What happens when Clunn calls it quits?

Steve Wright’s brilliant recent article about Rick Clunn has been the talk of the bass fishing world for several weeks, clogging up message boards and inspiring all sorts of armchair anglers like me to offer up their opinions. In it, Wright documented Clunn’s struggles as he approaches 70, not just with being competitive on the Bassmaster Elite Series, but wrestling with the issues of how to compete, too.

Specifically, Clunn has decided that after years of shunning help from local experts, now he will accept it and in fact will actively seek it out, like he suspects that so many of his peers do. Of course that riled up many of us who’ve vacillated between the polar extremes of “they all do it” and “why can’t the sport remain pure” over the years.

What really hit home for me, however, is the idea that Clunn may at some point decide that he can no longer be competitive, or that it’s no longer worth the effort to try.

In most sports, there are natural endings necessitated by physical limitations – your knees give out, the challenger knocks you out, or the team cuts you from the roster. That’s a definite end, and while there are outliers like Michael Jordan coming back to play for the Wizards or punch drunk boxers repeatedly unretiring for a payday, those are the exception rather than the rule. Eventually you just can’t hack it against the next generation of athletes.

In fishing, those firm barriers to remaining active don’t exist, so it’s possible for a septuagenarian to continue to compete at the highest level against kids young enough to be his grandchildren. It’s the rare sport where you can be elected to the hall of fame as a competitor while you’re still on the playing field.

As a result of those elastic career boundaries, it’s rare that we get a true retirement. Denny Brauer sort of gave us one after the 2012 season was completed but continues to fish in both Bassmaster Opens and AAA-level FLW Outdoors events, even winning a 2013 FLW Series tournament on Toledo Bend just six months after he “retired.” Roland Martin last fished B.A.S.S. events at the tour level in 2005 and dabbled in FLW Tour tournaments through 2014. I can understand his need to keep his competitive juices flowing, but at the same time it’s a shame that the latest generation seems to know him more as a TV show host, father of Scott Martin and sometime tournament angler than as one of the brightest stars in the sport’s history.

That’s why I hope that when Clunn eventually decides to leave the tour level, he gives us a clearer break and ample time to celebrate his achievements in the sport. Brauer, who probably would not have liked that attention, didn’t give us the opportunity to fête him that way, which seems to me to be a shame given his great contributions to the sport. As a fan, I’d like these guys who’ve meant so much to so many of us to get to bask in a bit of that glory.

They do it in other sports. A superstar like Derek Jeter or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar announces his pending retirement, and then each time he visits an opposing team’s arena for the last time they play highlight films and present a gift before a crowd that turns its previous hatred into respect. Sometimes they attempt to be comical by presenting a rocking chair in the team’s colors. Other times they offer up a piece of the parquet floor or a piece of art commemorating an important career moment. Wade Boggs even received a bass boat in Tampa Ray Devil Rays colors, which last I heard he never used.

Sometimes the retiring athlete – no doubt a bit depressed by his own professional mortality – refuses such pomp and circumstance, as Kobe Bryant has done in his final NBA season. I hope that Clunn, who has a reputation for being reclusive, doesn’t take that route. In my mind, he and Roland Martin are the two seminal anglers of early B.A.S.S. history, but for very different reasons.

Martin is best known for publicizing the idea of “pattern fishing,” building on a few bites or a few clues to be able to replicate his success even in parts of a lake he’d never seen before. Clunn, on the other hand, has taken a less linear route to greatness. Clearly he pioneered the idea that your success on the water is as much a function of what’s between your ears as what’s on the end of your line. What really stands out about him to me is his repeated willingness to unlearn everything he’d learned before and take chances.

Remember when everyone thought graphite rods were perfect for just about everything, but Clunn reverted to a fiberglass rod for cranking? Or what about when rods became increasingly specialized and he decided that a single action of casting rod could be used in the vast majority of applications, largely to simplify matters? Now he plans to turn his practice of not accepting information aside in order to remain competitive. In a sport where split-second assuredness and “fishing the moment” are considered inviolate bedrock principles of greatness, Clunn has repeatedly questioned his own status quo. His greatness in that respect was celebrated in Nick Taylor’s 1988 book Bass Wars, and it’s amazing to think that nearly 30 years later Clunn continues to evolve.

So, if given the chance, how would I celebrate Clunn’s farewell tour?

At first, I thought the key would be to set up a schedule based around many of his career achievements. Start at Lake Conroe in Texas, where he guided as a young man. Next move to Guntersville, where he won his first Classic, and then to Kissimmee, where he won again the next year. Maybe veer over to Lake Mead in Nevada where he won the U.S. Open using a spinnerbait in crystal clear water, a lure that relatively few others employed there at the time. Then you could go to the Arkansas River at Pine Bluff, and the James River, the sites of his third and fourth Classic victories. That’s six, so find two more venues that pertain to milestone events in his career and you could have a Clunn-centric schedule.

On second thought, however, that seems too predictable and contrived for someone who’s built a career out of bucking expectations and norms. I’d love it if B.A.S.S. could instead develop a schedule consisting entirely of lakes that aren’t typical tournament venues, and for which minimal local information could be garnered. That would seem to be more in the spirit of the man himself. If that doesn’t work, how about a tour consisting entirely of “mystery lakes,” with no information provided until the anglers meet at a predetermined spot? I realize that’s probably a pipe dream, that the logistics of moving 100-plus anglers and all of the staff to a previously-undisclosed location are nearly impossible. If that dream can’t be fulfilled, then maybe a single small-field mystery event would be enough – put ‘em on an airplane to “The Rick Clunn Classic” or if using that last word is frowned upon, then call it “The Clunn Cup.” That, to me, is the type of event that would properly salute his spirit.

I’m certainly not encouraging Clunn to call it quits today, or at any time in particular. I just hope that when he’s ready to take that step we recognize it in a way that’s consistent with all that he’s brought to our collective obsession.