As all BassFans know by now, the 2002 BASS Masters Classic was the first Classic in Rick Clunn's career that he didn't fish. That shows how intense a competitor he is, and being that way means it couldn't have been easy being at the Classic and not fishing it.

"Fortunately I was busy most of the time during the show," he said. "I've always had this ability -- I guess it's one of my talents in fishing -- to immerse myself in the moment. So at the show I was so busy I was just focused on that."

Clunn said "99.9 percent" of the fans he met at the show were "very kind and generous. The bass fishing crowd as a fan group is more intelligent than other fan groups I see on TV," he said. "What they say is more appropriate, the way they act and the questions -- I usually won't go through a day when I'm not stunned by the questions a 10- or 11-year-old kid is asking me."

So he enjoyed himself at the Classic outdoor show. What about the weigh-ins?

"Those were a little tougher because now I'm sitting there looking at it," Clunn said. "But at the same time I would have hated to have gone there and enjoyed myself at the weigh-in because that would be a pretty good indicator of where I am in my career and whether I wanted to go on.

"If it didn't hurt, then maybe I would have to consider where I was going in my career. But there was actually hurt there. The desire is still there if the pain is still there. Those were all good indicators to me."

Down to Level 2

Except for the first few years of his career, not making the Classic never crossed Clunn's mind -- "even this year," he said. "I never wondered if I would make it this year. I always assumed I would make it."

But he didn't this time, and not because the field suddenly moved up to his level, he said. "I rate my competitors according to whether they're level 1, 2 or 3. I've done that pretty much my whole career to gauge where the sport is moving level- and talent-wise.

"I think there are only 10-12 guys you can put in the level 1 category. That group (size) has not changed since about 1974. But the size of the level 2 group has changed considerably. Mechanically, (more pros) have definitely gotten better, and knowledge-wise they definitely know more than where we were 20 years ago. But mentally they're still a very fragile group."

Clunn added that he also doesn't put some pros into his level 1 category "because of one thing: they get outside help. People show them where to fish. They might have everything else, but that keeps them in level 2."

The bottom line for Clunn is that this season he was a level 2 angler. "I moved down to level 2 and that's why I got knocked out (of the Classic). I'm a level 1 fisherman, but mentally I have to do the things I have to do so I don't move back down to level 2.

"Level 2 is a good group. But if you're in the level 1 group, you'll never miss the Classic"

Too Many Distractions

Clunn's fall to level 2 was not because he resorted to getting help, which he doesn't do. "It's more the mental side of it," he said. "I was making bad choices and had too many external distractions to stay at level 1. You can't have outside distractions.

"Larry Nixon has always been a level 1 fisherman, but fell out for several years because of his TV show and family obligations. Not all distractions are negative. You just have to deal with them. Larry has moved back to level 1 by shutting out those distractions, and that's the same place I am."

Fishing the Opens This Fall

For the first time in more than a decade, Clunn will be fishing the Bassmaster Opens (the Centrals) this fall. Why? For two reasons, he said.

The first is to help his mental game before the Tour seasons start in January. The second is because he wants to take his fishing to another level, and he's said that being free from the Classic appearance streak will help him do that.

"There's not a switch to flip," Clunn said. "You have to make a conscious effort to do that. At (the Opens) I'm going to make some changes, and I may fish a Central Pro-Am (the Central Pro-Am Association, not B.A.S.S.)."

Including the FLW Tour Championship, that means he will fish "at least one event per month. That's still not really adequate, but I don't want to start cold-turkey in the spring."