Clifford Pirch is riding a wave of confidence going into next week's Bassmaster Elite Series Toyota Angler of the Year tournament on Lake Michigan. That's because this week he won his third Western Outdoor News U.S. Open event on Lake Mead.
"My body feels like I've been in a war," said Pirch, "kind of like I've been in a Great Lakes tournament."
Pirch joined an elite group with his victory in the 32nd annual event. He joined Aaron Martens and Mike Folkestad as the only three-time champions of the tournament that Pirch called "the Super Bowl" for western U.S. bass anglers.
The victory came after Pirch had finished second the previous two years. And it came as the Payson, Ariz., resident is trying to lock up qualification for his second Bassmaster Classic. Pirch is 38th in AOY points going into the Lake Michigan finale at Little Bay de Noc and Big Bay de Noc on the western shore.
Pirch said he's never fished a tournament at Lake Michigan. But he has taken a beating on rough water in some of the other Great Lakes, so he knows what could be awaiting him.
Most of all, he's confident coming off a big victory and heading for a fishery that features clear water and smallmouth bass.
"Drop-shotting in clear water, I'm comfortable with that," Pirch said.
Pirch took a big lead on Day 1 at Lake Mead with a five-bass limit weighing 15.47 pounds. It included the biggest bass he's ever caught at Lake Mead – a 6.49-pound largemouth, plus another bass in the 4-pound range.
It typically takes about 30 pounds to win the U.S. Open, so Pirch was halfway there on the first day of the three-day event. Form held true as Pirch's total of 31.26 pounds gave him a 2.56-pound edge over second place in the final standings. Pirch won a Nitro Z8/Mercury boat and motor package valued at $37,000 and $50,000 in cash.
Another Elite Series angler and two-time U.S. Open champion John Murray finished fifth with 25.80.
Pirch had to change with the weather conditions each day. After using an oxblood-colored Roboworm on a drop shot to catch a limit on Day 1, he culled almost all those fish with a shad-colored deep-running crankbait on a windy day. It was slick calm on Day 2 when Pirch went back to drop-shotting for a 7.50-pound limit. On Day 3, he didn't have a bass in the boat at 11 a.m. when he went to some chocolate milk-colored water that was the result of flash floods in the area.
"I was fishing matted tumbleweeds, driftwood and saw dust," Pirch said. "It blew out one of my best areas."
But he found a sweet spot and caught "25 or 30 keepers" over the next two hours using a Clifford Pirch Outdoors ½-ounce jig paired with a soft plastic crawfish trailer. Both black-and-blue and brown/clay bank orange jigs were key colors. His fish came from water 8 inches to 4 feet deep.
Pirch appears to be on a hot streak. After a 94th-place finish at Lake Dardanelle, he finished 15th at Lake Chickamauga, 20th at the Delaware River and 23rd at Cayuga Lake. If so, it couldn't have come at a better time.
"I need to go have a good tournament (at Lake Michigan)," Pirch said. "I've got to at least maintain where I am now in the AOY standings, but I'd like to move up."