Leroy Brown headstone before it was moved to downtown Eufaula.
Typically gamefish and fishermen are adversaries but not this time. The little fish with the barracuda attitude went home with Tom and placed in the family’s cement pond. Later he was transferred to Mann’s Bait Company’s 18,000-gallon aquarium. Sharon noted, “He instantly owned the tank.”
The aqua-pet was hand fed minnows. It was trained to jump through a hoop held over the aquarium’s water surface. When Tom walked to another side of the massive aquarium, Leroy followed from the inside looking out.
“Its weakness was strawberry jelly worms – dad’s invention,” adds Sharon. “That’s the bait Leroy was caught on.” If other lures didn’t interest Leroy, his majesty the fish allowed tank mates to eat it.
“He was also a ladies’ man,” smiles Eufaula Mayor Jack Tibbs, who fondly recalls the fish’s life and times. “Leroy had several girlfriends and shielded his love interests from would be suitors.”
But the gilled guy’s heart belonged to Big Bertha, a 12-pound female tank mate. “They were inseparable,” recalls Sharon, who relayed a bittersweet love story. “A critically ill fish typically floats near the water’s surface when it is dying,” she explains, relaying the facts of Bertha’s demise. “In her last days, Bertha floated near the top and Leroy continuously attempted to push her back down, deeper in the water.”
The Mann family named their pet after a popular 1970s song of the day, Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.” The name fit and word spread. Eufaula was seized by fish fame.
People came from everywhere to behold the bass. He received fan mail from around the world. Leroy made the front page of the Atlanta Constitution, was featured in Southern Living magazine, and in news stories as far away as Africa and Australia.
Eufaula Mayor Jack Tibbs and Sharon Mann Dixon, daughter of Tom Mann, pose with the city’s monument to Leroy Brown, the largemouth bass in downtown Eufaula. The statue would have been Leroy’s burial headstone had thieves not stolen the body.
Photo by Emmett Burnett
In August 1980, Tom Mann discovered his prized pet floating. Silence had seized the fish that roared. Leroy Brown died of natural causes.
Tom’s close friend Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S), was consulted. They agreed that Leroy deserved a funeral. Approximately $4,000 was spent on a customized headstone. A casket was made from a satin-lined tackle box complete with strawberry jelly worms to accommodate Leroy in the hereafter.
At Lake Point Lodge, approximately 800 people attended the funeral for a big mouth bass. Pallbearers included Roland Martin and other fishing celebrities. The Eufaula High School Marching Band played “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and Alabama Gov. Fob James declared a Day of Mourning for the fallen fish.
But at nightfall, something fishy happened. Leroy’s casket was not buried the day of the funeral due to intense rain, making the gravesite too wet. The casket was stored in a freezer. Thieves in the night stole the body and left a ransom note: One million jelly worms for Leroy’s return.
Weeks later the remains were found at the Tulsa, Oklahoma Airport’s Lost Baggage department. The fish carcass was never returned to Eufaula nor the grave robbers ever found.
For years Leroy’s monument lay idle, to be discovered by Tibbs, the mayor. “I was fishing at Ray Scott’s fishing lodge in Pintlala and saw it on the property,” Tibbs recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s Leroy Brown!’”
Tibbs met with Sharon Dixon to ask Ray Scott’s permission to return the stone to Eufaula. Scott agreed.
On Oct. 13, 2016, the marble monument to Leroy Brown was dedicated on East Broad Street where it remains today. Tom Mann died in 2005. But the legacy lives.
Last April in a re-enactment coinciding with Eufaula Pilgrimage week, 11-year-old Eufaula Elementary School fifth-grader Mackenzie Young dressed in costume of a largemouth bass. Assuming the role of walking Leroy, she told the story to the assembled. “I am Leroy Brown,” she said proudly with fins raised high. “I wasn’t a large fish but you could tell me apart from the others. I was the most famous fish in America.”
Eufaula Elementary School 5th-grader Mackenzie Young, dressed as the legendary largemouth bass, portrays Leroy Brown during Eufaula’s Pilgrimage Celebration in April. She is the 11-year-old daughter of Scott and Lauran Young, of Abbeville.
Photo courtesy of Lauran Young
Visitors constantly question Mayor Tibbs, asking is the story true? “We answer yes, it is,” Eufaula’s municipal leader notes. “Of course, some of them look at you funny when told we had a funeral for a bass.”
Sharon Dixon works at Southern Charm, a quaint boutique across the street from Leroy Brown’s monument. “I see it from the front window,” she smiles, patting the head of Leroy’s stone likeness. “Every day it brings back memories.”
On the front of the memorial are Tom Mann’s words immortalized in stone:
“Most Bass Are Just Fish But Leroy Brown Was Something Special.”
Rest in Peace, Eufaula’s king of fish.