LITTLE ROCK, Ark. Rick Clunn believes no one will ever win another Bassmaster Classic like he did in 1984 on the Arkansas River at Pine Bluff. It doesn't matter where or when the Classic is held, he thinks changes in the sport have eliminated the chance of anyone emulating Clunn's method.
"There's another variable in the sport now," said the 60-year-old Clunn, who has qualified for 30 Bassmaster Classics. "You cannot fish holes anymore."
That variable is spectator boats.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with in my career," Clunn said. "In fact, it's the only thing that I've almost quit over."
Clunn's '84 Classic win at Pine Bluff is the singular defining moment in Bass Anglers Sportsman Society history. When Clunn stood on the weigh-in stage in the Pine Bluff Convention Center after catching a record three-day, 21-bass total of 75 pounds, 9 ounces, BASS founder Ray Scott was the emcee. Flanking Clunn and Scott on that stage were then-Vice President of the United States George Bush and then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton, who would later become, respectively, the 41st and 42nd Presidents of the United States.
In 1992 at Logan Martin Lake near Birmingham, Ala., Clunn thought he had a chance to repeat at least the bass fishing part of that spectacular '84 weigh-in.
"The first day of that event, I pulled on this spot and caught 23 fish in 25 casts, then I left it," recalled Clunn. "This was a spot like Pine Bluff that had never been fished before."
But Clunn wasn't able to catch one more bass in that Logan Martin hotspot the remainder of the tournament.
"It was one of my greatest mysteries until about six months later," Clunn said. "I was in Birmingham working a boat show. Two guys walked up to me and said they wanted to apologize to me. I said, what are you talking about. They said, the guys that did that to you, we kicked them out of our (bass) club. I said, did what to me?"
According to Clunn, the two men then explained how two ex-members of their bass club pulled up to that spot on Logan Martin after Clunn left to weigh-in that day, removed the two batteries powering their trolling motor, popped the caps off both batteries and dropped the batteries in the water.
"It's one of those things you don't want to believe," said Clunn. "I thought maybe I had messed with one of those guys before, or one of them thought I'd flirted with his wife.
"They said the only thing the guys told them was they didn't want to see another big-name guy win the Classic."
Clunn finished third in the 1992 Classic, which Robert Hamilton Jr. won.
Clunn is without question the biggest name in bass fishing tournament history. He doesn't want to come off sounding like a grumpy old man in relaying that Logan Martin story. He tells it only as an extreme example of how the growth of bass fishing has changed the sport. And he sees examples like it in other sports, too.
"I was watching Tiger Woods when he won the PGA (last week)," Clunn said. "In golf, there's this etiquette that the fans are supposed to be tightly controlled by. Even in golf, it seems like they're losing that etiquette.
"When I've watched (Tiger), it seems like more than any other golfer, I've seen him get upset before he takes a shot. Maybe somebody is saying something, or somebody is flashing a camera, or a cell phone goes off. That's probably the biggest one these days. You could be saying a prayer in church and all of the sudden three cell phones go off."
It's one of those old school vs. new school moments for Clunn when it comes to spectator influence on the water during bass tournaments. He started fishing big tournaments when the local high school band comprised all the crowd at weigh-ins. It was a time when tournaments were held on pristine lakes, far from the crowd.
With that as his background, Clunn has been reluctant to change with the times. Mike Iaconelli, the 2003 Bassmaster Classic champion, represents the new school approach to handling spectator boats during a tournament. Iaconelli seems to thrive in those situations; the more people watching him, the better.
"I really admire the way Iaconelli deals with the fans," Clunn said. "He has intentionally made an effort to learn how to make that part of his game. I never did.
"I've gotten better at it now, but I don't think I'll ever be completely comfortable with it."
The term spectator boats needs some definition. No angler, Clunn included, has any problem with boaters that keep their distance and try to learn something from the pros by watching with the aid of binoculars. But many times the spectators crowd the anglers during a tournament, and they're not just watching, they're fishing, too.
"There are some guys out there who are having a testosterone fit," Clunn said. "They want to see how many (bass) they can catch versus how many the pro catches."
During another Classic at Logan Martin, Clunn said he had about 30 spectator boats following him one day, when he got tired of all the attention and tried to lose them.
"I took off and ran through some real dangerous areas, thinking they were smart enough not to follow me," Clunn said. "I cut and went around a bend. When I went around the bend, here comes Larry Nixon with about 35 boats following him.
"When we met, it looked like two coveys of quail flying together. There was nowhere to go."
And spectator boats can influence a tournament long after a pro angler has left for the day to weigh-in. For instance, if Clunn found that now-famous hole near the Pine Bluff Harbor today, he thinks someone would move onto it after he left and start fishing.
Clunn got some unasked for help at Pine Bluff in 1984 to prevent that from happening. On the first day of the tournament, a local angler was driving a boat carrying a television cameraman. That same pair filmed Clunn on the water the next two days also.
"I'll never forget what (the boat driver) said to me after the tournament was over," Clunn recalled. "He said, if I hadn't been on you all three days with that cameraman, I would have thought you cheated. He said, I've fished the river my whole life, but I never would have thought you could catch those kind of fish if I hadn't watched you do it.
"He had some friends of his who stayed on that spot and made sure nobody fished it until dark. I didn't have to say anything to anybody."
But Clunn hasn't become the grand master of bass fishing without being able to adapt to changing conditions. He claims you have to take a different approach now when competing for a Bassmaster Classic title or any other big money event. He's observed the methods David Fritts and Denny Brauer have used to win Classics by avoiding a dependence on one specific spot in a body of water.
Fritts won his Classic title at Logan Martin in 1993.
"The way to win Classics nowadays is patterns, like the David Fritts structure method," Clunn said. "David has a unique way of picking out one or two targets on a point. He only intends to catch one or two fish on each target. He's not fishing for a school.
"But he's got 20 spots like that. They can't mess up those spots because they can't pick out those two targets. But if you've got a spot like Pine Bluff, there were so many fish on that ledge, anybody could go in there with a crankbait and catch them."
Brauer too used a pattern method to win the 1998 Classic at High Rock Lake near Greensboro, N.C.
"Denny kind of shed some light on how a big name guy can win the title," Clunn said. "But you have to have a pattern. And it's got to be a pattern that boats are afraid to follow you into. In other words, they've got to idle (their boats) to follow you.
"Denny was fishing way up in a mud flat where they were lots of tree falls. Even though he knew the area, he would just put his trolling motor on high so the other boats wouldn't crank up."
That example further illustrates the influence spectator boats have on an angler's ability to catch fish. While the glaring examples of dropping battery acid into a spot or fishing a place after the pro has left are on one end of the spectrum, just the presence of other boats and even the electronics, like depth finders, emitted by those boats, can hamper an angler's success. A big bass doesn't get that way by not honing its senses to signal the presence of predators.
"That's one of those things that nobody ever writes about," Clunn said. "You have to give your fish relief. You've got to take your presence away after you work on them for a little while. After about 30 minutes or so, then you can come back to them. When they settle back down and reposition, then you can catch a few more."
Obviously, it hasn't been easy for someone like Clunn, who takes pride in understanding nature and the habits of black bass in particular, to adapt to the increasing presence of people during a fishing tournament. But he's learning, if somewhat reluctantly. And one of the important lessons he's learned is not to count on finding a mother lode of fish in one spot and having that one spot to yourself for an entire tournament, like he did on the Arkansas River in 1984.
Clunn still doesn't want to believe that anyone would try to influence the winner of a Bassmaster Classic like two men may have done to him at Logan Martin. Until someone dons scuba gear and retrieves two battery casings from that spot, Clunn will never really know if that happened. But one more clue tells him the unthinkable could have been reality.
After the weigh-in that first day on Logan Martin, fellow angler Woo Daves told Clunn that one of the dozen or so boats that had been observing Clunn pulled on that spot and the two boat occupants started fishing.
Months later, after Clunn heard the battery story from the two men at the boat show in Birmingham, Clunn asked Daves to be more specific about what he saw that day.
According to Clunn, Daves said, "You know, now that I think about it, they were acting like they were having battery trouble."
"That's the only thing that kind of confirms what those guys told me," said Clunn.
It would be like Boston Red Sox fans having access to the bat rack in the New York Yankees dugout.
Yes, truly unthinkable.