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Veteran competitor Clunn feels Elite Series has truly become an international circuit

He's been crowned a world champion four times over his illustrious career, but Rick Clunn has never seen pro bass fishing as international as it is currently.

He's been crowned a world champion four times over his illustrious career, but Rick Clunn has never seen pro bass fishing as international as it is currently.

Clunn, 75, completed his 16th season on the Bassmaster Elite Series, which is generally regarded as the highest level of pro bass fishing. He has appeared in 474 career events dating back to 1976, registering 16 wins and over US$2.6 million in tournament earnings.

He's a four-time winner of the Bassmaster Classic (1976, '77, '84, '90), the circuit's most prestigious event and one that earns the victor the unofficial 'world champion' moniker.

"Right now, it (Elite Series) is more international than it's ever been," Clunn said during a recent telephone interview. "Even back in 1976 when I won my first Bassmaster Classic, it was considered the world championship even though we only had people from the United States (competing).

"With Canadians, Australians and Japanese anglers, it's probably the closest we've come to truly being a world sport."

Canada is well represented with Jeff Gustafson of Kenora, Ont., Cory Johnston of Cavan, Ont., and his younger brother, Chris, of Peterborough, Ont. Chris Johnston became the first Canadian Elite Series champion in 2020 before Gustafson secured his first win this past season.

The three Canadians have participated in the last two Classics and will do so again next year. At the '21 event on Lake Ray Roberts in Texas, Chris Johnston was eighth --the best finish for a Canadian, eclipsing the previous mark of 31st, registered in 2016 by Ottawa’s Charles Sim -- ahead of Cory Johnston (11th) and Gustafson (21st).

Present with a front-row seat for the Canadians' success is Elite Series MC Dave Mercer, of Port Perry, Ont.

Taku Ito captured the Series season finale July 20 at Waddington, N.Y., to become the circuit's first Japanese winner after making his first-ever Classic appearance earlier in the year. He's one of three Japanese anglers on tour, the others being Kenta Kimura and Yusuke Miyazaki.

And in 2014, Carl Jocumsen became the first Australian to qualify for the Classic -- he did so again in 2018 -- and in 2019 captured his first circuit title.

Japan's Takahiro Omori became the first -- and only  -- non-American to win the Classic in 2004.

Clunn said Omori saw his Classic title coming.

"I do a survival fishing school at my farm in the Ozarks and Takahiro came to it," Clunn said. "Right before school was over he asked if he could come up to my house, which was off-limits to students.

"He came to my office where my Bassmaster Classic trophies are and he couldn't take his eyes off them. He asked if he could hold one .. and hoisted it over his head and immediately closed his eyes and I knew what he was doing. He was visualizing holding the Bassmaster Classic trophy when he wins it. Well, the next Classic he won and it became a reality."

That victory deepened Clunn's respect for Omori, who left Japan to pursue his dream, to the chagrin of his family.

"When Takihiro won the Classic, that was the first time his family, his father, started to approve of what he'd been doing," Clunn said. "Takihiro came (to U.S.), he didn't really have sponsors, his parents didn't approve, he was alone in a foreign country, could hardly speak the language and yet he followed his dream."

Competing on the Elite Series presents challenges for the Canadians, who drive thousands of kilometres annually with boats in tow across the U.S. With the COVID-19  protocols that come with crossing the Canada/US border, the three often remained in the United States.

"I have great admiration for the Canadians because they, technically, get to fish six months of the year," Clunn said. "Now, I know that isn't completely accurate . . . but I think the variety of water they fish doesn't necessarily match the variety of water anglers who fish in the United States get to fish, especially southern anglers.

"And they're doing very well because they've done their homework, they're students of the sport. But that's true of all the anglers we see coming up now because of the quality, and that's a key word, information available now. These young anglers start quoting to me how I won a tournament back in 1988 because they've studied it on the Internet, they've studied it on YouTube. They can tell you techniques you used, the time of year and details."

Chris Johnston began his Elite Series tenure in 2019 with a bang, leading the opening three days of his first-ever tournament on the St. John's River at Palatka, Fla. But he was relegated to second after Clunn, who began the final day eighth overall, weighed a final five-fish limit of 34 pounds 14 ounces to become the oldest Series winner at age 72.

"I ended up winning on the final day," Clunn said. "But at the same time, I kept going: 'I've fished this lake since I started fishing in the 1970s. How are these guys doing so well?'"

Partnerships aren't new in bass fishing but Clunn said the Johnstons -- who operate as a team, sharing information about location, tackle and presentations -- have taken it to a new level.

"I don't know if I've seen anything quite like them, they're a machine, a well-oiled machine that works together . . . and it's a matter of trust," Clunn said. "I've been doing it a long time and there's only two people I never caught lying to me in my whole career and I'm talking about some good friends.

"I don't look at them maliciously, I understand it and it's not an outright lie, just a half-truth to be more accurate. My brother (former tour pro/stepbrother Randy Fite) and Takahiro Omori, I could work with them and trust them and I think that's something that's very valuable."

And that's because the Johnstons can cover more bases than one angler can on his own.

"If I go out and practise and have 2,000 casts on the water that day, that's 2,000 chances to get information," Clunn said. "The Johnstons have 4,000 casts of information and that's invaluable."

Experience has taught Clunn the necessity of change, not only with equipment but also how he fishes an event.

"The last two tournaments of our season, I averaged three pounds (per fish) a day and didn't even come close to making the cut," he said. "It used to be you spent 90 per cent of your day trying to put a limit in the boat and maybe 10 per cent trying to get a big one but now you have to reverse it.

"If I'm getting 50 bites a day, I'm fishing for the wrong fish in practice. When I got the win over Chris Johnston, I had almost a 35-pound bag that final day and that's what I'm fishing for now. I'm getting better at that but at the same time I probably have more bad days than most because I'm not just trying to put a limit into the boat."

Clunn doesn't have a timetable regarding how much longer he'll compete but said he'll know when it's time to walk away.

"You can take me to a lake where I catch fish every cast but I get bored real quickly with that," he said. "It's not the catching that keep us doing it, it's the learning because catching is an end result of knowledge and applying it.

"But once you do that and start catching, even then on those days I quit throwing the best lure and try to learn what others will work. It's the learning that's most important."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 9, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press