As one gains years and experience, things from the past seem to shrink, and Cliff Prince is hopeful he can produce a tighter circle of finishes in his eighth Bassmaster Elite Seris season.
Before the seasion begins, the pride of Palatka, Fla., is geared up as 2019 starts on his home fishery, the St. Johns River, where he still laments a mistake that might have cost him a title. Before going forward, Prince was asked to look back at how he came to this spot in pro bass fishing.
Love of the outdoors, hunting and fishing was a given in his family. His uncle was a fishing guide and put Prince on his first bass, which matched his age. Yet that 6-pounder has since gotten smaller.
“I’ve got him hanging on the wall,” he said. “I caught it with my uncle on a shiner out on Rodman Reservoir. He called it a 6-pounder. I looked at it on the wall today, and I think he’s more like a 4 … but it about pulled me out of the boat.”
Prince envied his uncle’s job, being able to take people fishing, and he fished for the big bass in the region throughout his youth. Yet that took a back seat for a while as he competed in rodeo events, where he enjoyed great success. In his school years, he won the all-around cowboy title several times for his prowess in calf-roping, team roping, steer wrestling and riding a cutting horse.
“Cutting horses is what I did for three or four years after I graduated high school,” he said. “I actually trained cutting horses and showed some. I won some small maturities with one of the horses I trained. I just kind of got away from it when I started fishing. My passion was more into the outdoors and fishing.”
So much that he said he actually bought a boat before he had a vehicle to tow it. Afternoon tournaments with a friend transitioned to all-day events before he started branching out and traveling to Weekend Series tournaments.
“I got a taste of the traveling around, and I just really wanted to fish something with a little more bang than the 25-boat tournaments,” Prince said. “I’d like to go out of state and fish some of these other fisheries.”
Work kept him from jumping in totally. Punching a clock at a local business made it hard to get away for a week to fish a circuit regularly. Then good fortune struck him around 2001 as he waited to get new tires on his truck. He ran into a friend from his rodeo days who owned a portable toilet business and seemed to be able to free up time to travel.
“I just happened to mention to him if he was ever ready to sell, to let me know,” Prince said. “He said, ‘I’ll sell it to you right now.’ It kind of caught me off guard, then the more I thought about it … I’ve been punching this clock for 10 or 12 years, the pay is decent and benefits are good, but I’d really like to be my own boss.
“If you had told me when I was a junior in high school that I was going to own a port-a-let business, I’d have told you you were crazy. It took me a couple years before I ever really paid myself a check, but once I got it going, it gave me the freedom where I could set up my schedule and be gone for four or five days in a row.”
Being his own boss at that business, on acreage in west Palatka where his parents and his family have homes, allowed him to begin fishing B.A.S.S. circuits. His first was a minor circuit Cypress 3 event on the St. Johns, and he took third. He cashed in his next three events, a Southern Open at home then two as a co-angler in Florida Elite tournaments.
He became a staple on the Basspro.com Southern Opens and was half a pound from winning on Santee Cooper in 2009, but his $14,400 payday there was his largest to date. His finishes in the 2011 Opens, including out-of-his wheelhouse fisheries of Lake Norman and Douglas Lake, earned him an Elite invitation.
“There’s been kind of a natural progression,” he said. “I had been fishing the Opens three years, but when it happened, I was kind of in shock but also real excited to have that opportunity.”
Fortunes had it that the 2012 Elite season began at home for Prince, who finished 16th on the St. Johns. He parlayed that into five checks in the eight events. That gained him one of his two Bassmaster Classic appearances.
His average of cashing checks decreased since that first season, but he’s been close to winning several times. Some Florida anglers have issues up north until they learn the ropes, but Prince said that’s not always been the case.
“The northern lakes, I really enjoy going up there,” he said. “My whole thing is having confidence in what I found in practice. I’ll have one really stellar day then the next I’ll have just an average day. Those fisheries, you need to have 18 pounds a day. If you have 13 pounds, you’re in 80th.”
Fishing history is the real bugaboo he wants to eliminate.
“I get caught up more now than I used to in what happened last time we were somewhere,” he said. “I think that’s more of the kiss of death for me than going to a new place.”