KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Rick Clunn enters the twilight of his pro fishing career, he finds himself in uncharted waters.
For the first time, he is just one of the pack on the Bassmaster circuit, not the man to beat.
And for a guy who once dominated the sport like no other, that’s not always easy to take.
“I’ve always made my career living by Robert Frost’s words: ’Two roads diverge in the woods. I take the one less-traveled,’ “ said Clunn. “I found success by taking the path less-traveled; doing something different than the other fishermen did.
“But that’s not as easy anymore. With the increased knowledge of today’s fishermen, they figure things out. And a lot of times you have to fish in a crowd if you want to compete. And I won’t do that.
“So, sometimes I pay the price.”
Clunn uncharacteristically finished in 70th place in the 2010 Angler of the Year standings and failed to make the Bassmaster Classic for the first time in recent years.
For a guy who once was on top of the pro bass fishing world, that was humbling. Clunn is the only fishermen to win the Bassmaster Classic four times, and he holds the record for most qualifications for the championship tournament (32). He was so good that he was chosen the greatest B.A.S.S. angler of all time in an ESPN poll of fans in 2005.
Today he battles the same challenges that sports greats such as Michael Jordan and Brett Favre faced. In the twilight of his career, he is no longer dominant.
“You get addicted to that rush of winning,” said Clunn, 64, who lives in Ava, Mo. “There’s a little ego involved.
“Once, I was the very best at what I did. And it’s hard to walk away from all of that.
“But you get down on yourself. Most athletes’ toughest critic isn’t the fans or the media, it’s themselves.
“And that’s how it is with me. Confidence is a fragile thing. And sometimes, that affects me.”
One thing that keeps Clunn going is that he knows that his decline isn’t as great as many think.
“People don’t realize that the difference between where I was and where I am now is a razor edge,” he said. “At this level, you’re constantly walking the tightrope between greatness and mediocrity.
“I know I can still catch fish, and I can compete at a high level. But the bottom line is that I have to prove it.”
Clunn attributes part of his struggles to B.A.S.S.’s new tournament format. Under the most recent setup, elite tournaments are held from winter into early summer, placing the pros at the hottest lakes at the best times of the year.
That’s fine — but it doesn’t play to Clunn’s strengths.
“My dominance was always from early summer into early winter, and we don’t have tournaments there anymore,” he said. “But I’m not making excuses.
“You have to adapt. And you have to be motivated.
“When I was at my peak, I would do anything to make it happen. I would use techniques that I didn’t necessarily like if that’s what it took. I don’t do that anymore.”
Even in Clunn’s low moments, others have been there to pick him up. He remembers a stretch in the mid-2000s when he was struggling, and his wife, Melissa, was there with encouraging words. She gave him a card with a quote from the “Lion King”: “Remember who you are.”
“I came home from a tournament where I had struggled, and she had all my trophies out and on display,” Clunn said. “She told me, ’Every time you walk in here, I want you to think of who you are and what you’ve accomplished.’ “
These days, Clunn is motivated by one factor: the fun of going bass fishing.
“As long as I launch my boat and I’m still intrigued by this mysterious puzzle, I’m going to fish,” he said. “There are no two days alike in bass fishing, and that’s what fascinates me.
“I still feel that I can compete. If I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t still be out there.”
Clunn finished ninth in last year’s B.A.S.S. Duel in the Delta in California in March and 13th in the Pride of Georgia tournament in May.
He is still considered a contender in every B.A.S.S. tournament he enters. He knows it, and so do other fishermen on the circuit.
“You can never count Rick out,” said Kevin VanDam, today’s most dominant fisherman on the pro circuit. “He can still fish at a very high level.”
And that’s what keeps Clunn going. He dreams of going out in a blaze of glory.
“I’d like to win the Bassmaster Classic one more time,” he said. “Years ago, when I won those first Classics, my daughters were young and it really opened their eyes. Dad really did have a job.
“Now I have young boys, and I’d like to have them see me win. That would mean a lot.”
(c) 2011, The Kansas City Star.
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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.