Professional bass fishing is an ever-advancing sport.
Unlike basketball or baseball, which have seen relatively few fundamental changes, bass fishing is radically different from its 1960s genesis.
Technological advances have influenced the aforementioned games but nowhere near to the degree of bass fishing.
Being one of the sport’s oldest competitors, four-time Bassmaster Classic champion Rick Clunn has seen it grow from its free-for-all infancy to a tech-driven 21st century juggernaut.
And his observations on how technology has and could have changed the game are intriguing.
“GPS is the most powerful, addictive force in professional fishing,” Clunn says.
“It is the one thing that has the potential to change everything about the sport.”
Clunn says the ability to save hundreds of pinpoint locations and even synchronize them with certain trolling motors is “something we never would have dreamed of in the beginning.”
“They are, no doubt, a tool that will never go away and that has added a level of precision to the sport unlike anything else,” Clunn says. “The benefits are obvious, but the drawbacks are seductive.”
I recently spoke with a young angler who detailed a bad run on a regional tournament trail. When I asked what the problem was, the angler said, “My spots didn’t hold up. My GPS sort of betrayed me.”
“That’s the problem right there,” Clunn says. “It’s not worth losing your instinct to have convenience. You can have both, but you have to walk a very fine line.”
He worries young competitors will be extremely technically proficient but lose the “it factor” of the great anglers of the past and present.
“Instead of learning minute details of seasonal patterns, water conditions, weather factors and ecology, I fear we will have people who simply get the GPS coordinates, which are so easily obtainable, and run the numbers until they find fish,” Clunn says. “There is an art to fishing, and there is potential for some of that to be lost by total reliance on GPS.”
Clunn, who has always been known to find locations others passed by, could have faced a very different 1984 Classic had GPS been at play.
“It is certainly ushering us into a whole new era of fishing, for better or for worse. We’ll see,” he says.
Sometimes technological advances would have changed the game in a negative way in earlier tournaments.
Take for example the 1983 U.S. Open, which Clunn won chiefly by fishing a Rebel Pop-R in a unique, lightning-fast fashion instead of the slow “chug-chug-sit” cadence most anglers used.
Soon after, the lure was discontinued and then renewed a few years later, but according to Clunn, something was different due to new manufacturing techniques and design.
“The lure just didn’t fish the right way for that technique anymore, so I could not have performed the same way in that tournament with the later models,” Clunn says.
Clunn notes that new manufacturing processes and different components that enable mass production often skimp on the details.
“And sometimes you actually improve overall quality, but with certain very specific techniques, those advances can have a negative impact.”
In the 1976 Classic, Clunn was in third place on Day 1 with only seven out of a 10-fish limit. He lost six fish that day.
“I didn’t lose six fish in a year, and here I was losing six in one day at the Classic. The next day I [took] the lead, but I lost seven fish that day.”
On the final day, something clicked after losing more fish.
“I was throwing a little square bill, and when the fourth fish of the day hit, I did something different,” Clunn says. “I stopped, pushed the rod toward the fish and set the hook, and after that every one of the fish had the lure in its throat.”
The problem was, he was using new graphite rods given to all of the Classic-qualifying anglers, and they were too sensitive.
“A bass ‘pushes’ a crankbait when it comes up behind it, and if you are a good angler you can feel that, and what happens is that you set the hook too early. The glass rods aren’t as sensitive, and when you feel the fish, it is actually on the lure, not behind it.”
Clunn has a line of rods called S-Glass by Wright & McGill that are affordable and hearken back to the glass rods of the past.
“They definitely make a positive difference in my crankbait fishing,” he says.
A more recent innovation that Clunn says would have been a game changer at any point in time is shallow-water anchoring systems such as the Power-Pole and Talon.
“If I would have had my Power-Poles from day one, I have no doubt that I would have won six to seven more tournaments,” he says.
According to Clunn, the greatest mistake is not repeating the exact cast you just made to catch a fish.
“First off, bass are often together, so there very well could be another there. With Power-Poles, you can click the button to put them down when you get bit and maintain optimum position,” he says.
A similar technology used by everyone I have ever interviewed on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour is Google Earth mapping.
“That is definitely a mind-blowing change and one that is a plus. I mean, anglers still have to study and understand what certain things mean in the environment, so from that perspective it is a little different from GPS. There is no doubt it would have changed things had it existed in the beginning,” Clunn says.
Clunn used to fly over areas before tournaments to look for grass and other key fish habitat.
“Now you can do that by simply getting on the computer. The only advantage flyovers had was we used to be able to do that right up close to tournament time, and we could get an idea of water levels, clarity, current vegetation growth, etc. Google Earth isn’t updated all the time, so it isn’t always accurate, but it gives you a mind-blowing look at areas we never dreamed possible back in the early days.”
One possible problem anglers have is too many choices and too much detail.
“Take an area like the Sabine River system site out of Orange, where we opened the Elite Series tour in 2013. You have virtually unlimited fishing areas with hundreds and hundreds of square miles of potential habitat. When you have the ability to microanalyze areas, you can overdo it. The key is taking a balanced approach,” he says.
Change is inevitable, and Clunn believes those who embrace it while remaining highly aware of nature and the fundamentals of fishing will be the future greats.
“Technology is great, but in the long run it cannot replace awareness. If you can feel subtle weather changes or discern particular water changes or simply feel something is about to happen, that is awareness, and I have always said that is more valuable than intelligence,” Clunn says.
He believes the angler who gets that aspect and is in-tune with technology will go far.
“Just because something is new does not mean it’s better. Some innovations are game changers, and others are hype,” Clunn says. “Technology in and of itself is neutral. It is the angler who chooses whether to master it or to let it master you.”