CELEBRATION, Fla. After a two-year hiatus from BASS tournaments, Mike McClelland has defied the odds and joined the Elite ranks as a 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series pro angler. McClelland, who won the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship in December, is continuing to pick up speed as he heads into a "career-changing" season.
McClelland, who first started fishing BASS in 1988, left the sport in 2002, right after his ex-wife and young daughter died in a car accident. For two years, McClelland sought perspective, realizing he needed to reprioritize the most important things in his life.
"I was forced to take a reality check and take a step back from my life," the Bella Vista, Ark., pro said. "I realized that fishing isn't my whole life and that other things were really important to me. It seems obvious, but sometimes it takes a tragedy to realize the obvious."
Although he gained the clarity he needed, McClelland was disadvantaged professionally. Despite qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic in 2004, the sport's growth and changes in the tournament structure had McClelland virtually starting over his career.
"I don't want to get left out again, it could be devastating for my career," said McClelland. "It is like NASCAR. If you don't take advantage of the opportunities, you may never recover."
Now McClelland, who captured two 1996 BASS tournament victories in a two-month span, is on the road to recovery. With his timely CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship victory, he captured an $80,000 grand prize, a berth into the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Classic (Lake Tohopekaliga; Feb. 24-26) and some much- needed confidence going into the 2006 Elite Series season. He's also ranked 14th on the Bassmaster Elite Series Power Index, catching an average of 20 pounds, 3 ounces each tournament.
"I found myself at a crossroads at the Open Championship, and I knew I had to perform at the optimal level," the 38-year-old said. "Pressure like that pushes me to perform at a high level and I had a no-lose attitude.
"That victory was absolutely the best thing to happen to me in my whole career. It was a life-changing week."