Rick Clunn weighed probably the biggest all-smallmouth limit at the recent Lake Champlain Bassmaster Elite Series. He caught the 18-10 sack on day 2 to vault into the Top 5. At the time he told BassFan: "What I'm doing is so unique for smallmouth that I don't want to let the world know about it yet."
After the tournament, and the one the week after at Erie/Niagara, he was ready to blab. Here's the scoop on his "secret" smallmouth technique.
Getting the Bites
"I was using a deep-diving crankbait and targeting specifically smallmouths," Clunn said of his Champlain pattern. That may not sound shocking at first, but remember, he's fished for largemouths whenever he could for three decades.
"The only time in 30 years that I remember someone doing well fishing a crankbait for smallmouth was when Paul Elias won on Seneca Lake," he added. "(Elias) used a Norman deep diver."
In Clunn's mind, using a diving plug to catch smallmouths is a maverick move. Jerkbaits sure, and tubes and jigs and dropshots – even Carolina rigs – are normal smallmouth techniques, but not crankbaits.
"I was throwing a deep-diving (Lucky Craft) RC 1.5 DD crankbait (at Champlain)," he said. "You could throw in there with other baits (besides crankbaits) and catch them, but the bigger ones would hit the 1.5 diver. They definitely liked the green shad color (called copper green)."
He made a point to say he used the RC 1.5 DD, not the shallow-running, square-lipped model.
"I got on it in practice," he said. "I didn't get a ton of bites but I got some big ones – some 18-, 19-, and 20-inch smallmouth. Since I can't judge smallmouth very well, I weighed and measured them so when I got into the tournament I'd have a general idea of what I was catching (weight-wise). I knew I had the potential for a big bag."
He fished the outside edge of a weedline in 10 to 12 feet of water. "I was using 12-pound fluorocarbon line," he noted. "I'm not a fan of fluorocarbon, but in the clear water I thought it might be an advantage and I wanted to maximize the depth (that the crankbait would dive to).
"It didn't need to hit the bottom, and I think it ran about 7 to 9 feet deep.
"The diameter of fluorocarbon is smaller than the same strength mono," he added. "That's the reason I used it. I rarely go below 10-pound mono, so if I think I'm using 12-pound (fluoro) vs. 8-pound (the equivalent mono to match the diameter of 12-pound fluoro), it makes you braver."
"I should have made the Top 12 (at Champlain)," Clunn said. "I had the fish in my hand about three different times. It was a 3- or 4-pounder (on day 3). If I knew how to land them I'd have had him."
He was anxious to box the fish and rushed it. "I got him to the boat too quick," he noted. "Every time he jumped I got less patient.
"I've spent my whole life landing largemouths, and you don't land smallmouths the same way. In 30 years of fishing for largemouths, I control that fish. He gets two runs at most, and he's never in control. It takes three to five times as long to land a smallmouth, and I didn't have the patience.
"My intent is to control smallmouth (too) but they disagree. I can't tell when they're going to jump, and some will not wear themselves out. They're smart. They'll get under the boat and rest and wait."
He devised an interesting method to beat them at that game. "I practiced landing them in practice," he said. "I actually got on high on the trolling motor to pull them 100 yards to tire them before landing them. I trolled to put pressure on them to make them fight and tire themselves out.
"And you have to belly land them, after they tire, since you're fishing with treble hooks," he added. "When I won the first BASS tournament ever won on all smallmouths, I wasn't cranking. I used 20-pound mono, and I'd swing them into the boat. Your odds are better swinging."
Clunn noted that he was too anxious to land the smallmouths and lost a bunch at boatside.
The fact he was using a crankbait wasn't the only reason he belly-landed them. "If I hadn't been using fluoro, I probably would have tried to swing them in (at Champlain), but you can't do that with fluoro," he said. "One nick in the line and it'll break. If it has scraped on their teeth or on zebra mussels, it'll break."
Tweaking the System
Clunn's famous for using the same rod, reel, and line for just about any technique. He knows his setup extremely well, and seldom departs from it.
"I like mono, and I depend on the stretch," he said. "If you change line, then you let it influence your technique, and you affect your whole style. A system of things makes you successful, and changing any one thing affects that system.
"Change is okay if you think it'll improve your situation, though," he noted. "So why did I throw (fluorocarbon)? I'm not sure I can answer that.
"I just wanted a smaller diameter with more strength. I'm not familiar with 8-pound mono anyway, since I rarely go as low as 10-pound. (The fluoro) worked for me, though."
> Elias won cranking deep for smallmouths at the 1983 New York Invitational, a 3-day pro-on-pro tournament held in September on Seneca Lake that he won with 32 pounds even.
> The Rick Clunn signature series of Lucky Craft crankbaits is sold through Bass Pro Shops, where it says of the deep diver: "It's based on Rick's research into water displacement theory, which explains the unique flat head designed to channel water out and over, creating a turbulence trail that bass can follow even in dingy water. The Deep Diving Series creates the same tempting turbulence as the originals, but uses a rounded lip to hit greater depths quickly." It dives 4 to 6 feet deep.
> Clunn caught only 11-03 on day 3 at Champlain, after losing that one big fish, and missed the Top 12 cut by 3-01. "I fed (the crankbait) to them too much," he said. He finished 26th with 45-06.
> As he pointed out, changing one thing (his line) in the system forces an adjustment in another part of his technique – his hookset. When fishing jigs or worms, "You don't drop slack in your line with fluoro," he said. "If you use heavy rods, like I do, you'll break it. You have to be a tight-line hooksetter."