In Grand Fashion

Cold and calculating Cliff Pace warms up to capture Classic in a nail-biter

Article by Pete Robbins, Photos by James Overstreet

Photo of Cliff Pace being awarded the 2013 Bassmaster Classic trophy

TULSA, Okla. -- On the final practice day before the start of the 2013 Bassmaster Classic on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake, participants were confronted with bone-chilling temperatures, snow and freezing rain. The day was shortened to allow anglers to drive to their lodging before the roads iced up. Some of them elected not to fish that day, even with $500,000 on the line.

Then the weather really got bad.

When the 53 anglers launched their boats on Friday, Feb. 22 to start competition, it was cold. Freezing. Depending on who you talked to, it was either 19 degrees or 22 degrees or even a comparatively tropical 25 degrees, but the bottom line is that no matter where on that six-degree spread the actual temperature fell, when the Weather Channel films a tournament take-off it’s probably not because the climate is comfortable.

The air and water stayed cold but Cliff Pace warmed up. The Mississippi pro rode consecutive 21-pound limits to a 7-pound lead entering the final day, then gutted out a four-fish day that led him to the smallest Classic winning margin since 2009, 54 pounds, 12 ounces to Brandon Palaniuk’s 51-8. Rick Clunn once called the U.S. Open, held on Lake Mead during the hottest part of summer, “the Iditarod of bass fishing,” but the coldest Classic ever may have usurped that title, and when the mushing was over, slow and steady Cliff Pace was the lead dog.

Pace’s cool demeanor carried over onto the stage, where he did not dance, leap or Tebow. Some onlookers were impressed by his calm demeanor, while others said his lack of emotion did not pay proper respect to the gravitas of his accomplishment. The latter group claimed that Pace’s poker face demonstrated a lack of personality. Truth be told, however, Pace has personality in spades and brings to the table a deep respect for the sport and perspective beyond his 32 years. In fact, anyone who alleges that his presence made this a drab Classic ignores truths that will be revealed over the course of the next year and beyond.

When the story of the 2013 Classic is written in the history books, it will be portrayed as a magnum opus of character and characters, and Cliff Pace will of course play the lead role.

Photo of 2013 Bassmaster Classic winner Cliff Pace talking with the media
As Classic leader, Cliff Pace is the focal point at the final day launch

Cast of Characters

The Classic field consisted of a cast of 53 characters, each with his own important story, and each impacting the plot.

In second place there was the Phenom, Brandon Palaniuk, from the hinterlands of Idaho. A few months past his 25th birthday, this was the can’t-miss-kid’s third Classic and his second near miss.

In third place stood Hank Cherry, the Unknown, who but for a string of final day misfortunes might have sprung out of obscurity to claim fishing’s biggest prize.

In fourth, was the Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde character, Mike Iaconelli, generally a fan favorite but still reviled by some onlookers for his emotional outbursts, one of which surfaced on Day Two.

Seventh place was occupied by the Native Son, Jason Christie, the only Oklahoman in the top 20. Not accustomed to fishing in front of a massive flotilla, he stayed cool but ultimately couldn’t resist fishing memories.

Against this backdrop stood our hero Pace, the introspective Everyman. His lack of flair contributed to his win, as it allowed him to fish largely unmolested the first two days. On the third day, a crowd followed him everywhere he went, yet he continued to stand with an icy glare befitting the conditions, blocking out everything but the need to generate bites.

In the words of his mentor/friend/confidante Gary Klein, he is “addicted to getting a bite,” and he unapologetically fed the addiction on the sport’s largest stage. You might think that his supreme concentration blocked out the competition, but reflecting on his win Pace showed that his blinders never prevented him from noticing the other anglers fishing against him.

“This sports needs the Ikes, it needs the Skeets, it needs the Cliff Paces, it needs all hundred of us,” he said. “We all handle things differently. I’m glad that I handled things the way I did. That’s the truest reflection of who I am.”

The Struggle for the Crown

Photo of Cliff Pace fishing in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic

Pace led after Day One with a five-bass catch of 21-8, but for the first time in Classic history, the top position was shared. Pace’s seatmate was Iaconelli, hoping to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his Classic win by conquering the task a second time. Four-time winner Kevin VanDam was in fourth and local stud Christie sat in sixth. Each contender brought distinct advantages, but each came undone as the result of a single flaw.

More than any of the others, Ike seemed to have put together a winning game plan.

“From a bait perspective, I used a formula that I used a lot for a lot of the year,” he recalled. “I use a combination of power and finesse to maximize an area. I used a Husky Jerk, a DT6 (crankbait) and a Scatter Rap, fishing fast and slow until I found the fish. This time of year you hardly ever catch singles. When they’re staging, nine times out of 10 you’ll catch multiples, so I try to maximize an area.”

Unlike some recent Classics, Grand Lake was expected to be won by fishing a pattern, not a spot, and that fit Iaconelli to a T. He said he had 20 to 30 areas with potential, which he then narrowed down to the best three or four, starting each day in the one he deemed the best.

“It was a narrow creek with five or six points in it,” he said. “On every point, the channel would touch. The decision to start there was a good one because it allowed me to maximize my time.”

The source of Iaconelli’s strength was also the cause of his downfall. He attracted dozens of avid and vocal spectators, and the heart-on-his-sleeve New Jerseyan fed off their energy, but when he experienced mechanical problems on Day Two, it briefly sapped his energy and distracted him.

“The reality of why I didn’t win is that I had horrible middles of the day,” he explained. “From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. I had a tough time generating strikes. That’s too long not to improve your weight, but that’s fishing. I try not to beat myself up. I try to make mental notes.”

Whereas Pace caught another 21-plus the second day, Iaconelli’s otherwise-respectable 13-11 left him with a sizable deficit.

Palaniuk also found himself in a hole. After sacking 16-10 Friday, he whacked 19-10 on Saturday. He’d come out of nowhere in New Orleans in 2011 to make a run at the crown, and while he’s no longer an unknown commodity, just how he got so good so fast remains something of an enigma.

“From a long-term standpoint, this finish solidified me,” he said. “It showed that I’m here to play, not just go through the motions. But no one really knows how badly I want it. At each tournament I go to, I just want to win, and in this tournament there’s nothing but first place. The difference between first and second is $455,000.”

Like Iaconelli, Palaniuk combined a variety of lures – a jerkbait, a shakey head, and a Wiggle Wart crankbait that might be older than him – to adjust to the changing conditions.

“In the pattern I was on, the spots were small and precise,” he said. “I had to concentrate on the high percentage areas. I prefer to fish a lot faster, but one advantage I had was that I had fished in cold water my entire life so I know how much difference slowing down made. I told myself that I was just fishing for five bites a day.”

Palaniuk’s downfall was his inability to generate multiple daily big bites. He was the only angler to weigh in at least 15 pounds each day, but he never crushed one of the 20-pound bags that Pace, Iaconelli and Cherry brought back to Tulsa.

Cherry suffered perhaps the most gruesome heartbreak. A slip getting off of a shuttle bus damaged his hand before the tournament started, but his greatest injury was psychological, as he lost two big fish the final day that might have pulled him out of the ranks of rookies and into the club of immortals. One that spit his jerkbait boatside was estimated at 7 pounds, and while he said he’s over it, he couldn’t bear to watch the footage as he sat onstage. He’ll watch the television broadcast of the first two days of competition but may never watch the third day program.

While the execution failures were devastating to Cherry, he proved himself by going mano a mano with VanDam, fishing the same waters for much of the event. Granted, he was able to do so in relative anonymity, without the constant armada of spectator boats, but he “got the message across that I belong there.”

“There’s nothing that I can take away from that guy,” he said of VanDam. “I just got a few better bites. But it’s like going out there to play baseball and beating the Yankees. I’m proud of it.”

Perhaps the most disappointed angler in the field was Christie. If there’d been Vegas odds on this Classic, the Grand Lake thoroughbred would’ve been a money pick. Alas, there’s only been one home state Classic winner in the event’s four decades, and Christie couldn’t close the deal either. It left him, by his own description, “aggravated.”

“I regret the way I practiced and the way I fished during the tournament,” he recalled. “I did not fish the conditions. I never got on a viable pattern. I let this one slide through my fingers.”

Like Iaconelli, he tried to fish the tips of channel swings where they intersected the bank, but he would have preferred the fish to be in a pre-spawn pattern instead of a more winter pattern. Despite the fan-imposed pressure, Christie managed to remain mentally composed all three days.

“Leading up to the tournament, I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it, and I couldn’t go back to sleep,” he said. “But once practice started, I was as cool as a cat. I never got the shakes or spun out. And I learned a ton – I went in as a 39-year old and came out 60, wisdom-wise.”

The Protagonist’s Quest

Photo of Cliff Pace at the 2013 Bassmaster Classic weigh in

Pace ventured into this fray of fearsome contenders with question marks surrounding his name. He’d finished second to Alton Jones in the 2008 Classic at Lake Hartwell. He’d finished second at a Pickwick Elite Series tournament in 2010. Last season he doubled his agony by finishing second twice, far on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line – once at Toledo Bend in Louisiana and two weeks later on the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wis. He’d won a pair of Opens in 2003 and 2004, but in a sport that chews up and spits out all but a few of the nation’s best anglers, decade-old victories are just ancient history.

Given his understated personality, most casual fans might not even have been aware of Pace’s existence, let alone his string of bridesmaid finishes. Unlike Aaron Martens, whose agony has been viewed on the sport’s biggest stage again and again, Pace faded into the background. He might not have gotten the recognition his stellar record deserved, but those in the know understood that he was due for a breakthrough. Chief among that group is Klein.

“I feel like I get more out of our relationship than he does,” Pace said. “But as I’ve matured he’s started to get some things, too. We probably discuss the mental side of fishing as much as we discuss anything else. That’s a part of your game you have to work on. We can all flip, crank and do tactical things as well as anybody else. It’s the decision making that separates us, and we both work on it hard.”

Indeed, the final day of competition presented Pace with a level of decision-making challenges he had not confronted before – like how to do deal with a virtual navy of spectators and how to keep his composure. After landing two bass early, he spent much of the day feeling his lead slip away as he couldn’t entice another bite. He rotated through his milk run of spots and continually received negative feedback from the fish he knew were there.

“The only way I was ever able to catch fish on Grand Lake was slow,” he said. “I really believed it was a matter of timing. The possible kiss of death would be getting in a hurry. I had the utmost confidence and was trying to be patient waiting on it to happen.”

It was appearing this might be the latest in a string of disappointments, but around 1:30 p.m., with less than two hours to go, Pace’s faith paid off. In quick succession he boated two keepers from a single divot where two bluffs met. He’d fished it before, fruitlessly, but this time it produced – to the tune of $500,000 – although he didn’t know that at the time. While he’d done everything he could think to do, he still felt like he’d left more on the table.

“I would’ve swam across Grand Lake in 46-degree water if I thought it would help me win the Bassmaster Classic, no questions asked,” he said.

Photo of Cliff Pace on stage at the 2013 Bassmaster Classic
Pace’s body language on his ride to the stage suggests he knows something, as does Brandon Palaniuk, the BoatUS ANGLER Weigh-to-Win recipient of $1500, on the hot seat

The Closing Monologue

With a total of 54-14 and the other contenders vanquished, Pace smiled a controlled smile and lifted the trophy up to the heavens. That was it and some perceived it as apathy. Quite the opposite:

“My emotions were there, but quite frankly they were covered by shock. When you want something so bad and fight for it so hard, when you finally get it you’re in shock. Skeet told me that when he won he didn’t even remember anything that happened after that. I don’t remember the trophy lap. I had no premade plan to do a back flip or dance or show no emotion at all. Everybody is just wired a little bit different and we all handle things differently.

“It takes me three or four hours for the seriousness to wear off.”

So who is Cliff Pace?

It might be easier to tell the story by first describing what he is not. While he’s supremely focused, he’s not concerned with anything outside the orbit of a precious few activities.

“I don’t try to do a tremendous amount of things,” he said. “I pick the things that are dearest to me. I work. I spend time with my family. I hunt a bit, but only with a bow. I fish a bunch. And all four of those things are tied together. I never play golf. I don’t watch basketball on TV. I can’t tell you who won the Super Bowl. I like things in life that are a challenge.”

To those who say his stage presence showed a lack of respect for the institution of the Classic?

“The Bassmaster Classic is as important to me as to anyone who’s ever held the trophy over his head,” he responded. “I love the sport of bass fishing and I love competitive bass fishing even more.”

Iaconelli, who appears to be Pace’s polar opposite, would advise Pace to “say yes to everything.” The most valuable part of his history-making victory in 2003 was not the money or the fame, but the ability to create a legacy within the activity that he values so much.

“What’s more important than any tournament win is when people come up to me and say ‘My wife hated fishing before she saw your City Limits show,’” Ike said. “Or ‘My kid was getting in trouble until he got into fishing.’ That’s more special than any win. I’m not loved by everybody, I know that, but those statements keep me going through the negative time.”

Pace believes he has a similar mandate, to bring the perceived wallflowers to the forefront.

“I want to use this to show that there are a lot of great fishermen who don’t think they have a place in the sport because they don’t have a super-outgoing personality,” he said. “There are a lot more people like me than people who like to dance and jump. I’m going to fulfill every obligation and it’s a chance to repay the people who’ve stood by me.

“None of that will take away from my competitive drive, though.”

Like Klein, he’s forever addicted to the bite, and the win only whetted his appetite. If you think this victory was a final curtain call, you’re mistaken. Cliff Pace is already planning his second act – and beyond.

“People say ‘What else is there left to do after you win the Classic?’ “

 “Win 10 more, that’s what there is to do.”.