This week Gary Klein reached another career milestone by fishing his 400th B.A.SS. tournament or qualifier with the Bassmaster Elite at Lake Martin presented by Econo Lodge.
That is one of many milestones accumulated by Klein in 39 years on the pro tours. Only one other angler (Paul Elias) has qualified for a Bassmaster Classic in each of five decades. Klein’s 30 Classics, two Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles, and over $3 million in league earnings are remarkable achievements. Only Rick Clunn has fished more B.A.S.S. tournaments (447) than Klein.
What Klein calls the defining moment of his career will surprise you. Rewind to the beginning at his second event on Lake Powell, Arizona. The date was March 22, 1979.
Klein, then 21 years old, experienced engine trouble near the end of a 140-mile run to his fishing area. He faced two choices. Turning around and going back to the takeoff location was an option. Or, he could go fishing and hope the engine restarted to complete the nearly 300-mile round-trip trek.
“If there was a defining moment in my career it was the decision to not go back,” he recalled. “Taking that gamble gave me the confidence of knowing that winning tournaments required taking risks, sometimes against the odds.”
From then on taking calculated risks, going with gut feelings, and relying on past experiences have guided Klein to success through the decades.
How it all began was apprenticeships under western bass fishing icons that invented some of today’s popular techniques. Growing up far removed from mainstream bass fishing, and comparing his achievements against long odds are remarkable stories.
Read on for more about how the early years, more than ever, shaped the career of one of the greatest pro anglers of all time.
TEEN WITH A DREAM
Bass tournaments were few and far between where Klein was born and raised in northern California. As a high school sophomore the self-proclaimed fishing junkie worked at Bidwell Canyon Marina on Lake Oroville. His dream would materialize there for what became a lifelong career.
The only connection to that dream was fishing magazines, until a tournament stopped at Lake Oroville in 1973, when Klein was 15 years old. He watched with envy as Dee Thomas accepted the $500 winner’s check.
“I was making $1.65 an hour and thought, dang, if I can win a tournament every weekend that would be $2,000 a month,” he recalled. “Of course, back then I was just a teenage fishing junkie with big dreams.”
Klein confronted the stranger with the check and announced he soon would be just as good, while fully aware of Thomas’ elite status as a western pro. Thomas was more impressed than intimidated by a comment that would later have great meaning to them both.
Klein was in the right place at the right time without knowing it. For the next several years he spent hundreds of hours in the boat with Thomas. He learned about a peculiar fishing technique involving long rods, thick monofilament lines and heavy jigs.
“One thing that Dee had that nobody else did, including anyone out West, was a technique that he called flipping,” recalled Klein. “It was under development and I learned the technique as he refined it.”
Klein was in the company of the mastermind for what morphed from obscure specialized tactic into mainstream bass fishing technique. The more Thomas refined it, the more knowledge Klein gained. No one else spent more time in the boat with Thomas.
A turning point came over dinner with Rich Forhan, another skilled western angler and Klein mentor.
“He said I needed to get out of California, now, before everyone else learned the technique,” he said. “Rich told me I was as good with a flipping stick as any man alive.”
Forhan implied all it would take to crush Klein’s dream was for someone to win a B.A.S.S. tournament. The rest would be history after pros picked up flipping and the technique caught fire in the pages of Bassmaster magazine.
Klein would later make true the irony of Forhan’s prediction.
FLORIDA OR BUST
By 1979 Klein saved enough money to pay $250 apiece in entry fees for two B.A.S.S. Invitational tournaments. The first was on the St. Johns River in Florida. To get home and back his mother co-signed a loan for $1,000. He deferred payments for the first three months, floating hope on the success of the flipping technique.
“When I left California all I had was that $1,000 to get me to Florida, then Arizona, and back home,” he said.
What else he had was inside his boat. The rod box had nothing more than seven Fenwick Flippin’ Sticks. Using the long rod he would bet the bank on finding bass in shallow water on the strangest of water.
Klein finished 10th and pocked $1,100 to break even. Next stop: Back west to a more flipping adaptable Lake Powell.
EAST VS. WEST
B.A.S.S. never ventured farther west than Texas until March 1979. A mostly southern contingent of anglers immediately went into shock after launching bass boats into the deep waters of the impoundment on the north side of the Grand Canyon.
B.A.S.S. president Ray Scott planned the tournament as a grudge match. East vs. West. Good ‘ol boys vs. western underdogs. Klein was not intimidated by the likes of Bill Dance, Roland Martin, Jimmy Houston and others.
Klein found a mother lode of bass more than 140 miles from the takeoff and weigh-in site. Unheard of then was traveling so far to catch bass. The southern anglers were baffled after seeing the entire floorboard of Klein’s boat filled with 6-gallon gas tanks. His partner manually switched tanks as each ran empty. He needed every drop of fuel for the long run.
Klein began the tournament in 13th place with 19 pounds. The engine trouble struck the next day with another 20 pounds in the livewell.
“When I got back to the no-wake buoys the motor just locked up,” he recalled. “I moved into seventh place, knowing I could win but not at all without a boat going into the final day.
Waiting at the dock was Thomas. He later gave the Klein the keys to a borrowed boat, complete with 32-gallon fuel bladder tank.
To be safe, Klein left his productive area three hours early and one bass shy of a 7-bass limit. He was the last boat to arrive at the weigh-in. Scott practically declared Bill Dance the winner. Instead, it was Klein, using the borrowed boat and the flipping technique unknown to most until then.
As Forhan predicted the flipping technique caught fire on the tournament trail and the pages of Bassmaster. Ironically, it was Klein making the headlines.
Klein went on to miss by 1 pound, 14 ounces the 1979 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title won by Roland Martin. There would be better things to come.
WINNING WITH SISSY BAITS
What Thomas taught Klein about flipping another western angling icon did with another now mainstream bass fishing tactic. Today that is known as drop shotting.
Another apprenticeship developed when Forhan taught Klein how to use crappie jigs and the Tennessee-born Charlie Brewer Slider. The principle was using spinning tackle rigged with six-pound test line to catch suspended bass in deep water. Klein later apprenticed under Don Iovino, learning about another rogue western technique he would later call doodling.
Klein followed the same path, this time armed with spinning gear, light line and what the good ‘ol boys called “sissy baits.”
In 1984, Klein took sissy baits to their backyard. On Lake Lanier he finished third on the Georgia impoundment. He returned there the next year and won the invitational. In 1989 he went to Arkansas and won a third tournament catching suspended bass from Bull Shoals Lake. Without fanfare sissy fishing disappeared from the vocabulary of pro anglers. And the term finesse fishing was born.
Success has continued through the decades. Today the competitive drive tracks as it did when Klein issued the challenge to Thomas.
“I don’t want to fall by the wayside anytime soon,” he said. “When I am no longer competitive then I will know it’s time.”
If the early years count toward what Klein has already achieved there are many more years to come.