Clunn’s ‘big magic’ revisited

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James Overstreet

“I might win a bass tournament when I’m 69, but I guarantee you it won’t be an Elite Series tournament. I think that’s definitely one record I won’t ever see broken.”
— Greg Hackney, on Rick Clunn’s win at the St. Johns River

The significance of Rick Clunn’s recent Elite Series victory cannot be overstated. Yes, Clunn did become the oldest man ever to win a B.A.S.S. tournament. But the moment was so much bigger than that.

Clunn’s victory was less about his physical age than it was about his mental youth. It’s the trait that’s so well-disguised when a sun-weathered Clunn comes to the weigh-in stage and speaks in a low-volume monotone.

It’s such a stark contrast to the youthful excitement I heard in Clunn’s voice during a long conversation we had in Ava, Mo., last November. Clunn was coming off his worst season as a professional angler. He’d finished 104th in the 2015 Elite Series Angler of the Year points standings. But retirement wasn’t a word in his vocabulary.

“I couldn’t do it if I didn’t love it,” Clunn said that day. “I don’t love a lot of the off-the-water stuff. But once I’m on the water, it’s as magical as it has ever been.”

Yes, as magical as it has ever been. And for Rick Clunn, that’s some big magic.

Miraculous turns of fate can happen to those who persist in showing up.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, “Big Magic”

The usual buzz of anticipation before the Top 12 Bassmaster Elite Series anglers weighed-in had a markedly different feel Sunday, March 20th in Palatka, Fla. Instead of excitement, anxiety was all around, as if you could swipe a butter knife through the air and spread tension on toast.

Melissa Clunn almost threw up her toast.

“I felt it come up to here,” she said, placing her hand just above her stomach.

Melissa was nauseously nervous for “her guys” – husband, Rick, and their 12-year-son, River. She knew how much Rick wanted River to see him win an Elite Series tournament. The last time Rick had been close to doing so with his young son in attendance it had ended in disappointment when Clunn started the final day in second place before finishing fourth at Arkansas’ Lake Dardanelle in May 2014.

Rick Clunn became one of the biggest names in pro bass fishing before both his sons, River and Sage, now a high school senior, were born. Clunn famously won four Bassmaster Classics from 1976 to 1990. But it had been 13 years since Clunn had won a B.A.S.S. tournament – Nov. 2, 2002, at Texas’ Sam Rayburn Reservoir.

Melissa Clunn was just one among multitudes of nervous bass fishing fans that day in Palatka. Other than the fans, friends and families of the other 11 finalists, the remainder of the bass fishing world seemed united in hoping Rick Clunn would win this tournament. Long-time friends and competitors Shaw Grigsby and Gary Klein made an unscheduled trip back from Grigsby’s home in Gainesville, Fla., to attend the final weigh-in.

“It's Rick Clunn, and it's history. That's why we're here,” said Klein.

Since he started competing on the B.A.S.S. circuit in 1997, Skeet Reese has respectfully referred to Clunn as “daddy.” Reese was in tears on Day 3 after carrying one of Clunn’s weigh-in bags from the check-in dock to the backstage holding tanks. (It took two weigh-in bags to accommodate Clunn’s 31-pound, 7-ounce 5-bass limit on Saturday.)

Reese was en route to a commercial shoot the next day, but he kept calling people in-the-know to see how Clunn was faring.

There was a nervous quiet to the overflow crowd as the weigh-in ceremony began. Backstage, however, the mood was relaxed. Rick, with River at his side, stood at one of the fish-care tanks visiting with Greg Hackney, who needed to overcome Clunn’s 6-pound lead on the final day to win the Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River presented by Dick Cepek Wheels & Tires.

Clunn and Hackney had looked in each other’s weigh-in bags, and it was obvious Hackney didn’t have the fish to overtake Clunn. The outcome wasn’t yet official, but the two anglers knew who was going to raise the trophy.

“You know the first time I saw your dad?” Hackney asked River. “It was in 1984 when he won the Bassmaster Classic on the Arkansas River at Pine Bluff. I was (almost) 11 years old.”

Think of all the B.A.S.S. history – and just history, period – that has unfolded since that day, when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton were on the same stage with Clunn as he won the third Bassmaster Classic of his career.

Clunn was 38, and he’d win his fourth Classic title in 1990 at the age of 44. Inspired by that image, Hackney would grow up to make a dream of his own come true by winning the B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title in 2014.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that day is what set my career in motion,” Hackney recalled. “It was the first time I really experienced tournament bass fishing. Rick Clunn has always been one of my heroes.”

Hackney claims he can still vividly recall every detail of that August 18th, 1984, experience, when Clunn had a 25-pound margin over second place in earning the $40,000 Classic first-place prize.

“There was a bass boat on display, outfitted with all the latest-and-greatest technology at the time,” Hackney said. “It cost $15,500. I remember hearing some redneck say, ‘Yeah, sure. I’m going to pull that fifteen-thousand-dollar boat around with my thousand-dollar pickup truck.’”

Clunn will turn 70 on July 24th. Hackney is 42 years old, which is precisely the number of years Clunn has competed in B.A.S.S. tournaments. That warrants repeating: Rick Clunn has been competing in B.A.S.S. tournaments for as long as Greg Hackney has been breathing.

Among the 12 finalists on the St. Johns River, three generations of pro bass anglers were represented: Clunn being, of course, the first; Hackney, as part of the second; and 24-year-old Jordan Lee and 27-year-old Drew Benton, composing the third.

The sun was already shining through partly cloudy skies when Clunn’s Sunday bag of 19 pounds gave him a winning four-day total of 81-15, precisely four pounds more than Hackney’s second-place total of 77-15. It seemed the sun somehow shined brighter at that moment. The fog of anxiety had been lifted.

“Don’t ever accept that your best moments are behind you,” said Clunn, as if he’d always believed this day was coming.

Bassmaster emcee Dave Mercer, as he looked into the audience at that moment, was struck by how many grown men were crying. Clunn’s victory served as an emotional reminder to the entire generation of “baby boomers” born after World War II that all their best days weren’t necessarily behind them.

It’s surreal to think of all the things that came together at Palatka, when Clunn won this tournament the way he did. A partial listing would include the following:

  • The strong westerly winds that muddied the east side of Lake George prior to the tournament, practically making it off-limits to sight-fishermen looking for spawning beds and leaving it open for Clunn to explore with a home-made bladed jig.

  • The 3 ½-pounder Clunn culled with a 7 ½-pounder on Day 3, which was caught after he left Lake George at 2 p.m. with 27 pounds. That last big bass of his day, caught near the weigh-in site at Palatka, provided what would be his winning margin over Hackney on Sunday.

  • Melissa and River had long planned to attend this tournament. Sage would have been there too, if his forthcoming college scholarship didn’t hinge on school attendance as well as good grades. River would attend school on Thursday and Friday, the first two days of the tournament, then he and Melissa would fly to Jacksonville on Saturday, when, as it happened, Rick weighed-in the third biggest one-day bag of his career. River would miss three days of school when he and Melissa accompanied Rick on the drive back to Ava, Mo., after the tournament. That was the plan, whether Clunn was successful or not on the St. Johns River.

In thinking about Clunn’s longtime-coming 15th B.A.S.S. victory, Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent book, “Big Magic,” kept coming to mind. Gilbert is also the author of “Eat Pray Love,” a book that stayed on the best-seller lists for three years. She knows all about the fear that can paralyze someone after success. She could have been describing Clunn when she wrote the following in “Big Magic”:

“You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation.”

If there was ever a question about how devoted Rick Clunn is to his vocation, it has been answered. And that’s not to say Clunn won’t put a couple more exclamation points on that answer before he’s finished.

Finally, there’s this: What an incredible way to begin the 2016 Elite Series season. Against inarguably the most competitive field of bass fisherman ever assembled, a living legend showed everyone he’s still capable of “big magic.”