Rick Clunn holds up his 7-13 and 6-05 bass that anchored his 33-05 record-setting limit caught on Day 2 of the 1976 BASS Masters Classic. Photo The Kansas City Star Sunday November 7, 1976. Staff Photo by Gary Warner.

Today in BASS Masters Classic 1976, we’re celebrating Classic week 2024 and Rick Clunn’s 50th year on the Bassmaster Trail.  The next four days will be a look back at Clunn’s record four Classic wins from 1976, ’77, ’84, and ’90.

For those of you not familiar with the record, Clunn won his first Classic on Lake Guntersville in 1976.  It was an event he trained two years for.  The following year he won again on the Kissimmee Chain, making him the first person to win back-to-back Classics.

In 1984, Clunn did it again, this time on the Arkansas River, setting three new records.  First, he broke the all-time Classic winning weight, which he set at Guntersville.  Second, he set the record of most Classic wins with three.  Third he set the record for largest Classic victory margin at 25 1/2 pounds.

Then in 1990, Clunn set the record for most Classic wins by winning his fourth Classic on the James River.  Going into the final day, Clunn was sitting in 10th place, a little less than 10 pounds behind leader Tommy Biffle.  Clunn would make his fourth win the biggest comeback in all of Classic history.

These are just some of the highlights were going to cover over the next four days.  Today we’ll start out with BASS Masters Classic VI, held on Lake Guntersville, November 3-5, 1976.

These tournament reports will be different than others we’ve done in the past.  Instead of using Bassmaster Magazine, all of the information will be taken from the newspapers covering the event.  This will allow us to see the Classic from other writers’ points of view and provide a lot more photos of the event.

So, Let’s get on with BASS Masters Classic 1976.

The Field

The 1976 BASS Masters Classic field was missing quite a few top anglers from years past.  Roland Martin and Tom Mann, were two of the biggest names off the list along with John Powell.  This left Bill Dance as the number-one pick to win the event with anglers like Rayo Breckenridge, Jack Hains, Ricky Green, and Tommy Martin close picks behind Dance.  In place of the big names were rookie anglers like Doug Odom, Gary Wade, Willard Moore, Jack Chancellor, Wade Reed, Jerry Rhyne, Basil Bacon and Billy Phillips.

Roland Martin 1974 Bass Master Classic qualifier.
Tom Mann 1974 Bass Master Classic qualifier.
John Powell 1974 Bass Master Classic qualifier.

Then, of course you had anglers like Rick Clunn and Bo Dowden who’d qualified for the last three Classics but had not become household names at the time.

 

Classic Preparation

Where most anglers spent days and weeks prefishing for tournaments, Rick Clunn learned in his first year on the Bassmaster Trail, 1974, that the most important event all year, the BASS Masters Classic, only allowed one day of practice.  In his eyes, a Classic win was what made a professional angler’s career.  As long as he could get into the Classic, he felt he had a better shot at winning if he trained for each event as if he was fishing the Classic.

This self-inflicted rule Clunn placed on himself may have robbed him of some AOY trophies but it trained him to break down a lake and find winning fish fast.  It taught him how to adjust during the event instead of getting locked into one thing.

Although Clunn had qualified for three straight Classics, he most likely wasn’t on the radar as a threat to win it.  He’d placed 9th in that year’s AOY race and only had four top-10 finishes out of 19 events he’d fished.  That acted in his favor as the attention would be on other anglers.

Practice

With one day of practice on sprawling Lake Guntersville, anglers found it tough to find fish.  Most concentrated on the Millfoil fields with plastics and spinnerbaits, two baits that could be fished efficiently in the grass.  But by the end of the only practice period, most anglers were left scratching their heads.

Although Rick Clunn had qualified for three straight Classics, he wasn't known for closing the deal. The 1976 Classic would prove different and his scientific mind and philosophy would change bass fishing from here on out. Photo: The Anniston Star Saturday November 13 1976.

Most anglers except for Bo Dowden, who came into the marina and tried to be unseen.

Dowden was spotted by Ray Scott, trying to slip away from the crowd.  Scott asked Dowden if he’d caught any fish, and reluctantly Dowden replied yes.  Then Scott asked what he thought it would take to win the event, and Dowden, without batting an eye said 45 pounds.  This weight estimate was between 15 and 25 pounds higher than any other angler asked.  It was obvious Dowden was on fish.

Day One

As anyone with half a brain would have guessed, Bo Dowden brought in a limit of bass on Day 1 to take the early lead with 20-03.  When asked at the press conference that evening how he’d done, he replied, “I’m not going to tell you what I caught ‘em on, but I will say that I thought everyone would catch bass as easy as it was.”

Dowden had eight keeper bass in the well by 10 am and his limit by noon.  For the day he culled through 25 to 30 fish to get his 20-pound limit.  He did report he was throwing a plastic worm at the edge of the milfoil, but there was a trick he was using.

Gary Wade (NC) weighed in seven bass totaling 11-03 and held down the second-place spot.  He reported catching his fish on plastic worms and spinnerbaits.  Rick Clunn (TX) brought in six bass (10-09), landing in third.  Rounding out the Top-5 was Billy Phillips (TN) 7-02,and Tommy Martin (TX) 6-08) respectively.

Clunn and Wade tied for big fish of the day with 3-10 largemouths.

Clunn was asked about the day and how he felt about his position.  His response was, “I don’t want to be in Bo’s place.  I’d rather be where I’m at.  There’s a lot of pressure on you if you’re leading.  The key is getting the fish into the boat.”  Clunn also reminded everyone that no one had ever won the Classic wire-to-wire.  At least at that point in time.

Clunn reported that he was not catching his fish out of the milfoil, but wouldn’t elaborate how he was catching them.  He did say he should have had 19 pounds for the day as he lost three fish between 4- and 6-pounds.

Bo Dowden brings in his Day-1 limit of 10 fish. Ray Scott announces as Harold Sharp weighes the bass. Dowden would end up in the lead with a 20-03 bag by 9 pounds over Gary Wade. Photo: The Times Sunday Nov 14, 1976.

For the day, 68 bass were weighed in for a total of 108-09.  Less than two pounds apiece.

Day Two

Going into Day 2 of the 1976 BASS Masters Classic, Bo Dowden had a 9-pound lead over Gary Wade and a 9-10 lead over Clunn.  Considering the average fish so far weighed less than 2 pounds each, the lead seemed insurmountable even for Wade and Clunn.  But, as the day would unfold, the field would see exactly what Guntersville could produce.

Clunn reset the bar at weigh-in with a Classic record one-day catch of 33-pounds, 5-ounces.  His ten-fish limit, which broke Paul Chamblee’s record from Classic V (28-01), included fish that weighed 7-13, 6-05, 6-03, and 4-09.  All of his big fish were caught on a spinnerbait while his remaining six bass were caught on a crankbait.

His Day-2 bag combined with this Day-1 fish gave him a total of 43-14.

Dowden again brought in a 10-fish limit but his fish were consistent with what he caught the first day.  He weighed 20-10, which brought his tournament total up to 40-13, 3-pounds, 1-ounce behind Clunn in second place.  Again, Dowden said he was catching his fish on plastic worms in the milfoil.

Rick Clunn amazes the crowd with his record-setting one-day Classic limit weighing 33-05. Weighing the fish is Harold Sharp as Ray Scott announces in the background. Photo: The Times Sunday November 14, 1976.

The big mover of the day, though, was Ricky Green.  The first day Green blanked, giving him essentially no chance to make up the ground to win.  But Day-2 would breathe new life into the perennial Bassmaster competitor.  Green weighed in the second biggest limit of the day, the third biggest all-time in Classic history, at 27-13 that was boosted by a big fish of 8-pounds, 9-ounces.  The big fish would break Clunn’s all-time Classic big bass record weighed just moments earlier.  Green’s limit would put him in the third position.  What a difference a day makes.  Green reported all his fish coming off a 5/8-ounce Strike King spinnerbait in Chartreuse/Blue with a #6 blade.

Ricky Green stands with Harold Sharp displaying his new BASS Masters Classic record big fish, a 8-09 lunker taken during Classic VI held on Lake Guntersville. Photo The Jackson Sunday Friday Nov 5 1976.

The rest of the Top -5 were Billy Phillips 22-01 and Jimmy Houston 18-02.  It was looking like a two-horse race except for the fact day two showed what Guntersville could do at any time.

Day Three

With a 3-pound lead going into the final day of the Classic Clunn still felt the heat.  Especially if Dowden or Green got on big fish.  He knew his “limit” fish would produce but they were smaller than Dowden’s fish.  It was all about his big fish.

Unfortunately, a cold blast of air hit the lake that evening prior.  This brought the temps down to 25 degrees for takeoff, and also shutting the bite down.  The anglers had to adjust.

Clunn’s spinnerbait pattern didn’t hold for the second day and he had to rely on the crankbait, a small Bagley’s Honey B.  By the end of the day, he’d reported boating 20 bass, which his biggest ten weighed 16-01, giving him a total of 59-15.  Dowden could possibly catch him with a limit and one big fish.

But Dowden had problems that day too.

The weather affected his fish and they were slower on the pickup than the two days before.  He lost a couple fish and by the end of the day, he was only able to put nine fish in the well.  Dowden would weigh in 15-04, putting him 3-11 behind Clunn for second place.  It was that close.

Third place went to Ricky Green who was able to boat eight bass for 14-10 the final round, giving him a total of 42-07 for the event.  Rounding out the Top-5 were Billy Phillips (38-13) and Jimmy Houston (23-00).

Spilling the Beans

At the final press conference, Clunn and Dowden finally broke down what worked for them.  Clunn, who’d been saying he was catching his fish off spinnerbaits and crankbaits, divulged that he was using a Fleck Weed Wader spinnerbait in white but he was crimping a twist-on sinker to the hook shaft to increase its weight over 1-ounce.  He was also replacing the blades with size 4 and 6 blades.

The extra weight allowed for a longer cast in the sparse milfoil he was fishing but more so, the added weight acted as a keel to keep the bait true as he reeled it fast over the top of the milfoil.  He said the strikes were violent and this technique was how he enticed all of his big fish to eat.

While the spinnerbait pattern was his early morning pattern, as the sun got up in the sky, he switched to the small Bagley’s Honey B to catch limit fish in the backs of creeks.  His gameplan paid off handsomely with his first Bassmaster win and the age of 30.

Bo Dowen, on the other hand, had been alluding to a special trick he’d been using with his worm fishing technique all week.  IN the end he admitted he’d said that only to throw off the competition.  What he was using were 6-inch purple worms made by Rogers and Creme with a red fire tail. He was using a 1/8-ounce sinker that he pegged on spinning gear.  The first two days of the event the wind was bearable and allowed him to feel his bait amongst the milfoil.  Unfortunately, on the final day, the wind blew and hurt Dowden’s feel.  He lost two fish he thought might have given him the chance to win.  But, as Dowden said in the end, “That’s bass fishing and I am happy with second place.”

Clunn No Longer an Unknown

Up to this point, Rick Clunn has been recognized as a Classic qualifier but not someone who could actually close the deal.  He’d had four top-10 finishes in three years, but wasn’t on anyone’s radar.  Classic VI would change all that.  He became an instant celebrity in the bass fishing world and once reporters found out how intellectual he was, articles about his methods and ideas began flowing from the fingertips of the writers and into the outdoor magazines.

Bo Dowden waits for Harold Sharp to announce his final dya's weight. Photo The Town Talk Sunday November 14, 1976.
Harold Sharp weighs Ricxk Clunn's final day's catch. Photo: The Anniston Star Saturday November 6, 1976.
Rick Clunn is congratulated by Bill Dance and Homer Circle after the 1976 BASS Masters Classic. Photo: The Commercial Appeal Sunday November 7, 1976.

Of course, a Classic win will do this for any angler but Rick Clunn was different.  He not only had a scientific side about him but also a deep philosophical side.

In the closing interviews of the tournament, The Anniston Star sports writer, Charles Hollis noted the following from Clunn’s winning interview.

A South Carolina writer asked Clunn, “Rick, did you catch the fish, or did the fish catch you?”

Clunn’s reply was what would become typical in the following years.

“Today I caught the fish.  Yesterday I caught the fish.  But when I was just a little boy, about six years old, I managed to catch about a six-pound bass.  That fish caught more than just me.  It caught one of the things I enjoy in life.  Fishing for bass.  And from then on, I’ve been hooked or caught, on bass fishing.”

Up Next

Next in this series we’ll cover the 1977 BASS Masters Classic held on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.  We hope you stop by to read that and the importance of this event with respect to Rick Clunn’s career that has spanned half a century this year.

For more images of this event, please check out the Gallery below.  Click on the first image and use the arrows to scroll through the images.


 

Gallery – BASS Masters Classic 1976