Deep-water pioneer, lifelong learnerArticle by Pete Robbins
Randy Fite, being awarded the trophy and check by Ray Scott after winning the 1978 Alabama Invitational, fished B.A.S.S. until 2000. (B.A.S.S. photo)
Thirty years ago, bank-beating was the default position for most tournament anglers, even at the highest levels of the sport. Even today, with GPS, mapping chips and side-imaging sonar, the fallback for most anglers is to go shallow and look for easy pickings. But for Randy Fite, the thrill was always in going deep.
“I can’t imagine how good he would have been with the tools that we have today,” four-time Bassmaster Classic champion Rick Clunn said.
Clunn should know. The two anglers are technically cousins, but when Fite was 2-years-old his mother passed away and he and his brother were sent to live with their aunt and uncle, the Clunns.
“It was the best blessing in my life,” Fite recalled. “I was always treated as a part of the family. I know them as my mom and dad. We grew up as one big family.”
Clunn was 7 years older than Fite but took him along on all of his fishing excursions, mostly in saltwater and on local streams and ponds. But when he joined the Pasadena Bass Club at 22, a month later he brought along his 15-year-old cousin as part of the bargain.
By his own admission, Clunn was a demanding taskmaster: “I gave him orders, told him what to throw,” he said. But he also knew that Fite was a hard worker and a reliable resource. The school-aged Fite had more time to practice than Clunn, so when Clunn would return to work he’d “leave him at the lake with a box of Pop Tarts and Dr. Pepper,” to continue hunting for fish.
The workload wasn’t borne entirely by the younger brother, though. Clunn too had a passion for putting in hours upon hours on the water.
“That’s what separates him,” Fite said. “He’d come in on a Sunday afternoon with nothing in his bag. The same few names dominated, but they were nice gentlemen. Rick would hang around and ask questions and then we’d go back out after weigh-in and do what they had done. He became the bass club champion and I became pretty good, too.”
One club member, a gentleman named Bill Garland, had access to some of the early fishing electronics, and he provided the two brothers with a sense of the information they could provide. “He got the full potential out of them,” Clunn recalled.
That whetted both young anglers’ appetite for unlocking the secrets of offshore structure. Clunn eventually abandoned his office job and went out on tour. Meanwhile, Fite attended college and guided on lakes like Conroe and Fayette County during the summer.
“I had a passion for fishing and could not get enough of it,” Fite said. “Rick made it easy for me. I had seen his accomplishments, but I didn’t realize how great he really was. I was lucky – I could ask all of the questions I wanted.”
He noted that Clunn was adapting his skills to rapidly-changing tournament situations, while Fite was more focused on unlocking the secrets of a limited number of waterways as the seasons changed.
“Guiding on a typical reservoir, if you want to be successful 365 days out of the year, it’s a lot different than being a good tournament fisherman,” Fite explained. “The fish spend 8 months out deep and only four months in the mid-range or shallow. My electronics became the ‘spinnerbait of deepwater fishing.’ It took years of looking to find certain spots.”
His goal was not to locate single fish, but rather to find a concentration of them. That paid off on guide trips and it later paid off on the tournament trail.
Randy Fite on the tournament trail in 1978. (B.A.S.S. photo)
In January of 1977, Fite elected to join Clunn, by then the defending Classic champion, on Tour. Fite finished 61st in his inaugural effort, at Florida’s St. Johns River, then earned a check the following month closer to home at Toledo Bend. Then he muddled through the next six tournaments, earning a check in just one, before winning the 1978 Alabama Invitational on West Point Lake. He also qualified for the first of his nine Classic appearances that year.
The subsequent year, a little more established, he took a young Californian named Gary Klein under his wing. Klein had left the west coast with a dream of making a career in tournament angling, but little in the way of resources. Returning to California in between events was often infeasible, so he’d stay at Fite’s Texas home.
“I knew him before I met Rick,” Klein said. “He had certain traits that always impressed me: He was probably one of the hardest workers; if he got in an area with a concentration of fish, he would catch every one of them; he loved to fish offshore with a depthfinder, one of the old flashers; and he had a unique ability to analyze the environment of the fish with his electronics.”
Klein further recalled that while Fite was deadly with a plastic worm and a jig on deep structure, his go-to bait was a jigging spoon – particularly a one-ounce Mann-o-Lure – which combined with his underwater eyes allowed him to “understand what was below the surface better than anyone.”
“Back then it took years to find certain spots,” Fite said. “Now you can capture them just by running by.”
Trophy in hand, Fite takes a victory ride with Clunn (B.A.S.S. photo)
Clunn said that in many respects today’s up-and-coming anglers have it easy with the various electronic tools available to them, but he called GPS in particular “bittersweet.”
“It takes you to all of these spots,” he said. “It used to take 10 times longer to find them. Now you don’t have to triangulate when you go back three months later.”
What an electronic device can never do, he added, is keep an angler in touch with the mood of the fish. The early generation of tournament pros who guided learned that the work it took to find both new and old spots kept them acclimated to the water.
“You had to perform every day,” he added. “The party you take out tomorrow doesn’t care what you did yesterday. That’s the same in tournament fishing. Young fishermen today are able to take advantage of cyberspace. We had to pioneer seasonal patterns. In the information age, you don’t have to go do it.”
Fite’s education benefited from almost non-stop guiding. In his last two years of guiding full-time, he spent 291 and 297 days on the water.
Klein agreed that the on-the-water components of both learning and mentoring have somewhat fallen by the wayside. He learned to flip under the tutelage of the legendary Dee Thomas and began his deep water education under the watchful eyes of Mike Folkestad. The former, he said, “put the first dip stick in my hand” and took him to skinny water, while the latter “never threw to the bank,” yet they had the same love of the sport.
Klein continued that passion by learning with Fite and Clunn and today he shares knowledge with Cliff Pace, a rising star who is junior to him by a generation.
“We’re all trying to improve each other’s angling experience,” he said. “So many anglers today have no understanding of history. They get a [Lowrance] HDS10, plug it in, and plot their waypoints. Some of that works, but the fish aren’t always there. Those guys will have their moments, but if they don’t have that same love of the sport it won’t be a consistent thing.”
The last of Fite’s 184 B.A.S.S. entries was the 2000 Bassmaster Megabucks on South Carolina’s Lake Murray. The decision to leave wasn’t the result of an inability to continue – indeed, the season before he’d finished third on Lake Champlain and 13th on Old Hickory. Nor was it a decision based on diminishing passion for tournament fishing.
“I loved the competition,” he said. “But I hated the competition for sponsorship. I wasn’t very good at the business end of it and the travel was starting to work on me some.
“I really don’t fish much at all these days. I miss the people and the mornings taking off in the boat with the mist off the water. That always put a lump in my throat because you’re not sure what you have going. There’s no more excitement than that.”’
Despite the eventual separation from fishing, Fite was not content to sit back and pursue a conventional profession. His lust for perfection led him to become a builder of custom hunting rifles.
“It started off as a simple hobby,” he said. “I was into whitetails and fascinated with rifle accuracy.” He built rifles for fishing industry friends like Hank Parker, Mike Dyess and Lonnie Stanley and through word of mouth his talents spread like wildfire. “Just as I was ready to get out of fishing, this built up.”
Just like his the process of learning to pick apart offshore structure, gunsmithing had a steep learning curve, but it was one that Fite approached with similar gusto. Furthermore, his background in tournament angling paid off.
“I’d never been around machining,” he said. “But I met some people who were really talented at this who really liked to fish.” They took him under their wing and combined with his signature work ethic he built his brand as a uniquely American second successful act.
“He’s one of the best custom gunsmiths in the world,” Klein said. “He’s built several for me and I wouldn’t take a million dollars for them.”
While the newest crop of pro anglers may not have gone through the same trials as did those coming up at the same time as Fite, his peers who remain on tour have no doubt that he’d still be competitive today.
“I thought of him this past year when we were going back to West Point,” site of Fite’s B.A.S.S. victory, said Clunn. “Over the last several years I can think of several tournaments that I know he would have done well in. When Todd Faircloth won at Table Rock [in 2006] and the Elite Series tournament at Falcon [in 2008] are two good examples.
From his perch in Texas, Fite has no regrets about missed opportunities on the water: “For me, as long as I have something that I’m trying to learn to do the best that I can, I’m happy.”