“For the first time in my life, I no longer feared death.”
– Rick Clunn, describing the final day of the 1990 Bassmaster Classic.
Sometime around 2002, I attended an event that would forever change my life. Rick Clunn, regarded as possibly the greatest tournament bass fisherman of all time, led a group of instructors at his Angling Awareness School, taking place on Clunn’s property in a remote section of the Ozark Mountains.
The true purpose of the course was simple: guide anglers to achieve perfection in their fishing. The methods involved were more complex and rather peculiar – often drawing a fuzzy line between reality and thought.
Students were taught survival skills like building fire and tracking wildlife, as well as internal awareness training through meditation and the use of Native American sweat lodges. For some, the program was pretty far out – but all attendees were there for the same reason: to simply get close to Clunn.
Through most of the 1980s and '90s, Clunn was undeniably the most threatening of all tournament fishermen. While he could win at any time, he seemed to fish at a different level when big money was on the line. Through the period, he would establish the record for Classic wins, win the All-American, steal the show out West at the U.S. Open, and take down hundreds of thousands of dollars from the newly formed FLW Tour.
Also during this time, Clunn began coming forward with his belief in intuitive thinking as the driving force in fishing, and his experiences in trying to get “in the zone," as coined in other athletic sports.
Being a disciple of Clunn, I immersed myself in every facet of teaching he would offer on such subjects. Others did too, for it was apparent to many avid tournament anglers that the unexplainable was often at work in fishing, and Clunn’s was the mind leading the charge to justify why.
Through careful study, I felt I understood the principles of Clunn’s method. To summarize – in my words, not his – only through self-discipline and hard work can we reach a level where our internal mind guides us. This internal, intuitive side is vastly more knowledgeable than the intellectual side of thought – the “learned behavior” that is a result of life experiences. In fact, to some degree, the answers to nearly everything are already available within the intuitive side of the universe.
In addition, it was Clunn’s opinion that only a fisherman’s own experiences can lead him to success, and any additional information gained through the experiences of others simply takes us further from our self-reliant goal of perfection.
While Clunn acknowledged his accomplishments and records at the time, he believed the greatest anglers of all were both behind us – in the form of Native Americans – and in front.
Someday, he taught, tournament anglers would better recognize this intuitive feeling and perform at levels far superior to what they were accomplishing at the time. In Clunn’s words, there were “no limits."
Further study of Clunn’s methods revealed this thought process – that of trying to reach perfection through methods indescribable by modern intellect – was one he had studied and tried to perfect for decades, dating as far back as the early 1980s. At the time, such practices would frequently earn him strange looks and off-colored comments from his peers at bass tournaments.
Fast-forward a few decades and things are looking quite different. In today’s world of big-league bass, we’re regularly shown signs of dominance at levels never thought possible in tournament competition. Examples include Aaron Martens' unbelievable Bassmaster AOY season, Andy Morgan racking up the most points in history on the FLW side, and Ray Hansleman going 4-for-4, just to name a few.
Never before have fans of bass fishing been witness to more compelling proof of Clunn’s life work. In a sport that was once regarded as pure luck, we’ve learned that select anglers are superior to the rest, and, for the most part, they succeed primarily through better decision-making. Many top pros now focus more on physical training, mental exercise, diet and mediation; some even employ a mental coach for the very purpose of convincing themselves of what Clunn has preached all along.
Last Sunday, we were graced with yet another example of “no limits” fishing; this time the lecture given by the master himself. Rick Clunn, at the age of 69, returned to the historic St Johns River to take down another national title. He did so despite hard charges by one of the best fishermen in the sport, one of the best newcomers, and one of the best, ever, on the St Johns River.
On day 3of the event, Clunn caught what was handily the largest stringer of the tournament; doing so by going against the grain and refraining from sight-fishing – something he has done his entire career – and employing a power-fishing method of old-school winding. And he did it on what many feel is the greatest sight-fishing venue on earth.
Clunn showed us that fateful day that there are no limits. There never has been in fishing, and there never will be. That’s why we all play the game.
If you’ll re-read the opening sentence of this column, you’ll see that Clunn has attained a level in his fishing that most of us will never understand. But he has done so only through lifelong study and hard work, and has therefore taught us all that anything is possible in fishing, in nature and in life.
Last week, Clunn walked to the head of the class once again to make sure we’re all still listening, and hadn’t forgotten the lesson. And, while he claimed it was for his son, I think it’s obvious there was again something greater at work.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)