Rick Clunn is 72 years old, yet he remains as exhilarated as a teenager about tournament bass fishing. That paradox of age and excitement begs the question made famous by pitching legend Satchel Paige, who at age 42 became the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball history: “How old would you be, if you didn’t know how old you was?”
Clunns’ answer: “28 or 29. That’s not just because I love to fish, and I love what I’m doing. It’s life in general.”
With 452 B.A.S.S. tournaments on his resume, dating back to 1974, in which he cashed 291 checks, and 32 Bassmaster Classic appearances in which he won four Classic titles, Rick Clunn still loves the challenge of it all. He remains the kid in the candy store.
You can’t, however, have the roses without the thorns.
“I feel great when I get out of bed in the morning,” Clunn said. “The scariest moment for me is when I look in the mirror.”
After the laughter from me, a 65-year-old grizzled “senior correspondent” died, Clunn kept ribbing himself, saying, “I took the mirror out of my camper.” Then he added one final shot of self-deprecation: “That’s why I like the wind when I’m fishing. On calm days, the lake turns into one big mirror.”
Yes, Clunn looks every bit of 72. But those thorns come with the roses of a healthy body, an open mind, a willingness to learn and a zest for life. Clunn isn’t too old to reinvent his tournament fishing style. He is a bit frustrated by how slowly the change has come about. His B.A.S.S. career began in the days of the 10- and then seven-bass daily limits. Quantity was the key then – catch as many keepers as possible every day and the tournament totals would take care of themselves.
“The old theory was put a limit in the boat, no matter what, then try to catch a kicker fish the rest of the day,” he said.
Clunn has been a part of the Bassmaster Elite Series since its birth in 2006. In those five-bass limit events, Clunn can point to three tournaments where he fully embraced his extreme makeover philosophy – focusing on the five bass needed to win, even if it means the failure to weigh in a limit at the end of each day.
The first and best example came at Texas’ Falcon Lake in 2013. As some will recall, it ended in a one-day-delayed final shootout between Clunn and Keith Combs. Combs prevailed with a four-day total of 111 pounds, 5 ounces to Clunn’s 105-6. What you might not recall is that Clunn weighed only three bass totaling 12-12 on Day 1 and was in 79th place.
“I weighed the two biggest (five bass) strings of my career the next two days,” recalled Clunn of his 32-9 and 36-14 totals. “In the years before then, I would have probably moved too fast through that area. It was just one stretch of about 50 yards.
“Every time I’ve had those type of days, it has reinforced what I’m trying to do, which is to move very slowly through an area where the big fish are. That one tournament allowed me to tolerate the pain of not weighing in a limit every day. But it also puts you in a position of failing more than I’d like.”
Example No. 2 of Clunn’s reinvention effort came in 2016 at Florida’s St. Johns River. It resulted in his first and only Elite Series victory. Clunn was concentrating on two small areas. He was sharing one, which he thought to be the better of the two, with Brent Chapman. Clunn was in 31st place after two days with a total of 31-8. Both he and Chapman started on that spot on Day 3, but Clunn made an early decision to move to his secondary area.
That decision resulted in arguably the most emotionally electric weigh-in ceremony in Elite Series history. Grown men had tears in their eyes as Clunn, carrying one of the necessary two weigh-in bags, trailed by Skeet Reese toting the other, brought five bass totaling 31-7 to the scales. Talk about reinforcing the change in philosophies. That move to an area Clunn could dissect at length without distraction came within an ounce of matching the 10 fish total from the first two days. It vaulted Clunn from 31st to first – with a 6-pound lead. He would seal the victory with 19-0 on Day 4 and finish with a 4-pound margin over second-place Greg Hackney.
The most recent example of Clunn embracing the change came in the final regular season event of 2018 at New York’s St. Lawrence River. Clunn weighed the three heaviest five-bass smallmouth bags of his life – 21-4, 22-4 and 19-9 – to finish 21st.
“I caught them from three areas that were right next to each other,” Clunn said. “The key was being thorough. I could catch a lot of small fish quickly, but the bigger fish came after I really slowed down.”
To further explain this change in philosophy, Clunn gave the example of finding and running a pattern, like he used to do.
“If you catch a fish on a stump on a windy point, you try to duplicate that,” he said. “If you find 20 stumps on windy points, you’ve got a pattern. But rarely have I caught a big string like that, when I’m moving a lot. I like to find two or three spots now, which are not far apart, so I don’t spend a lot of time running.”
It’s about putting a lure in front of the “right fish” as many times as possible, until you begin to understand both how best to present the lure and get a clue as to what time of day they’re more likely to bite.
Clunn said maximizing practice time is crucial for him. It’s easier said than done to go through a couple of fruitless practice days without panicking and falling back on the old philosophy of searching for keeper bites, so you can at least save face come tournament time and possibly stumble into a kicker or two.
“My whole key is practice and looking for the right fish,” he said. “Practice every day for the right fish and don’t panic when you haven’t found them after two days.”
This reinvention in Clunn’s tournament philosophy is another roses/thorns situation. Rather than focusing on the thorns of having to change what had brought him so much success in his career, Clunn has embraced the roses of transformation.
“I’m very fortunate that I’ve had to relearn how to do what I like to do,” he said. “It has forced me to mentally start over. Some of the most exciting times of your life are when you’re early in your career and you’re beginning to figure out the puzzle. The puzzle has always been what has intrigued me anyway.”
So how long does Clunn plan to continue his attempts to solve this puzzle on the Bassmaster Elite Series?
“I don’t embrace timelines,” he said. “They’re all false – the terrible twos, the troubled teenage years, the midlife crisis. When I was younger, this guy always told me, ‘Just wait until you’re 40 and everything starts to fall apart.’ I recalled that one day when it dawned on me that I was 41, and I thought, ‘Hey, I’m still okay.’”
When the calendar changes at midnight on Dec. 31st every year, Clunn sincerely celebrates a “Happy New Year,” with the emphasis on “new.”
“Every new year is an opportunity to get better,” he said, adding with a laugh, “As long as I don’t cut my arm off breaking mirrors, I’m going to keep embracing the opportunity.”