Coolidge signs in L. Willhite as an angler for the 1974 El Capitan CLC Tournament. Photo courtesy of Dave Coolidge

This is part-one of a two-part article on the first California bass tournament organization. This article was completed in part by interviewing Dave Coolidge, the founder of the California Lunker Club (CLC) and taking excerpts from the August 1974 issue of the CLC magazine. Excerpts are italicized.

Competitive bass fishing in the west has to pay homage to one dedicated angler – the man that started it all in California. Yes, before him, there were bass clubs and club tournaments but until January 1972, there was no tournament organization in California, let alone the west as a whole.

The person to blame, so-to-speak, for the beginning of western bass tournaments is Dave Coolidge. What started out as a simple organization to help anglers pay for their wall-mounts, the California Lunker Club (CLC) turned into the first tournament organization in the west.

This article is about Dave Coolidge and his dream to bring bass anglers throughout California together into a cohesive group where learning and sharing would expand the sport.

Humble Beginnings

As stated above, Coolidge started the club in the middle of 1971 as a way for anglers to pay for a mounted trophy bass. Even in the early ‘70s, taxidermy costs were high and he figured there’d be a lot of interest in a club where your dues, along with other member dues, would help offset the cost of mounting a trophy.

“The idea of Lunker Insurance came to me and I figured people would jump on the idea,” he said. “Between my friends and I, I had 9 members to begin with. Then I placed the first ad for the CLC Lunker Insurance in Western Outdoor News (WON) in August of ’71 and for $10 a year you could get a trophy fish mounted. The requirements were the fish had to be over 8 pounds if it was a northern bass and 12 pounds if it was a Florida. I never got any response to that ad.

“Towards the end of the year my best friend Pete Gardner and I discussed having tournaments and I ended up starting the tournament circuit within the organization. Our tournaments would be held on the last Saturday of the month and you had to be a member of the CLC to fish.”

That first event would be held at Lake Cachuma in January of 1972. The entry fee for the event was a staggering $2.50 with a guaranteed $100 purse. With only 9 members, Coolidge was a little worried about the event.

“Here I was holding an event where I was responsible to hand out $100 and I only had nine members,” he said. “Then we show up at Cachuma and 37 anglers show up to participate – 28 of which were new members.”

Southern California anglers with their fish to weight in at the El Capitan CLC Tournament in 1974. For those of you who don’t know, Roger Dickson held the record for a 5-bass limit at the time, over 40 pounds, Bobby Sandberg, not soon after would catch an 18-pound bass and Jack O’Malley, was known as one of the best jig fishermen to ever live. Photo courtesy of Dave Coolidge.

At the next event, 30 more new members showed up to fish and the CLC was off and running.

“At the time I was the only game in town, “he said. “Western Bass didn’t start up until the end of 1974.

“For me, it wasn’t about the money (there wasn’t much back then anyway) – it was about having fun and bringing these clubs together to fish against and with each other. Prior to my events, the clubs didn’t do anything outside of their club. It was really click-ish back then.

“For example, the San Diego guys had never fished with the guys from Los Angeles and visa versa. After Cachuma, though, they actually started making friends and teaming up together.”

An excerpt from the August issue of the CLC says a little more about club interaction.

“In September of 1972, at the [Lake] Isabella tournament, the first big step forward was accomplished through the help of Wayne Cummings when he encouraged members of the Southern California Bassmasters, who had long been considered ‘the club’ of all clubs, to participate. 

“This was the first time that they were competing out of their own club and, as it turned out, there were many fishermen just waiting for the opportunity to beat these supermen. As expected, they turned out to be formidable opponents – but also human beings who are into bass fishing just like everyone else. As a result, a lot of new acquaintances were made and the trend to mix was on its way. 

“Right behind that came [the Lake] San Vicente [tournament] and the ‘north’ came south and another first was accomplished through the help of the infamous Pisces [Club] and Dave Nollar, who offered to team up the northern fishermen with the Pisces [members]. Several such teams were set up and again more new acquaintances and quelled rumors. 

“In November, the peaceful coexistence trend was well-established when 16 of the Pisces went [north] to [Lake] Lopez, and since that time, the events have been well mixed with members from all clubs competing and learning with each other and many good friends made. Thus came the motto of the CLC, “Unity, Fellowship and Conservation Through Competition.”

Stay tuned for Part Two of this series on the genesis of organized western bass tournaments.