By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The only Bassmaster Classic to date that's been contested at Alabama's Lake Guntersville got under way on Nov. 3, 1976 – a day after Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th President of the United States. Rick Clunn doesn't recall whether he voted for Carter or Gerald Ford in that election, or whether he voted at all.
"Financially, I was as low as I've ever been," he said. "That's what just about all of my focus was on."
Clunn's windfall from the first of his four Classic triumphs – nearly $26,000 in cash, plus several thousand more in endorsements and all of the guide trips he could handle at Lake Conroe in Texas – changed the course of his career. He'd earned less than $8,000 in 3 professional seasons to that point after quitting his job as a computer programmer at Exxon, with nearly half of that amount coming from a runner-up showing at Cordell Hull Reservoir in Tennessee the previous summer.
"I was as desperate as I ever was," he said. "I don't think it would've been the end for me if I hadn't won that Classic because I know what my mindset was. When I started out I said I'd give it 3 years and then I'd go back to computing work, but I knew that was a lie.
"Even if I couldn't eat, I was never going back. I wouldn't have quit, but who knows where I would've gone from there or what I would've done in my career?"
A 43rd-place finish in the 2013 Elite Series Angler of the Year (AOY) race left the 67-year-old Clunn 4 places shy of qualifying for this year's Classic, which returns to Guntersville after a 38-year hiatus. This week he agreed to share some memories of that long-ago event that don't show up in the numbers.
A Bygone Era
At least a quarter of this year's Classic qualifiers were not yet born when the then-30-year-old Clunn won the event for the first time, just 4 months after the country had celebrated its Bicentennial. Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine" had recently swept the New York Yankees to capture the World Series for the second consecutive year, Pitt running back Tony Dorsett was on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy and the Oakland Raiders were en route to dethroning the two-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Gordon Lightfoot's haunting "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" topped the music charts and John Wayne's final film ("The Shootist") was soon to appear in theaters.
Big-time tournament fishing had grown out of its infancy, but it was in an early development stage. Classics were still blind-bogey affairs (the competitors didn't learn the location until they were headed to it on an airplane) and the daily fish limit was 10.
That Classic was Clunn's third, and he'd put together the foundation of his gameplan following an 8th-place finish in the '75 edition at Currituck Sound in North Carolina.
"After that one, I determined that I couldn't go into the next Classic without having a plan," he said. "I made my mind up that I was going to fish every tournament that year like it was the Classic – I wasn't going to do research (on the venue) ahead of time and I wasn't going to get (local) help because in the Classic, you couldn't do those things.
"Everybody else was the opposite – they were getting all this help and all this and that. Then when the Classic came around, I saw some (previously) very confident anglers who were frantic because they couldn't do all that. I couldn't put myself in that situation."
Just through reading about the handful of previous Classics, he discerned they'd been won in similar fashion. The key fish had come from the backs of coves or from aquatic vegetation and a spinnerbait was the predominant lure for producing quality at that time of year.
Clunn took command of the '76 Classic with a 10-fish, 33-05 sack on day 2.
"I could see that there was a pattern there, and that ('76) Classic was the final test that changed the way I fished. It confirmed the truth and accuracy of pattern fishing. That was a term that was being used back then, but few guys really understood it and even fewer were executing it.
"It was really an education for me because that's when it all went from theory to reality."
Smaller was Better
Clunn found his "numbers" pattern on the first day of practice (he doesn't recall whether there was a second day or if competitors were afforded only one).
"I went back into a cove and I was throwing a spinnerbait, and I didn't catch anything," he said. "Some locals came in and they told me the fishing was really good a couple weeks ago, but they hadn't gotten bit that morning."
The locals left him alone when he told them it was an area he wanted to continue to explore, and he switched to a small Bagley Honey B square-bill crankbait. He immediately began getting bites around the woody cover.
"A friend of mine had handed me several of those baits a month or so before and told me to try them if the fishing was tough. I'm glad I took that advice."
He didn't put the spinnerbait completely out of mind, though, and the bladed offering would hold the key to his stellar day 2.
"Elroy Krueger, a guy from San Antonio (and a former Classic qualifier) had taught me when, where and how to fish a spinnerbait. He was a total believer in (its ability to entice big fish) under the right circumstances, and I knew that bite had to exist. There had to be a window for it at that time of year."
Pre-Storm Period Critical
Clunn opened the event with a 10-pound stringer that was three fish short of a limit. He'd lost four or five keepers and didn't understand why that had occurred at the time, but the reason would later become evident.
The bag left him in 3rd place, but 10 pounds behind leader Bo Dowden.
He took command of the derby the following day, when he caught a 33-05 sack that was heavier than the 3-day totals of all but three other competitors. He said it was a day that never would've occurred under modern tournament protocols.
"When we were down at the dock, you could look to the northwest and it looked like the end of the world was coming," he said. "Ray Scott told us, 'You guys get out there before that thing hits.' I fished one little weedbed at the mouth of Brown's Creek that morning under the blackest clouds you can imagine and with lightning all around."
He buzzed the spinnerbait (a Fleck Weed-Wader with additional weight crimped on) just below the surface and caught a 7-13, two over 6 and another that topped 4. Surprisingly, he failed to garner big-fish honors for the day as Ricky Green popped an 8-09 – also on a spinnerbait – that stood as the largest fish in Classic history for many years.
Shortly after he'd reduced that fourth fish to possession, the brunt of the storm arrived and the bruisers completely shut down.
"That second day was really a big part of why I've reacted so negatively to canceled days throughout my career," he said. "Under today's philosophy, it never would've happened – everybody would've been back at the dock or in their hotel rooms twiddling their thumbs.
A Bagley Honey B was Clunn's "numbers" bait at the '76 Classic.
"I'd trained myself for bad weather – if my guiding clients would cancel (due to inclement conditions), I'd go out and fish by myself. It was my strength whereas it was most guys' weakness. Instead of fighting it, you had to work with it.
"I feel so lucky that I was able to fish under those conditions that day and experience the power and the control they had over the fish," he continued. "That kind of day will never happen again (in a tournament of that magnitude)."
Closing the Deal
Clunn carried the lead into the final day and promptly missed his first three bites on the Honey Bee. At that point, it dawned on him why he failed to connect with those fish and the others on day 1.
A company called Skyline Graphite had provided Classic competitors with rods made from the relatively new space-age material, and he opted to take those to the Classic over the handful of fiberglass sticks he'd been using. He'd had no previous experience with graphite, but was able to deduce that it was much more sensitive and he'd been setting the hook too quickly on bites on the small crankbait.
"Every bite on the Honey B came with the bait on a dead stop and I'd feel the thump and react," he said. "When I finally figured out what was happening, I made a mental correction.
"When I felt the bite, I started pushing the rod toward the fish and then setting the hook. After I started doing that, every one of them had swallowed it."
He boxed about 16 pounds that day and his 59-15 total surpassed Dowden's mark by 3-11. He was pretty sure he'd won before the weigh-in commenced, as all tournament boats were equipped with CB radios (each carried an antenna near the driver's console that looked like a long, white tule stalk). The press observers were required to report in each hour with the competitor's fish total and estimated aggregate weight.
"You could hear everything that was being said, and I told my guy to go under the steering wheel when he was talking or listening because I didn't want to hear it. He told me at the end of the day, 'Unless they've been reporting it wrong, you've got it.'''
He threw in the possibility that there may have been a supernatural component to his victory. He and his siblings knew very little about the fraternal side of their family tree other than that some of the clan had come from the Cherokee Nation in southeastern Oklahoma. His sister had been doing some genealogy work and had discovered a few additional Clunns.
"She told me they were in a graveyard between Huntsville, Ala. and some lake called Guntersville. They were a little bit closer to the lake."