published Monday, April 18th, 2011

Wiedmer: Clifford Pirch never lets the big one get away

COLUMN

If largemouth bass could talk — especially those in Payson, Ariz. — they might tell you that Clifford Pirch isn't even necessarily the best fisherman in his own family.

“We've fished together before,” said Alicia Pirch with a wry smile a few minutes after she calmly dropped her husband's $125,000 winner's check from his FLW Wal-Mart Tour victory on Lake Chickamauga into her purse Sunday evening.

“Let's just say Clifford’s a very competitive person.”

Whether or not he can always out-fish his wife, Pirch — and why couldn’t his last name have been spelled P-e-r-c-h? — has been competitive enough over his seven years on the world's biggest fishing tour to reel in nearly $650,000 in prize money. He’s won a couple of U.S. Opens and several smaller tournaments. But never before had he hooked a six-figure winner's check.

“It couldn't have come at a better time,” said Alicia, who sells real estate back in Payson when she isn't taking care of the couple's daughters Kailee Grace (8) and Kassidy Joy (5).

“Our house just had a water pipe break and there was some pretty bad damage. We've gotten the insurance check but we’ve had a really tough time lining up contractors and repair people. This will definitely help.”

They needed help of a far different kind a couple of years ago. Kailee Grace was diagnosed with cancer. Clifford was understandably so distracted he didn’t win a tournament of any kind for more than a year.

But their oldest daughter is now in complete remission, which might be the biggest reason the crowd of 2,000 or more inside the Convention Center let out a rousing roar rather than polite applause as soon as Pirch gave all the glory to the Lord for his win.

“We’ve had a lot of good things happen for us,” the 37-year-old said later. “But there have been some tough times, too.”

Judging by the crowd at the Convention Center, the weighing of live bass on a stage filled with glistening boats and professional fishermen wearing more advertising than a NASCAR driver is going better than it ever has.

“I know I want to do this one day,” said 12-year-old Chattum Jennings of McMinnville, who's already caught a 4-pound largemouth. “I want to be a pro fisherman.”

Standing nearby, his best friend Tyler Morton added, “Me, too. We're going to be partners.”

Said Jennings' father, Bo, an owner in the town's Little Joe's Outdoors shop, “I think it would be great. What a great way to make a living. We drove down a couple of times this weekend to see this. I hope it comes back here.”

The FLW Tour is almost certain to return, and when it does repeating the life stories of fishermen such as Pirch will surely increase next year's crowd.

After all, this is a guy who bought his first fishing boat from the money he made selling elk antlers. Back in Payson he helped his father — a longtime educator — begin a speaking series in the local school system to educate students on various outdoors-related occupations. Of course, the Northern Arizona University grad had worked for the Forestry Service before he chose to fish for his supper.

“We decided to do this as a family,” said Alicia. “This is one of the few weeks that our daughters aren't with us. We usually travel in a motor home and sometimes we have to home-school them. And it's tough sometimes. We're paying our own entry fees this year [the Chattanooga fee was $4,000]. It can be a very up-and-down life.”

How up and down? Clifford got five bites all Sunday. Fortunately for him they weighed enough for him to win because the difference in first place and second was $90,000.

But he didn't look like the winner to Alicia after he dropped his first three fish into the weighing tank.

“Someone had blogged that he'd only caught three fish all day,” she said. “That wasn't going to be enough. My palms were very sweaty.”

But then he looked at her and smiled.

“I saw the twinkle in his eyes,” she said. ”Then he pulled the last two fish out of the bag and I knew then we'd won. We’ll stick around an extra day now and do some sightseeing. I’ve always wanted to see Lookout Mountain.”

Rumor has it you can catch fish in seven different states from there.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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