KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Clifford Pirch cast a silver-and-yellow crank bait through two concrete pillars from a bridge over a creek that splits off the Tennessee River, like threading a needle.
It was the first day of the Bassmaster Classic in mid-March, and Pirch hadn’t banked on there being so much mud in the river, but he’d prepared for the possibility.
“They love the color of these lures,” Pirch said, as he began reeling in. “They’re from Japan, I had a guy buy every one of them there for me.” Pirch laughed, along with his media marshal a little, before adding: “I’m serious.”
As the media marshal snapped a picture of the lure, Pirch asked politely: “Hey, if you were gonna’ post that on social media, would you mind waiting until Monday?”
It was his way of saying he’d prefer if the other 52 competitors didn’t know what he was fishing with on the day he caught 11 bass, placing him in the top three on the tournament’s first day.
Pirch had fished a little area on the bend of the creek just after dawn when he heard the sound of a competitor’s engine screaming down the river. He strapped down his rods (there were about 25 on the boat), yanked up his Minn Kota trolling motor, and told his media marshal to hang on, before peeling off to that spot under the bridge he’d staked out during the four practice days.
He beat Adrian Avena there, but Avena stayed nearby fishing for a few minutes while the two had a cordial exchange.
“I didn’t think it rained this much, did you?” Avena asked him, looking down at the red water muddied with clay.
“I stayed up kinda late watching it,” said Pirch. “I saw the first one missed us and the second one woke me up, so we got a thunderstorm there.”
Pirch then asked Avena what his temperature gauge read. “I think mine’s been a few degrees warm all week,” Pirch said, despite getting an identical reading from Avena.
Then Avena addressed the more complex issue — that they were fishing the same spot.
“You think I can go up here and find another hole?” Avena asked.
Pirch wasn’t sure, but it was fairly clear he’d hoped to fish this hole he’d staked by himself.
So he told Avena if he’d let him fish the spot during day one of the Bassmaster Classic, he’d let Avena take it the next. With that, Avena disappeared for several hours.
“A lot of people don’t understand just how serious this is,” Pirch said as he expertly pitched a jig between a tangle of downed tree limbs. “They don’t understand how much focus there is on every crank, every rod, every cast — everything you do. That’s why I’m not big on conversation right now. We’re going to get the next four big ones right now.”
Despite his successful first day, Pirch had less luck on the following two.
“I had to find a way to make a 20 to 22-pound bag happen, so it changed some of the decisions I made,” said Pirch. “You have to kind of take a little more of a gamble on things, and unfortunately sometimes it doesn’t work out. That’s the way that event goes. You make decisions based on trying to win, and the rest of the season, you’re trying to win but also trying to maximize points. If you gotta punt to finish 5th or 10th or 20th, you do it sometimes instead of bombing a day and falling all the way to 60th or 80th place.”
When asked how many pitches he makes during a day of tournament fishing, Pirch outlined several equations.
“If you’re flipping a jig in close cover, you make 10 times as many than if you’re making a long cast,” Pirch said from his home in Arizona last Friday. “A long cast takes 10 seconds, six casts per minute, eight or nine hours of tournament time minus some driving time. It’s just math.”
The critical component of the tournament game is being efficient with your time, said Pirch, who didn’t touch a bite of food until almost 2:30 p.m. on the first day of the Bassmaster Classic, when he tore into the turkey sandwich that had been packed for him and devoured it dry.
“If you look at the hours in a season, and you’re able to fish five more minutes a day, and you’re fishing 15 events, you’re talking about almost 200 minutes of extra fishing time if you’re able to save five every time,” said Pirch.
The 20 to 25 rods he brings include backups for specific techniques and situations.
“There’s so many variables you experience on the water, you never know what you may need,” said Pirch. “Usually you’d like to be using one to two rods at a time, and other times you’ve got a myriad of things, you’re fishing every opportunity that comes along. They call that junk fishing. You’ve got a rock, you’ve got a tree, you’re fishing each opportunity on its own. When we were out, it was more of a pattern kind of deal, fishing shallow rocks, mainly with a crank bait and colored water, so we were sticking to one technique. That’s more of a pattern, where you’re kind of locked into doing one or two things.”
Tournament fishing has changed dramatically with technology like Power Pole, a shallow water anchor that’s now ubiquitous on fiberglass bass fishing boats (Pirch’s was built by Phoenix), and the Minn Kota trolling motor. But nothing has changed bass fishing more than information available to young guys starting out, said Pirch.
“It was a lot more sacrifice 10, 15 years back,” said Pirch. “You had to learn by getting more beat up by the experienced guys than you do now. This week we’re going to Hartwell and Winyah Bay and basically the brand-new guys can pull up the Bassmaster live stream from the last time we were there, at a similar time of year, and can watch four to 20 days of tournament coverage on the same waters, and really have a well-rounded idea of what to expect. It took a lot of sacrifice to make it, and it just doesn’t as much anymore. You’ve just gotta’ roll with it and try not to get left behind.”
It would seem that Pirch’s laid-back demeanor is an asset in the profession, but pro anglers come in every personality type, and all can help the individual fisherman out, said Pirch.
“Sometimes being impatient helps you find something, being patient sometimes helps you out,” said Pirch. “That’s kind of the beauty of tournament fishing.”
At 43, Pirch admits there’s an optimal age range for the profession. It’s grueling work that keeps him on the road about nine months a year. With three to four practice days, and three to four event days, tournament weeks last “from dark to dark and beyond,” he said.
“I’ve got back-to-back two weeks in a row. I’m going to travel from Arizona to South Carolina and back, and then Texas. It’s two weeks of pretty heavy-duty time investment on your body, plus traveling across the country twice and changing time zones,” said Pirch.
It’s easier to do when a guy is in his 20s or even his 30s, so Pirch has learned to eat well, and manage his time and body as much as he can.
“There’s all kinds of things guys are weighing,” said Pirch. “The physical strain is hard, but I think the heavier strain is the mental game of what you’re doing, for sure. Every decision you make, every strategy you’re putting together, it comes down to points and winning and gambling and playing it safe. And, you know, one end of the spectrum to the other.”