SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A successful final day of practice for the Ramada chamipn's Choice has Mississippi's Cliff Pace cautiously optimistic about his chances to make a run at the postseason with a good finish on Oneida Lake.
Coming into this week, Pace sat in the precarious 12th-place position in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. Only the top 12 move on to September and Toyota Trucks Championship Week and Pace expects a top-20 finish will have him there.
"The one good thing about being in 12th is that if I can catch one fish, I think I'll make the Classic, but that's not what I'm shooting for," Pace said.
Growing up in the coastal area of Mississippi, Pace was introduced to fishing at an early age by his father, an avid angler himself. Pace has many fond memories of casting his father's old plugs around the local ponds in his youth, laying the foundation of his dream to be a professional angler.
"Growing up, competing here was a childhood dream and something I've worked toward for my whole life," Pace said. "My dad passed away when I was 18 and a lot of his old plugs still have special memories to me. I put those up and haven't fished with them since, but they are an important reminder of my childhood and how far I've come."
At the age of 17, Pace started fishing tournaments at the local club level and by 23, he decided to take the plunge and fish the Bassmaster Opens with hopes of qualifying for the Top 150s.
"It was a tournament on Sam Rayburn and my second professional event," Pace said. "I remember sitting there on the final day in ninth place and we had an unbelievable fog delay of five or six hours. I remember telling Jesse Draime, my travel partner, 'I wish they would just cancel the day and go home.' I would have been content to go home with a top-10 finish."
Everyone else in the top 10 still wanted to fish, so with about three or four hours left in the day, the tournament officials sent the anglers out. From the moment he got to his first spot, everything just seemed to click for Pace and he ended a dream day hoisting the winner's trophy by a margin of only 2 ounces.
"I firmly believe that when you win one of these, it's your time," Pace said. "That first Open victory was a moment I'll never forget. It opened the door for me to pursue my dreams."
Six years later, Pace has established himself as a consistent competitor on the Elite Series and has a chance to qualify for the first-ever postseason, a chance he's not taking lightly.
Coming into this season, Pace changed his approach to each tournament, focusing more on improving his standing each day, rather than take unnecessary risks.
"I haven't had a swing-for-the-fence mentality," Pace said. "Once I've made the 50-cut, I've tried to keep inching up the standings rather than take risks. At the end of the season, those top 25s have been more valuable than just a top 50. You just can't survive many errors out here in this format."
That approach has Pace in 12th place, 16 points ahead of Tommy Biffle. He's a lock for the Classic and a decent finish at Oneida away from the postseason in Alabama.
After three days of practice, Pace was able to find some areas that have the right quality fish, but he knows how much smallmouth can change overnight.
"Everything you find in practice might not produce in the tournament — that's just the way it is," Pace said. "Smallmouth are notorious for leaving, but right now I've got eight or nine spots to fish, so hopefully I will be able to get on a few of those and catch what I need."
The last two Elite events on Oneida were won on largemouth so why does Pace continue to focus his effort on bronzebacks?
"It's hard to come to a lake like this and not fish for some largemouth because of the past history and their dominance of those events," Pace said. "This week I've spent little time fishing for them because they are solitary bites. You don't need to practice for them, it's just a matter of covering water. The majority of the time, I've been looking for these big schools of smallmouth."
Following big schools of smallmouth is risking them disappearing, but if it pays off, Pace could be looking at top 12s, both in the tournament and in the TTBAOY standings.