MONTGOMERY, Ala. — "Remember who you are." It's good advice — just ask Rick Clunn. The four-time CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion recalled when his wife, Melissa, presented him with a card which said just that.
"My wife believed that I had forgotten who I was. I was down on myself and struggling with my fishing," Clunn said. "Then Melissa gave me this card with a quote from 'The Lion King' that said 'Remember who you are'."
Who is Clunn? It seems like a pretty easy question to answer if you follow professional bass fishing. He may well be the greatest angler in the history of the sport. Four Classic titles, 28 consecutive Classic appearances, 14 BASS wins, a CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year award and nearly $2 million in winnings make a strong case. He's Michael Jordan with a rod and reel.
With so many accolades, you'd think that Clunn would need little inspiration from greeting cards or any other source, but even the best in the business can benefit from some well chosen words of encouragement.
And Clunn has admittedly struggled over the past few years since his string of consecutive Classic appearances ended in 2001.
So what happened? Why was a philosophy and approach that worked so well for so long suddenly not getting the job done?
"I wasn't always fishing to win, and that was a direct departure from previous years," Clunn said. "I was going for quality fish instead of using my knowledge, and I just wasn't having fun."
Apart from his mental struggles, Clunn has battled the same issues faced by any athlete of advancing years. Clunn will turn 58 this summer, and an old shoulder injury from his high school football days still plagues him. But Clunn is not one to make excuses, and he refuses to acknowledge that age or injuries were responsible for his poor finishes over the past three years.
"The thing that was lacking — and this goes for any athlete — is that once you've accomplished everything and surpassed some of the things you never imagined you would surpass, the hardest thing is to get motivated." Clunn said.
The Ava, Mo., pro has had a rejuvenation of sorts this season. After starting the year off well with a 36th place finish at Lake Toho, Clunn stumbled at the Harris Chain, finishing a dismal 138th. It was the middle of the season that put him in strong contention for Angler of the Year honors. He was seventh at Lake Guntersville, 20th at Clarks Hill Reservoir and third at Lake Norman.
Going into the final Tour event at Table Rock Lake, Clunn was eighth in the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings and, with a strong performance, would have a legitimate shot at a second Angler of the Year trophy.
Unfortunately, Clunn never got on track at Table Rock, catching only two keeper bass and finishing 102nd in the event. He ended the season in 20th place in the Angler of the Year standings, earning a berth in the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh, July 29-31. It will be his unprecedented 29th appearance in the event that has defined his career.
With four Classic victories in three different decades, Clunn would like nothing more than to win his fifth Classic this summer in Pittsburgh and simultaneously win the Greatest Angler Debate. Lots of fans and fellow anglers believe he can do both.
"With this group [the ten semifinalists in the Greatest Angler Debate], there's only one guy who can be considered the best, and that's Rick Clunn," said Gary Klein, a fellow semifinalist.
"I'm fishing as much as I can this year — even other circuits," Clunn said. "I know it sounds weird, but the more I fish, the stronger I get, and the less my shoulder hurts me."
With a personal drive and determination that may be unmatched in the sport, Clunn hopes to be competitive for many more years.
"Age empowers you, and I think we made a real mistake in Western civilization with the concept of retirement," Clunn said. "I want to fish as long as I can and I want my sons to see what I do.
"When the negatives start to outweigh the positives, remembering who you are and receiving encouragement from loved ones is just incredible. Sometimes you need someone to help you out."