In February, Rick Clunn will be on the Red River fishing in his 32nd Bassmaster Classic.Clunn has long been known as one of the greatest anglers to fish professionally, and he is often characterized as a great student of the sport's mental aspect. As the only angler to possess four Classic trophies and with a career spanning four decades, Clunn boasts insight and experience like no other angler alive.
"My whole career, I trained to be the best Classic fisherman in the world," Clunn said. "I figured out really quickly how I could win that thing, especially back then. My whole year was dedicated to making and winning the Bassmaster Classic."Despite qualifying this year through the Opens, he was quick to condemn the practice.
You shouldn't be able to make the world's-greatest event [by] fishing three tournaments," Clunn said.
He compared fishing the Opens, only three events, to the long, grueling Elite Series campaign, where anglers must shell out $55,000 to participate in its 11 yearly tournaments.
"These guys [the Opens anglers] are still working regular jobs and fish three events, putting up $10,000 and they have a shot at a half-million dollars," Clunn said. "That's not right."He feels slightly differently about women qualifying for the sport's biggest tournament."I may contradict myself, but I have always wanted to see the women fishing the world championship," Clunn said. "I've always promoted the idea that this sport doesn't discriminate."
He pointed out that right now the Women's Bassmaster Tour anglers are only fishing five events over the course of the year (the Toyota Tundra Women's Bassmaster Angler of the Year after those five events qualifies for the Classic) and would like to see that number increase to seven or eight events to make the tour more substantive.
"Women have paid their dues — they just have never been given a decent format," Clunn said. "That is why I'm glad to see they are bringing a woman to the Bassmaster Classic. They really don't have the opportunities that the men do to get in."
Lately, due to various rule changes since the inception of the Elite Series, Clunn believes anglers are winning the AOY on their own merits, which in turns puts more validity in the end-of-the-year award.
Clunn cites Gerald Swindle's AOY title in 2004 as when the award became consistently legitimate because the tour prohibited talking to locals and instituted a 30-day off-limits period.For Clunn, the rule changes have increased the legitimacy of the sport and the overall competition.
"The rules and format dictate the quality of the fisherman. That is why the Elite guys are as good as they are," Clunn said. "Guys that are not really good and have relied on help to catch their fish — they are dead men in this type of format."Even with a more even playing field in the race to AOY, Clunn still puts more value in a Classic championship.
"Especially in the old days, when you didn't know where you were going until you got on an airplane and they flew you there," Clunn said. "That's why I felt like I could dominate, because I knew I could find fish faster than anyone."
While Clunn recognized the impracticality to the media, sponsors and fans by not announcing the Classic locations, he was nostalgic when reminiscing about fishing the Classic when it was still a mystery. To him, it was a level playing field because after the anglers got on the plane, they found out where they were going and then weren't allowed to call anyone, so the best anglers won.
His successes fishing the mystery locations were unequaled for the first eight years of the Bassmaster Classic. His first two Classic wins (1976 and 1977) and three other top five finishes (1978, 1979, and 1980) were set up that way. But by the time of arguably his most famous win in 1984, the format had changed. Anglers could pre-practice, there were off-limits and a no information rule.Mystery lake or not, Clunn's dominance in those early days was noticed by both anglers and fans.
"After I won my second Classic, the wife of another angler came up to me and said 'Don't you think it is somebody else's turn?' and she was serious," Clunn said. "In my mind, I'm not trying to beat somebody or knock somebody out. I'm just trying to do the best I can."
And 34 years after fishing his first tournament with BASS and 30 years after his first Classic victory, it's the same competitive drive and passion for the sport that fuels Clunn's determination to continue fishing at the highest level.
"I have always preached that age would not eventually negate me from doing well and doing what I love to do," Clunn said. "Physical attributes, gender and age don't make a difference. Now I'm the one that has to prove it."