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Published: July 22, 2012

The Cerebral Side to Fishing Success

Photo by Todd Walker
Story by Lynn Burkhead

It's a proverbial chicken-or-the-egg question that has been posed in many pre-dawn marina coffee shop conversations as a bass tournament prepares to get under way.

To win an event - whether it is a weekend club challenger or the next Jack Links Major League Fishing event - which is more important?

The physical side of the sport, as in physical strength, stamina, and the ability to make a rod and reel sing?

Or is it the cerebral side of the sport, the mental toughness and confidence that it takes to grind out a tournament win from the first second to the last one a thousand casts later?

Or maybe, is the correct answer a little bit of both?

For Rick Clunn, the Missouri angling legend who sports four Bassmaster Classic titles on his resume along with an iron-man like streak of 28 consecutive Classic berths, the latter would appear to be true.

Obviously, Clunn possesses some extraordinary physical fishing skills including his reputation as being one of the best crankbait fishermen in the history of the sport.

But ask many of his fellow competitors and they’ll often point to Clunn’s even more impressive mental abilities as a reason for his success.

In fact, like many other top competitors in the world of sports, Clunn doesn’t just want to fish well each week. Instead, he hungers to fish at his peak level en route to winning every time the boat slips off the trailer.

Take for instance a comment that he made to me a few years ago at the Bassmaster Classic. Despite his legendary status, Clunn made it clear that he had no intentions of simply showing up and trying to look good that week.

“Tiger Woods doesn't take the conservative shot,” said Clunn. “He goes for the win. It's the same here. You've got to go for the win and you've got to have the courage to go for the win.”

For Major League Fishing pro Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, again, the correct answer is probably a little bit of both.

“The physical and technical aspects of it (bass fishing) have to be (there) – you can't just think your way into a bunch of fish,” said Jones. “I think the mental aspect allows you to complete the physical part. It’s important to be a good caster, but I can't go brain dead and let it happen on its own.

"I have to consciously think about it on every cast, throwing at a specific target so my spinnerbait goes past the log and comes by at the right speed, the right position, the right depth, etc.”

For Jones, the 2008 Bassmaster Classic champ and the winner of six B.A.S.S. tournaments including an Elite Series event earlier this year, fishing success even goes a step beyond the physical and the mental aspects.

He points to his spiritual life as a primary source of those skills and the inner confidence that it helps him bring to the water, something that has helped propel Jones towards the upper echelon of professional bass fishing in recent years.

“I'm working for something bigger in this universe than just me,” said Jones. “I feel like God has put me in this world to fish. It's my platform to share my faith in Christ with others.

"We have what God's given us, nothing more, nothing less. He's given me the ability to fish and I want to do a good job for Him and to be a good steward with that gift.”

But Jones and Clunn are hardly the only examples of this. Missouri’s Dion Hibdon is another example of an angler that brings both physical angling skills to the table along with some mental fortitude.

The son of 1988 Classic champ Guido Hibdon, the younger Hibdon grew up around fishing greatness, honing his physical skills and abilities on Lake of the Ozarks.

But despite being one of the best angling sticks in the business, Hibdon never seemed to be able to get over the hump and win an angling championship of his own.

Until, that is, he visited a sports psychologist in 1997 at the suggestion of an angling buddy.

Did it work?

I'll say. Hibdon went on to win the 1997 Bassmaster Classic title on Lake Logan Martin and the 2000 FLW Championship title on the Red River, picking up more than $350,000 in the process during that three year period.

How did lying down on the sports psychology couch help Hibdon make that impressive run?

As much as anything, it helped him trust in and believe in his own abilities on the water.

“She (the sports psychologist) does a lot of research and she went back and looked over my past career,” said Hibdon. “The main thing she came up with was that she said ‘You see your dad winning.’ I said ‘Yeah, he's pretty good.’

"She said ‘Maybe you don't see yourself winning. You get close, but what you don't see is that you've grown up with your father, you see him winning all of the time, and you don't visualize yourself winning.’”

Hibdon took those words to heart and went on to become one of the sport's all-time greats in very short order.

So what does this mean for you and me, the ordinary weekend angler hoping to catch more and bigger bass, and perhaps, to win a club tournament?

“Go do what you're good at,” said Hibdon. “That way you're thinking right, you’re thinking good, and you’re thinking that you're doing the right thing. (When) you're confident with that, that will make you fish better.”

Major League Fishing co-founder and Texas fishing legend Gary Klein agrees, adding one more nuance.

“I try to fish (to) my strengths, to put myself into areas that allow my strengths to come into play,” said Klein. “But most important, I fish for fish that I understand.”

Doing so can help create a perfect storm of confidence in an angler's game plan, his physical abilities on the water, and the mental fortitude to make it all come together at the right time.

All of which can help a weekend warrior stay focused on the water, especially on tough days when strikes are few and far between.

“That's when it's hard to keep the focus,” said Jones. “If it’s a cold, windy day and you have not had a strike in four hours, it’s easy to be thinking about hot chocolate.

"But it's very important to stay focused then. Since you’ll have fewer bites on a tough day, you have to capitalize when the strike comes.

"And not being focused keeps an angler from making the proper presentation to get that strike, too.”

And the difference between winning an event and finishing just one spot out of the money could come down to just that - missing that one key strike when it finally occurs.

So what’s the bottom line here with this mental aspect of fishing?

Well, if the truth be known, perhaps you can't actually think more fish into the boat.

But along with maximizing your physical fishing skills, it might pay big dividends to work on developing your mental skills to become the best that they can be.

And that can do nothing but help to make you a better angler.

Which should be the goal of every angler out there from the weekend warrior to next Major League Fishing event winner.