By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Cliff Pace thoroughly enjoyed the freedom from putting fish in his livewell during his five seasons on the MLF Bass Pro Tour. He liked the fact that the creatures that form the basis of his livelihood were subjected to less stress and that he didn't have to worry about how they were faring in an aerated box of water during a long tournament day.
"That's something I'm gonna miss," he said in a recent phone interview.
The 43-year-old Pace is one of a handful of veteran anglers who've opted to give up their spots on the BPT in favor of the 2024 Bassmaster Opens, where they'll attempt to requalify for the Elite Series. The 2013 Bassmaster Classic champion has never been among the sport's most outspoken competitors and it's usually impossible to tell what he's thinking or feeling by looking at his ever-stoic facial expression, but he's a deep thinker who carefully considered this decision and can fully articulate his rationale for making the move.
He said he understands MLF's desire to bring new fans to the game – many of whom are not competitive anglers themselves but enjoy seeing athletes perform in high-pressure situations when they know the score and know precisely what they need to do in order to advance or win. But his heart lies with the hardcore fans who do what he does at lower levels and embrace the more traditional parameters of the sport – particularly the five-fish-per-day scoring system as opposed to tallying all keeper-size bass, which the BPT will return to next year after a one-year hiatus.
He used a golf analogy to illustrate his position.
"I don't play golf myself, but if it's the last day of the Masters and they're on the back 9 and I recognize a few of the names, I'm going to watch to see who wins," he said. "I want to see who succeeds and who crumbles. But when it's over and I turn the TV off, I have no desire to go play golf and I'm not going out shopping for clubs or shoes or balls.
"Even though I may like that kind of reality TV, I want to do what's more appealing to the sport's true fans – the true bass fishermen, the ones who are truly interested in what we're doing. Right now, I just feel like B.A.S.S. is a better place for me and the brands I represent."
He finished 35th in this year's BPT points race, which was his highest placement on that list. The others were all between 40th and 57th.
He won the 2019 event at Lake Winnebago in the circuit's inaugural season. He also had a 7th that year in one of the two events at Table Rock Lake. Since then, he's notched just two Top-10 finishes.
He qualified for the 2024 REDCREST Championship, but doubts he'll be allowed to compete since he's no longer on the BPT roster.
"I made my decision before I found out about any of that," he said. "I didn't want that to be a part of it. "I appreciated the time I got to compete there and I respect what they're trying to do.
"I do see it as a risk," he concluded, "but it's a justifiable one to take at this point in my career. My heart is absolutely still in competitive fishing, I love to do it and I'm not at the point in life where I want to do anything else.I understand their need to change things, but at the same time there's been very little stability and when you're an angler, it's hard to have any idea what's going to be the case 5 years from now.
"I'm not saying that MLF is bad for the sport and I wish them all the best. What I am saying is it's time for me to pursue something else."