Front-row seat for Utah youth director

Scott Hausman, the youth director for the Utah B.A.S.S. Nation, had incredible draws for the 2013 Bassmaster Classic as a Marshal. Read his first-hand account of his three days, with eventual winner Cliff Pace and runner-up Brandon Palaniuk.

I might as well never buy another lottery ticket. How often could somebody get this lucky twice in their lifetime? I hit the jackpot last weekend at the Bassmaster Classic when I arguably had the best seat in the house for the three days of competition. I was paired with Cliff Pace on Day 1 of the Classic then drew Brandon Palaniuk on Day 2. On Day 3, I accompanied Ott DeFoe as he tried to unravel the mystery of where he fell short during the week with “next time” in mind. Having a front row seat to all the emotions, decision-making and fish catching will always be a highlight of my life.

I extend my apologies to all the fans who followed BASSTrakk online. I short-changed everyone in estimating the bags of Pace and Palaniuk by a wide margin. I won’t make excuses other than to say I never catch fish as big as the ones they were quickly putting in the livewell so wasn’t used to judging them. “That looks like a solid 5-pounder,” I said to Pace with fish #3. “Nah, maybe 4,” he followed up. I wasn’t about to dig into the livewell and see who was right, but I learned none of these anglers wanted to get overconfident about how they were stacking up against the best bass anglers in the world. This was part of their mental game, fishing like an underdog chasing “someone” who was going to bring in a 25-pound bag.

Day 1: Cliff Pace

I had been a fan of Pace for years because of his journeyman like approach to the sport. Visions of how he kept fighting at the Lake Hartwell Classic came to mind, and I knew I had a great draw. We had never met, but at the dock he quickly offered a hand to me as I stepped onto the frost-covered deck of his Hi-Seas-wrapped Skeeter. “I’m Cliff, nice to meet you. Hope you dressed warm!” And that was it — no small talk. Pace went back to his final preparations as the minutes wound down to take-off. He had his game face on and my job was to be invisible to him as a Marshal.

We were Boat #11 on Day 1 and as I endured the bone-chilling 70 mph flight to Pace’s first stop, my attention drifted to the rods on the front deck. Eight rods were laid out, four on each side, with assorted jigs, jerkbaits and crankbaits tied to each of them. “What will he start with?” I wondered — anything to get my mind off the fact that it was 22 degrees screaming down Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. Soon Pace lifted off the throttle and made a turn toward a small cove. “All those boats ahead of us went right to my best spot, so I guess I’ll start here,” said Pace as he came off plane and removed his motorcycle helmet. “Big fish live over there, darn it.” I could sense this wasn’t the first time he’d had to endure being beat to his starting spot, as he quickly dropped the trolling motor and picked the rod with the green pumpkin football head jig.

With the boat in 25 feet of water, Pace made a cast about 2 feet from the bank. The gears were already turning in his head about others being on his starting spot as he glanced over one more time, and then set his attention back to his cast. He worked the V&M jig as slow as I’ve ever seen anyone work a bait. He later stated he was trying to count every rock as he worked the bait from shallow to deep. A second cast a few minutes later and the boat suddenly rocked as Pace set the hook on his first keeper, a solid 3-pounder. “Thank you, Lord, that’s how you want to start the Classic!”

My cold fingers entered the catch into BASSTrakk as Pace methodically returned to the long cast and drag that yielded the first fish. No luck on cast # 3, so he cast 15 yards farther down the bank in between boat docks. As the jig was about halfway back to the boat, I saw Pace perk up as he sensed something, then quickly reared back on fish #2 — a solid 3.75.

“Thank you, Lord,” the angler said looking to the sky. “I guarantee you I can catch three more keepers and get a limit now.”

What those two fish in four casts did for Cliff Pace was allow him to settle down and have confidence in his backup spot after not being able to hit his primary stuff right off the bat. More importantly, we both forgot about the cold as the action was red-hot within 10 minutes for Pace. “I’m not on my best spot yet either,” said Pace. “This is awesome. I’ve been catching them a little farther into the coves.”

But he worked the cove for another hour with no luck. “Let’s move,” and I threw my gloves and helmet on as we shot over the where Pace wanted to start.

David Walker was 100 yards away on the opposite bank and another competitor was 200 yards into the second cove as Pace stopped at the point. This time, the jerkbait came out. I’ve never seen a jerkbait worked slower as he moved the rod tip 5 or 6 inches, pulling it along, not twitching it. No luck. He moved a little deeper into the cove on the opposite bank.

“David Walker had to have just fished this 10 minutes ago,” I was thinking to myself. Pace grabbed the rod with the crawfish-colored Jackall crankbait tied on. On the second cast moving down a chunk rock bank, he connected with No. 3, another solid 4-pound fish. “Yes!” the usually emotionless Pace emphatically fist pumped as he eased the fish in the livewell. “I’m not worried about this water being fished already. I’m doing something different, I think,” Pace stated as he continued down the bank.”

It wasn’t long before Pace had five in the livewell alternating between the football head jig and the crankbait.

For the most part, Pace never put the jerkbait down after getting his limit of about 15 pounds in the livewell. He ran from point to point, often returning an hour later to the same point until connecting. As he culled with solid 4-pound bass on the jerkbait, he was all business.

“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.

Two casts later and he ripped the jerkbait free from a branch or rock and it suddenly loaded up with nice largemouth and No. 5 was in the boat by 9 a.m. Unlike Pace, Palaniuk wasn't bashful as he held the fish up and put his finger over his mouth to say “Shhhh, I’m on ’em boys!” and encouraged me to send the picture into the Bassmaster.com blog for his friends and family to see. As BASSTrakk heated up with Brandon’s early success on Day 2, more and more spectator boats found him as he moved around the lake. “Wow, I’ve never had this many boats following me. I must be catching up!” Unlike Pace, Palaniuk was thrilled by the attention, and it boosted his confidence that he might be gaining ground.

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.

Palaniuk prepared for the run back to the ramp. “This was awesome, man,” said Palaniuk. “I’m loving it!”

So am I, Brandon, so am I. I may be a little jealous even. He is living his dream with no regrets. Sleeping in the “Tundra Suites” at each stop for the most part is just “normal” to him. Thanks for reminding this old guy that life is for living.

Palaniuk’s catch pushed him up to second place after some early leaders stumbled on Day 2. He had a 7-pound deficit, but he simply told the press, “You can’t win if you’re not in contention. At least I’m in contention. Anything can happen out there.”

I bet it will ultimately happen for Palaniuk. He has the spirit of a warrior and the heart of Joe Montana. He will fight until the end and win more than he will lose, always with a smile and a kind word for his fellow competitors and fans alike.

 

Day 3: Ott DeFoe

Could it get any better than having marshaled for the leader and the second-place angler after two days of the Classic? On the night of Day 2, I was pumped to learn I’d been paired with Ott DeFoe for the final day.

DeFoe had stumbled on Day 2 and wouldn’t be chased by fans or media. He was in great spirits as I stepped onto the docks and he was joking with Bill Lowen about “what could have been.” You could sense the lack of pressure on “this side of the dock,” where boats 13 to 25 were parked. All of the attention was on the other dock where the top contenders were lined up in order of how they finished the first two days. I glanced at Cliff Pace quickly. He looked solid and confident even with all the media on him. Palaniuk was smiling and joking, of course.

DeFoe began stacking rods on the deck. None contained jerkbaits. Four various Rapala #5 and #6 Shad Raps on spinning rods were laid out, followed by three rods with jigs and a flat-sided crankbait of DeFoe’s own making.

The day with DeFoe was relaxing because he knew he wasn’t in contention, starting the day in 18th place. But, he still wanted as big of a payday as he could get. At the first stop, fishing shallow pea gravel around boat docks, DeFoe picked up a crawfish-colored Shad Rap on 8-pound line.

“This has been my deal all week,” he explained. “I don’t know where the big ones are, but I have been catching them on this bait.”

A few casts later, he hooked up with a short fish and threw it back. Then he connected with a nice fish and played it toward the boat. Halfway back to the boat, it came unbuttoned.

“Uuuuuuuhhhhhhhhh,” he moaned. After several groans, he patiently worked a few more boat houses and picked up a black-and-blue Terminator jig and pitched to the corner of the boat dock closest to the main lake point. The rod tip bounced and DeFoe set the hook, only to have the jig fly out of the water.

“Uuuuuuuhhhhhhggggggg,” again boomed DeFoe’s Southern voice. “I thought he had it.”

Moving to his second stop DeFoe picked up the #6 Shad Rap and started working the shoreline halfway back in a cove. He quickly connected with his first keeper and began to settle into a pattern of throwing the Shad Rap and following up with the jig around heavier structure. A flurry of fish followed in the next hour as homeowners came down to the docks and chatted with Defoe. He graciously answered their questions as he boated bass after bass from behind a particular boat dock.

“You didn’t know you had all these bass here, did you?” DeFoe asked a homeowner. “Nope, and I fish here all the time,” the man answered. “I guess I just use the wrong bait.”

By 11 a.m., DeFoe had landed a dozen keepers, culling up ounces instead of pounds in the back of this cove. It was painful but educational for me to watch as he culled up an ounce and continued working the back and middle of the cove. From the vantage point I had on Days 1 and 2, I knew what the difference was in the week. Both Pace and Palaniuk got five in the livewell for about 12 pounds and went pig hunting on main lake and secondary points with jerkbaits. The big fish weren’t in the backs or even the middles of the coves yet, although numerous 2- to 2 1/2-pound bucks had found their way to the pea gravel around the docks already.

DeFoe didn’t want to leave the area with the fish biting. He was upgrading, but was he gaining ground? As I entered his fish into BASSTrakk, fans starting surrounding DeFoe and soon he had five or six boats watching him catch and throw back short fish.

Ultimately, DeFoe did leave the cove where he boated 17 keepers, the best a little more than 3 pounds. He started cranking out closer to the main lake and ran some of the type of stuff that both Pace and Palaniuk had worked to find their bigger bites. DeFoe didn’t leave himself a lot of time to get the bigger bite and stayed, in my opinion, in the back of the cove too long. He needed to upgrade pounds, not ounces.

“Why no jerkbait on your deck today when everyone told the press they were using them?” I asked him as we started to head back in.

“I just couldn’t get bit on it,” answered DeFoe. “I love to throw it and figured it would be the deal, but I couldn’t find those fish in my practice.”

DeFoe is a true gentleman and a great ambassador for the sport. He was always friendly with spectators, homeowners and treated me like family by the end of the day. His day will come; he’s just too good for his dreams not to come true. He shared stories about fate, faith and fishing that were inspiring to hear from such a young man.

“Some of my teammates with Nitro told me if I ever fished a Classic I’d always want to be back,” said DeFoe. “Man, they weren’t kidding. This is contagious — all the fans, all the press. I’m going to work hard to make it back next year. I love Guntersville and that should go right down to the wire.”

I hope you make it back, too, Ott, and fishing fans everywhere will be rooting for the soft-hearted, deep-voiced family man from Tennessee all season long.

 

After the weigh-in

The tickertape has long been swept off the floor of the BOK Center in Tulsa and Cliff Pace is basking in the glory of his hard earned victory. He fought off the demons on Day 3 to hoist the crown that so few ever have. He deserves it. He stuck to his plan and fished painfully slow, especially in the cold morning hours as he counted those rocks in between bites.

Palaniuk joked that he was on the “two drum, one bass pattern” on Day 2 to help keep his wits about him with the Red Mob screaming at every point for him to “do work.” Even though he came up a few pounds short at the scales, he won the adoration of thousands as he smiled and laughed, signed hundreds if not thousands of autographs and fought until the very end as true warriors do.

As for me, I’m back looking at spreadsheets, checking sales reports and doing all of the things that those of us do to make ends meet. But in my heart, I’m right there in the left seat, freezing, watching, learning and living vicariously through our heroes on the Elite Series tour, wondering if lightning might strike again for me.

I better go buy a lottery ticket. I am about the luckiest fishing fan on the planet!