Angling great Clunn answers why he fishes
The “Why” that has directed the life of the man who is arguably the greatest professional bass angler of all time is anchored somewhere between pragmatics and genetics.
In my own effort to understand why we anglers are so passionate about fishing, I arranged for a conversation with bass angling’s legendary Rick Clunn to learn why he chose to focus on bass, to make his living in the sport and to still compete full throttle at age 77.
Clunn, celebrating his 50th year as a pro bass angler, certainly has no shortage of accomplishments. He won the Bassmaster Classic four times (as did Kevin Van Dam, but no one else has won more than twice), is the oldest angler to ever win a Bassmaster Elite tournament (age 75 at the St. Johns River in Florida) and is generally regarded as co-G.O.A.T along with Van Dam.
“Why?” I asked him. “Why did you decide to focus on fishing, bass in particular?”
Clunn, who today lives in the Missouri Ozarks, is known for thinking outside the box in matters related to life and fishing, striving to understand the relationship humans have with other animals and the universe itself.
“The original part, the reason, is we’re a predator,” Clunn said. “Predator-prey relationships are in our genetics. Dad used to tell Mom, ‘If I don’t get out in the woods today, I’m going to go crazy.’ I get that. It’s part of all human beings.”
Clunn said going outdoors felt natural to him.
“It’s real magic, wading down a creek, being in the woods.”
With so many options, why did Clunn choose to specialize in bass fishing?
“Availability, to some extent. Where I grew up in south Oklahoma and Texas, you could go to the dangdest ditches and catch bass. That was part of it. Bass were available, and they also were aggressive. At first, I caught them on grasshoppers and minnows and whatever we had,” Clunn said.
Magic happened the day Clunn caught his first bass on a Lucky 13 topwater plug.
“I got hooked when I caught that first one on an artificial lure. I thought that was fair. Something in me to this day, when pursuing an animal in nature, tells me it is good to be fair. The first time I ever watched one hit the Lucky 13, it was exciting, and when it came down to it, it was fair,” he said.
“It also was so visual, an epiphany, that most of us are not ever aware of on a conscious level. So whether you chose a salmon, trout, catfish or bass, it’s just a way to help us connect. Just like Dad would go crazy if he couldn’t go out in the woods, it is important to our culture and society to stay connected to nature.”
As a celebrity in the fishing world, Clunn sometimes had to deal with animal rights activists. “PETA would protest at big tournaments sometimes. I told them, ‘Remember, the bass always makes the final decision. PETA left us alone after that.”
Why does he continue putting his 77-year-old body on the road for six months a year, fishing every day in cold and heat for weeks in a row?
“It goes back to my original reason. I remember Dad and I were on Sam Rayburn (Texas lake) on a tough day. We went back to the dock with the old excuse, the fish weren’t biting that day,” he said.
“That’s when I observed my first bass tournament. It was a club event. I saw all those pointy- nose boats, guys hopping out in stupid-looking jumpsuits, and they had lots of bass. Obviously the fish were biting. That really accelerated my learning, and to this very day it’s why I continue to do it. It’s about learning.
“I don’t like losing, but I don’t mind it so much when I’m learning. Fishing is kind of like science: so much of it is theory. New developments in technology enable us to see much of what we used to just guess about.”
With a half century of experience, what does Clunn see 50 years from now?
“I visualized a lot in my early career, using visualization and meditation to help me compete but also to see into the future. Some of what I saw was accurate, but a lot of it I never saw happening,” Clunn said.
“I never saw the high school fishing coming or the college kids coming. We didn’t have Little League (for fishing) like other sports. Young people were totally reliant on dads and granddads.”
Clunn is not sure what the future holds.
“It’s very hard to predict. … I recall the oil embargo in the 1970s and the 2008 financial crisis. Times like that make us want to get back out on the lake and in the woods,” he said.
His GOAT career packed with accomplishments, Clunn wishes to continue learning.
“I realize a lot of things I did wrong. Electronics are showing me we did not know the world wasn’t flat (figuratively). It’s round, which is my metaphor for deep-water fishing.
“I took a survival course 20 years ago, not for survival but for awareness reasons. A Native American was teaching tracking, and when he found out what I did for a living, he came up to me at the end and told me I did it backwards. He was fishing to enlighten me. He told me, if I wanted to understand the owl, I needed to study the mouse.
“I would like to go back and study the mouse.”