Pace: Anonymous for now

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — On the eve of the first day of his third Bassmaster Classic, Mississippi's Cliff Pace still held the power to go incognito in Birmingham.

Replace his tournament jersey with more non-descript clothes and with his wire-rimmed glasses he could be an accountant, an insurance salesman or a graduate student. But none of those occupations were ever in the cards for Pace, 29, who has known since he was 10 years old that one day he'd make a living as a professional bass fisherman.

What if the long-term plan to become a bass pro hadn't panned out by now?

"I'd still be trying," he said. "This was it. I always put the emphasis on this lifestyle. Everyone in this field, we all worked other jobs, but for those of us who made it our No. 1 focus, it was all about the steps toward this goal."

He finished second to Alton Jones at the Lake Hartwell Classic in 2008, but despite that achievement and a berth in the 2009 postseason, the unassuming Pace still isn't sure that he belongs among the upper echelons of competitors. He vacillates between self-certainty and self-doubt.

"That's the thing about this sport," he said. "You can be a hero today and forgotten about tomorrow. But just qualifying gives you the sense that you belong. To get into the Elites, that's something that's not just handed out."

Like Pace, Gary Klein never considered pursuing a career other than as a bass pro. He left California straight out of high school and headed east to pursue his dream.

Mentored both formally and informally along the way by legends of the sport, including Rick Clunn and Dee Thomas, Klein has taken on that same role with the 29-year-old resident of Petal, Miss.

"There are several qualities in Cliff that I really appreciate," Klein said. "First, I felt that he truly loves to fish. He's not in it for glamour or glory. He's addicted the way I am. The second thing is that he has a tremendous amount of respect for the anglers who've paved the way."

Pace described their relationship not in terms of mentoring or partnership, but as a friendship — "I don't know how else to describe it," he said — and humbly added that he has more to gain from the elder statesman than the other way around.

Klein said that "all I've done is help with teaching him a few techniques," but for an angler who said he's "never been a group player," the willingness to take another pro under his wing speaks volumes. But in case it didn't, Klein further emphasizes the point by saying that "the angler who does it on his own should be rewarded."

Clearly, he considers Pace one such fisherman.

At a level where it's virtually impossible to outwork the competition, Pace said that his single-minded lifestyle decision makes the question of whether or not he's intrinsically gifted a moot one.

"If you want something bad enough, your natural ability will develop," he said. "This is a lifestyle where you have to be devoted to being the best. There's no room for laziness."

"I'm very work-driven in everything I do," he added. "But there are very few things that I do, with fishing being at the top of the list."

That's likely music to the ears of the notoriously workaholic Klein, who said he once spent seven consecutive days graphing offshore structure on Lake Erie without making a cast, a Zen-like test of bass fishing self-restraint.

Pace's test of self-restraint is not assuming too much, too soon. As he sat among a group of anglers he described as his "childhood heroes," he recalled begging his parents to allow him to watch 9 p.m. broadcasts of "The Bassmasters" in his youth.

It has all come full-circle, almost. All that's left is to accomplish on the water are the feats that he's dreamed of for two decades, and then to pass on the mentorship torch that Klein has carried this far.

For now, Pace believes that his comparative anonymity is an advantage, but it's a double-edged sword.

"I assume it won't last forever," he said. "And I certainly shouldn't say I'm content with it."