ELKHART — Don Rank came to Elkhart more than 40 years ago pulling a bass boat and changed the culture of fishing on a local and national basis.
At a time when bass boats were a rare site in northern Indiana, the Kansas City, Kan., native brought a drive for landing the biggest and most and he passed down that passion to countless anglers of all ages.
As president of local fishing organizations or a member of pro angling circuits, Rank convinced them that they needed to join a bass club or enter tournaments.
He also passed along things he learned while going against some of the best in the world at places as far flung as Japan, Hawaii and Canada.
Rank, who died Feb. 25, 2013 at age 71, was all about competition.
Crusty on the outside, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran was also a very caring person.
Men who fished in the same boat with Rank — Marshall Dixon, Dan Dixon, Gary Bussen, Ernie Bontrager, Pat Hare and Gary Price — will attest to that.
“He didn’t want to get beat at anytime by anybody,” says Marshall Dixon, a former RV industry co-worker and employee who spent many an hour on the water with the relentless Rank. “There are very few people that could go with Don that had the practice time or the competitiveness to stay with him.”
So if it was a local tournament, a Bassmasters Classic or just two guys out on the water for the day, Rank wanted to come out on top.
“Don hated to lose,” says Dan Dixon, son of Marshall. “That’s what made Don such a good fisherman.
“He used to play $1 a fish and you had to keep up with him. He had the desire to win that never quit.”
Rank called Marshall Dixon “Boy” and Marshall called Rank “Bonehead.”
They were always going at it.
“He told me, ‘I’m going to make you a quick study,’” says the elder Dixon. “It would be $1 for the first fish, $1 for the biggest fish and $1 for the most fish. We figured a guide would cost $300.”
Rank, who began fishing and hunting as a young boy to help put food on the family table, studied his prey and was dedicated to honing his technique. Even when he was working, it was not unusual to go several weeks without missing some time in the boat.
“He just understood the fish and their patterns,” says Bussen. “On practice days, he would go from dawn until dark. A lot of guys couldn’t handle it. I loved it. If you were going to be competitive, you had to put the time in. He understood that very well.”
Rank took what he knew and developed a weight and lure system called the “Rank Rig” that became popular in many fishing circles.
“He used a real small mojo weight slipped on the line and crimped in a certain place and a zoom worm for finesse fishing,” says Borntrager, the long-time owner of Travel Tender in Goshen, and a frequent fishing partner. “He caught at least as many fish as I did with his ‘Rank Rig.’”
“I caught fish on it,” says Pat Rank, Don’s wife. “It is easy on the arms.”
Don and Pat Rank had one son, Jeff, and four grandchildren, all living in Elkhart.
Pat Hare, who described Rank as having “a hard outer shell and soft inside” knew that if he was with his friend that they would be packing a sandwich because they would likely be in the boat from sunrise to sunset with little time taken for lunch.
Rank combined his know-how and physical skill into a hard-to-beat combination.
“He was well-educated, very talented and very coordinated,” says Hare. “Fishing is something of an art form and he was just very good at it. In his prime, there was nobody better.”
As proof of that, Rank’s basement was stuffed to the gills with trophies and plaques. He won numerous boats for his rod and reel prowess.
Price recalls that Rank came to believe in having a big motor.
“He was always within 30 seconds of getting in on time (for a tournament weigh-in),” says Price. “It was like his hair was on fire. He always wanted to be out there to the last second so he could run the boat as hard as he could back to the ramp. I’ve seen Don put his boat in places that made other men cringe. He considered his boat as a tool.”
Price said that Rank was the epitome of the characters in the “Grumpy Old Men” movies, but once you got to know him, you saw he had a “heart of gold.”