The sport of competitive bass fishing has developed a list of greats since its genesis in 1967. That list includes anglers such as Bill Dance, Rick Clunn, Roland Martin, Bobby Murray, and others – a list too long to mention here. All these anglers have many things in common. They’ve all won numerous events, AOY awards and qualified for multiple Classics. But there are only two anglers today that can claim to have qualified for and fished 30 Bassmaster Classics. Those two anglers are Rick Clunn (32 Classics) and the second is the subject of this piece, Gary Klein – who after the 2013 season had qualified for his 30th Bassmaster Classic.
We’ve written a few pieces on Klein’s early career in the past (click here or here) but last month at the 44th Bassmaster Classic at Lake Guntersville I had a chance to talk with Klein about his early years – how he got his start and who his biggest influences were. I think it’s a story that will really give you an idea of what it was like back in the late 70s and early 80s for a kid with a dream to become a professional bass angler, a profession that was still in its infancy.
Born to Fish
Like many of us, Klein was introduced to fishing at an early age by his parents. He doesn’t ever remember a time when he wasn’t in the outdoors either hunting, fishing or camping. Ardent outdoors people, the Kleins spent nearly every weekend in the mountains and foothills of northern California.
“I’ve been fishing ever since I can remember,” Klein said. “My parents have pictures of me fishing when I was four or five years old. They were outdoors people and my father was a fire captain with the California Division of Forestry (CDF) in Butte County, California. The outdoors was their life.
“I was born in 1957 in Susanville, CA and my parents moved to Oroville in 1965. The Oroville Dam was completed in 1966 and I got to see the finish of the dam and the filling of the lake as a young kid.”
Soon bass tournaments would be held at his home lake and it wasn’t long after that Klein got the desire to start fishing bass tournaments.
“I fished my first tournament when I was 15 years old,” he said. “It’s not like I started fishing bass tournaments, it was more like they started holding bass tournaments.”
From Fire Fighter to Bass Angler
Klein’s father, as mentioned above, was a captain in the CDF in Butte County. In his sophomore year, at age 16, the younger Klein had taken the physical and test required to be seasonal fire fighter.
“Because my father was the captain in the CDF in Butte County I would be working as a seasonal fire fighter in Tehama County – the next county over.”
That didn’t ring too well with Klein so he went up to the Bidwell Canyon Marina on Lake Oroville.
“I went up to the marina and put in a job application. I thought, ‘I could hang here all summer and chase skiers,’ and that sort of thing. I ended up getting the job and never went into the Forest Service. I was 16 years old at the time.”
It wouldn’t be long after that when he’d meet the first of his mentors, Dee Thomas.
“I met Dee in 1973,” he said. “This was back when he was still fishing the long tulle dipping rods and fishing out of his Gregor aluminum boat with a 20-horse motor. It was the year before they made him cut his rods down and before he got his sponsorship with Fenwick.
“The first time I met Dee was actually when he won the Oroville Western Bass tournament. I walked up to him on the dock at Bidwell and introduced myself to him and told him I would someday be better than him. He grabbed me, chuckled and said, ‘bring it on son.’ I think he was around 34 at the time. We’ve been friends ever since.
“After we met he took me to the Delta a couple of times with the long rods. At this time he’d already won two or three events. I think Dee saw something in me – Dee never had a son and I think I was the son he never had.”
But Thomas didn’t make it easy on Klein.
“Dee was a competitor,” Klein said. “He was one of those guys that I hated and loved at the same time. If I had the opportunity to beat him, he’d send people over to take me out (laughs). He’s the master of deception. He just had something that no other individual had and I really enjoyed that. He’s the man that taught me how to compete.
“That’s what makes my first B.A.S.S. win on Lake Powell (in 1979) so memorable. On the final day of the event I was the last angler to come in and go up the ramp. Dee was the only guy on the dock when I came in.
“He said, ‘How’d you do son?’
“I said, ‘I caught ‘em pretty good Dee.’
“He said, ‘You’re gonna have to have them because Bill (Dance) got ‘em really good today.’
“Dee stood right there, watched me put the fish in the bag and got a big grin on his face and said, ‘I think you did it.’
“That’s the type of person Dee was and to experience that was phenomenal.”
Kicked out of California
Although Thomas was one of Klein’s early mentors, Klein gives all the credit to another early mentor for kicking him out of California and back to the Bassmaster Tournament Trail.
“The sole individual that I credit my career today for is Richard Forhan,” he said. “I met Richard when I was working at Bidwell Canyon and we fished together quite often. He was an Air Force Reserve pilot and he’d go fly for a couple of weeks and then be home for a couple of weeks. When he was home, he’d fish every day.
“I can still see him fishing his little rod with a crappie jig. He was always fishing smallmouths and I always concentrated on the largemouths. We just hit it off.
“At that time I’d been fishing for a couple of years with Dee and was broke. I remember sitting with Richard in his kitchen in Oroville – I’d graduated high school two years earlier and didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life.
“Richard said, ‘Hey, you need to go back on the B.A.S.S. circuit.’
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’
“He said, ‘You’re broke and still living at home.’
“I said, ‘You’re right.’
“Then he said, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen to you if you go back on the circuit and try? Go broke? You’re already broke. At least you’d be able to live a life knowing you tried.
‘You need to go. The reason I think you do is you have the gift that none of these other anglers have and that’s flipping. If you can take that knowledge and apply it in the Midwest that may be all you need to get your foot in the door.’
Those words would change Klein’s life forever.
“When I left I had seven Flip Stiks in my rod locker. Every B.A.S.S. tournament I entered that’s all I did was flip. Three days of practice going into the tournament – now I caught some good bags of fish on spinnerbaits and what-not – but everything that I caught or got on was due to the flipping process. Either establishment of a pattern or eliminating water was all attributed to flipping.”
That first year Klein was not only the Rookie of the Year, but he also missed the Angler of the Year award by merely a pound to Roland Martin.
“I placed 10th in my first event on the St Johns River, won my second event on Lake Powell and ended up with four top 10s an 18th and a 26th. The reason I didn’t win the AOY award that year was because the advancement of equipment wasn’t keeping up with me. I was flipping with a 5/0 Mister Twister Keeper Hook and the hooks were bending out on me. Don’t get me wrong, that was the best flipping hook at the time but I was bending hooks on four- and five-pounders, any of which would have won me the AOY title. I should have cake-walked the title that year.
“At the end of the season I didn’t look back on the year and wonder what I would have needed to win, I looked back on what I’d lost fish-wise. The number of fish was staggering.”
It wasn’t long after that that Klein and mentor Richard Forhan looked for a hook that could withstand the pressure of flipping. What they found was a hook sold by Herters (produced by Partridge of England) that was a round-bend, needle point design.
“Richard was trying to get the best equipment in my hands. We designed the head of the Weapon Jig to accommodate the hook but also slide out of the fish’s mouth when the hook was set. This would promote better hook-up ratios. The hook could stand the stress of the short, heavy line on the hookset.
“After we got the jig going we found out that Herters was not going to carry the hooks anymore. Richard went over to England and met with the Partridge and that’s when they designed the Black Weapon Hook.
“Richard Forhan was not only the guy who kicked me out of California, he was the guy who made sure I had the equipment that would allow me to win. He painted the picture for me and allowed me to make my own decision. Then he made sure I would be competitive.
SAC to SNA (Orange County Airport)
I’ve followed Klein’s tournament history since he started fishing western events in the mid-70s. I always wondered how a teenage kid from northern California could compete against the studs of the west back then – and now I understand a lot better.
Western angler, B.A.S.S. tournament winner and Bass Fishing Hall of Fame inductee Mike Folkestad and Klein have been close friends since the mid-70s. Here’s an interesting story behind their early friendship and fishing exploits.
“Mike Folkestad is the man who taught me how to read electronics,” Klein said. “He’s unreal.
“In those early days, I never remember Mikey throwing towards the bank. We’d spend hours and hours metering with flashers in open water, throw a buoy and then get on the decks and fish. He had five rods on each side of the boat, neatly arranged – some with jigs some with plastics. I can’t tell you how many brown and purple hair jigs I’ve tied because of him.
“Anyway, I was 15 years old and had a driver’s permit and would drive down to the Sacramento Airport, get on a jet and fly to Orange County on a Friday night. Mikey would pick me up and we’d drive to Lake Mojave or some other (Colorado) River lake and fish all day Saturday and half a day on Sunday. Then Mikey would drop me off at the airport Sunday night, I’d fly home, drive back to Oroville and be back in class on Monday morning. That was just Mikey.
Most careers are filled with learning experiences, maybe regrets, and things you’re proud of. Klein’s career is no different. Around the 1982 time frame, only a few short years after he made his name known on the B.A.S.S. Trail, he decided to forgo that circuit to assist the expansion of a western circuit known as Western Bass.
“I think it was around the ’82-83 time when I pretty much quit fishing the B.A.S.S. Trail because I was working for Rich Schultz and Western Bass. That was a big mistake. My credentials today would be a lot stouter and chances are I would have won more with B.A.S.S. during that time.
“But I wasn’t as smart then as I should have been. If I knew then what I know now I would be way way ahead of this game. I let opportunities go by and I wasn’t the fisherman I needed to be. I was dedicated, I mean I lived and breathed the sport, but I could’ve been a lot smarter in my approach. All you can do is look back on your past, learn and hopefully that leads you to the future and makes you a better angler.”
Parents also play big roles in their children’s future, Klein was no different.
“My father has since passed but he wasn’t too happy with my decision to fish professionally at the time. He and I didn’t get along, he thought I was a bum.
“He’d been raised in a military family and had served four years in the Air Force and felt I needed to do the same. He said to me, ‘You’re just going to ruin your life.’
“My mom, on the other hand, was supportive the whole way. She was there when I needed help financially the first year and her being a CPA, she made sure she kept track of every penny I owed her. After my first year on the Trail, I paid her back every cent she loaned me.”
After 35 years chasing bass for cash, Klein is not just one of elder statesmen of the sport, he’s still making great contributions and qualifying for Classics. At the age of 57, he’s still got quite a few good years of competition ahead of him. And we all have people like Dee Thomas, Richard Forhan, Mike Folkestad and his parents to blame.