GREENVILLE, S.C. — In one sense, there are two defending champions at this year's GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro. Randy Howell won it in 2014 at Lake Guntersville; Cliff Pace won it in 2013 at Grand Lake but missed last year's Classic because of the deer hunting accident that left him with a shattered leg.
Two defending champions? That's nonsense, according to Pace.
"I don't look at it that way," he said. "I look at it like I missed that opportunity at Guntersville. It's not fair to put me on that same pedestal with Randy. There are a lot of previous Classic winners who will be there. I'm just happy to be back fishing."
Okay, but Pace is going to be put on some kind of pedestal because: 1) He won the last Classic he competed in, and 2) Pace finished second to Alton Jones on Lake Hartwell in the 2008 Classic, and Jones isn't back to defend that title.
However Pace chooses to view it, he's going to be considered by the media to be one of the favorites going into the 2015 Classic at Lake Hartwell. He got plenty of questions about that during the Bassmaster Classic media day.
No media darling
The name "Cliff Pace" and the words "media darling" have never been written in the same sentence, unless the word "isn't" appeared in the middle.
Pace looks at reporters with tape recorders like they're a 5-pound mudfish hooked on his spinnerbait – with 30 minutes left before check-in time and only four bass in the boat.
Once the Bassmaster Elite Series king of grumpy old men retired – Denny Brauer, it seemed he was replaced by a younger version – Cliff Pace.
(As a card-carrying member of the "Grumpy Old Men's Club," I have the authority to write that. You know, takes one to know one.)
Pace even heard it from some of his friends after the 2013 Bassmaster Classic: He sure didn't seem all that happy, happy, happy about winning the Super Bowl of bass fishing.
"I was exhausted at that point," Pace recalled of the trophy ceremony in Tulsa. "And what I'd done still hadn't hit me yet. But I smiled for a long time afterwards."
There's also the simple fact that a man who often has a tobacco dip lumped in his lower lip just ain't a big smiling-in-public type of guy. (I carry that membership card too.)
"Cliff is real quiet," said Gary Klein, Pace's longtime friend and fellow pro. "That's just Cliff. That's just his personality."
Pace has got another thing in common with Brauer — a proven track record. Over a 36-year career, Brauer fished 319 B.A.S.S. events, won 17 times, including a Bassmaster Classic, and finished in the money 197 times (61.7 percent). Over his 12 years of B.A.S.S. competition, Pace has fished 101 events, won three times, including a Classic, and finished in the money 75 times (74.2 percent).
Clearly, Pace is on a pace that would match or surpass Brauer's accomplishments. And Brauer is considered one of bass fishing's legends.
"Cliff is a super fisherman," said Mark Davis, another of Pace's closest friends on the Elite Series tour. "If you go back and look at his stats, he's really underrated."
That seemingly gruff exterior prevents many people from getting to know Cliff Pace. He's fine with that. Pace isn't begging for anyone's attention. But that's your loss, not his. The deeper you delve into Pace's life, the more interesting it gets.
An obsession with detail
Perfectionism can be both a blessing and a curse. Pace is bent in that perfectionist direction. He has an obsessive attention to detail, especially when it comes to fishing lures. He understands the good and the bad that comes with that obsession.
"If I'm throwing a black-and-blue jig, and it's got three strands of blue in it, and they're biting it, the next one I throw is going to have three strands of blue in it," Pace said.
"Is it going to matter to a fish? I don't know. Five strands might be better. I'm just very detail-oriented like that, sometimes to a fault. I'm sure there are times I spend worrying about things that are truly irrelevant."
In the year he's spent on the mend from a broken leg, Pace has taken his perfectionist tendencies to another level. Since he was a kid, he has enjoyed tinkering with fishing tackle. That tinkering grew from a hobby into a business in 2008, after Pace finished second in the Classic on Hartwell. Pace built a 2,400-square-foot shop a few miles from his home in the Sunshine area of Petal, Miss., which is located near Hattiesburg.
"Since then, I've done manufacturing work through my business for other people's businesses," Pace said. "It's grown, and we've started doing work for other companies, both large and small, all over the country."
Various jigheads and wire forms for spinnerbaits and buzzbaits are among the products Pace makes.
In the unexpected and unwelcomed time off the Bassmaster Elite Series over the past year, the business has proven therapeutic. Pace started cranking out crankbaits, specifically balsa wood crankbaits. And it has given him another outlet for that attention to detail.
Accident occurred on Jan. 21
A year ago, Pace had good reason to lie around the house and mope. Or simply hold his head in his hands and cry. He did some of both.
Both bones in his lower left leg were shattered and his ACL knee tendon snapped on Jan. 21 in a fall that occurred while he was descending from a deer tree-stand. An active outdoorsman was essentially placed in a jail cell. Pace was homebound and unable to pick up his newborn daughter during the 2014 Classic at Lake Guntersville.
Pace lost most of a prime year in his pro bass fishing career. His doctors forecast a yearlong recovery, and that has proven correct.
The former commercial roofer has never been one to sit around doing nothing. As the pain subsided, Pace found a way to be productive. He has made crankbaits for himself and a few friends for many years, experimenting with design and modifications to meet his perfectionist tendencies.
Over the past year, he's made a bunch. In fact, Pace has manufactured so many, he has started selling them, under the brand name "Black Label." (He'll have a website later this year. For now, some online retailers offer them.)
"It's something I've always loved tinkering with," said Pace. "Balsa was real popular when I was a kid.
"That stuff kind of died out in the mid '90s I guess. It got difficult to find. People missed them, especially the old square-bills like the B1 and B2 Bagley's and other baits they made, like a Flat B. They became treasured by the people who had them."
He's had as few as one employee and at times now has as many as seven. When he couldn't compete physically, lure-making has kept him in the game mentally.
"I've always been a guy who has been obsessed with building stuff," he said. "I rig my own bow every year. I fletch my own arrows. That's part of hunting to me. The same thing applies to fishing. I don't remember a time when I didn't tinker with my fishing tackle. With the exception of reels, I've built everything – rods, soft plastics, everything."
Hunting proves therapeutic
Speaking of archery, Pace wasn't hesitant to climb back in a tree-stand last fall when deer season opened. Pace has an 1,100-acre lease located about 10 minutes from his house. If the weather cooperates, he'll be there at least a few hours almost every day of the season. Plus, Pace takes hunting trips out-of-state every year, usually to Texas.
His injured leg wasn't 100 percent when Pace finished 10th in the Bassmaster Southern Open last October on South Carolina's Lake Norman. It was his first attempt at tournament fishing since the accident.
"My leg did hurt a lot, but it didn't prevent me from doing anything," Pace said. "That was a good feeling to fish all three days and not have any huge issues with my leg."
Ironically, deer hunting has helped complete the healing process.
"It has been therapy," Pace said. "Hunting has required me to do a lot of walking and climbing trees, which has really been beneficial. My leg feels a lot better now than it did in October when I was at Norman."
But here's what Pace doesn't know: In what shape is his mental game?
"The only way to get back to that comfort zone in competitive fishing is through competitive fishing," Pace said. "It's very difficult to reproduce that mental side of competitive fishing, which I think is extremely important."
It doesn't get any more competitive than the Bassmaster Classic, which is essentially a winner-takes-all event. Pace is confident he's physically ready to compete again. Beginning Friday, he'll find out the condition of his mental game.