PRINCE'S SOLID ROOKIE SEASON
Story by Matt Pangrac - Photos by Matt Pangrac and Dave Rush
Palatka, FL - Heading into the final Elite Series regular season tournament next month on Oneida Lake, Florida’s Cliff Prince is one of three rookies sitting inside the top 40 in the Toyota Tundra Angler Of the Year standings and is in prime position to qualify for the first Classic of his career with a solid finish in New York.
With the Elite Series season kicking off with back-to-back tournaments in Florida, the first being on Prince’s home waters of the St. Johns River, the Palatka rookie was thrust into the bass fishing spotlight before he had even made a cast the top level of the sport.
While many predicted the Florida stops on the St. Johns and Lake Okeechobee to be Prince’s best opportunity to taste Sunday competition on the Elite Series, Prince wasn’t as enthusiastic about starting his professional career in his own backyard.
He had mixed results, recording a solid 16th place finish on the St. Johns River but missing the top 50 cut on Okeechobee after losing a tie breaker to finish in 51st place.
“The St. Johns River is my home water and about 90% of my fishing career has been based on the St. Johns,” explained Prince. “I was hoping to do a lot better, but I was satisfied coming out of there with a decent finish because it was my first Elite Series tournament. I learned a lot during that first tournament.”
He said that his average finish on Okeechobee was simply a result of not having an in depth knowledge of the fishery, “Honestly, I just have never spent a lot of time down there,” said Prince.
While it may seem that starting the season on familiar water gave Prince a jump start, he was eager to fish outside of the Sunshine State, and for good reason. In the 12 Bassmaster Southern Open tournaments that Prince competed in between 2008 and 2011, four were held in Florida and he only cashed a check in half of them. In the remaining eight Opens outside of Florida, he cashed five checks, including a 2nd place finish on South Carolina’s Santee Cooper in 2009.
“I like fishing here in Florida because I’ve grown up fishing here and I know what it takes to catch them. That being said, I’ve always fished better out of state. If you look at my tournament record, I’ve done just as well in the Opens fishing out of state as I have fishing close to home,” said Prince.
“I think that the fish bite a little bit better outside of Florida because they don’t get as much pressure as they do on my home waters. With the weather that we have, we can fish 12 months out of the year and the fish just don’t get a break.”
While he was eager to hit the road, the third tournament of the season in Arkansas didn’t treat him kindly. Prince recorded his worst finish of the year, 95th place, on Bull Shoals and dropped out of Classic contention, seemingly cancelling out his solid effort in the opening two events.
“During practice at Bull Shoals, I just didn’t cover enough water and I tried to concentrate on really small areas,” he explained. “I looked at prior tournament results from there, and I really thought that 12 pounds a day would be good. It turns out that even if I’d reached that goal, I still would have been in like 80th place. It was just a case of misjudging the fishery.”
Following Bull Shoals, Prince put on the rally cap at next three Elite Series tournaments with finishes of 30th on Douglas Lake, a career best 5th place finish on Toledo Bend, and a 9th place finish on the Mississippi River.
He credits his back-to-back top 10 finishes on Toledo Bend, located on the border of Louisiana and Texas, and the Mississippi River out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, to the fact that he was able to fish familiar patterns even though the two fisheries were over 800 miles and nearly 1400 miles away from his home in Florida.
“In both of those tournaments, I basically just fished it like I would if I was fishing here around the house,” he stated. “Portions of Toledo Bend reminded me a lot of Rodman Reservoir, and the area where I ended up catching my fish had some of the same features that you’d find on Rodman. The main difference was that on Toledo, I caught quite a few fish casting a jig. I flip jigs here at home, but I just don’t cast them like a lot of people do outside of Florida where crayfish are the predominant forage for bass.”
He also felt comfortable on the river in Wisconsin, where he located a backwater area that reminded him of the Kissimmee Chain and Lake Okeechobee. “I didn’t fish it like a river. I tried to find a clear backwater area, which is the same thing that I try to do in Florida. “If you can find the clear water and the right kind of grass, it will generally hold fish.”
With the two top 10’s, Prince moved up into Classic qualification, but slipped in the second half of the Wisconsin Swing on Lake Michigan out of Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he finished in 81st place after bringing just one keeper to the scales on the first day of competition before bouncing back with a limit on day two.
“That whole deal was all new to me,” he admitted. “I actually found some fish in practice, and I started the first day in the same area where Aaron Martens caught the majority of his fish. There were three guys who finished in the top 10 that started in the same area I was in both days. I just couldn’t catch them.”
Prince said that his lack of knowledge about great lakes smallmouth was one of the main reasons that he struggled. “I didn’t have the bait that those fish preferred, and they really wanted to eat the bait when it was sitting still. I’m not use to that, and once I caught on to it, I boated quite a few fish but it was too late.”
Despite the lackluster performance on Lake Michigan, Prince stayed inside the Classic cut in the Toyota Tundra Angler Of the Year standings and will enter the final tournament of the regular season sitting in 27th place in the points race.
“It hasn’t been a great year, but to fish against these guys and have the year that I’ve had so far shows me that I can hold my own. Qualifying for the Classic was one of my goals for the year, so if I can do that, it will be a big boost for me going forward,” he explained.
Along with the realistic chance of a 2013 Classic qualification, Prince also has an outside shot at making the Rookie Of the Year race a little bit more interesting after Brandon Card opened up a sizable lead over the first half of the season.
Currently sitting in 2nd in the ROY standings with 411 points, Prince will enter Oneida 30 points behind Brandon Card. “I’ve thought about it, but I know that it’s a long shot,” said Prince. “If I’m going to contend for Rookie Of the Year, Brandon is really going to have to struggle and I’m going to need a great finish in New York. I really would have had a good shot if I’d just managed a decent finish at Green Bay.”