KANSAS CITY, Mo — . It was hard to tell the winner from the losers at the Bassmaster Classic’s most intense moment Sunday night.
In front of a packed house at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., Cliff Pace was announced as the champion by announcer Dave Mercer after the winning total appeared on the scale on the weigh-in stage.
The crowd erupted and Mercer, who earlier had referred to the Mississippi fisherman as “Game Face Pace,” congratulated the champion.
Pace smiled. Barely.
“I’m a pretty laid-back guy,” Pace said later, after winning fishing’s most prestigious title and $500,000. “I don’t let my emotions show that often.”
He paused for a second, then added, “But inside, I’m feeling great right now. This is a life-changing moment.”
Pace, who lives in Petal, Miss., had to sweat a bit to get the most sought-after title in fishing. He went into the final round Sunday at Grand Lake with a comfortable 7-pound lead and everyone was almost conceding the championship to him.
But the spots he had relied on throughout the tournament suddenly went dormant. And he had to scramble to catch enough to withstand Brandon Palaniuk’s charge.
Pace caught four bass weighing 11 pounds, 8 ounces Sunday and lifted his three-day total to 54-12. Palaniuk, who is from Rathdrum, Idaho, landed a limit of 5 bass registering 15 pounds, 4 ounces, but fell short with a total of 51 pounds 8 ounces.
“I started off OK, catching a couple of keepers,” Pace said. “But then I went six hours without a bite and I was starting to worry. I thought I had lost the Classic.
“But I moved to another creek and just started crawling a jig across the bottom. I was fishing so slowly that I could count every rock I bumped into.
“I caught another couple keepers and I just had enough.”
Hank Cherry of Maiden finished third and Tracy Adams of Wilkesboro finished sixth.
The first two days of the tournament Pace established a successful pattern. He fished creeks such as Drowning and Horse, keying on staging areas where the bass were moving from the main lake to pre-spawn areas. He fished a Jackall Swimbait and worked it slowly.
He caught three giant bass in the tournament – one that weighed 6 pounds, 8 ounces the first day, and two others that went 7-2 and 6-13 the second day. But the big fish didn’t hit the final day.
“I was going to those creeks in the afternoon and catching my big fish,” he said. “But for some reason, they didn’t move up today.
”It was probably the hardest day I’ve ever spent on the water.“
But Pace, 32, who finished runner-up in the 2008 Classic, closed the deal. In doing so, he took his third B.A.S.S. victory and became the second-youngest member of the B.A.S.S. Millionaires Club.
”I knew I had to go after the big fish,“ he said. ”Anyone can come to Grand and catch 10 to 12 pounds a day. But it was going to take bigger fish to win it.“
Palaniuk had a mix of emotions. He was disappointed that he came so close and lost, but satisfied that he caught enough bass to make it interesting.
“When I caught a good bag of fish today, I thought it might be close,“ said Palaniuk, who fished with a suspending stickbait and a crankbait. ”I gave it everything I have, but I just fell short.“