On the evening of Thursday, June 11, Cliff Pace didn't have a prayer. The first day of the Genuity River Rumble on the Mississippi River was in the books and all Pace had to show for it was one bass, weighing 1 pound, 13 ounces.
Unfortunately, that was an improvement for Pace over the previous two days of practice, when the Mississippi fisherman hadn't even managed to boat a keeper. Pace headed back to his motel room near Fort Madison, Iowa, in 90th place, with few prospects in the second-to-last Elite Series event of the year.
Less detemined fishermen might have been tempted to shrug off the tournament and maybe even the season as 'what-might-have-been,' and, 'Oh well, I'll do better next year.' Instead, Pace removed the 20 fishing rigs from his rod locker, cut off their lures and tied on others that he'd never used. He took out maps of the upper Mississippi and pored over them, marking the places he was going to fish the next day.
On Friday, fishing new water, Pace caught five bass that totaled 12 pounds, 1 ounce. On Saturday, in the round of 50, he bagged another limit of 9-12, finishing 20th in the tournament.
He made the long drive home to Petal, Miss., with a paycheck and a revitalized campaign that could culminate in Montgomery, Ala., in September when the top 12 Elites will gather for the Toyota Truck Championship Week.
Despite no Elite Series championships nor finishes higher than seventh this year (in the Diamond Drive at Lake Dardanelle, Ark.), Pace has managed to move into 12th place in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race and is one tournament away from earning a berth in the September championship.
But how much of a shock is it that Pace is poised to compete for Angler of the Year?
Depending on whom you ask, Pace is among the next generation of pro bass superstars, a young fisherman who's sandwiched blunders between flashes of brilliance, the kind of guy who learns from his mistakes and doesn't make the same ones twice.
"That Cliff came from the bottom to finish 20th in Iowa wasn't a surprise to me," said two-time Angler of the Year Gary Klein after the Genuity River Rumble. "I've been involved in this sport for 31 years and every now and then somebody has come along that you think, 'Hey, that guy has what it takes to be a superstar.' Cliff definitely belongs in that category."
Pace hasn't perfected his game yet, but, as he proved in Iowa, adaptability is one of his strong suits.
"On the Mississippi, I focused on finding the stuff that you couldn't see, or you couldn't see well without making some effort to find the offshore cover," Pace said soon after pulling into his driveway following the long drive home. "I don't know exactly what Kevin [Short, the winner] was doing, but I guarantee you that it wasn't following the other pros around and fishing used water.
"Everybody in the tournament beat any visible bank cover to death. I figured that out Thursday [in the opening round]. These guys don't leave many fish behind and I knew that if I had any chance, I would have to fish differently."
Pace used crankbaits, buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, chatterbaits anything that he thought would draw a reflexive strike. The altered approach worked as well for Pace as it did for Short, but Pace's dismal opening day kept him out of the tournament's championship round.
Down home in Mississippi
Petal, Miss., population about 10,000, isn't really close to any sizeable body of water except the Leaf River. Hattiesburg is a few miles away to the west, and New Orleans is an easy drive south. There are no big impoundments nearby to have whetted Pace's professional aspirations as a kid; catfish and bream likely rank above bass in the minds of most local fishermen. Yet, somehow, that sleepy community cultivated Pace's interest in bass fishing and honed his competitive nature.
"I grew up like a lot of other kids who grow up in small towns with not a lot else to do except hunt, fish and play sports," says Pace, 29. "I spent all my time hunting and fishing and left the sports alone. I was only about 12 years old when I started bass fishing in local tournaments. I didn't really have a pro idol or anything like that, but I wanted to learn how to catch bass on a regular basis wherever I fished and whatever the circumstances."
For the most part, the young Pace and his friends fished Louisiana and Mississippi coastal regions, on rivers such as the Atchafalaya and Mississippi, the Pascagoula and the Pearl. Here, where bites can be a long way apart, he learned how to cope with the vagaries of tides, high water and current.
Pace continued his education in the big leagues of bass fishing in regional tournaments under the tutelage of anglers like Jesse Draime of Long Beach, Miss., a yeoman of the Open circuit, and master bass fisherman Gary Klein. Pace and Klein hit it off from the start.
"I met Cliff in the 2004 Louisiana Open, which he won," Klein said. "He had a pretty good lead built up in the final round, but on the weigh-in stand he said that he wasn't going to count anything until after I had weighed in. I thought that it showed a lot of respect toward an older pro and an appreciation for the sport; it showed class on his part."
Since then, Klein and Pace have roomed together on the tournament trail and share fishing advice, though Pace is the first to admit that he learned a lot more in the exchange than Klein.
"Cliff started out essentially as a shallow-water fisherman, and a good one," Klein said. "But he didn't know much about fishing deep water or some of the specialized baits and presentations that work in deeper water. So, I offered to spend a day on a lake with Cliff showing him the basics of drop shotting. He picked up on it so well that, when we fished the Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell [in 2008], he darned near won by drop shotting."
Learning his lessons
Pace's ability to quickly absorb and implement new techniques suits his preferred run-and-gun approach to fishing. His fishing style reflects his understanding that versatility is the secret to long-term success in the pro ranks. He prefers to fish multiple locations during a tournament, and that also implies multiple patterns and techniques.
"The top guys in the Elite Series do everything well," Pace said. "There's no place for specialists here. Since I made it into the Elite Series three years ago, I've been in tournaments where the winning fish were caught from 2 feet of water, and in tournaments where the winning fish were pulled up from 35 feet of water. You've got to be able to catch bass where the bass are, in every tournament."
Again, Pace is still learning. Though in the off-season he's a construction contractor and tinkers with lures, he also takes time to fish, working on what he considers to be his deficiencies. With a couple of months of down-time between the River Rumble and the Elite Series finale on Oneida Lake in mid-August, the Mississippi pro will be able to do all three.
Though Pace still doesn't know if he will compete for Angler of the Year, one thing is certain: he won't be wasting time thinking about what could happen come the Ramada Champion's Choice on Oneida.
"I don't worry too much about things down the road," Pace confides. "My goals come one day at a time. I try to keep my mind on right now, and focus on solving the problems that are going on in the tournament I'm fishing. Otherwise, I let the future take care of itself."
Perhaps it's not a glitzy approach to building a season or a career, but if Pace can keep going, slow and steady, he may win the race all the same.