By Todd Ceisner
Cliff Prince’s quest to turn an average season into a lucrative one took a couple steps in the right direction during the Bassmaster Elite Series’ recent swing through upstate New York.
Prince was mired in 57th place in the points standings through six tournaments, but following the St. Lawrence River and Cayuga Lake events, the Floridian finds himself in 41st and suddenly in the mix for a berth in the Angler of the Year Championship with a shot to qualify for the 2020 Bassmaster Classic.
“I wish I could’ve kept on rolling with it,” he said after finishing 26th at the St. Lawrence followed by a season-high 10th at Cayuga. “When you get on those rolls, you want to keep it going.”
He’ll get that chance in a couple weeks when the regular season concludes at Fort Gibson Lake in Oklahoma, an event that was rescheduled from mid-May due to flooding. If he stays in the top 50 in points, he’ll qualify for the AOY Championship at Lake St. Clair later this month. That’s where the bulk of berths for the 50th Classic will be handed out. At present time, the top 42 finishers in Elite Series points will earn a Classic ticket with additional spots possibly coming available depending on how the remaining Bassmaster Opens play out.
Either way, Prince is aiming to stay where he’s at or climb a few spots in an effort to lock up a spot in what would be his third career Classic.
“The way I’m looking at the next two events is they could be worth (at least) 30,000 with decent finishes,” Prince said. “Considering what’s all at stake, that’s a pretty good feat based on where I was before. Before I left (for the St. Lawrence), I wasn’t in the picture for the AOY event.”
Adjustments Paid Off
Even after his New York surge, Prince still characterizes his season as “just average.” He feels like he let some opportunities slip away and has had to play catch up as a result.
“Just having a couple things go my way could’ve made a big difference,” he said. “This season has been up and down, up and down. You can’t have 70th-place finishes. Those are killers because you need a top-10 to balance it out. With the field we have it’s not easy. These boys make you earn it.”
And that’s exactly what Prince did at the St. Lawrence, where he had not finished better than 54th in four previous trips to Waddington, N.Y. This time around, he couldn’t get a deep-water pattern going. Either the current was too swift in areas he’d fished before or it was too slow in other parts of the river.
“I found some shallow fish and caught them on a spybait, which I’d never done before,” he said. “When I’d have some follow, I’d pitch out a Ned rig or a dropshot.”
Over the three days’ of competition, he saw virtually all of the fish he caught and weighed in.
“Where I caught them, I caught two (four-pounders) in practice just drifting through and it wound up being a real good spot because (Steve) Kennedy and (Rick) Clunn were there, too,” Prince added.
He said the spot was way more consistent than places he’s caught them at before.
“Up there, I’ve always had one really good day and an average one and always seemed to put me in the 50s,” he said. “With smallmouth, I have an issue with having confidence in what I’ve found. Generally, I don’t sit during practice and see how many bites I can get. I’ll go back in the tournament and figure out there are 25 four-pounders there. I didn’t figure that out in practice and didn’t realize how good the spot actually was.”
More adjustments were needed at Cayuga, where he hadn’t cracked the top 35 in two other visits.
“Last time, I lost a couple fish that would’ve put me in the top 12,” he said. “I had a decent finish [39th], but they were spawning and I just lost a couple. I look at that lake as being in my wheelhouse, but flipping grass this time wasn’t the deal.
“I found some fish on a jerkbait in practice, but then caught them on a wacky worm and Texas-rigged plastics and a shaky-head. It was a little more finesse than before.”
Excited By The Unknown
Prince’s best finish in Elite Series points came during his rookie season in 2012 when he finished 29th and qualified for the 2013 Classic at Grand Lake. He has not finished better than 40th in the six seasons since and is trying to put last year’s 107th-place outcome behind him.
He started this season strong in February with a 17th-place finish in his backyard at the St. Johns River, then turned in a 72nd at Lake Lanier the following week and a 53rd at Lake Hartwell in early April. Those two stand out as the ones he’d like to have back.
He was hoping to carry the good vibes from the St. Johns River over to Lanier, but it just didn’t happen. In fact, he zeroed on day 1 only to bounce back with a solid 15-03 on day 2.
“Day 1 was just awful,” he said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t on something. I just didn’t catch them. I didn’t slow down to catch them. It was a cool tournament, but I needed to slow down. I tried to fish the same speed as I did at Palatka and it didn’t work. The fish just weren’t as active.”
At Hartwell, he tallied 11-00 on day 1, but couldn’t make much more happen on day 2 after he realized the areas he was in were loaded with spawning fish. A 12-01 stringer on day 2 put him outside the top 50.
“I totally bobbled that tournament,” he said. “I pride myself on sight fishing. I don’t particularly like to do it in Elites Series events because it generally doesn’t work too well, but that was a sight-fishing derby and I didn’t realize how good it would be until day 1 of the tournament.”
With his mid-season struggles behind him now, Prince is turning his attention to Fort Gibson Lake, a venue he’s never seen before. While a foreign fishery would make some nervous considering all that is riding on the tournament, he’s going in with an excited frame of mind.
“I need a top 35 or better there and that’s not so easy to do, but I like going to places I haven’t been before,” he said. “I’ll have no preconceived notions, so if it’s 10 feet high, I won’t know any different. I’m not going there and saying I can’t see the trees where I caught them before because I didn’t know they were there. I like those highland reservoirs. I’ve always done well in those areas.”