TBT – Rick Clunn – Living Legend

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Bass fishing has a way of idolizing our living legends; those anglers who built the foundation for the sport to grow on.  Perhaps the one angler who is most responsible for sheer numbers of anglers entering the sport and desiring to become tournament pros is Rick Clunn.  Clunn’s penchant for winning the big tournament set him apart as the greatest angler of all time in many angler’s eyes, and they wanted to be him.

Rick Clunn Awaits Blastoff at 2009 Bassmaster Classic - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Rick Clunn Awaits Blastoff at 2009 Bassmaster Classic – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

In his career, Clunn most certainly has earned the label of living legend, and our Managing Editor, Dan O’Sullivan interviewed Clunn, and wrote his Legends of the Sport article on Clunn in 2009 while he was at Bass West USA.

Enjoy our Throwback Thursday look at Rick Clunn.

by Dan O’Sullivan

According to online dictionaries, the term ‘Legend’ has several meanings, it can mean; ‘an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical.’ It might mean; ‘An explanatory table or list of the symbols appearing on a map or chart.’ Or in the case of the bass fishing world, a ‘Legend’ is; ‘one that inspires legends or achieves legendary fame.’

A Legend of the sport is someone who has made significant contributions or achieved uncommon accomplishments en route to leaving an indelible mark on the history of the sport. These are individuals who have set new standards, created new trends and driven the bar to new heights as they have blazed the trails of their careers.

Without these individuals, the sport of bass fishing would have nothing to measure itself against. The industry, minus their involvement, would likely be in a much less advanced state than it is. The drive of dominating competition, on and off the water has left a trail of history that many are witness to, yet few are a component of.

One of those anglers is Rick Clunn of Ava, Missouri.

Clunn by the Numbers
To say that Rick Clunn’s career has been inspirational to many anglers would be an understatement. The fishing world is full of anglers who decided to compete because of Clunn’s success in tournaments on the sport’s biggest stages.

While it would be hard to measure the actual number of anglers that would state Clunn as the reason they got into competitive angling, there is a cache of information available with which to place a statistical measurement on his career. Which, may be quite literally the most remarkable career of any angler, ever.

The most obvious number with which to measure Clunn’s impact on the sport of professional bass fishing would be four; his four Bassmaster Classic titles. He won the event back to back in 1976, and 1977, then in 1984 and again in 1990. He is the only angler to have won the Classic more than twice, and his 32 appearances in the event is the most by any angler in the 39 year history of the event.

Rick Clunn

Rick Clunn – photo courtesy B.A.S.S.

His first Classic victory came on Lake Guntersville, in Alabama, where he tallied 59 pounds, 15 ounces, beating Bo Dowden. In 1977, he bested Larry Nixon on Florida’s Lake Toho by a little more than two and a half pounds with 27 pounds, 7 ounces. He then booked his third, and most impressive Classic title on the Arkansas River out of Little Rock. He would catch 75 pounds, 9 ounces and run away with the win by a margin of 25 pounds, 8 ounces over journeyman angler Greg South of Virginia. His fourth Classic crown would come on Virginia’s James River in 1990, when he brought 34 pounds, 5 ounces of bass to the scales and beat Oklahoma’s Tommy Biffle by almost seven pounds.

Clunn built his career around getting to the Classic, and then, in his own words, “kicking their ass” in the biggest tournament of the year. While his focus on being his best in big events continues to be the stuff of lore, his overall career earned him the title of ‘Greatest Angler Ever’ as voted by the fans in a month’s long debate on ESPN in 2005.

Clunn is also known for his performance in the U.S. Open, which has been a tradition in competitive bass fishing for many years. Held on Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, Nev. In the summer, the U.S. Open has traditionally been part bass tournament, part endurance test. Along with the rigors of the environment, the U.S. Open was the first tournament in the country to offer $100,000 paydays to the winner. The fact that the payout was so high brought premier anglers from around the world, creating arguably the most competitive field in the game. He was the first angler to win the U.S. Open twice, claiming victory in the tournament in 1983, and again in 1986.

His BASS career records are astonishing. In 355 tournament entries since 1974, Clunn has stood in the paycheck line 247 times, meaning he has collected paychecks nearly 70-percent of the time he entered an event. His top finishes include 102 times in the top 10; including, 14 wins, 13 2nd place and 11 3rd place finishes. Clunn was also the Bassmaster Angler of the Year in 1988.

His career earnings to date in BASS equals $2,000,488.50, an average of $5,635.18 per event. While the bulk of Clunn’s competitive career was at a time when paydays were relatively low, Clunn built a career that has him ranked as one of the highest earning anglers in history. He currently ranks 4th on the all time BASS Career Earnings List.

In a shorter time fame, his FLW Tour performance is equally as impressive. In 60 FLW Outdoors entries since 1997, Clunn has collected 39 paychecks, giving him a 65-percent success rate. His FLW tournament records show he finished in the top 10 20 times, including three victories. He has qualified for six trips to the Forrest L. Wood Cup, and has compiled career FLW earnings that total $880,000, an average of $14,666 per event.

With all of his professional tournament earnings combined, Clunn has earned close to four million dollars, remarkable, when one considers the time in which the bulk of his earnings came at a time when $25,000 was a big payday.

Other notable career accomplishments include winning the 1983 Red Man All American, and being inducted into both the Bass Fishing and Freshwater Fishing Halls of Fame in 2001. He was voted the Greatest Bass Angler of All Time by fishing fans in 2005 during the aforementioned ESPN poll.

With all of these accolades stacked up around him, Clunn has the look of a fishing machine; someone who could seemingly enforce his will into the surrounding environment to achieve the desired outcome. As with anyone who endeavors to earn a living with a rod and reel, Clunn’s passion for fishing began at an early age, and his career is a product of intense devotion and focus.

Rick Clunn

Rick Clunn 1977 Bass Champ – photo courtesy B.A.S.S

The Making of the Angler
“I got into the love of the outdoors in a typical way,” Clunn said. “My father, Holmes B. Clunn, loved the outdoors, and while he fished for meat with bait, his favorite was fishing for bass with artificials.” From the time he was a youngster, Clunn went fishing with his father, and his interest was especially piqued by a time he didn’t get to go with his father.

It was at a vacation to visit his mother’s side of the family at the age of six that Clunn would have his first experience with the ferocity of a black bass, and it would leave him marked with the desire for more. “My father never left me on the bank when he went fishing, but he did that day because of so many people in the boat,” said Clunn. “I was heartbroken, and he knew it, so he let me use his favorite rod with a red head Lucky 13 tied to it.”

With the promise that his dad would take him fishing later, Clunn would walk the bank casting the topwater Lure, but like any child, was preoccupied with nature, kicking rocks and looking around. It was during one of those distracted moments that he heard the splash of a bass striking the lure. “I fought it and became scared of it initially, so instead of reeling, I dragged it up on the bank,” he said he remained frightened until it dislodged the lure and began flopping toward the water. “I dove on it, and put it on the stringer to show off to everyone when they returned; I was hooked myself.”

Before that time, Clunn had, like his father, fished primarily for food, but he became aware of a sense of fairness that fishing with artificial brought to the sport. “I began to feel like fishing with bait was too much of an advantage to the angler, and found a love for fishing lures myself,” he said. “I began to develop an awareness that I was using my wit against the senses of the fish. I had to make the simple lure do things to make it feel alive to the fish; the bass made a decision to be involved, there was a kind of romance to it.”

He continued to fish with his father, mainly for the enjoyment of it, until Sam Rayburn opened. His father called him when he was about 25 years old and said he was hearing about people catching a ton of bass. “He promised we’d catch a hundred bass at Rayburn, so we went for a couple of days,” Clunn remembered. “We only caught one fish, and were thinking that it wasn’t as good as we’d heard.”

Rick Clunn

1977 Classic Weigh in – photo courtesy BASS

After two days, they were nearly ready to leave when a local bass club arrived to begin weighing their fish. “I remember seeing the bass boats, and their goofy looking jumpsuits with patches on them carrying 15 fish stringers to the scales,” said Clunn. “One of their members, named ‘Big John’ saw me watching the weigh-in, and came over and invited me to come to their meetings; I fished my first tournament about a month later in 1969.”

He fished his tournament with the Houston, Tex. Based Pasadena Bass Club first tournament on Toledo Bend Reservoir out of a 16 foot aluminum boat. “I was basically getting blown around and was bouncing off of trees,” he remembered. “It wasn’t too long after that I bought my first bass boat.”

In 1970 he fished the Earl Golding tournament, which was lauded as the largest tournament in the country. Golding was the Outdoor Editor for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his tournament reportedly drew between two and three thousand entrants across several divisions. “I fished the individual division, and finished in 3rd place,” said Clunn. “It made me feel like I could compete in this game, so I kept going.”

Initially his learning was by trial and error. “I was an avid note taker, I did it religiously after every tournament,” he said. “After awhile, I learned how to ask the right questions, and once they figured out I wasn’t going to trespass, the guys in the club became pretty good about teaching.” Three years after he started fishing the club, Clunn would become the club champion.

After that, it wouldn’t be long before he would resign from his job at Exxon, where he was a part of running one of the world’s largest computer rooms outside of NASA, and head out to compete on tour full time.

The Early Days on Tour
He entered his first Bassmaster event on Sam Rayburn in March of 1974, and finished 24th, taking home a check for $275. A promising start for a rookie amongst the anglers he had fished against, but it would be some time before he would reach a level of earnings that would allow him to meet all of his needs.

Rick Clunn

2001 Megabucks Weigh-in – photo courtesy BASS

In his first 19 entries, spanning nearly three years Clunn cashed a check 12 times, however, the total amount of his winnings over that period equaled $7850. Nearly half of that total was a result of his second place finish at the 1976 Tennessee Invitational, on Cordell Hull Reservoir, where he earned $3,482.

Then came the 1976 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Guntersville in November, and the Clunn reputation for being at his best in big events began to take shape. “I won that Classic, and my instant thought was relief that I would get to stay out on tour a little longer,” said Clunn. “I wasn’t thinking of it as a defining moment at the time, and it took me three or four days to really have any emotional moments regarding the accomplishment.”

The taste of success would settle in, as Clunn would go on to win the Bass Champs Tournament on Percy Priest Reservoir in Nashville, Tenn. in April of 1977. He would cash checks in all but one event, and follow up his Bassmaster Classic win with repeat performance on Lake Toho in Florida. In claiming the $25,775 winner’s prize, he had brought his season’s total earnings to $37,357; only $443 less than he had earned in the previous three seasons combined.

A competitive monster was unleashed, and Clunn would set out to collect paychecks in 41 of his next 54 BASS events, culminating with his record setting performance at the 1984 Bassmaster Classic on the Arkansas River. His BASS earnings during that period totaled $139,037. During that time he also won his first U.S. Open, and he punched out a string of 28 consecutive appearances in the Bassmaster Classic that stretched from 1974 to the 2001 edition on the Louisiana Delta.

Classic Domination
Clunn positioned himself to be at his peak in the Bassmaster Classic. “I knew how a lot of the Angler of the Year titles were won back in those days, and I didn’t want to owe my success to anyone else,” he said. “While guys were getting help from the best locals for regular tournaments, the Classic was different, you had to do the work all by yourself; and I wanted to prove I was the best at relying on myself.”

His self reliance proved to be key, as for the first several years, the anglers did not know where they were going to be fishing the Classic until they were airborne on the chartered plane to the event, then Bassmaster Founder Ray Scott would notify them were they were going.

Rick Clunn Close Quarters - photo by BASS Communications - Seigo Saito

Rick Clunn Close Quarters – photo by BASS – Seigo Saito

In those years, Clunn had a knack for being around the winner’s circle in the Classic. His career record includes his four wins, two 2nd place finishes, a 3rd place, two 4ths and a 5th place finish. All told, he has 15 top 10 finishes in Bassmaster Classic competition, meaning that nearly half the time he has been in the field; Clunn has been in sight of winning the tournament.

The U.S. Open
Clunn holds the U.S. Open, a tournament he won two times, in high regards for what it did for the overall learning curve of anglers everywhere. “The U.S. Open, without the intent of doing so, created an explosion of learning,” Clunn opined. “It brought the best anglers from the west and the east together, with some international anglers, and we all learned as a result.”

He also ranks the U.S. Open as the toughest tournament in the world to win, for a variety of reasons. “Along with the fact that it had the best anglers in the world, the time and place add to its degree of difficulty,” Clunn said. “Lake Mead in the summer is a harsh place; just the elements alone create more than just a competitive difficulty; it can be downright dangerous.”

Clunn said that the U.S. Open has been the only tournament he has trained himself for, both physically as well as mentally. His opinion leads him to say that the event comes close to being the perfect tournament. “Local help is of little use during the Open; Lake Mead is the type of fishery that nobody could tell from one day to the next where it will be won,” he said. “The fairness of the lake, along with the environmental conditions and the field make it the most competitive tournament in the world; if not the perfect tournament.”

He also said that he feels that no angler has the right to call himself the best in the world without having won the U.S. Open. “I really believe that the U.S. Open is a measuring stick for every angler,” said Clunn. “I think that even today, with its shared weight format, it is an event that every world class angler should compete in; and that nobody can call themselves the best in the world until they have won it.”

Rick Clunn Crankbait Bass - photo by BASS Communications - Seigo Saito

Rick Clunn Crankbait Bass – photo by BASS – Seigo Saito

Extreme Awareness
Clunn has long been known as the angler who camped out at tournaments. While initially it was out of necessity, it became something he did to help him stay acclimated to his surroundings. “I started out camping because it was a way to conserve money,” said Clunn. “But, as I started being able to afford the cost of hotel rooms, I started seeing that there were benefits to camping.”

While many anglers consider finding themselves a place to sleep, Clunn began to think about a place for his boat to rest. “Finding parking for a boat is not always an easy thing in a place that doesn’t always make considerations for bass boats,” he said. “That and finding suitable electricity of charging is another factor.”

What he found was that he could rent a campsite, the boat would fit, and he could sleep in the back of his tow vehicle. “I’ve had vans and trucks, and to this day, I still sleep on a futon type bed in the shell of my truck with my tackle,” he said. “I’ve tried hotels, and even tried a large trailer with sleeping quarters, and I came to the conclusion that if I was going to be a gypsy, I should sleep like one.”

What he found as an added benefit was that he was able to stay aware of the conditions at the lake. If it was hot or cold, he could become acclimated to the conditions, if it began to rain or became windy, he would hear it. “I found that my body and my senses stayed much more in tune with my surroundings than it would if I was in a hotel,” Clunn said. “So, I choose a campground that has a shower and power to charge my boat. I go to sleep when it gets dark, I stay more aware, face fewer distractions and stay rested; it’s the best situation for me.”

Rick Clunn Up Close - photo by BASS Communications - Seigo Saito

Rick Clunn Up Close – photo by BASS – Seigo Saito

Greatest Angler in the World
In 2005, Clunn was named the greatest bass angler in the world by bass fishing fans who took part in ESPN’s Greatest Angler Debate. For Clunn, the award touched him on many levels. “I normally try to compartmentalize those types of awards,” Clunn said. “In fact, I had kept my trophies in the basement until my wife, Melissa, convinced me that they were less about the accomplishments, and more about the memories.”

The Greatest Angler Debate meant to Clunn that fans had seen his career, and had been able to be objective about the vote. “So many of my counterparts became better known after their competitive careers through their television shows,” Clunn said their voting for him showed they had matured as fishing fans. “Being able to place the importance on our competitive merits showed that their thought process has changed over the years.”

“The award meant that they had seen my career and recognized my accomplishments,” Clunn said fondly. “While I try to minimize my ego most of the time, winning that award meant a lot to me; I’m not ashamed to say that I am proud of it.”

The Future for Rick Clunn
At 63 Years old, Clunn remains an active tournament angler. He competes on the Bassmaster Elite Series, and up until this year had entered as many of the Bassmaster Opens as he could. He also entered the U.S. Open this year, and intends to do so again next year. He still has lofty goals.

When asked about goals, Clunn said that he would like to be able to win another Classic, so that his sons can experience the thrill of the event from the perspective of a champion. He also said that he would like to see himself recover some of the form that helped him compete at the highest level in the past.

“I remember seeing my daughters come to an understanding of what I did when I won my fourth Classic in 1990,” Clunn said. “They were old enough to understand the accomplishment, and my place in the world. That moment is perhaps my greatest memory, not because I had won the tournament, but because of their response; I’d like to share that with my sons.”

“I have fought myself mentally over the past few years, and it has caused me to not fish at my highest levels; that is something I want to change,” he said. “It’s not that I struggle to make good decisions, my struggle comes in stopping having fun. I get on a pattern that is one I enjoy, and I have a hard time changing.”

Rick Clunn Enters Arena at 2009 Bassmaster Classic - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Rick Clunn Enters Arena at 2009 Bassmaster Classic – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

“I will respond by simplifying my approach and my schedule to try and get myself back to being the best competitor I can,” he said in closing. “Tough times have a way of cleansing things, and while my past few seasons may have been okay for someone else, they are not for me.”

“I’m not a believer in the tragedy of retirement, of minimizing the knowledge that an experienced person has because their body doesn’t work the same,” he said. “I will keep reinventing myself, and creating new neural pathways to make my mind young again. I will do what I have to do to reach the level that I’m accustomed to competing at.”

It is, and has always been that dedication that has made Rick Clunn who he is, a pioneer, on his life’s journey, an inspiration, a champion, professional angler, the Greatest Angler in the World; Legend of the Sport.