Cliff Pirch and his teammate had just won the Angler of the Year trophy from Arizona’s most competitive team trail.
At the time — in his early 20s and a rising star in Western bass circles — Pirch was ecstatic about the award, so much so that he got a little shaky and had to steady himself by holding onto a wall. The sensation passed, and Pirch headed home, exhausted. He lay on a couch for a quick afternoon nap.
“When I woke up, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t see. Things were a mess,” he recalls of that day in 2000. “My wife and dad took me to the hospital, where they ran a bunch of tests.”
The diagnosis: multiple sclerosis (MS) — a chronic, usually progressive disease of the central nervous system that strikes about 10,000 people each year.
Pirch is one of the luckier ones whose MS is mostly in remission.
There were times that first summer when Pirch said he was “really jacked up,” but he gradually regained his eyesight and control of his limbs. He had to lay off fishing for a few months. He wondered if he would again be able to enjoy the sport he loved so much.
Then a tournament teammate, Reese Randall, prevailed on him to go fishing one day. “I’ll tie you to the butt seat if I have to,” Randall told him. That sped him along on the road to recovery, and before long, Pirch was again a force in Western bass wars.
Now one of the top-ranked Elite Series aces, he still deals with relapses.
“Anytime I get exhausted or overheated, things try to go haywire,” he said. “I lost vision in my left eye for a while.”
His vision has returned well enough for Pirch to guide elk and mule deer hunters in the mountains near his Payson, Ariz., hometown.
He takes care to stay hydrated and as cool as he can. A careful diet and an exercise regimen help keep fatigue at bay, and vitamin supplements recommended by his physician have helped immensely.
When I rode along with Pirch in a practice round for the Huk Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River presented by Black Velvet in 2018, I saw no evidence he might be suffering from anything besides smallmouth lockjaw.
A seven-year Elite pro, Pirch has yet to hoist the blue trophy, but he has qualified for six Bassmaster Classics, including the next one.
That consistency isn’t an accident — it’s his game plan.
“Out West, I was known as a power fisherman who swung for the fences. I was a gambler,” said Pirch, who has won the WON Bass U.S. Open three times and finished second three more.
“In the Elite Series, I learned that I had to cash a check as often as possible to survive.” He’s done that, earning money in 72 percent of events fished.
One of the most competitive anglers in the sport, Pirch was a state champion in wrestling. Finishing in the money isn’t good enough anymore.
He doesn’t seek glory for himself.
“I’m really blessed to be able to function at this level,” Pirch said. “You learn a lot from dealing with this stuff. You lose a little bit of the pride you get from feeling you can do anything. I’ve learned humility.
“I would like to honor God with my abilities, with what I’m able to do.”
Especially in the upcoming 2019 Classic. There’ll be no thoughts of survival mode in that event. Pirch is in it to win it.