Between them, they own seven CITGO Bassmaster Classic championships, five CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles, 43 victories and - including the 2006 Classic – 100 appearances in fishing’s most major event.
Rick Clunn, Larry Nixon, Gary Klein and George Cochran have qualified for at least 20 Classics each, a fact that alone puts them among the favorites for the 2006 Classic, on Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Fla., Feb. 24-26.
The Classic king is 59-year-old Clunn. The Missouri pro owns BASS records for 30 Classic appearances and four Bassmaster Classic championships.
Nixon, 55, won the event in 1983 and will make his 25th Classic appearance. Klein, the youngest of the bunch at 48, has not won the Classic in his 23 previous attempts. Cochran, 55, has won the Classic twice in 20 attempts.
The 20-plus Classic club is an exclusive group. The recently retired Roland Martin is its only other member.
“I think it’s pretty awesome for anybody to make over 20 Classics,” Arkansas’ Nixon said. “It’s a job to make it. I feel pretty proud of my accomplishments. That’s a really strong category to be in.”
Nixon, who finished second in his first Classic in 1977, made 18 consecutive Classics. He missed the Classic in 1995 and then developed vertigo during a tournament in 2001, failing again to qualify for the world championship.
“I really worked hard and came back and made the Classic again,” he said. “You just don’t realize how hard it is to make. You get a little older and you don’t fish quite as well as you did when you were in your 30s and 40s.
“I’m looking forward to this Classic. I like Toho and I love Florida. I’ve got a good track record in Florida and I’m really proud we’re going there.”
Clunn qualified for a remarkable 28 consecutive Classics before coming up short in 2002 through 2004. That has given him an appreciation for an accomplishment he once considered almost automatic.
“Unless you’ve tried to qualify for the Classic, it’s really hard to comprehend,” Clunn said. “I really think when you get to that level (20-plus Classics) it’s almost mind-boggling. There’s so much sports rhetoric nowadays. There’s so much use of words like ‘great’ and ‘super’ that those words are so diluted that maybe the only true, meaningful thing is something like that to describe an athlete. But yet, it may be beyond the comprehension of most people.
“Just one or two unfortunate mechanical failures during the year can cost you. And to think a guy has been able to dodge all of those bullets for 20 years. Not just the ups and downs of his own ability, but he’s dodged all the other things — illness, a mechanical failure taking you out of a tournament.
“It’s kind of rare that any person participates in any sport for 20 years, especially at that high level.”
Arkansas’ Cochran, Nixon’s cousin, enjoyed a streak early in his career where he qualified for the Classic in 18 of 19 seasons before missing out three times since 2000. He finished fourth in the ’05 Classic in Pittsburgh.
“I know how you really have to give it all you've got to make the Classic,” said Cochran, who is retiring from BASS action after the Classic. “It's not as easy as it once was.”
Although he has never won the coveted event, Klein has enjoyed the kind of career most tournament anglers idolize. Included is a Classic streak of 17 in a row and 21 out of 22. He has only missed the Classic four times since launching his career in 1979.
When it comes to the 20-plus Classic club, Klein said, “The first thing that comes to mind is that we truly love to fish. We truly love the sport and we work hard at it. Dedication is the key to longevity in this sport.
“I’ve never taken the Classic for granted … and I’ve never taken this sport for granted. It’s a very humbling sport. You have to get out there and work hard at it.”
Klein has five top-five Classic finishes to his credit, including a runner-up performance in 2003.
“I know what it takes to win the Classic,” he said. “I had two Classics that were legitimately mine hands down. The two Classics I should have won was in 1987 when I got locked out (at a dam while returning to the weigh-in) and the 1986 tournament when I finished fourth by one pound and 5 ounces and my last bite was a 3 ½-pounder, but I had a malfunction in my equipment. And I just didn’t execute.
“I try not to have that in the back of my mind. However, I’ll never forget those incidents. But that’s fishing.”
The 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Classic will be hosted by the Kissimmee Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Central Florida Sports Commission.
BASS is the worldwide authority on bass fishing, sanctioning more than 20,000 events through the BASS Federation annually. Guided by its mission to serve all fishing fans, BASS sets the standard for credibility, professionalism, sportsmanship and conservation, as it has for nearly 40 years.
BASS stages bass fishing tournaments for every skill level and culminates with the CITGO Bassmaster Classic. Through its clubs, youth programs, aquatic resource advocacy, magazine publishing and multimedia platforms, BASS offers the industry’s widest array of services and support to its nearly 550,000 members. The organization is headquartered in Celebration, Fla.
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (407) 566-2208 or visit www.bassmaster.com.