TULSA, Okla. — Sunday morning’s temperature had barely cleared 40 degrees, but Cliff Pace was sweating.
Not perspiring, but sweating out the fact that he had two small bass at noon on the final day of the 43rd Bassmaster Classic.
Sure, he had a seven-pound lead on the field after two spectacular catches from Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, but there was a hard-charging crew behind him. And, well, like he said after Saturday’s second round, “Nothing is sure in bass fishing.”
Sitting behind him were former champions Kevin VanDam and Mike Iaconelli, rising stars Brandon Palaniuk and Hank Cherry and Oklahoma favorite-son Jason Christie.
“I know I didn’t have enough, and the wind wasn’t blowing and things weren’t going my way, so I just went fishing, went back to a good spot and started throwing a jig,” Pace said.
That was 1:30 p.m., with Palaniuk and Cherry already showing a hefty five-bass limit and Iaconelli sitting on a spot that had produced a 21-pound first-day stringer.
Then, as Pace said, he just went fishing.
That decision sent him back to Petal, Miss., with the Classic title and $500,000.
“I put on a B&M football jig and a V&M (pumpkinseed color) Twin Trailer and went back to an area where I felt comfortable,” Pace said. “I’m comfortable with the football jig — really love that bait — and caught fish on back-to-back casts.”
He needed both to offset Palaniuk’s 15-pound, 4-ounce final-day catch and Cherry’s 17-4 run at the title.
At the final weigh-in, Cherry’s 49 pounds and Palaniuk’s 51-8 three-day totals were more than 3 pounds behind Pace’s 54-12 Classic winner.
Iaconelli, who won his Classic title in 2003 in New Orleans, and VanDam, a four-time champ and a New Orleans winner too, couldn’t muster enough big fish in the final round. Iaconelli finished fourth (48-5), VanDam was eighth (41-11) and Christie, one of three Oklahoma anglers in the original 53-man field, wound up seventh (43-5).
Mike McClelland made the hardest final-day charge with a 17-14 stringer to finish fifth (45-5).
Louisiana’s lone qualifier, Greg Hackney, ended his 11th Classic in 13th place with a five-bass, final-day limit weighing 12-5 for a 39-10 total.
“When the water was 47 to 48 degrees in practice, I was getting 30 bites a day, but the cold weather dropped water temperatures to the point where it was 39 degrees Friday morning,” Hackney said. “I had 12 bites Friday, seven Saturday and eight (Sunday).”
The first snowfall of the winter hit Wednesday across northeast Oklahoma, and anglers launched in temperatures near 20 degrees for the first two days. On Sunday, the low was near 40 with a high around 60.
Pace said wind was a bigger factor than temperature. Like many in the field, he relied on a jerkbait, a slender, 4-inch-long, hard-plastic lure with a lip on the front designed to take the lure to specific depths.
Pace and others said the wind was blowing up against steep banks lining the 46,500-acre reservoir.
“The wind blows shad into shallower water, and the bass follow them,” he said. “The bass are a little bit more aggressive, and that’s why the jerkbait works.”
He used two sizes of a Soul Shad Squid Minnow, a jerkbait in threadfin shad colors and caught fish moving from depths on a crawfish-colored Jackall DDCherry crankbait.