"I am truly a “lone traveler” and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and need for solitude – feelings which increase with the years.
March 20, 2016 was a date that tormented me for quite some time. Two years, 10 months, and 21 days, to be exact.
It was the final round of the Bassmaster Elite event on Florida’s St. Johns river and, after weighing the tournament’s largest stringer the previous day, Rick Clunn was threatening to win. I debated attending the weigh-in – just an hour or so from my home – but found one reason or another not to; too busy with a husband’s Sunday duties.
What a mistake.
Given nearly identical circumstances this time around, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. So, with an hour left in the 2019 St. Johns slugfest, I pointed the truck toward Palatka. The rest, as we all know, is truly history.
It would be impossible for me to illustrate Rick Clunn’s impact on professional bass fishing in the space of this column. In every facet and level of competition – from Kevin VanDam to those who have never made a competitive cast – I have met and spoken with individuals who credit Clunn for their passion, their success, even their life’s work.
I can personally attest to such influence.
As a young man trying to find my place in a confusing world, I studied every aspect of Clunn’s public life in an attempt to emulate his method.
Because with Clunn, you see, everything can be credited to a method.
I recall watching Clunn in early videos and traveling to see him speak at various sport shows and retail events. There, for the first time, I witnessed a grown man who made no excuses for his chosen path and profession. From what I understood, there was no difference in growing up to become a professional fisherman as there was becoming an accountant or a doctor; all were simply the result of commitment and continued study of the subject matter.
Now remember, this was long before today’s trend of start-up businesses and self-employment, during a time when college and a good job were key talking points to the dads of America.
I doubt Clunn could ever realize how much impact he had on these decisions – the true life-changing choices and career paths – of so many young anglers across America.
Further study of Clunn’s fishing methods again revealed no accidental success. While Roland Martin is often credited with the popularization of pattern fishing, Clunn was the first to teach us all how to systematically break down foreign bodies of water, dividing large impoundments into more approachable sections. In addition, certain regions contained unique characteristics – be it cover, or water clarity – that could be capitalized on with specific fishing techniques. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in dividing new bodies of water when practicing for a tournament, just the way Clunn had taught.
Through history, Clunn’s fishing methods have adapted, yet remained true to his system. A self-admitted student of the game, Clunn has publicly announced his adaptation toward targeting fewer, but larger, bass when competing, as well as his difficulties in doing so successfully. Yet, since day 1, Clunn’s tactics have never wavered from the core principles of power-fishing.
Reflecting on a few career highlights: We’ve all read of Clunn’s discovery of the original mothe rlode in the 1984 Classic, when he lapped the competition cranking offshore ledges. Fast forward to the 1990 event on the James River, and again we watched Clunn define the intricacies of successful cranking with a coffin-billed lure of his own design, the RC-1.
Clunn took his power play up north a time or two, besting the field with smallmouth caught on Lake Ontario using largemouth tactics: waking a double-bladed spinnerbait on a heavy baitcast outfit, boat-flipping limits of 3-pounders.
We watched Clunn tire of Larry Nixon’s MegaBucks dominance and take down his own title (the Greenville Sun would later report “Whatever you call it, a phenomenal win or a comeback, you can never, never count Rick Clunn out…”).
As the sport expanded, and FLW opened up the vault, Clunn was there, not surprisingly, winning over $400,000 in 2000 alone, mostly on spinnerbaits and buzzbaits, as well as large wooden crankbaits fished aggressively.
Even today, in the wake of a changing fishery and feast-or-famine conditions on the St. Johns, Clunn never backed down, going old-school with a GatorTail worm on a half-ounce weight.
I, too, still have a few packs of those lures, likely due to Clunn’s success more than my own.
His influence is everywhere, yet he never tried to establish it like the pros of today. There’s never been a massive social media push or college-speaking tour or even very many interviews with Clunn. Fans considered themselves lucky when he made a quick cameo on a half-hour TV show.
Luckily, there’s been a few sources of inside information that junkies like me immediately embraced. Clunn’s early life story is immaculately detailed as part of the book Bass Wars by Nick Taylor.
Here, we first learn of Clunn’s methodology beyond the cast – the use of positive imaging to visualize and work toward a chosen outcome. The pursuit of perfection in fishing. Tapping into the power of intuition. Such directions in sports were new at that time as a whole – and totally foreign in terms of tournament fishing. Yet, as we’re finding, Clunn was decades ahead of his time.
A few fans have also heard of the survival/advanced fishing school Clunn offered at his home in the early 2000s. There, students including Takahiro Omori, David Walker, Byron Velvick and others learned everything from fire-building to flipping techniques, and how all fit together in the naturally balanced world to which bass belong. The following year, Omori would win the Bassmaster Classic.
It’s been over 40 years since Clunn won his first Classic, yet he continues to be a threat to win any tournament he puts his sophisticated mind to, as we again witnessed last week. On stage, Clunn was sure to provide a message as always: this one of never letting your best days get behind you.
Without Clunn, where would we be? He was the first to teach us so many things, from power-fishing square-bills to the environmental threats facing our waterways. How can we ever re-pay him?
And what will he teach us next?
(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.)