Classic champion kept his focus in the face of extreme pressure
"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …"
– Rudyard Kipling, from the poem, "If…."
Cliff Pace had six long hours last Sunday in which to lose both his mind and, in the process, the Bassmaster Classic. It was compounded by the fact Pace knew from experience that someone near him on the leaderboard was not losing his mind that day.
That's when Pace reached a decision point, at 12:30 p.m. on Grand Lake. Even though he'd entered the final day with a seven-pound lead, he sensed his spot atop the standings had vanished.
"I don't care how big a lead you've got," Pace said. "I've seen it too many times. When four or five of these guys get a chance to swing as hard as they want on that last day, one of them is going to catch 'em."
Pace's final day began just as he hoped. By 7:30 a.m. he had caught two bass. Then the grind began. A half-ounce V&M football jig paired with a V&M Twin Tail soft plastic trailer (both in "green pumpkin" colors) was Pace's main lure of choice all week. It had to be fished slowly and methodically to trigger a bite in the 40-degree water. It took Pace an hour to thoroughly work each of his primary jig areas.
By 11 a.m., the 32-year-old Petal, Miss., pro had exhausted a couple more of best spots, hadn't had another bite, but still remained confident. That's because a mid-day jerkbait bite had produced five of the 10 bass he'd weighed-in the previous two days in posting 21 pounds, 8 ounces on Day One and 21-12 on Day Two.
In terms of bass-caught-per-cast, a Jackall SquadMinnow jerkbait in SG Threadfin Shad colors had been the key for Pace's success. Of the 7-2 and 6-13 largemouths Pace brought to the scales Saturday, one came on the jig in the morning and one bit the jerkbait in the afternoon.
"I'd been sharing that (jerkbait) water with Jason Christie," said Pace of the Park Hill, Okla., angler who was in fifth place after Saturday. "He'd told me to go fish it, and I'd never see him in there (Sunday)."
When Pace got there at 11 a.m., his heart sank.
"It was as slick as glass," Pace said.
Every one of the 25 anglers remaining in the competition Sunday had been hoping for windy weather, after a calm Saturday had slowed the bite. Almost every one of those guys was throwing a jerkbait at some point during each day. For many, it was their primary lure. And jerkbaits need wind to be effective.
"I stayed there from 11 to 12:30 and never had a bite," Pace said. "I was counting on that afternoon bite when the jerkbait had been firing on the (previous) two days."
Pace admits to being hard-headed. But he's smarter than he is stubborn. He had reached the crucial decision point.
"I thought, 'You can sit around here and lose this tournament, or put your head down and go find a way to win it,' and I moved to one of my best areas," Pace recalled. "Without that decision, I would have lost. It's real easy to lose touch on a day like that."
During practice for the Classic, Pace had found some subtle structure in Grand Lake that was holding bass. He termed them "invisible channel swings."
"Every one of those you could see (by looking at the bank) had been beaten to death," Pace said. "These invisible channel swings were little corners where deep walls cut near the edge of the channel.
"I was fishing the smallest of these little stretches. I had found the sweet spot. I had found the cast you could make and get a bite on those places."
Pace added one personal touch to the V&M jig-and-soft plastic trailer he was throwing: He dipped the last quarter-inch of the twin tail trailer into orange dye, something to brighten the lure in Grand Lake's unusually stained water.
Then he put his head down and went back to work. Shortly thereafter, at 1:30 p.m., he broke the six-hour drought. Then he added another keeper. He would not catch another bass Sunday to fill out his limit. But those four fish weighed 11-8, gave him a three-day total of 54-12 and lifted him to 3-pound, 4-ounce margin of victory over Brandon Palaniuk, who finished second with 51-8.
Pace's instincts had been dead-on: Not only did he make a good move in leaving the jerkbait area that had been so good to him Friday and Saturday, but there was someone else in contention swinging hard and connecting — Hank Cherry of Maiden, N.C. Luckily for Pace, Cherry hit two over the fence that screamed just to one side of the foul pole, so to speak.
Cherry finished Sunday with 17-4, but it could have been a whole lot more. Dramatically captured on video, Cherry lost a bass that looked to be every bit of 7 pounds. He battled the fish all the way to the boat before it came unhooked.
"Unfortunately, that's not the only one I lost," Cherry said on the weigh-in stage Sunday. "I lost about a 5-pounder too.
"But there's worse things I could be doing now. I'm at the Bassmaster Classic."
Pace, who finished second in the 2008 Classic at Lake Hartwell, is now a Bassmaster Classic champion. His three days on Grand Lake demonstrated just how difficult it is to earn that trophy and the $500,000 check that goes with it.
Of the 14 bass he weighed over three days, six bit the V&M jig, 5 hit a Jackall jerkbait and three came on a Jackall DD Cherry crankbait in crawfish colors. Being versatile was crucial.
The place where Pace caught 20-8 on Day One: "I never caught another fish the next two days of the tournament," Pace said.
The methods that produced fish changed from one day to the next on Grand Lake, especially on Sunday.
"Something definitely changed," Pace said. "I don't know if it was sunlight or the different wind direction or what it was, but something changed the way the fish reacted.
"That's the one thing I wish I knew. If I can ever find a bass that can talk, I'm going to hold him at gunpoint until I get an answer."
But that's also one of the main reasons Pace enjoys doing this.
"I love competition," Pace said. "And I love that never-ending puzzle that fishing provides."