Same Mississippi River, different tournament

LA CROSSE, Wis. — Rivers and people can change a lot in 30 years. But Rick Clunn still knows how the Mississippi River rolls. It’s an understanding he gained in 1983 when he won the Bassmaster Wisconsin Invitational out of La Crosse.

Facing the same stretch of river in the Thursday-Sunday Bassmaster Elite Series Mississippi River Rumble, Clunn will tap into what he learned back then. And the confidence a winner feels when he returns to the victory water.

Surprisingly, the river hasn’t changed that much in three decades, said Clunn. Back then he lived in Texas, and now is in Ava, Mo., so he hasn’t had many chances to return to La Crosse since his win here.

“The one thing I think is different is there wasn’t as much grass. But we were here in May that time, and the grass may have been better come June,” said Clunn, a 14-time Bassmaster winner, including four Bassmaster Classics.

There’s no doubt the quality of the bass fishing has greatly improved, he added. Catching a limit in 1983 was “doing good,” and 10 to 20 percent of the field wasn’t catching a limit every day in that long-ago invitational.

“It’s probably twice as good now, maybe more than that,” he said. “We’ll easily see 60 to 70 limits (among the 98-angler Elite field). Probably more.”

A river can shift course, and backwaters can alter over the years. But the basic navigation lessons he learned in 1983 still hold true.

“You know you have to tiptoe your way in and tiptoe your way out (of backwaters). You also have to be real conscious about where the wing dams are. But we have one big advantage now we didn’t have then: GPS. You get the right chips, you’ll see those.”

Clunn is looking for another Mississippi tournament to remember. He needs a strong finish to earn enough points to help his bid for a 2013 Bassmaster Classic qualification. He was 49th in Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points going into the Rumble. One good event could improve his points standing enough to move within striking range of the 28th-36th points ranking that would likely be enough to earn his 33rd Classic appearance.

At least one of Clunn’s fellow Elite anglers is also getting a boost of confidence from a past win on the river out of La Crosse: Fred Roumbanis of Bixby, Okla. This stretch of the river — Pools 7-9 — is where he won a major tournament in 2005.

“That win absolutely launched my professional career,” he said. “When they announced that the Elite Series was coming to La Crosse, it absolutely gave me goose bumps to come back to a place where I won.”

Roumbanis, now established as a top bass pro, was on shakier ground back then financially and in his career record.

“Here I got enough confidence to take that next jump,” Roumbanis said. “I had fished the Bassmaster Tour in 2005. Then I went back home to California and won a Bassmaster Open on Lake Shasta, and that did it for me. I was ready for the Elite Series when it began in 2006.”

Roumbanis made the same observations as Clunn about the abundance of river grass and a healthy population of bass. The angler who brings in the kicker to set himself apart from limits of 2 1/2-pounders will do well, he said.

And like Clunn, Roumbanis, sitting 56th in points, is hoping the La Crosse event will get him close to a coveted Classic berth. The 2013 Classic will be in February on Grand Lake out of Tulsa, Okla., his adoptive home state.