Pirch and Avena: Friends in tight spaces

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Andy Crawford

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Of all the bridges in all of the world, why did he have to start on mine?

That’s what Clifford Pirch had to be thinking when he found Adrian Avena on his starting spot this morning.

And likewise what Avena must’ve been thinking about Pirch’s choice of a first stop.

Despite the fact that most pundits, myself included, predicted that the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods would be won by an angler fishing a pattern, both pros had focused in on a single location where they thought they could do some serious damage. It had everything they needed: a mix of largemouths and smallmouths; a quick temperature rise, from 50 a few hundred yards away, to 54 on the sweet spot and 56 beyond it; and an abrupt change in water color, from Yoo-Hoo brown to over 3 feet of visibility.

The one thing it really didn’t have was room for two boats.

Nevertheless, the two anglers plied their trade silently, rarely looking at one another, exchanging no harsh words. They played the waiting game and eventually Avena blinked. After two hours and no keepers in the boat for either of them, he took off for other places, leaving Pirch to seine the spot by himself.

It’s a conundrum that all tournament anglers eventually face, whether to stay or whether to go. No matter the eventual decision, much of the time the speculation in the end is that we took off too soon or stayed too long. With nothing in his livewell, Avena likely made the call that if he were to remain within a cast length of Pirch they’d end up “splitting the baby,” with neither having a chance to win. While the two pros are from opposite sides of the country – Arizona and New Jersey – they both grew up fishing pressured waters, where other boats were often all around them. Furthermore, they both competed in high-level sports – wrestling for Pirch, tennis for Avena. They know the mental side of competition, and neither is likely to be fazed by a colleague’s stare down. Still, at some point it gets to be too much.

For Pirch, the decision to stay initially seemed like a wise one. When Avena left at 9:45, it seemed like someone flipped a light switch. Shad started popping everywhere and the bass started to chew. Between 10:00 and 10:30, Pirch landed two solid keepers, including a gorgeous smallmouth. Between 10:40 and 10:45, he lost a fish, caught two shorts and a third keeper. He still had nearly 5 hours to catch two more and possibly cull.

Then things went dead for him.

Meanwhile, we checked BASSTRakk and Avena had somehow amassed over 12 pounds on his “B” water. Was Avena’s move, which seemed to be a surrender of sorts at the time, actually strategic? Did he win by bailing first?

Of course, Pirch had no idea what was going on elsewhere, only that his plan wasn’t working to perfection. We asked him if he planned to stay all day, and he said that hadn’t been his intention, but now he was toying with the idea. He was like the dog who chases a fire truck and catches it: Now what do you do with it? Avena left him the keys to the kingdom, but it hadn’t turned out to be everything he’d expected.

To Pirch’s credit, he camped out a bit longer. It was the type of spot that a weekend angler might’ve made one pass through, firing five or six casts at the juice, and then moved on, with or without catching fish. He might be the most patient fisherman I’ve ever watched, and with Avena gone, he slowed down even more, milking casts, retying frequently, even working with a plug knocker for a good chunk of time trying to get back a favorite lure.

Finally, at 12:50 he started up his Suzuki for the first time since the morning’s first run and headed a couple of miles south. Once again, he milked a small area for all it was worth, dropping his Power Poles at the mouth of a tiny culvert for 10 minutes and feeling every pebble on the bottom with his lures before moving on. Unfortunately, that patience did not pay off.

At 1:45, he indicated that he was going to make a long run down the river, and with Andy Crawford needing to get back to photograph the weigh-in, we bid him adieu. But we had to pass by the little backwater with the bridge where Pirch and Avena had duked it out to start the day. As we pulled in, we saw the unmistakable green tint of Avena’s boat. Despite what he’d done elsewhere, despite the fact that he might’ve returned to find Pirch still sitting there, he couldn’t resist the siren call of the bridge that had lured them both in before.

As we pulled as close as we could without disturbing the area, I asked how he’d done elsewhere, and then then whether he planned to start here again on Sunday.

“I’m not sure,” he replied to the latter question, not knowing at the time that both he and Pirch were almost shoo-ins to get another crack at the Tennessee River tomorrow.

Then he set the hook on a beautiful brown bass. It didn’t meet the 18-inch minimum size limit for these waters, but seemed to give him the nudge he needed to give this place more than serious consideration. I’d bet that both of them will start Sunday in this little hole that promises so much.

Then again, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish, and that decision might be greatly influenced by another game of “chicken” and the best instincts of two exceptional anglers.