• Rick Clunn raises his two 9-pound-plus bass catches Sunday that helped enable him to win the Bassmaster Elite Series championship on the St. Johns River. (FRAN RUCHALSKI / Palatka Daily News)
  • John Crews holds up some of his catch for the fourth day of the Bassmaster Elite Series. It put him into first place at the time, but it was not enough to hold on to the top spot. He finished fifth. (FRAN RUCHALSKI / Palatka Daily News)

Bassmaster Elite: Grand Old Man

'Hail Mary fish' help Clunn, 72, surge to top for $100,000 first-place prize

Three years ago, Rick Clunn was the hunted. This time, he was the hunter.

Both times, he came out on top in the Bass Capital of the World.

The legendary 72-year-old Clunn vaulted from eighth place to first to win the Bassmasters Elite tournament Sunday. In winning the championship – his 16th in the series – the Ava., Mo., resident hauled in a five-fish limit of 34 pounds and 10 ounces to almost top the century mark for the tournament, with 98 pounds and 14 ounces.

“It’s an incredible thing to go out there every single day and know you have to figure things out,” the soft-spoken Clunn said. “Everything out there you’ve got to tune into and if you put it together, this kind of day can happen.”

And did it ever for Clunn on the final day. Two big bass of over nine pounds, including the big bass of the day at 9 pounds-14 ounces, helped to elevate Clunn to the championship – fish Clunn called “Hail Mary fish.”

“The weather ... the wind,” said Clunn on the reason for his success the latter two days of the event when he brought in 57 pounds and 14 ounces of the 10-fish total. “And the spinner bait got better and better. But this was what we called a good wind.”

As for the brilliant Sunday that brought him another title and $100,000 top prize, Clunn said, “I knew they were coming. I knew I was in the right area. It gave me the confidence, even though I didn’t catch (bigger) fish. I practiced in other areas and they were tough, but I found this area I used today before and was able to spin (the fish) in.”

If anyone understands success for his sport, it’s Clunn, who has had 123 Top 10 finishes in a career that has seen him earn $2.55 million, going back to the 1970s.

“One of the things I learned when I was young was this is a sport you don’t have to have special attributes,” started Clunn, who took the lead in the 2016 event here in the third round and never looked back. “You don’t have to run the 100 in 9-flat, you don’t have to weigh 300 pounds, you don’t have to deadlift 500 pounds. You don’t have to be white or black, male or female. You can participate as long as you want from 6 to 60. Right now I’m 72.”

When asked if he was on his own timetable toward retirement, Clunn scoffed at the answer. “That’s a vulgar question,” he snapped with a half-smile.

Chris Johnston of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, had been the leader the previous two days, but could only muster a 19-pound, five-ounce day to barely finish in second place at 95 pounds, two ounces – one ounce ahead of Mark Menendez of Paducah, Ky.

“I was running into fish where I was (stationed) at (with) a local pressure on it, but then the wind got it dirty in the afternoon and shut that spot down,” Johnston said. “Every day in the tournament, I got (a fish) over seven pounds, and today it didn’t happen. If I could have gotten a seven-pounder, I’d probably look at winning. I never got a big bite. I had some good ones. It just didn’t happen and it wasn’t meant to be, but hopefully, we’ll get them next time.”

Johnston, whose brother Corey finished eighth at 85 pounds, 6 ounces, said it was an honor to be in the last group of weigh-ins with Clunn, who sat in the leader’s chair as the seven anglers who were in front of him after Saturday’s fishing each came up and failed to pass him up.

“He’s one of the best, one of the greats,” said Johnston, a newcomer to the Bassmasters scene this year after competing in Fishing League Worldwide (FLW). “Just to be standing on the stage as one of the last two guys was a privilege. But it was a good way to start the season and I hope I can keep it rolling.”

Menendez put in a 25-pound, 12-ounce day to finish just behind Chris Johnston. Patrick Walters of Sumterville, S.C., finished fourth with 91-14 after a 21-pound, 9-ounce day. Rounding out the first five was John Crews of Salem, Va., who had the second-biggest day after Clunn with 31 pounds and 10 ounces to finish at 89-11.

The field had been cut from 35 anglers on Saturday to just 10 on Sunday. One of the 25 anglers that missed the cut on the final day was Palatka’s Cliff Prince, who brought in a creel of 17 pounds, 12 ounces and dropped from 14th to 17th, finishing with 54 pounds, 5 ounces in catches.

The series moves on to Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta starting Thursday.

Palatka Daily News

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