Even writers should avoid dock talk

What does it take to be an unfit Bassmaster Classic champion?

There is no clause that allows the powers that be to strip away your crown for acts of moral turpitude. There’s no congeniality requirement, as in the Miss America pageant.

Once you’ve weighed in a bigger cumulative catch of bass than 50 or so other competitors, the trophy is yours to do whatever you please with it. You can put it on your mantle, throw it off a bridge, paint it bright pink or run it over with your magnum diesel truck (or any combination thereof) and no one can say a damn thing about it because for three days no one was better.

But the right to do something does not mean the naysayers won’t ride you if you don’t behave the way they’d like. Break dance on stage? Some people love it; some think it’s disrespectful. Give a subtle fist pump and barely break a grin? Again, some will say you handled it with grace while others will say you didn’t show the proper level of respect.

Post-last Sunday night, the talk in the bass blogosphere and in the chat rooms has been about whether Cliff Pace showed the proper emotion when he claimed the title. As expected, the opinions have varied. Most of the people who’ve expressed them have never met Cliff.

For some of them, due to his quiet nature, he was not even on their radar prior to this tournament, despite his many accomplishments. Oddly enough, most of the Elite Series pros I’ve spoken to, a group that rarely agrees on anything, have come out in support of Cliff.

“He works hard and finds his own fish,” has been their common refrain. They don’t give a flying, flipping jig whether he did back flips or curled up in a fetal position and bawled on stage. Most of them just wish they’d had the chance to exercise that option. Still, their unanimity should mean something to those of us charged with providing the public with truthful reporting.

When Cliff took a lead of 7 pounds into the last day of Classic combination, those of us following the event up close started to make our plans for Sunday’s stories. Other than the fact that his name might be more susceptible to bad puns than any in fishing history (“Off a Cliff,” “Setting the Pace,” “Cliff’s Notes,” “Pacing his Way to Victory”), here’s what the general consensus was – he’s going to be tough to work with.

That belief did not in and of itself necessarily reflect any animosity toward him, just the fact that he’s quiet, perhaps shy, and not overly expressive.

With Ike or KVD or even Chris Lane, there were a million angles to take, but with Cliff it was all about on the water performance, grinding out his fish and putting them in the livewell. Some of us didn’t even know if he was married, couldn’t tell you one meaningful fact about him except for his string of recent almost wins.

Once the idea that he might be difficult got in my head, every action he took seemed to reinforce that. It’s easy to be misled. For example, I watched him ask spectators to keep a respectful distance from a sensitive fishing spot but somehow I got it in my head that he’d told them to do so. One word, but a world of difference in perception.

After watching Ike feed off of his spectators the day before, I allowed myself to be persuaded that Cliff’s game face was about aggression or indifference rather than hard-nosed concentration.

I’ll admit it. I was looking for signs to confirm what others had said about him, rather than relying on my own experiences and impressions. Truth be told, in the five or six times I’ve interviewed him over the years, he’s been nothing but polite and helpful. He’s to the point and businesslike, but he returns calls and emails promptly and always has time to answer more questions, something that cannot be said of some peers who are generally considered to be more fan- and media-friendly.

In short, I’d allowed the writer’s equivalent of dock talk – the force-fed notion that he was not media-friendly – to overcome my good sense. Then I was presented with a chance to test out this ill-gotten hypothesis when I was given a writing assignment that required me to call him on Wednesday. We set up a time, and despite his crush of obligations, he never seemed hurried, always had time to explain more, and really wore his emotion on his sleeve.

To be blunt, it was a fantastic, illuminating conversation that completely stood on its head anyone’s idea that he’s an automaton. If I hadn’t been influenced by the chat room fodder, and this was the first time I’d spoken to him, I would have put his media-savvy on par with that of Iaconelli or KVD or Skeet. He was that good.

Hoisting the trophy didn’t make that happen – it was there already, waiting to come out at the right time. Or perhaps it was already out in the open, but we all willfully wore blinders to conform to a preexisting narrative.

Even if at his core Cliff is the same person he was last month or last year or last decade, February’s events have changed him forever. A year from now he will not be the same Classic champion that he is today, just as Chris Lane has morphed over the past 12 months, just as Mike Iaconelli has changed over the past 10 years and just as KVD or Rick Clunn changes a bit each time he adds another Classic trophy to his mantle. We have to let these stories play out rather than script them in advance.

The bottom line is that writers (including myself), like anglers, can fall prey to misleading dock talk. It’s almost always better to start with a fresh slate and work hard to find your own story than buy into someone else’s wild goose chase. It’s a lesson I’ll try to carry forward.

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