MORGAN CITY, La. — Cliff Pace is a motivated man. The Mississippi angler has his eye on an invitation to the CITGO Bassmaster Tour presented by Busch Beer and, coming into the CITGO Bassmaster Central Open, he was just 18 points away from his goal.
So when he came to the Atchafalaya Basin, he knew he had to perform well. On Thursday, he brought in 15 pounds, 1 ounce of bass and took the lead at the tournament. Leading the day is worth a five-point bonus in the season point standings and is a step toward the 15th-place spot he will have to hold after Saturday's final round in order to get a Tour card.
"I've got to catch them tomorrow or I'm done," he said matter-of-fact tone after the weigh-in. Is he at all worried about the anglers behind him, including Gary Klein, who is currently tied for that magical 15th-place position? "You can't worry about that. You can't look at that right there and let that be your influence. You don't fish against those guys."
Pace, who won last year's Central Open on Texas' Sam Rayburn Reservoir, had his limit at 2 p.m. Thursday and began culling for bigger bass.
"All I can say is I was just covering a lot of water," Pace said. "That's really it. I caught them on a bunch of different baits. It wasn't a particular bait, I was just pattern fishing. I can't really say any more; it's so obvious and so easy, it's not like I'm fishing a 20-foot hump. This is a shallow water fishery and there's a specific type of cover that these fish are really on."
Missouri's Chad Brauer, currently in eighth at the tournament, agreed that the tidal river basin forced anglers to cover a lot of water in search of the most productive spots. Brauer picked up a $1,000 bonus with a 5-8 lunker that became the boaters' Purolator Big Bass of the Day. If it holds out as the tournament's largest fish through Saturday, it will be worth another $1,000 as the Purolator Big Bass of the Tournament.
"This type of fishery really suits my style of fishing," said Brauer, who was not at all shy about sharing his tactic: flipping a Strike King premiere pro model jig in black and blue. "It's really shallow water. It's suitable for jigs and heavy cover type of stuff. The trick is to find the good spots. They've got hundreds and hundreds of miles of water and not all of them have fish."
This home stretch tournament will determine which of the Central Open boaters will earn those 15 berths on the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Tour and 20 berths in the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship. The berths are earned by the anglers who accumulate the highest season point totals; season points are awarded based on an angler's finish in each of the three tournaments, with the winner earning the maximum 300 points.
Coming into the event, veteran pro Tommy Martin of Hemphill, Texas, led the point standings with 554 points. On Thursday, Martin was in fourth at the event after making what he said was a key change in strategy.
"I found these fish about 2 weeks ago when I came up here for three days and it (the water) was sitting at 7.3 feet at that time. It was two and a half foot higher than it is now," he said. "I was catching them on a spinnerbait, flipping on the bank, and when I came back down here, they had backed off."
At that point, he said, he moved from spinnerbaits to a pair of Bagley crankbaits - the medium-running B2 in chartreuse with a black back, and a deeper-diving Killer B2 in the same pattern.
"I didn't figure that out until Tuesday," he said. "That one adjustment is the key to any success I have here this week. This'll probably put me way up in the points. It doesn't hurt anything; I don't know that it helps you so much; you still have to catch the fish. You still have to use your fishing sense, use the mechanics and fish hard all day."
A thick, unmoving fog bank delayed Thursday morning's launch, which was scheduled for 7 a.m. It was 8:45 before the fog burned off enough that tournament officials declared the waters safe and began the tournament. The morning's fog gave way to a hot, sunny afternoon.
"It prevented some guys from making long runs and you probably would have seen some more big bags of fish," Pace said. "Nobody could run to Venice today. That time delay deal messes with people's heads. It makes them fish faster, it makes them make bad decisions because they're in a hurry. The fog delay was probably a blessing to me."
The top five boaters included Pace and Martin, as well as Louisiana's Sam Huckabee and Texas' Paul Ferguson, tied for second with 13-6; and Vince Parello of Texas, in fifth with 13-3.
The non-boater division's top five were Texas' Robert Williams (12-7); Oklahoma's Jody Pruitt (11-3); Mark Smith of Louisiana (10-8); Louisiana's Nathan Bourque (9-10); and Mississippi's Teb Jones (9-1). Robert Smith of Texas took home the non-boaters' Purolator Big Bass of the Day award with a 3-14 bass worth $400 from Purolator.
Non-boaters are awarded points using the same system, but compete for a different set of rewards: all-expenses-paid berths in the boater division of the 2005 Open series of their choice as well as cash and prizes.
Daily weigh-ins will begin at 3:15 p.m. and the launch will be at 7 a.m. at Belle River Public Launch. Both are free to the public.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Central Open include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Toyota, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.
Local sponsors include Cajun Coast Visitors and Convention Bureau.