By Todd Ceisner
With the direction the bass fishing tournament world has been going, Rick Clunn could sense his old ways needed to change. He needed to evolve or risk getting left behind.
Long gone were the days of the 15-fish limit when a bounty of 2-pounders would suffice come tournament day. Clunn thrived under those parameters, but the competition has gotten younger and more resourceful. The playing field has changed. The emphasis has shifted to five big bites rather than a mass quantity of average ones.
Clunn knew he needed to reinvent himself and commit himself to the process. It’s the new reality and while Rick Clunn 2.0 hasn’t totally completed his reboot, he cleared a major hurdle on that path last week when he set the tournament world on its ear with an unexpected win at the St. Johns River Elite Series.
“I hope so,” he said. “I’ve known what to do for 3 or 4 years to reinvent myself. It hasn’t been easy to do. I knew I had to give up 30 strikes a day in practice and focus on the event. I had to focus on quality fish. You can catch 2-pounders every day in every tournament, but you won’t make the cut. Nowadays, you can’t fish for 2-pounders. You have to fish for 4-pounders.”
With the bass, big and small, all around the St. Johns in the midst of their spawning ritual and maybe toward the tail end of the process, he was able to zero in on quality fish in Lake George.
The river had been a thorn in Clunn’s side for some time, though. In three previous Elite Series events held there, his best finish was 55th. Last season was just as much of a struggle, too. He cashed only one check and had five finishes of 81st or lower. He finished 2015 in 104th place in Angler of the Year points.
At the Table Rock Central Open last fall, he put his new approach to the test and it resulted in a 3rd-place finish even though he was one fish short of a limit on day 1.
“I know what to do, but it’s all about discipline in practice,” he said. “I stayed with a big-fish pattern all 3 days. I’m working on it, but I’m not completely there yet. That’s what I did (at the St. Johns). I refused to fish for small limits. I refused to pick up smaller baits.
“This place has been my worst system in my whole career. This is really a neat place to try and reinvent myself on what’s been my worst body of water – and it’s a great body of water.”
He had decent days the first 2 days of the tournament, averaging 10 to 12 bites per day to make the cut in 31st place with 31-08.
“Going out on day 3, I really thought I could catch a 20-pound bag,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about 31 until I had four big ones in the bag and figured I’d try to cull out a 4-pounder.”
A storm front that brought a change in wind direction on Saturday led to a tremendous hour of fishing as Clunn loaded the boat with a homemade vibrating jig. He finished with a stunning, tournament-best 31-07 stringer and gave himself the cushion he needed to close out the win with 19-00 on Sunday. His 81-15 total was about 9 pounds shy of Chris Lane’s winning total from 2014 and eclipsed that of Edwin Evers (2011) and Alton Jones (2012).
Here’s how he did it.
In the past, Clunn had been resistant to adopt the slow and methodical pace that is sometimes required to have success in Florida, especially when the finicky fish are on beds and don’t commit to biting right away.
Last week, he devoted some time in practice to Lake George, where the vast majority of the field wound up fishing. There were fish piled into spawning areas in and around the prevalent eelgrass as well as dollar pads, but the east side had been battered by a west wind and stayed muddy through much of practice.
While others were focused on marking as many spawning fish as they could, Clunn picked up on something he saw some locals doing with live bait in Crescent Lake to the east of George.
“I watched shiner fisherman in Crescent flipping shiners up under docks,” he said. “That was halfway through the day and after that I tied on a big Luck E Strike swimbait and started skipping it under docks. I caught a 6-pounder doing that and that got me on the shad-type bait. I got bit consistently.”
Still, he had to figure out a way to cover water, but not go too fast.
“The St. Johns had never been friendly to me,” he added. “It never fit my style. I never slowed my lure down, but I figured my boat could slow me down. Instead of covering 50 yards in 5 minutes, I was sitting for 10 to 15 minutes in one spot with my Power-Poles down and that allowed me to cover an area pretty thoroughly.”
He focused on stretches in between the cypress trees and grass line where there was a mix of hydrilla and dollar pads.
“I just worked the inside line,” he said. “It was something I got on toward the end of practice and I’d found two areas. Brent Chapman and I were sharing one and on the last 2 days, he stayed on one and I stayed on the other.”
> Day 1: 5, 16-11
> Day 2: 5, 14-13
> Day 3: 5, 31-07
> Day 4: 5, 19-00
> Total = 20, 81-15
The conditions on day 1 were suitable for sight-fishing, but Clunn opted instead to build on what he found in practice rather than fight the crowds for what figured to be a dwindling supply of spawners.
He worked the grass lines with his homemade vibrating jig and pitched around the same Luck E Strike ring worm that helped Lane win in 2014.
His 31-08 total at the halfway mark had him 31st, just about 8 pounds back of leader Greg Hackney and 2-12 ahead of 51st place. By clinching a check, it’d already been a successful tournament from a financial standpoint.
With his wife, Melissa, and youngest son, River, due to arrive in Jacksonville on a previously scheduled flight Saturday afternoon – they’d planned a Spring Break trip to the beach once the tournament finished up – day 3 turned into another classic Clunn snapshot in a career filled with them.
At the dock Saturday morning, while chatting with Cliff Crochet, one of the younger pros who Clunn gets a kick out of being around, Clunn floated the idea that he felt he was going to catch 20 pounds that day.
As it turned, out the conditions played right into his hands. He caught two decent fish to start on the ring worm, but during the late morning a front started to push through and the wind picked up and changed directions.
“It was a perfect storm,” Clunn said. “The wind shifted and it started raining.”
And the big fish started biting. He caught a 6-pounder on the ring worm, which he’d been using under slicker conditions.
Clunn ignored all of the sight-fishing opportunities and opted to cast and reel to notch his 15th career B.A.S.S. win.
“The minute I caught that one, the wind moved and started blowing and I picked up that moving bait,” he said.
The next hour proved to be one of the memorable 60-minute segments of his storied career. The key, he believes, was throwing a reaction bait rather than dragging or hopping something along the bottom.
“I don’t know if these fish are so far along without having much of a winter, but it seemed like there were some post-spawners in there ready to eat,” he said.
When it was windy, he kept the vibrating jig just under the surface, sometimes waking it back.
“I kept it high in the water column and they’d just smash it,” he said. “I had to go to the worm when it got calm. I made long casts, almost blind-casting it to areas.”
After he checked in Saturday, he called Melissa to find out if they’d landed yet. She and River were running a little late so he held off until they arrived in Palatka before weighing in because he knew he had a giant bag of fish. River hadn’t witnessed any of his dad’s tournament wins – the last came in 2002 – so it was important to Clunn for him to be there.
“Early in my career, I fished for myself,” Clunn said. “I know that sounds selfish, but for most competitors that’s what it was about – number one. I’m at a stage in life now where my wife and sons and girls are number one.
“It took my daughters a long time to figure out what the heck their dad did. They’d asked, ‘When are you going to get a job at the store?’ They’d see me leave for a week or two at a time and come home for a week, but they didn’t see any sort of work being done.
“For my sons (Sage is 17, River is 12), they hear all this stuff from their friends and friends’ dads about how great I am. To them, I’m still just dad. I’m not Rick Clunn, the bass fisherman.”
On Saturday, River had a front-row seat to see what this Rick Clunn, the bass fisherman, is all about. With many of his fellow competitors crowded around the stage, Clunn slammed 31-07 and took the wind out of the sails of the other anglers near the top of the leaderboard.
He carried a 6-pound lead into the final day and rode a strong early morning bite Sunday to the win, withstanding a 21-pound effort from Hackney, who finished 4 pounds back. Afterward, Clunn was reflective on whether he thinks this could be his last triumph.
“I have to remember to evolve,” he said. “That’s where I’m at. I have to evolve. I can’t be the Rick Clunn of old and win again. Will I win again? I hope so, but who knows.”
Winning Pattern Notes
> Clunn said he had a Texas-rigged swimbait tied on, but eventually went to the vibrating jig with a swimbait trailer because the single swimbait wasn’t coming through the grass how he wanted it to.
> He mainly used a vibrating jig with a green hue to it and a green skirt. The strikes, he added, were violent.
“When they’d eat it, they’d almost take the rod out of your hand,” he said. “It was a fun bite. It’d be in the back of their throat.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Vibrating jig gear: 7’6” heavy-action Bass Pro Shops Carbonlite casting rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Signature Series Carbonlite casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 65-pound Bass Pro Shops Excel braided line, 3/8-oz. homemade vibrating jig (green skirt), 5” Luck "E" Strike Luck "E" Swim (sexy shad) trailer.
> Clunn made it clear he has no intention of mass-producing or marketing the vibrating jig he built and used. He said it was important to use stout components – a strong hook and heavy-duty snap – so it would hold up when swinging 5- and 6-pound fish into the boat.
> Worm gear: Same rod, reel and line, 1/4-oz. Bass Pro Shops XPS tungsten worm weight, 5/0 Owner worm hook, 6” Luck “E” Strike original ringer worm (black with blue tail).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Slowing my boat down and fishing bigger baits. I’ve known for about 5 years now that I have to reinvent myself. Fishing for 2-pounders won’t cut it anymore.”
> Performance edge – “My Power-Poles were crucial to the way I fished all week.”
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