A legend, a hero and a friend

Next February, I'll be fishing my sixth Bassmaster Classic and will go into the event as the defending champion. I'm very proud of those accomplishments and don't take them lightly. I worked really hard to get where I am today, and the road hasn't always been easy. There have been sacrifices — both for me and my wife — tough times and days when I wondered if it was all worthwhile, but it's a life and career that I love.

But that's not what I want to talk about this week. Instead I want to talk about a close friend of mine whose accomplishments boggle my mind and help to put my career, my accomplishments and my sacrifices in perspective.

His name is Gary Klein, and you're probably familiar with his résumé, but just in case you're not, I'll give you some highlights right now.

Gary turned pro in 1979 at the age of 21. Before he became a bass pro, he had worked at a marina and bait shop, but never really held a job outside the fishing industry. He's been a career angler for his entire adult and working life — something that we often take for granted today, but it was extraordinary 34 years ago when he was just starting out.

You might think a young guy from California — Gary is from Oroville — wouldn't stand much of a chance against the best in the business, but you'd be wrong as far as he was concerned. Without any experience east of the Mississippi River, he went toe to toe with Roland Martin, Bill Dance, Hank Parker and Jimmy Houston and never blinked. Instead of struggling through a tough rookie season, he dominated, won a B.A.S.S. event on Lake Powell and narrowly lost the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title to Roland Martin on the final day of the last event.

He was an early proponent of flippin' back then and used a flippin' rod for just about every lure in his box and every technique in the book. It worked then, but it was just a matter of time before the other pros learned to flip and took away part of his advantage. Over the years he went from being an angler who relied almost exclusively on one technique to one of the most versatile and accomplished anglers in the world.

In 1989, Gary won his first Angler of the Year title. In 1993 he did it again, and in 2005 he finished ninth in ESPN's Greatest Angler Debate. He ranks much higher in my book.

I know a lot of guys who are driven by their desire to become better bass fishermen, but I've never met anyone more driven that Gary. Every day on the water is a learning experience, every cast an experiment and every retrieve an opportunity to discover something new.

In 2014, Gary will be competing in his 30th Bassmaster Classic. Can you imagine that? Can you wrap your head around that number and really feel what it means? I ask because I have a hard time doing it. For 30 different years Gary Klein has been at the top of an extremely competitive profession. Thirty times he's qualified to compete in the world championship. Only Rick Clunn has done it more times (32, including 28 in a row at one point).

Like Gary, I got started in the professional level of the sport at a young age, but it's still hard for me to fathom qualifying for 30 Classics. That's a level of excellence and consistency that few will ever reach.

Gary Klein inspires me. When I was a kid, learning about the sport of bass fishing and thinking about becoming a bass pro, Gary was one of my heroes. He's still that and always will be, but today I'm also proud to call him a friend.

Cliff's notes

When your heroes live up to your expectations, you've chosen them well.