DECATUR, Ala. — During Friday's second round weigh-in, the greatest BASS angler of all time stepped forward.
After weighing in his five bass at 12-6 pounds to the cheering of the crowd, Rick Clunn was asked by BASS emcee Keith Alan if he was surprised by the bigger than expected weights that were being tallied this week by the Elite Series pros at the Southern Challenge presented by Advance Auto Parts on Alabama's Wheeler Lake.
"I'm not surprised by this group anymore," Clunn said in response. "One thing I always guard against is to underestimate the quality of those fishing today. This is the best group of anglers that I've ever fished against."
That's pretty tall cotton — Clunn has fished with and against some of the greatest names in BASS history. Names like Bill Dance, Bobby Murray, Jimmy Houston, Larry Nixon, Tommy Martin, Roland Martin, Hank Parker, and names that still remain competitive on today's Elite Series circuit like Denny Brauer, Ken Cook, and Gary Klein.
Dockside before Saturday morning's blast off for the third round of competition, Clunn explained in more detail his statement the previous afternoon.
"We've always had great anglers (in BASS tournaments) collectively speaking," said the four-time Bassmaster Classic champ. "But in the past, only about 20 to 25 percent of those fishing were performing at the highest level under all types of conditions.
"The biggest mistake I made back then was giving the rest of the field more credit than I should have.
"In the past, it was not so much how adequate they were, it was how inadequate you were."
As competitors continued to launch their boats in the gathering dawn, Clunn said that he had been very reluctant to make the statement he did yesterday.
Until now, that is.
"I'm very critical of my own performance and of those fishing against me," said the 14-time BASS winner with more than $1.8 million in career earnings.
To further explain his statement Friday, fishing's all-time best referred back to the Elite Series Empire Chase in July 2007, a tournament which delivered horrendous weather conditions on Day One consisting of big gales, heavy rain, and soaking waves.
So severe was the opening bell weather that some pros decided against making any long runs to challenge Lake Erie's big waves. Despite that, huge sacks of smallmouth bass weighing more than 20 pounds were brought to the scales on that first day.
And that's when Clunn knew.
"Back in the past, we'd effectively lose 90 percent of the field on really rough, foul weather days," Clunn said. "But not last year — everyone caught fish.
"And that's when I knew that these guys were good in good weather and these guys were good in nasty weather.
"Yeah, these are the best guys I've ever fished against collectively."
When queried as to why this current generation is so good, Clunn didn't hesitate to answer.
"The format," he said. "Now, tournament waters are off limits for 30 days prior to an event. In the past, that wasn't the case and you didn't know if an angler was doing well from his own ability or from the help he was getting."
While he admitted that BASS had a one-week off limit earlier in its history thanks to Ray Scott, Clunn said that a week simply wasn't enough time — an angler could still get plenty of local help and knowledge that would be working seven days later.
Not so after a 30-day layoff. Clunn said that when BASS enacted the month off rule that began to show him just how good many of today's anglers are.
"The format goes a long way to show you the true qualities of an angler," he said.
Take the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award, an honor that Clunn won back in 1988.
Even so, it's only been recently that the Ava, Mo., legend has placed any credence in the award.
"The first Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year that I gave any credence to is the one that Gerald Swindle won (2004)," he said. "Before that, an angler's ability to get help at tournaments (influenced the outcomes) too much.
"Now I'm not saying that all of these previous winners weren't good anglers — they were. I'm just saying that the format change has made anglers figure things out themselves. That's what makes Angler of the Year more legitimate to me now."
Clunn indicated that the current format of Elite Series events has required pros to learn how to maximize their own abilities on the water.
"This format breeds better confidence, better techniques, and better self-reliance," he said. "You must practice perfect because you're going to be doing 90 percent of this all by yourself now, and you don't have someone else out there (helping you).
"In this format, if you don't learn to perfect those skills, you won't survive. You've got to be able to know how to go and catch fish all by yourself."
To further emphasize his point, Clunn pointed to the first few Bassmaster Classics.
"In the beginning, we didn't even know where the Classic was going to be held," Clunn said.
And that's why he decided early on to make winning the Classic as many times as possible his biggest career goal.
"Everyone has their goals out here, mine was the Bassmaster Classic," Clunn said. "I wanted to win it more than anyone else. That was my obsession — it's the toughest test in the world."
Mission accomplished for Clunn — his Classic wins in 1976, 1977, 1984, and 1990 stand alone at the top of the sport, creating a mark that may never be equaled.
Clunn understands the historical significance of what he has done. He also understands that in many ways, the hunter is now the hunted.
In more ways than one, mind you.
"You eventually become the target where you end up shooting at yourself and your own accomplishments," Clunn reflected. "I've always admired great athletes like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and if you'll remember, when Tiger first came out, he said he wanted to beat Jack Nicklaus' records."
Today, at the age of 32 and with 13 major golf championships already in his back pocket, it would seem obvious that someday Woods will surpass Nicklaus' mark of 20 major titles.
And then, Tiger will be shooting only at himself to see how far he can go.
And that's when a sport becomes the most difficult of all according to Clunn.
"When you are shooting at yourself, that's the toughest one of all," he said.
In a word, motivation.
"Motivation is everything for me and for most athletes, period," Clunn said. "Motivation is the ultimate test.
"In the early days, desperation was good and you drew motivation from that — if you were going to survive (on the BASS tour), you had to do that."
Today, with his career earnings, his accolades, and his place in the history of bass fishing clearly cemented, Clunn admits that motivation is a different beast for him.
"(These) guys are so good and can switch it into a gear that no one else has. So at this stage, that's the key (motivation) for me."
In other words, Clunn's motivation is no longer external — winning paychecks and hardware — but is now even more internal. And that's where mental toughness comes into play, something that Clunn has always been superb at.
"These anglers in the BFL and Weekender series and the young co-anglers, they all have the mechanical skills," Clunn said.
He added that they also have the knowledge — the hard-earned knowledge that Clunn and others went out and earned and learned on the water through the school of hard knocks.
Today, much of that knowledge is readily available through books, magazines like Bassmaster, and from Internet sites like Bassmaster.com and ESPNOutdoors.com.
But just simply possessing the mechanical skills and the head knowledge of where and how to fish for bass isn't enough, according to Clunn.
"You might see one of these anglers and go 'Wow, he's a better caster than Rick Clunn,' and you might be right," he said. "But the most important skills are mental and that is what ultimately separates most anglers from the best ones out there."
How does an angler sharpen his mental skills?
By perfect practice, by correctly applying knowledge on the water, and by allowing the current tournament format to make him confident and self-reliant so that good decisions can be made on the water.
Just like Clunn is attempting to do during today's third round of action at the Elite Series Southern Challenge.
Will he make the cut into Sunday's "Final 12" championship round?
"Here's the problem in our sport — rarely, rarely can you in a literal sense go out and make it happen," Clunn said. "The fish itself decides whether it is going to happen.
"But I'm mentally prepared to present my lures in the proper way to the fish so that he makes the decision."
While Clunn admitted that there were a few special times and places during his career where he was so zoned into what was happening on the water that it seemed like he was making it happen, he reiterated that no angler has ultimate control.
Even on Wheeler where big numbers and surprising weights are occurring this week.
"I'm just going to go out and do everything I can to control everything I can," he said before stepping aboard his Nitro this morning to blast off.
"Hopefully I can keep putting it in front of enough big ones today that four or five will bite it."
And the safe bet this weekend on Wheeler Lake is to believe that Rick Clunn can and will do just exactly that.