MORGAN CITY, La. — Cliff Pace won $50,000 on Saturday but his 29-pound, 2-ounce victory at the CITGO Bassmaster Central Open presented by Busch Beer on the Atchafalaya Basin also gave him what he really wanted: an invitation to the CITGO Bassmaster Tour presented by Busch Beer.
Pace's win gave him 300 points toward the Central Open point standings. Season points are awarded based on an angler's finish in each of the three tournaments, with the winner earning the maximum 300 points. Out of 900 possible points, Pace earned 711 points, making him one of the Central Opens' top 15 boaters, who will all be eligible to compete on the Tour.
"It's been my goal to make the Tour for the last two years," said Pace, who is 24 and in his second year as a boater in the Open series. "I look up to people like Gary Klein, Rick Clunn and Kevin VanDam. A lot of people idolize baseball players when they're kids, but all my heroes were anglers.
"I don't know that the Tour is the best thing for me, but if I'm in, I'm going if at all possible. I may finish dead last in all 6 events, but if the good Lord gives me the opportunity to go, as bad as I want it, I feel like I've got to go."
Pace spent the entire day in a canal off Big Bayou Pigeon where he built an early limit with a half-ounce homemade spinnerbait with double willow leaf blades and an unusual addition: a Hoot Gibson pearl pepper grub as a trailer. He rigged his 7-foot extra heavy Airrus rods with 20-pound Berkley Trilene Big Game line.
"The half ounce part, you can throw it out like a grub but you had to reel it so fast to keep it from getting buried in the mud," he said. Once he had a limit, he switched to a little-used but tried and true big bass bait — the half-ounce Lunker Lure Vibratron spinnerbait in chartreuse shad. The bait's unusual feature is a split-tail blade that creates bigger vibrations than a double willow leaf.
"When I switched to it, I managed to cull four of the fish I caught on my homemade lure," he said. "It's a spinnerbait that very few people fish with. You can't hardly find them. Gary Klein's made a lot of money with that bait. … Tell people about that bait, because not a lot of people know about it and it's so good, they need to keep making it."
Most of the anglers praised the local fishermen, many of whom were on the water Saturday practicing for a local charity event to be held on Sunday.
"I knew the first area I went to would be the first area I'd get to fish and not be fishing behind everyone else (because of the tournament practice)," Pace said. "When I got there, there was a local guy or two in there. I started fishing down this canal and they were fishing out. When they got to me they asked how I was doing and I told them I was leading Thursday and both of them were real courteous and left. I didn't ask, they did it on their own and I thought real well of them for it."
Sam Huckabee, who was tied for second after Thursday and finished in 39th, stopped to help a local angler whose boat had broken down and ended up loaning the angler his tools while Huckabee went on to fish. The angler repaired his boat and came hunting for Huckabee to return the tools.
"This is a great fishery and a wonderful place to hold an event. The people here are great, from the anglers to the locals to our volunteers and volunteer coordinator," said BASS tournament manager Chuck Harbin, after hearing the stories. "They've all just been right there with everything we needed. It's been a great place to come to."
The rest of the top five included Georgia's Michael Johnson (27-9); Louisiana's Billy Billeaud (27-6); Jason Reyes of Texas (27-2); and fellow Texan Paul Ferguson (26-8).
Billeaud, who fished Grand Lake Gage throughout the tournament, used an unusual technique on the line he tied to his junebug and green pumpkin Brush Hogs, 1-ounce black neon Yum tube, and black-and-blue Falcon jig. Billeaud dyes his 70-pound-test braided line by using markers to make black marks every quarter inch and then coloring the entire line green.
"The two different colors breaks it up," he said, laughing. "I'm not sure, but I might be a little bit crazy. It takes me hours to rig five rods. I'm so persnickety; hooks have to be as sharp as humanly possible, everything has to be perfect.
The non-boaters' top five included Lloyd McDaniel of Mississippi (18-15); Louisiana's Nathan Bourque (18-14); Robert Smith of Texas (18-2); Louisiana's Kevin LaFleur (17-14); and Jody Pruitt of Oklahoma (16-10).
LaFleur also walked away with the non-boaters' Purolator Big Bass of the Day, a 6-11 lunker that earned him $1,400, thanks to a $1,000 bonus from Purolator after it turned out to be the Purolator Big Bass of the Tournament. Eric Ambort of Arkansas brought in a 4-10 bass that brought him $1,000 as the boaters' Purolator Big Bass of the Day.
The big news of the day, however, was who made the championship and earned Tour cards. The top 20 boaters in the Central Opens, which includes Pace and well-known pros like Gary Klein, Matt Reed, Edwin Evers and Tommy Martin, earn berths in the CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship, slated for
Pace was in 21st and on the bubble for both the championship and the Tour heading into the season finale, but did not allow himself to worry about his 18-point deficit in the standings.
"You've got to take this one step at a time," he said. "I think that's a problem a lot of people have. I fished for a year as a non-boater and I think everybody should. That's how you learn. And I'm trying to fish my way up through each one. If it takes me two years to make the Classic, that's OK, as long as I can make a living.
"You can't think about anything but those 14-plus-inch bass swimming out there in that swamp. If you worry about the fish and figure out how to catch them, the rest will take care of itself. It's like sitting at home and not going to work and worrying about how to be a millionaire."
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.