The California Lunker Club: Dave Coolidge – Part Two

This is part two of a two-part article on the first California bass tournament organization. This article was completed in part by interviewing Dave Coolidge, the founder of the California Lunker Club (CLC) and taking excerpts from the August 1974 issue of the CLC magazine. Excerpts are italicized. To read Part One, click here.

In Part One, Dave Coolidge talked about the humble beginnings of the CLC and how he brought together bass anglers from San Diego to Los Angeles. In Part Two, Coolidge discusses those early tournament days, the difficulties he had with CA DFG officials that Catch-and-Release was good and how he turned public perception of bass tournaments around in California.

The Early Days

“I wanted a tournament organization that involved all of California,” Coolidge said. “The problem was the state is so big and we couldn’t involve the true northen guys at first. We had 12 tournaments a year, six in the San Diego area and six from San Antonio (central California) south to the Los Angeles area. We alternated tournaments north to south on a monthly basis. In reality, it was really a southern California tournament trail.”

The California Department of Fish and Game also limited the amount of money that could be paid out in each event at the time.

“Back then you couldn’t give away much money,” he said. “From what I recall, $200 was the limit for any one angler. That’s why the entry fees were so low – so as not to get close to that maximum.”

By 1974, the scene had changed and the CLC had grown to a membership of 300-plus. This required a little revamp of the events.

“In 1974 it became evident that trophies were a must, so an increase in the entry fee to $5 and a first-place trophy was presented. However, the small trophy left a lot to be desired and to improve, it was necessary to bounce the entry up to $10, which created enough cash to award four nice trophies plus cash awards down to tenth place.”

By the end of 1973, the tournaments were also restructured so that a “northern” event and “southern” event were held on the same day. This allowed anglers to fish one “division” and still be able to qualify for the CLC Tournament of Champions.

Then towards the middle of 1974, Coolidge announced the start of the new Northern Division – which was a true northern California division. This would, “unite all California anglers into one organization.”

The Public Perception

For those of you western buffs, this is a really cool photo of young Mike Folkestad, Larry Hopper, Dave Nollar, Jack O’Malley and Jim Drake back in the day. When was the last time all of these guys fished against each other? Photo courtesy of Dave Coolidge and the CLC.

“People didn’t like tournaments in those days,” Coolidge said. “They felt tournaments were ruining the fisheries. What really hurt us was the DFG in San Diego – they wouldn’t let us release any of the fish caught in the events. Back then they thought it was good for the fishery to keep everything and they also felt that the fish wouldn’t live after release.

“This prompted me to start the on-the-water weighing of fish,” he said. “Back then a lot of anglers were fishing out of rental boats and there were no livewells. The lakes were small enough that if an angler had a fish, he would wave over the weigh boat, we’d weigh the fish on the water and then the angler would release it. This was one way we got around keeping fish in San Diego.

“I don’t know if we were ever able to convince the biologists at the time that releasing the fish was better. I do know I had all the fishermen behind me and when the public found out we were releasing the fish, their idea of tournaments got a lot better.

1974 – The End of the CLC

Almost as fast as the CLC started, it ended. Founded in 1971 with the desire of helping anglers mount a fish, the CLC ended up the 1974 season with more than 300 members all over California and held 24 tournaments in the southland.

“When I started the CLC, I didn’t want to become the next Ray Scott,” Coolidge said. “I was doing this on the side because it was fun. I wasn’t making any money at it and I had no idea I could charge companies sponsorship fees.

“In the end, it was just getting too big and I couldn’t afford it any longer. That’s when Western Bass stepped in and they took it over. My editor, Harvey Naslund went with Western Bass and became their Tournament Director. I ended up getting a job with them as Associate Editor of Western Bass Magazine and then later became Associate Editor of Western Outdoor News (WON).”

Fond Memories and Standouts

There are always standouts amongst anglers and bass clubs. The CLC had its share of these too.

“I hate to mention any one person or any specific club that stood out because they were all great,” Coolidge said. “But with respect to clubs back then, Pisces is one of the clubs that stands out. They were died-in-the-wool bass fishermen – you couldn’t stop them. They’d party all night and then come back to their trucks ready to launch. They were a rough bunch of guys, mostly construction workers, and very intimidating.

“Then there was the Southern California Bassmasters. They were all excellent fishermen and when they showed up for an event, you knew they were going to take their share.

“As for anglers, there were Bobby Sandberg, Allan Murphree, Bernie Sherman, Roger Dickson, Dave Nollar – the list just goes on. One angler that does come to mind, though, is Jack O’Malley. One time I was fishing at Cachuma and he was throwing a crank. He had a 9-foot crank rod and could whip the bait out there further than anyone I’d ever seen. On this day he even got his line all fouled up in his spinning reel, took his line off the reel, respooled and had three fish in the boat before I ever got a fish. He put such a hurtin’ on me I just threw my hands in the air and watched. He won the CLC AOY in ’73 and I think won every club (West Valley Bassmasters) event he ever fished.”

A recent photo of Dave Coolidge, the father of competitive bass fishing in southern California.

Anyone that starts a trend and lives to see it move from an idea to a fully-developed organism has a number of memories associated with the early days. Coolidge is no different.

“One of the funniest times I recall was at a Naci[miento] event,” he said. “Allan Murphree and Jim Drake showed up after a late night of carousing and drinking. They never went to bed and showed up late for blast off. They were upset they didn’t get to partake in the start. So, to make them happy, I told them to launch their boat and I would start them off with a bang. We got outside the marina and I blew up a lunch sack and popped it.

“I also can’t leave without mentioning my close friend Mike Gardner,” he said. “He and I rode to every tournament together and had a great time doing it. He also unselfishly offered up his boat to weigh fish on the water, instead of fishing. Mike ended up being my tournament director and confidant during those CLC days.

“I have a lot of great memories from those days,” he said. “The development of the tournament rules, the badges for top-10 anglers, Mike (Gardner) and I serving breakfast to the Tournament of Champions crowd because the waitresses didn’t show up – all that stuff. That time really gave me a lot of good memories. But, without a doubt, my fondest memory has to be that I brought anglers, who never would have met each other, together and from that, many friendships were made.”