Classic Clunn: An all-American win

Celebrating 50 years of Rick Clunn, whose emotionally stirring victory speech was witnessed by two future U.S. presidents.

Of the 53 Bassmaster Classics held since 1971, only one has the unrivaled level of Americana that defined Rick Clunn’s win in 1984 on the Arkansas River.

The capacity crowd of 6,500 gathered inside the Pine Bluff convention went silent as Clunn delivered his impromptu and emotional victory speech standing beside two future U.S. presidents.

“We live in a country where there are no limits. Where sometimes we are led to believe there are limits when there are none with anything we do in life. In a country where we can go as far as we want. There is nowhere else in the world where I could catch little green fish and make $40,000.” 

To Clunn’s left stood Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and to his right stood Vice President George H.W. Bush. Clunn was also inspired by his father, Holmes, who was hospitalized in a coma.

“What else kept me motivated was memories of following behind my dad as we waded in creeks, and knowing he would want me to stay here and fish this Classic,” Clunn added in his speech. 

Clunn considered leaving after weighing in on Day 2, even as he was poised to run away with the title. Clunn phoned his sister before accepting Bush’s offer to fly him on Air Force Two from Little Rock back to Houston, where his father was hospitalized.

“My whole mentality changed then,” Clunn said. “He’d been in the coma for two days, and she reminded me if I left about how disappointed, even mad, he’d be at me should he survive.”

Clunn decided to stay, and with the runaway win in sight, Scott wanted him to write a scripted speech to impress the national press and the political leaders. He refused and instead went with the ad-libbed speech that was more impactful, just like the win itself. 

“It was the first and only time in my life that I felt like a rock music star at a concert,” Clunn said. “I took the lead on the first day with over 20 pounds, the crowd already anticipated what would come next on the next day, and the next.” 

On the final day, B.A.S.S. president and emcee Ray Scott had already whipped the crowd of into a frenzy before Clunn entered the arena. Adding to the energy were the likes of Clinton and Bush. Clunn awaited outside the closed arena door and when it opened the crowd became even more boisterous, expecting even more heroics from Clunn. With every fish he pulled out of the livewell the crowd got louder. 

“Literally, their energy would lift me off the floor of the boat, already anticipating their reaction of what would happen with the next fish,” Clunn said. 

Clunn led all three days, weighing in totals of 24-12, 23-8 and 27-5 for a winning weight of 75-9. Even more remarkable, the win came during August on a river locked into the summer doldrums of no current and high-water temperatures that make largemouth lethargic. What is more, his winning margin was 25-8 over runner-up Greg South. 

“On the final day I was just going through the motions,” Clunn said. “I didn’t have any decisions to make, and I just felt like dad was in the boat and that helped me stay concentrated.”

Clunn decided to stay near the launch site to maximize his fishing time, instead of losing several hours by locking into other river pools to reach productive water. 

Clunn initially discovered a 6-foot-deep ditch that dropped abruptly off a 1-foot shelf cutting across a harbor. Following the contour break line, he came upon the motherlode of bass in a 50-yard stretch of water gradually deepening from 1 to 3 feet, then straight down to 13 feet. 

Armed with a Bomber Model A crankbait, Clunn went to work, catching his seven-bass limit weighing 24-12 by 9:30 a.m. on Day 1. He returned the next day, catching a limit by 10:30 a.m. and taking the lead by over 15 pounds. On the final day, it was lights out with another limit by 9:50 a.m. By this time, a large flotilla of spectator boats had gathered around Clunn, while a fan gallery cheered from the shoreline with every fish caught. 

The story also had a happy ending. Clunn’s father came out of the coma, and after learning the news had one question for his son. 

“Where in the hell did you find all those fish?” he asked Clunn, to his amazement. It didn’t matter. His all-American hero of a son had just won an unprecedented third Classic in Americana fashion.