CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. – Coming into the Bassmaster Elite at Santee Cooper Lakes brought to you by the United States Marine Corps., all too many fans had conceded the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title to veteran Texas pro Clark Wendlandt. He had a seemingly impenetrable lead and has a record as a certified closer with three FLW AOY titles to his credit. Wendlandt did his part last week, notching another quality finish with a 17th-place finish in South Carolina. In normal circumstances that might be enough to hold or even extend his lead, nothing about 2020 reflects anything that could be described as normal circumstances. Wendlandt now finds his lead decreased heading into the season’s home stretch.
It wasn’t Taku Ito, the former runner-up in the AOY standings, who is making him sweat. The rookie from Japan stumbled a bit and fell lower, but in the meantime Cory Johnston and David Mullins finished in the Top 10 and gained ground on Wendlandt.
For seventh-year Elite pro Mullins, it’s just another step in a career that seems to be maturing in a hurry. Despite winning a Southern Open on Douglas Lake in 2016, the Tennessee pro’s career has flown mostly under the radar. He has more than a half million dollars in Bassmaster winnings but only found his footing on a consistent basis last year, when he finished 20th in the AOY standings and qualified for his first Bassmaster Classic.
In the three years prior, he’d finished 67th, 53rd and 53rd in the year-long race, enough to get a taste of success and to get invited back, but not enough to make an imprint on the sport. That’s partially because of his personality.
“I’m just quiet,” he said. “I like being by myself. When I’m at home, I like to grab my chocolate lab and go do some farm work.” He referred to his roots as “blue collar” and noted that he slept in his truck most of the time his first three years on tour, except for the occasions when he roomed with former Elite pro Aaron Martens. He got to watch AMart – nicknamed “The Natural” by Dave Mercer – win from a front-row seat. This week he likewise saw Brandon Palaniuk make it look easy, as the Idaho angler notched his fifth Elite Series win on five different bodies of water.
Mullins finished eighth at Santee Cooper, enough to gain on Wendlandt, but not strong enough to match his prior Elite Series best. He’s finished fourth on three separate occasions and is desperate to taste victory.
“I’m getting tired of it,” he said. “I’m tired of not finishing, even though I know it’s a long process to get there. I should have won at Champlain this year by 4 pounds.”
While the lack of a blue trophy bothers him, he’s not allowing himself to think about season-long honors quite yet. There are two events left, the final one just a few hours from Wendlandt’s house.
“I’m just going to go fishing, and let the chips fall where they may,” Mullins said. “Clark’s a veteran. He’s not going to stumble.” He said that he hasn’t allowed himself to think about the next tournament at Chickamauga, let alone the Classic at Ray Roberts.
Additionally, if Mullins is to claim the title he’ll have to hold off all comers and pass over Cory Johnston, who finished third this week and moved up to the runner-up spot in the AOY race, one slot ahead of where he ended up last year.
Johnston, on the other hand, has chased the title closely before and knows how hard it is to come out on top. “We’ve narrowed the gap on him a little,” he said of Wendlandt. “I hope to keep chipping away. Clark is such a good fisherman, so well rounded, but anything can happen. This is what we live for. The Classic is one thing. A blue trophy is one thing. But the AOY is consistency, and that makes it special.”
Mullins said that his increased consistency over the past two years – he’s only missed one Day-2 cut, and that was only barely – has derived from being more relaxed.
“Money is a big part of that,” he explained. “I’m not sleeping in the bed of my truck anymore. It was tough when I knew it was going to cost $1,000 to get home from California, and I had to get a check at Havasu to do it. When that’s happening, you’re playing on that spiderweb line. I finally got my head above water.”
Despite the better finishes, Mullins hasn’t let the accolades – or the increased earnings – change his approach. “I’m still fishing with the same reels I used back in 2001,” he said.
“There’s people you respect, and you hope you’re one of them in other people’s eyes.” Classic qualifications and Top 10s go a long way toward that goal, but for now Mullins says his best characteristic is the result of the blinders he keeps on.
“I mind my own business,” he said with no emotion whatsoever.
Right now, business is booming.