Daily Limit: Pirch still trying to make sense of grisly event

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – August 25, 2022 is a day Clifford Pirch will never forget – a man died on his boat.

Pirch, 47, of Payson, Ariz., was hoping to make the cut on Day 2 of the season-ending Elite tournament on the Mississippi River when his afternoon turned dreadful.

A man walked into the water and pursued his boat, and Pirch soon discerned something was terribly wrong. At first he fled the apparent threat, but it turned into a life-saving attempt. The incident bothered Pirch, who became somewhat shaken retelling the horrific details.

“It was crazy,” he said. “It’s definitely a story you couldn’t make up.”

At first, Pirch thought the man wading toward him was perhaps simply curious about his wrapped boat, or maybe he was going for a swim. He said he went on high alert when the man just kept coming toward him and his Marshal.

“I said, ‘Hey, how you doing? And he didn’t answer,” Pirch said, adding the man’s odd smile made him wonder if he was mentally ill or on drugs. “I had just caught a big one and kinda got excited about my fishing turning around. I figured out something I was missing.”

Pirch had hopes of climbing from his Day 1 spot of 69th to solidify his berth to the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota. His attention to fishing was diverted as the man cut his distance from 60 to about 20 feet.

“‘Hey man, how’s the swimming?’” Pirch asked. “He just looked at me and said, ‘It’s nice.’ A level tone and weird smile. Never lost eye contact. He’s wading through matted grass.”

As the man closed in on the back corner of his boat, Pirch kicked up the speed on his Ghost trolling motor.

“‘Hey man, are you OK?’” Pirch asked again to gauge his motives. “Then he kind of lunged toward us, and I outran him on my trolling motor.”

The man began swimming after the boat and followed for a good stretch before finally stopping. Pirch figured the man had tired, but then he went under for maybe 30 seconds before resurfacing with only his eyes above the water.

“His nose is under water, and he’s still just looking at me. He wasn’t flailing, struggling,” Pirch said. “Then he went under again.

“I go, ‘I hope that guy’s alright. Aw man, I don’t know what’s going on, but I better go back.’ I troll back to him. He’s under water. I can look down and see the top of his head. I can see his hair waving in the current. I’ll never forget it.”

After the ordeal, Pirch’s Marshal confirmed his suspicions, saying the man had picked up a rock before starting his pursuit. Pirch was understandably apprehensive even trying to save him.

Clifford Pirch will be fishing his eighth Classic this week after missing the past two championships.

“I felt like it was one of those horror movie moments where I had to decide whether to reach down and grab him … or if he was going to reach up and grab me. Or stab me,” he said. “I had no idea what the guy was up to.”

Pirch said he knew he had to offer assistance. He grabbed the man and realized it was dire as there was foam around his mouth. In drowning, water can mix with lung mucus and air and produce foam. Pirch attempted to pull the man onto his boat as the Marshal called 911.

“I’m trying to rouse him. I got him about halfway up on the back deck. I’m pounding on his back. “Hey! Hey!’” said Pirch, who through the 911 dispatcher was told to turn him on his back.

“I flip him on his back and look down — his guts were all coming out of his stomach,” Pirch said. “He had a big zipper surgery on his belly. It looked awful. My back deck looked like a war zone.”

After giving their coordinates, Pirch said the dispatcher asked they meet authorities at a nearby dock. Once there, paramedics jumped on his boat and began working on the man.

“It’s not looking good. He’s probably dead,” Pirch said. “The guy just died on my boat. I don’t think he actually drowned. I think his heart blew up, or drug overdose. I never heard actually what happened.”

Pirch was shaken as he told police the story. He was then asked to return to the scene to provide particulars for their reports. They asked if his cameras had captured the event and “about 10 more things I don’t want to get into.”

Pirch had already informed tournament officials of his situation and that he would miss the weigh-in. When released by police,  Pirch went to a car wash to clean his boat, the events of the day burned in his mind.

Trying to put the ordeal into context, Pirch later contacted police who told him they were familiar with the man – he had several confrontations in La Crosse. Pirch then found out his intuition was correct, that he was in danger.

“That wound on his belly, the officer said he attacked a cop in Chicago and tried to gouge his eyes out and he shot him,” Pirch said. “He got shot and whatever they did to put him all back together was coming apart.

“The cop said you were right to be suspicion because he likely was trying to attack you.”

That led Pirch to wonder why the man wasn’t in jail, and much more. He remembered the women on shore near where the man entered the river, one in a wheelchair and the other walking a child in a stroller, and thought it better the man try to attack him.

Back at that spot providing details to police, Pirch noticed fish blowing up and knew he would have had a chance to make the cut. He zeroed on Day 2 to finish 84th but only fell 13 spots to 37th in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, still qualifying for this week’s Classic.

Pirch finished 18th in the 2019 Classic here, fifth-best among the 11 anglers who return this year. He finished 24th in the 2021 Elite in Knoxville.

A winner of three U.S. Opens, Pirch is excited about a chance to win the Classic.

“I’m thankful to be here,” he said. “I missed the last two. I made seven in a row then had a couple rougher years. I’m ready to win something big again.”

It might help erase the memories of that grisly day. Pirch said he knows paramedics and their ilk deal with worse on a daily basis. He’s also known anglers who’ve found drowning victims but never imagined he’d experience such horror.

“I’ll never forget the look on the guy’s face, the weird smile on his face and weird look in his eyes,” he said. “That was the last time that guy literally was living. That was a pretty heavy moment.”