Rick Clunn’s timing couldn’t have been better when he won the Bassmaster Elite tournament Sunday on the St. Johns River in Florida. Just when pro bass fishing—and B.A.S.S. in particular– was in need of a real hero, Clunn stepped up.

In winning the title with a four-day total of 98 pounds, 14 ounces, Clunn brought national attention back to the circuit that started this whole cast-for-cash competition years ago.

It has been a strange, whirlwind off-season of change for the pro ranks. The new Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour has dominated the news with its glitzy made-for-TV competition. Its tournaments feature a rash of changes, including a scoring system in which bass 1 pound and larger count, fish are weighed in the boat and then are released, and high paybacks are doled out.

The new circuit has left the two remaining leagues – B.A.S.S. and FLW – scrambling to keep up. BASS was hit the hardest, with major stars such as Kevin VanDam,  Edwin Evers, Michael Iaconelli, Aaron Martens and Brent Chapman  defecting to the new league.

B.A.S.S. kept promoting the new pros who were brought up from what amounted to the high minor leagues to fill a big hole in the roster as the future stars of the sport. And they very well might be.

But when the 2019 Elite schedule got underway, there were a lot of names that pro-bass fans didn’t recognize. And to make matters worse, the tournament on the St. Johns River was vying for attention with the FLW, which held a tournament the same weekend on Lake Toho.

In the shadow of Major League Fishing’s first tournament, which attracted an avalanche of attention, it was as if B.A.S.S. and FLW were battling to remain relevant.

In stepped Rick Clunn, a legend in pro bass fishing.

The fisherman from Ava, Mo., has done it all in the sport. He has won 16 B.A.S.S. championships, including four Bassmaster Classics; he has more than $2.5 million in career winnings, and he was voted Greatest Bass Angler of All-Time by B.A.S.S. fans in 2005. But at age 72, some thought he was on the downside of his career.

Wrong. Big wrong.

After winning the 2016 Bassmaster Elite tournament on the St. Johns River, Clunn said, “Never accept that all of your best moments are in your past.”

 On Sunday, he proved that he and the B.A.S.S. circuit still have some great moments left.

  • He had one of his best days of fishing ever, when he caught five bass weighing 34 pounds, 14 ounces.
  • Included in his catch were two bass weighing more than nine pounds.
  •  He jumped from eighth place Saturday to first in the final standings.

Clunn caught most of his bass on a Hail May lipless crankbait made by Luck-E-Strike, a Trickster spinnerbait and a plastic worm, targeting spawning areas.

In a press conference after the tournament, Clunn repeated his inspiring “never-too-old-to-catch-bass” mantra.

“A long time ago, I stopped paying attention to timelines – the terrible twos, the ugly teen years, the midlife crisis, retirement time. I don’t pay attention to any of that.

“If you listen to everyone else, you’ll get premature notions about who you really are.”

I guess I cheered for Clunn for several reasons. His championship was a victory for us senior citizens (I will soon turn 68). At times, I feel like my best years are behind me, but Clunn’s example shows that there’s still a lot of life left to be lived.

I also loved it because I’ve always admired Clunn. Well, not always. Years ago when the Kansas City Star sponsored the Kansas City Sportshow, we hired Clunn as the headliner for our seminar series. I wrote a big article before his appearance and many bass fishing fans were excited to meet him.

There was only one problem: Clunn never showed up. We called him and he said he didn’t have it on his schedule.

Dave Perkins, who owned the Sportshow, and I weren’t happy. But my mood changed several days later when Clunn took out a whole-page advertisement in The Star to apologize to his fans for his mistake.

Over the years, I learned he was that kind of a guy. He was always a good interview, speaking his mind and unafraid to ruffle some feathers.

Reporters like those kind of guys. I once wrote that he was in the twilight of his career, then several times he has gone out and proved me wrong.

 As for Sunday’s heroics? Well, I guess I’m not really surprised. At a time when some had written off Clunn and the B.A.S.S. Elite circuit, maybe this was meant to be.

Photo: Rick Clunn accepted the latest gem for his trophy case after winning a Bassmaster Elite tournament Sunday. Credit: Bassmaster media.