While doing most anything, Joey Cifuentes can have a song pop in his head.
“I’m really weird,” the Elite Series rookie from Clinton, Ark., explains. “When I hear people say things, it can make me instantly think of songs. I’m a big music guy.”
Understandably, last week during the Gamakatsu Bassmaster Elite on Lake Seminole, Alan Jackson’s 1994 Country Music Song of the Year, “Chattahoochee,” came to mind because it’s one of the rivers impounded to create the lake. Remember “Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee… ”?
“Every time I get on Lake Seminole, I think of that song,” said Cifuentes, who might just appreciate the Daily Limit’s parody ending for that tune. “ … we learned about Cifuentes as the Cowboy got the Dub.”
In his second Elite tournament, the 34-year-old exorcised some demons by winning his lucky 13th B.A.S.S. entry, complete with a surprise visit from family. Queen’s “We Are the Champions” might be in order, but less positive tunes have played for Cifuentes, including last week.
“Should I stay or should I go?” Cifuentes said those lyrics from The Clash’s 1981 chart-topper have hit him on the water, and at home. They probably come to mind for many anglers feeling their spot is dying, but Cifuentes admits it’s come up when contemplating his place in the sport.
“I’m a goal-setter. You want to feel like you gained a level of respect from all the guys you fish against,” he said, noting early success as a co-angler under the wing of Larry Nixon. “I felt I had that, but are you a winner?
“I wanted that respect. ‘He’s a winner. He’s good. You don’t count him out.’ That’s what I wanted. I wanted to get this win. Obviously, it’s a career-changer. It helps out your path to do this much longer.”
Cifuentes posted 16 Top 10s in 96 FLW events, earning $400,000 before qualifying for the Elites, but his third and last titles was from the back of the boat, and it was six years ago. He came close to winning events each of the past two years, both times faltering on the final day. So sure, doubts would naturally creep in.
“The past two or three years, I didn’t know that I was going to continue to do this, just because it’s so expensive,” he said. “I’ve had great sponsors, but it’s a hard sport to have success at without winning. I want to do the best I can do for my family. There’s been times I had my doubts.”
While others fished through winters, Cifuentes studied in the offseason to obtain his real estate license for a fallback career. He said he’ll still dabble in that, but he now feels like he’s standing on solid ground after his 19th at Okeechobee and the win at Seminole.
“You just don’t know the competition level you’re moving in,” he said. “The Top 20, it was a huge confidence boost for me.”
“Winning was sweet. I love it. I’m going to soak it up. I’m going to roll with it. I think I’m coming around as an angler. I felt in my heart it was going to happen, but there was doubt.”
That included Championship Sunday, when he headed out with a decent lead. That’s happened before, but results in those previous tournaments were not to his liking.
It was all good on Day 1 at Seminole for Cifuentes, who started sixth with 19 pounds, 13 ounces. The following day he landed the VMC Monster Bag of 26-1 to take the lead. Cifuentes accomplished that in Spring Creek using forward facing sonar and drop-shotting to prespawn bass at the base of trees.
In a 2019 event on Seminole, Cifuentes said he did “terrible.” In 2021, Cifuentes learned the standing timber in Seminole’s clearest creek had the juice, and he posted a fifth while his father was second as a co-angler. He focused his practice there this year.
“I knew it was a great place to go to have a chance to win, and I just picked it apart,” he said. “Talking to a few guys in the tournament, I realized (after Day 2) I was the only one doing that. I had no pressure. I knew I had a chance. I just needed to go catch 20 pounds the rest of the way.”
By hitting that mark on Day 3 with 20-13, he totaled 66-11 and was 4-1 ahead of Okeechobee winner Tyler Rivet and 5-2 up on Greg Hackney. Still, with warming weather, Cifuentes wasn’t comfortable since talk all week was how the big gals were rushing the bank.
“I know they’re fishing shallow. I know in my head this is not going to be an easy win. They’re going to catch them – Rivet had 25 and Hackney just caught 23 — so I better catch 20, to be safe, 21,” Cifuentes said. “If they beat me, then it’s hands-down their win. I don’t have anything to feel bad about.”
Some misses on the last day, with hooks popping out at the boat and fish wrapping him up in the trees, started to play in Cifuentes’ mind. Fighting the fish with a spinning rod, Cifuentes said he started singing Tom Petty’s “Don’t Do Me Like That” to the fish.
And during his slower day, Cifuentes admits there were times to cue The Clash — “Well, come on and let me know … Should I stay or should I go?”
“That song actually goes through my brain a lot when I’m fishing,” Cifuentes said. “It’s a classic.”
Classic song or classic angler dilemma? Probably both. Finally, landing a 6-pounder let Cifuentes know to stay, and he culled to 18-7 to win with 85-2, nearly 9 pounds ahead of runner-up Kyoya Fujita.
While on the water, Cifuentes was heard on Bassmaster LIVE saying he didn’t think he’d caught enough to win. That’s natural, especially when considering what happened the past two times he led on the final day of a tournament.
“It was my time to win,” he said. “It happened. I know everybody talks about me being a rookie. This is my sixth year doing this. I’ve had a couple opportunities to win big tournaments, an Open and an FLW event. If I didn’t go through those things, this wouldn’t have happened. It was a completely different day for me mentally.”
You live and learn. Cifuentes led the 2021 FLW tournament on the St. Lawrence by 7 pounds before falling to third. Last year, after a monster 28-pound bag on the first day in the Kissimmee Open, he was 7 pounds ahead of Brandon Lester before again, rolling craps and finishing runner-up.
“I was nervous,” at Seminole, he said, “but I was more calm. I’m going to control what I can control. I’m not going to freak out and leave my area like I did when I blew a 7-pound lead on the St. Lawrence.”
“I freaked out. I’ll be the first person to tell you. I just got crazy out of control and I left my area. I should have stayed there, just stuck it out. Some days it doesn’t always happen as quick as you want.”
Hmm, that sounds like song lyrics, too.
Well then, how about, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”
Cifuentes finally found his much-needed win, coming after what had to be some rough days and sleepless nights knowing he missed out on big chances. But he said it was those close calls that helped him win. You know, into each life some rain must fall.
“If it wasn’t for those moments,” Cifuentes said, “I wouldn’t have won this tournament.”
Alright, cue Santana’s “I’m winning.”