“This is the way to catch a really big bag this time of year,” he told me. “I think I can get 20 pounds today.” I sensed he was already there with the fish in the livewell, but he assured me he had about 16 pounds.
With about 20 minutes left before we had to head back to the ramp, Pace connected with a huge fish on the jerkbait. Two or three times, he’d sit down in the passenger seat and try to land her and she’d make a strong run each time. When he sat down a fourth time the fish was suddenly gone within inches of his grasp and his line went slack. “Gah Lee!” he painfully groaned. “That was a solid 5-pounder easy.” Then, without another word, he went back to casting and back to work, shaking it off as quick as it happened. “At least that solidifies that I’m doing the right thing now,” Pace said, finding some silver lining in losing the big fish.
I couldn’t help but think to myself right then that Pace had the courage to win the Classic. All of the competitors in the field were sticks. They proved they could catch them to earn a shot at the Classic title. But who would have the mettle to endure three days of freezing temperatures and iced-up rod guides every third cast? Who could keep their mind right and think clearly with all the pressure? I knew Cliff Pace could right then and there.
Ultimately, that confidence, courage and quiet determination earned him the title. After the Day 1 weigh-in, I couldn’t help but realize that there probably was another silver lining in losing that big fish at the end of the day.
Pace ended up tied for the lead with Iaconelli. All the attention was on Mike and even KVD in fourth place and Pace could quietly go about his business. Had he landed that fish he would have had at least a 2-pound lead, having gone to the scales on Day 1 with a 2 1/2-pounder he never could cull. How would he have handled all the pressure? The media and spectator boats would have been all over him. Instead, for the most part they were all chasing Ike, KVD and others and leaving Pace to continue his quiet, patient pursuit of bigger fish with the one-two punch of the jig and jerkbait, mixing in the crankbait between spots.
Day 2: Brandon Palaniuk
Drawing Brandon Palaniuk on Day 2 was as different as riding with Pace as watching a chess match or watching a rodeo. Palaniuk is all smiles and energy. He is living the dream, and his youthful exuberance for the sport is contagious. But don’t be fooled. He was all business, just smiling and chatting away as the day started. Having witnessed one of the top two bags being caught on Day 1, I must admit I was a little taken aback as Palaniuk laid off the throttle not 5 minutes from the launch onto a mud flat. Rocks were key to Pace’s pattern on Day 1, so I thought I might get cold as Palaniuk launched fancasts with a Rapala jerkbait.
No takers in 15 minutes. Palaniuk reached down and picked up a shaky head and cast toward a submerged bush. “What is this guy thinking?” I wondered. “A worm on a jighead when he needs 3- and 4-pounders, and on a mud flat to boot? This is going to be a long day.”
No sooner had I consoled myself that at least I’d witnessed hot action the day before when the boat rocked as Palaniuk set the hook on fish #1, a solid 2 1/2-pounder. “I felt the worm come over a little rock and boom, it was just there!” he exclaimed.
Quickly back to the mud flat with the jighead and I noticed the similarity to Palaniuk’s presentation and Pace’s from the day before. Just as Pace had counted every rock working his jig back to the boat, Palaniuk was barely moving the worm along. I was watching paint dry it seemed when fish #2 came on board, falling prey to the sloth-like presentation in the cold water. “Gimme some!” Palaniuk screamed.
Palaniuk continued to alternate between the jerkbait and the shaky head and didn’t leave the mud flat until he had four fish in his well in about an hour. He was talking to media boats, spectators, cattle grazing on the shore — anyone or anything. He was happy to just be fishing on the world’s largest stage for bass angling.
A quick run to a nearby point and he connected with a big one on the jerkbait, but he quickly realized it was a drum and relaxed. “Here comes my crazy family,” he said as a truck pulled up to the shore and the red mob of Palaniuk’s family poured out like a clown car at the circus. A few minutes later he whacks another drum, this one pushing 7 pounds. “At least you all got to see me catch one!” Palaniuk shouted to his loved ones.
As the day wore on, I had the chance to ask Palaniuk a few questions. “How do you like it out there on the Elite Series tour? Are the guys treating you nice? What are your favorite stops on this year’s schedule?” I tried not to be a pain and let the man work, but he seemed excited to tell me about the experience he’s had in his short Elite Series career.
“I was driving down the road and my cell phone rang,” said Palaniuk. “The guy on the other end of the line said ‘BP, this is Kevin VanDam.’ ‘Who is this really?,’ I said, thinking one of my buddies was playing a trick on me. ‘No, really, it’s Kevin. I want to ask you about those cool lights you have on your boat and truck. Where can I get them?’ To have KVD call you, that is pretty cool and made me really feel part of the tour.”
And it says a lot about what the rest of “the tour” thinks about Palaniuk. His enthusiasm and character have already won them over, but his skills with a fishing rod have earned their respect.
With less than an hour left on Day 2, Palaniuk is throwing the jerkbait fervently at every stop. “This is what the big fish want. It is a grind, but I feel like I’m about to catch a 5-pounder.” His rod loaded up on his 15th cast to the same point.
“Big one, big one!” Palaniuk screamed as he played the fish and the flotilla of 21 boats cheered. “Yeah!” he yelled as he held the 5-pounder up for the fans. He culled one of the shaky head fish from the mud flat, and the fans went wild again. “I wanted to catch one for y’all,” he yelled as he pumped his fist, obviously having picked up some Southern dialect in his time away from Idaho.