A win for the boomers

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Steve Bowman

As a member of the press corps covering the 1978 B.A.S.S. Champs tournament — a downscaled version of the Bassmaster Classic that included the Top 10 B.A.S.S. pros and Top 10 B.A.S.S. Nation anglers — I had the lucky draw: Rick Clunn.

The young pro was the hottest stick in bass competition at the time, having recently swept three B.A.S.S. “majors” in a row, including back-to-back Classic titles in 1976 and ’77, with the ’77 B.A.S.S. Champs in between. A former computer programmer for an oil company, Clunn already had a reputation as a pensive intellectual — a thinking man’s bass angler. His first words reinforced the image: “I don’t talk much when I’m fishing,” he apologized. “I focus completely on what I’m doing.”

But he did talk that day, and his side of the conversation convinced me I was in the company of a rare breed of bass fisherman.

Talented, thoughtful, articulate and intuitive, he excelled when “pre-practice” was not allowed and local knowledge was not a factor.

Clunn would go on to have a career worthy of being named the world’s Greatest Angler by ESPN. Among many honors were four Classic championships, Angler-of-the-Year in 1988, 28 consecutive Classic appearances and 14 tournament victories. Make that 15.

Stirring the hearts of Baby Boomers everywhere, in March Clunn outfished what is inarguably the strongest field of professional anglers ever assembled and won the Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River presented by Dick Cepek Tires & Wheels.

The Ava, Mo., angler will be 70 in a couple of months. Let that sink in a moment.

I caught up with Clunn as he was arriving at Winyah Bay, South Carolina, where he hoped to make it two in a row.

I reminded him of his “Little Green Fish” speech after winning the 1984 Classic, when he said how great it was to live in the United States, “where there are no limits . . . where I can chase little green fish across the country and make $40,000 in three days.” On March 20, 2016, Clunn put an exclamation point on that speech. Age is not a limit, either.

“One of the things I felt really good about in winning the St. Johns tournament was knowing I am still capable of it,” said Clunn, who became the oldest person ever to win a B.A.S.S. tournament.

Someone else his age who hadn’t won in 13 1/2 years might have been tempted to hang it up, to face the reality and ravages of time.

“Quit” is not in his vocabulary. Nor is “retirement.”

“It’s inherent in my genes,” he noted. “I come from a family of crop pickers on my mom’s side. There was no such thing as retirement. You did it until you keeled over.

“One of our greatest wastes of resources is the number of old people who are smart and want to work. It’s an American tragedy, the way we deal with them.”

The problem is that people who retire tend to “disengage from life.” Don’t disengage, he implored. “Move on to something else.”

Clunn doesn’t plan on retiring from the bass wars anytime soon, and he certainly isn’t going to disengage from fishing, or from life.

His goal now is to qualify for the 2017 Classic. That’s no easy task — even for someone half his age — to finish in the Top 40 or so in a talent-studded field of 110. But there’s extra impetus this time. The Classic will be on Lake Conroe, Texas, where Clunn worked as a bass guide when not fishing tournaments.

Win, lose or miss the Classic, Clunn says he’ll keep fishing as long as he’s physically able. He works to stay in shape, and he strives even harder to sharpen his sensory capabilities.

“You can’t reach your full potential unless you’re using all your senses as fully as you can,” he said. “It’s what makes us alive. When I’m eating, I try to really taste my food. When I’m reeling a spinnerbait, I try to really feel what it’s running into.

“Fishing makes you in tune with everything. You suddenly sense humidity and warmth in the air, and you think, ‘Man, they’ll hit a buzzbait right now!’ The greatest reward in fishing  is that heightened sense of being alive.”

The road miles, paperwork and preparation do get old, Clunn admits. “But once I’m on the water, I love it every bit as much as the day I began.”