Traveling over Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon on a crystal-clear desert day last week reminded me of the tales I’d read of Rick Clunn winning the U.S. Open, fully enveloped in his quest to reach perfection and thereby dominate professional fishing, in the mid-1980s. The story goes that the winning fishing location was revealed to him in a dream prior to the final day of the event.
At the time, winning the Open was one of the top three accomplishments in pro fishing, along with the Classic and All-American. Men still competing today have forged careers based on those early Open championships.
In a few short weeks, the Classic will again decide who is the best in the world of bass fishing for one more year. It'll take place at nearly a polar opposite venue of Mead, in Guntersville, Ala. Clunn had won there too, early in his career, as we all read recently on BassFan.
Regardless, I can’t help but wonder what the old guard thinks of today’s most dominant athletes in the world of bass. We’ve seen it time and again throughout the history of our sport: A select few players dominate for a time period before giving the reins to another group. Bill Dance and Roland Martin gave way to the dominance of Clunn, Larry Nixon and Denny Brauer. Guido Hibdon was in the mix for a while. For a time, Jay Yelas and Mark Davis hogged the headlines. Kevin VanDam looked invincible, Skeet Reese also seemed to be, and Bryan Thrift grabbed the top spot in the world. Andy Morgan, Brent Ehrler and David Dudley have traded places back and forth. Jason Christie, Edwin Evers and Aaron Martens are in the spotlight today.
It makes a fan wonder what these guys have figured out, and how it seems to be temporary. We hear all the time that the tour fishermen get better every year. But that’s always been the case, in fishing or any sport. Athletes get bigger, faster, smarter, better. Jack Nicklaus erases anyone’s doubt, but is later replaced by Tiger Woods.
But one thing that seems unique about fishing is that the experienced veterans have everything available to them that the new players do. The things that determine an angler's ability aren’t tied to his age or stature, so it seems, yet we continue to see this changing of the guard. If anything, it should be the other way around, where the experience of generations of battle leads veterans to winning performances with greater regularity.
But even Clunn, once hailed as the greatest big-money fisherman in the world, failed to qualify for this year’s Classic.
Yet fishermen of his experience have been to the venues time and time again. Some pros have been to Okeechobee, for example, dozens of times over the course of 30 years, yet some new kid will probably win the FLW event there next month.
Perhaps as we evolve as fishermen, we are evolving the fish. While many tried and true techniques can still catch fish, when is the last time we heard of someone winning a major tournament waking a spinnerbait through the bushes, or Carolina-rigging points?
In a related way, something I read recently stopped me in my tracks. In a quote regarding American bass fishing influence in Japan, Kenichi Iida of Megabass said, “Popular techniques from America such as punching and big baits have had booms in Japan.” Even more importantly, he mentioned “all of the Japanese pros secretly use the winning lures from the Elite Series, but if they win a tournament on an American lure, that will never be published."
Surely, you’re kidding.
For years I believed that Japanese lures were head and shoulders above anything produced or utilized here in the States, as did most fans of pro fishing. Without question, the biggest influences in lure popularity in recent times can be credited to Japanese creations. Now you’re going to tell me that, in Japan, they’re still throwing chrome and blue Rat-L-Traps?
Okay, so it may not be that simplistic. But what I think we need to realize is that techniques become “en vogue” as much as the successful fishermen utilizing them. It’s as if a new wave of anglers, adept with something different, more than anything, come in and dominate, replacing what experienced anglers believe to be gospel. Is that the magic concoction that has been sought by tournament anglers since the inception of the sport?
Oftentimes we can look back and find that the dominant players each seem to hit their stride when their particular approach to fishing frequently comes into play. Deep-crankers. Swimbait gurus. Froggers and mat-flippers.
But occasionally we see a success story that bridges the generations, and a successful pro stays atop the leaderboards regardless of the era. David Dudley comes to mind, as I remember him being quoted as a fisherman who felt it necessary to constantly evolve, whether it was learning to fish a shaky-head or an Alabama Rig.
In any case, it’s got to drive a 30-year veteran bonkers. Here are these kids coming to a lake they’ve never been to, and winning off of some spot everyone else wrote off. Yuk.
It becomes blatantly obvious that the key is not an unknown lure, getting the best help from locals or a new magic device. The vets have been there and done that, time and time again. They’ve seen the inception, change and retirement of countless techniques and pieces of equipment. I’d be willing to bet that some have even caught and weighed in the same bass more than once over the course of the years.
But it’s the momentum, and the corresponding hot angler who will likely get the votes from the press to win next month’s Classic. Perhaps we will see a relatively new technique play a key role, and a corresponding dominant player rise to the top. But Rick Clunn won’t win, that we know, and that saddens me a bit.
I’m sure a time will come when VanDam, or even possibly another star, will outshine Clunn and take the title with five Classic victories. But I’d love to see Clunn win once more, and turn the tables a complete 180, riding off into the sunset with a record that will never be broken. Perhaps next year.
Can VanDam win? Surely. He probably has as good a chance as anyone. But momentum is the name of the game, as we’ve found, and a few others seem to be swinging the bat a little better lately.
In the upcoming week, I’ll give you my Classic pick, as well as my picks for anglers to watch as the FLW Tour kicks off. One circuit crowns its champ, while the other once again begins to pump blood into a new year. Surely there will be surprises, a little too much showmanship and a bunch of young kids who beat the veterans against unsurpassable odds.
(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.)