A consistent Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss., not only kept his first-day lead in the Bassmaster Classic presented by Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa, he pulled away from the pack by 7 pounds in the second day of competition for $500,000 and the biggest trophy of pro bass fishing.
Pace shook off the angler who tied him for the lead Friday, Michael Iaconelli of Pittsgrove, N.J.
With a Saturday catch that weighed 21 pounds, 12 ounces, Pace has racked up 43-4 over two days of competition on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. His second-day weight was 4 ounces more than the 21-8 he brought to the scales Friday.
“I didn’t fish differently today at all,” Pace said. “For me, it’s been all about committing to the way I can catch the big ones. I took a big, big risk to do that. I think I’m doing something that has potential and will hold through tomorrow,” he said, playing it close to the vest.
He said Saturday started slowly for him, with his first bass coming about 10 a.m. He ended up catching the day’s largest bass, a 7-pound, 2-ounce largemouth.
The Grand Lake event marks Pace’s fifth Classic appearance, but he’s never won one. He came close in 2008 on Lake Hartwell, when he was second to Alton Jones of Texas. Pace competes in the sport’s premier circuit, the Bassmaster Elite Series, but he hasn’t yet posted an Elite win. He accomplished back-to-back second-place finishes on the 2012 Elite trail. He has two Bassmaster wins to his name from the lower-level Open Series in 2003 and 2004.
Brandon Palaniuk of Rathdrum, Idaho, was left hanging 7 pounds behind the leader, even though he made a change to his game plan. The result of his adjustment was 3 pounds more on Saturday than on Friday, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“I caught seven yesterday, seven today,” said 25-year-old Palaniuk, whose two-day total of 36-4 jumped him from 11th place into the runner-up spot going into Sunday’s final round. “I just happened to get a couple bigger bites today. It was actually my last fish that made the big difference.”
It weighed, he estimated, 4 1/2 pounds to 5 pounds. He caught it about an hour before he had to quit for the day.
“All the fish I’ve been catching are 3- to 5-pounders. I don’t catch too many 2-pounders, I don’t catch any over 5. They’re all solid fish,” he said.
Palaniuk declined to be specific about the tweak that helped him out Saturday, saying only that he credited it with a quick catch of three bass early in the day.
Iaconelli ran into some mechanical trouble Saturday. The result was dropping from his Day 1 tie with Pace for first place into third place with a 35-3 total. Iaconelli said his trolling motor wasn’t operational when he made his first stop of the morning. He switched it out with a spare he had on board — and that one quit, too. Bassmaster officials sent out a boat, and Iaconelli grabbed a few rods, hopped aboard a boat he wasn’t familiar with, and went back to work.
“Yesterday, everything went perfect. Today, everything did not go perfect, especially from the standpoint of having mechanical issues,” he said. “That really disrupts your day. Not only the time loss, but mentally. A lot of this sport’s mental, getting the right rhythm, and to have that happen all day really threw me off today. I did my best to battle through it.”
He estimated the malfunction cost him about an hour of fishing time.
“That might not seem like a lot, but for me it was,” he said. “It happened in the two key periods of the day, when most of my bites were coming.”
He’s using two baits: “A power-fishing bait, a reaction lure. Once I’m in an area with fish, I’m slowing down with a finesse presentation.”
In fourth place was Classic rookie Hank Cherry from Maiden, N.C., with 31-12. Cherry fished through the pain in an injured hand, because a Classic win is at stake. He said lack of wind held him back, not his hand.
“I went out today and that wind didn’t blow — not at all, not the whole day — I just tried to make sure I caught a limit to keep myself within tracking distance,” Cherry said. “When it’s cold, it seems that the wind will trigger the bite, especially that jerkbait bite. When it’s not windy, I think they can see it, but they won’t chase it.”
Claiming the fifth spot on the leaderboard with 31-5 was local favorite Jason Christie of Park Hill, Okla., a veteran of many Grand Lake tournaments.
“Yesterday I had 18 pounds on seven bites, and today I had 12 pounds and had seven bites,” Christie said. “You don’t know where you’re going to catch a big one.
His big challenge, he said, is “fighting history.” That means being so familiar with a fishery, that the angler is not able to resist committing time to places he knows were productive in the past. The past two days he has spent two-thirds of his time on “stuff I haven’t caught fish on,” he said.
“These places deserve respect,” he added. “They’re the kind of places you can catch 25 pounds, but it’s not working out. It’s the water color. I should have known that in practice and developed another plan. I do know that if that wind blows tomorrow, you will not see me throwing a jerkbait. I’m going to ‘go fishing.’ I’ll turn my GPS off, burn 45 gallons of gas and go fishing.”
That, he said, means he will rely on his instincts.
Four-time Classic champ Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., had an uncharacteristic day: He brought in only four bass. One fish shy of a limit, he fell from fourth place to sixth with a two-day total of 30-14.
He said the lack of wind was difficult to overcome.
“I really struggled out there,” he said. “I didn’t even get a limit, so it’s really a shock to me. I knew it was going to be tougher with no wind today, but I didn’t think it would be like it was. I just had one of those days today that you hope you don’t have in the Bassmaster Classic.”
If Pace’s Carhartt Big Bass of the day of 7-2 holds through Sunday as the heaviest fish brought to the scales over three days of Classic competition, he could collect a $2,500 bonus from Carhartt.
The Top 25 anglers will return Sunday to Grand Lake for the final day of competition. They’ll launch at Wolf Creek Park in Grove, Okla., at 7 a.m. CT.
The Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods at the Tulsa Convention Center will be open Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. CT. The final weigh-in and crowning of the 2013 Classic champ will be at the BOK Center. Doors will open at 3 p.m.