What the Classic means: Cliff Pirch

There’s so much that makes Clifford Pirch stand out – the flowing golden locks, his heritage among Arizona wrestling royalty and his “other gig” as an elk hunting guide – that it’s especially amazing to see how far under the radar his persona has flown. Couple those attributes with the fact that he’s a three-time winner of the U.S. Open on Lake Mead, known as “the Iditatrod of bass fishing,” and it’s even more difficult to figure out why he’s not a household name. Yet.

He aims to change that in Knoxville, where this month he’ll compete in his sixth straight Bassmaster Classic. With a win, the Arizona pro would become the first western angler since Skeet Reese (2009) to take the title back to the other side of the Continental Divide.

“There are going to be a handful of really good western guys in the tournament,” he said. “But we’re the visiting team for sure.”

The Bassmaster Odds have him at 12:1, in the upper tier of his peers, but not one to watch on the level of home-state heroes like Ott DeFoe, Brandon Lester and Wesley Strader. Nevertheless, he feels that any limited regional disadvantage he might have suffered in the past is slowly eroding.

He recalled that prior the 2014 Classic on Lake Guntersville there was “like a foot of snow on the ground. I hit those riprap bridges four or five times and ruled them out. I thought it wasn’t the deal, but with just a little bit of warmth it became the deal.”

It’s not that the Southeast has been an albatross around his neck, though. He’s kept his Classic streak alive by consistently inhabiting the check line everywhere the Elites go. Indeed, while he’s really made his name finesse fishing for northern smallmouth, he also has Top 12 finishes on fisheries as diverse as Lake Travis, the Potomac River and of course western fisheries like the California Delta and Lake Havasu.

Of his two wins on the FLW Tour, the first came at Clear Lake in 2009, but the second was earned at Lake Chickamauga in 2011, when he beat runner-up Shin Fukae by nearly 7 pounds. That means he knows what it’s like to grab hold of a six-figure check in the Volunteer State. If that didn’t establish his power-fishing bona fides for you, then his 34-pound, 9-ounce limit on Day 3 of this year’s opening Elite event on the St. Johns River should’ve eliminated any doubt.

He catches them everywhere – he just doesn’t crow about it.

Despite his remarkable record during the regular season – he’s cashed a check in over 70 percent of the B.A.S.S tournaments he’s fished – Pirch has struggled in his five Classics, never finishing better than 13th. That was also his best finish in five Forrest Wood Cups. Obviously, he’s shown he can win championships, but he’s yet to do so east of the Mississippi.

“I’m just excited about it,” he said. “I feel real good about my fishing lately.” He should. He earned five checks in eight regular-season tournaments last year, including three coveted final day appearances, and has already notched seventh and 28th-place finishes to start 2019.

When he won at Chickamauga, he was somewhat surprised, because “it was the scariest one on the schedule for me that year.” This year, he won’t be scared in the least. “I’ve fished several FLW tournaments (on Loudoun) before, and I got a check every time. I’m not totally green on it.”

Perhaps more importantly, he’s reveling in the combination of his baseline knowledge of the playing field and his ability to deal with changing conditions. After a winter of wild weather, the lake is full and variables seem to change every day.

“I don’t know what’s supposed to be going on, so it doesn’t concern me,” he said without a hint of emotion in his voice. Indeed, it’s Pirch’s level tone, easygoing manner and apparent lack of excitement that may have prevented him from becoming better known up until now, but that façade could all come crashing down as he stands on the cusp of a life-changing event.

“Hopefully that first morning I’ll feel confident and excited,” he explained. “It’s always a special deal just to be a part of it. But this time I’d rather be a factor than just a part of it. I’ve been there enough times to know what to expect. I’m hoping that it just comes down to fishing.”

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