Any list of the greatest professional bass anglers in history would be seriously incomplete without Gary Klein.
Klein finished 9th in ESPN's Greatest Angler Debate in 2005. He is one of just seven anglers to have fished a Classic in every decade. His 17 consecutive Classic appearances between 1984 and 2000 is the fourth best all-time mark. He's finished in the Top 5 in the Classic six different times and in the Top 10 on seven occasions. He's also posted the second best total weight in Classic history at 527 pounds, 3 ounces.
Klein has two Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year awards to his credit, has finished in the top 25 in the AOY race on 21 occasions (4th best all-time), finished in the Top 10 nine times and in the Top 5 five times.
He's fished more BASS events (304) than any other angler except Rick Clunn, has won 8 BASS events, was the second youngest angler in BASS history to win an event (21 years, 5 months in 1979) and has earned more than $1.69 million in BASS prize money over the course of his career.
Oh yeah, he's also fished more Classics than anyone except Clunn ... and that's the problem.
This year marks Klein's 27th Bassmaster Classic, but he's never won it, though he's come close ... painfully close, in fact.
In 1979 he lent Hank Parker the flipping stick that Parker used to win his first Classic. Klein was fourth.
In 1986, Klein had a big bass on the line that would have won the Classic for him, but an equipment malfunction allowed the fish to get away. Again, he finished fourth.
On the first day of the 1987 Classic, Klein had a little more than seven pounds of bass in his livewell as he was headed back to the weigh-in on the Ohio River out of Louisville, Ky. An interminable wait to get through one of the locks cost him his entire catch that day in late penalties and deterred him from fishing his best water. He would have been in second place on Day 1 and finished the tournament less than 10 pounds out of the lead.
In 2003 he was motoring to his most productive area on the Louisiana Delta when a landowner fired at him with a rifle. Klein turned around and found a safer area rather than risk his life and the life of his cameraman. He finished second to Mike Iaconelli.
With last year's Classic, Klein passed Roland Martin in the area of championship futility. Now he's all alone with 26 Classics and no wins. One more will just add to the burden.
And while plenty of BASS fans will be rooting for the amiable pro at the Red River this year, it's certainly conceivable that the stars will align for someone else and that Klein could eventually surpass Clunn in Classic appearances without ever taking home the hardware and big check. After all, Clunn is only five events ahead (32 to 27) and Klein is 11 years younger (62 to 51).
So, as impressive as the number 27 is, to Gary Klein it's more than a little bittersweet.
Tomorrow we'll find out why 26 is an important number in the biggest Classic collapse of all time.