Professional bass fishing is full of anglers who should probably get on with their life’s work off of the water, but can’t seem to give up the lure of competition. Some of them are in their twenties and thirties and don’t have the skills to get the job done, while others have passed their physical peak and are no longer competitive. There are even some who fall somewhere in between, suptuagenerians who were once stars but who are now only competitive on occasion.
To cite the old cliché, athletes die twice, and the first time is when they stop competing.
Of course, there are occasional exceptions to this rule, athletes who arguably retired in their prime. Barry Sanders retired at 30, needing less than 1,500 yards to pass Walter Payton’s career rushing record. Rocky Marciano retired undefeated at 32, with a record of 49-0, including 43 knockouts. Bjorn Borg quit at 26, with 11 Grand Slam titles titles (although it should be noted that he tried a brief unsuccessful comeback a decade later). And of course the great Jim Brown retired at 29, after leading the NFL in rushing eight times in nine years.
Professional tournament fishing doesn’t have many of examples of early retirements…at least not unforced ones. The most recent one is Michael Bennett, who won the top prize of $1 million in the 2008 Forrest Wood Cup and then seemingly left the sport altogether a couple of years later. The earliest notable example is Bill Dance. He was a dominant force in B.A.S.S. competition from 1967 through 1979, and then after a lackluster 1980 season essentially stopped competing in order to pursue his television career full-time. In between these two great examples, there is another example, one who might’ve been the best of them all – Hank Parker.
Parker’s career with B.A.S.S. was comparatively short, with a total of 104 entries, three of them (the 1993-1995 SuperStars events) coming after he’d officially retired. Yet during that incredible stretch from 1978 through 1990 (he’d fished a single B.A.S.S. event in 1975 before going “full time” in 1978), he put together an astounding career – finishing in the top 50 on 81 occasions and in the money on 77 occasions. He wasn’t just good at garnering low-level checks, either. Twenty nine times he was in the top 10, including five wins, three runner-up finishes and two third place finishes. In particular, he shone on the sport’s biggest stage. Parker qualified for the Classic every year during his career, 13 times in all, never finished worse than 19th, and won the 1979 Classic on Lake Texoma and the 1989 Classic on the James River.
Yet, like Dance before him, he saw that he couldn’t fulfill all of his professional obligations and still compete. According to a September 1990 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, as the reigning Classic champ, he earned just $4,776 in tournament winnings during the 1989-90 Bassmaster season never finishing higher than 26th. Meanwhile, off the water he earned $337,000. To put that into perspective, in his entire B.A.S.S. career he won only $405,156.48.
Before the 1990 Classic, which he’d qualified for as the defending champion, Parker announced his retirement from competitive fishing. As Clunn told the Philadelphia Inquirer, however, “Hank’s not retiring. He’s just changing direction.” Meanwhile, nearly 25 years later, Clunn continues to compete on the Elite Series, and while he might not be as competitive as he was in the 1980s and 1990s, he occasionally shows flashes of brilliance. “I never want to be a businessman,” he said tellingly to the newspaper reporter in 1990. “I want to experience what fishing can teach me. I consider myself a pure fisherman.”
The 1990 Classic marked the most recent of Clunn’s four Classic victories. Parker finished a distant 9th in his final championship, but according to the November 1990 issue of Bassmaster Magazine, there was a glimmer of hope on Day Two when his catch of 11 pounds 10 ounces briefly put him in the lead. “Some of the competitive fire was back, it seemed, and the North Carolina pro decided a victory might be within grasp, after all,” Steve Price reported.
Despite the fact that he was only in his mid-30s at the time, a period in life when many pro anglers are just about to peak, Parker does not seem to regret his decision to retire early. He’d started his television efforts five years earlier and with a young family at home he had to choose one or the other. As he told Mossy Oak in an interview for their website:
“In 1985, I decided to get more visibility for my sponsors as a tournament bass fisherman, I needed to have a television show. In 1980, Bill Dance left tournament bass fishing to be a fulltime outdoor host. But when I started my television show, I continued to tournament fish. I told my wife and children, ‘If I win the Bassmaster Classic for the second time, I’ll retire from tournament fishing.’ So in 1989, when I won the Bassmaster Classic for the second time, I retired from the tournament bass circuit and became a fulltime TV host.
“I was 36-years old, and I had four sons and a daughter at home. I felt like my kids needed my time, and I needed to be with them. I needed to be off the road. From the time I was 16 until I was 36, I burned the tires up on my vehicle going to bass tournaments. Tournament bass fishing was my only focus. To stay on top of my game and be competitive, I knew I needed to fish as much as I could. I couldn’t even go hunting, and I knew my children needed their daddy at home. For 20 years, I was fishing 5 to 7 days per week. Back then, I’d fish a tournament at Lake Okeechobee in Florida, and when the tournament ended on Friday, I’d load up and drive to Toledo Bend and start practicing for a tournament there, as soon as I arrived. After that tournament, I’d load my boat up and head for Cherokee, Tennessee, or the Thousand Islands, New York to fish another tournament. Often, I’d leave the first of June and not get back home until the first of July or later. I averaged being away from home 290 to 300 days per year.”
In a “20 Questions” with Bassmaster.com, Parker was asked if he’d retired too soon:
“No, I didn’t. I had accomplished everything I needed to accomplish in tournament fishing. A lot of people don’t realize it, but professional fishing is a 365-day-per-year job. You’re constantly preparing for your next tournament, constantly working on new techniques. It never ends. I had four sons and a daughter who needed their dad to be home more, and today we’re as tight as any family I know. I wouldn’t trade that relationship for every bass that swims.”
After retiring from competition, Parker was the runner-up in two of the three SuperStars events that he fished.
While Parker may have left behind the grind of long drives and long practice days, nearly 25 years after leaving full-time competition he remains active in the sport, filming for television and making seemingly endless promotional appearances. If you ever attend ICAST or a Bassmaster Classic, you will likely see him there on behalf of one or more of his sponsors. Notably, he does not look as sun-damaged and haggard as some of his contemporaries. While the fishing world may have lost the opportunity for someone to challenge Clunn and VanDam for angling supremacy over the years, Parker seems to have made a healthy decision for himself. He is a member of both the IGFA Hall of Fame and the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.
Our own Brian Waldman conducted an interview with Parker about some of the changes that have occurred in the sport since he retired.
It also needs to be noted that although Parker’s career with B.A.S.S. may have figuratively started in 1979, he was no newcomer to competitive bass fishing. All one has to do is look back in the National Bass Association, American Bass Fisherman and other tournament reports to see his name. Not only was he competitive, he won Angler of the Year awards in both NBA and ABF. His move from these other organizations would be equivalent to an angler moving from FLW to B.A.S.S. today.