Mark Hardin's quietly been fishing rather well. The Lanier-bred FLW Tour pro began the year ranked 81st in the BassFan World Rankings – a slight improvement over his 118th ranking the year before.

But with several solid finishes this year – and consistent fishing over the

prior 2-year period – Hardin's risen to the rank of 37th.

To put that in perspective, he's ranked ahead of pros like Matt Herren, Jay Yelas and Steve Kennedy, to name a few.

While Hardin hasn't made an FLW Tour cut since early 2006, his average finish in the four FLW Tour events this year is 34th. And over the past 2 years he's posted finishes as high as 14th, 15th, 20th and 27th.

That sort of consistency has helped propel him to his current standing of 7th in the FLW Tour Angler of the Year (AOY) race.

Focused, But Comfortable Too

"I do believe that the last 2 years I've really tried to focus more," Hardin said. "Granted, the tournament schedule's really suited me – I've felt real comfortable with the schedules we've had. Some of the places we've been to over and over again, and some I've been strong at anyhow, but I've just tried to really focus on getting comfortable within my own skin.

"I've been at peace with myself, I've fished the way I like to fish, and I'm trying to carry on that way – not listen to so much outside interference."

While many a pro shrinks at the thought of venues like Norman, Beaver and Table Rock, remember that Hardin's a Lanier guy – clear water, lots of pressure, spotted bass and offshore structure.

"Beaver and Norman definitely fit me," he said. "And Table Rock's another one. This year was the first time I'd ever been to Table Rock. It's a pretty good size body of water, and what I did was I picked an area and I just tried to really focus on it and figure it out, instead of covering water from one of the lake to another."

Notable too was he opted for the offshore bite last week at Beaver, even though most of the field (and the entire Top 10) spent the event in flooded bushes and trees. He weighed all smallmouths the first day at Beaver, threw a Carolina-rig and jerkbait both days, and finished 14th.

In the Head

What's especially interesting about Hardin's 7th-place spot in the AOY race right now is that both remaining events should be deep-water events – again, venues that suit his strength.

The first is Kentucky Lake in a few weeks, then the season finale at Champlain in early July.

In fact, he's so jazzed about the final two events – and his current points position – he's at Kentucky Lake right now to practice before the cutoff at midnight this Sunday.

"Being in the position that I'm in, I wanted to spend a few extra days on (Kentucky) Lake," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen. It could be like last year (at Ft. Loudoun–Tellico) when (David) Dudley came from nowhere to win it. I'll just try to put myself in a good position and let the cards fall where they may.

"Hopefully I can come out of Kentucky Lake strong enough that it'll lock me in for the championship, and if I can gain ground in the AOY race, it'll be that much better."

Another reason for his KY-Lake scout is most of his previous competitions at the lake have been shallow based. He's only fished the lake one other time in June, so he wants to at least size up some of the ledges and get a handle for how they lay out – especially those on the main river channel.

And with extra work like that, he could parlay a career season into something even more special. For he knows, as does every other professional angler, that with economic times what they are, this is the year of years to have a career season.

"I've always been one of those fishermen where I've had a lot of finishes just out of the money or something like that," he noted. "What I've really tried to focus on lately is making every bite count – not lose a fish here and there, which costs me from getting a check.

"It might not necessarily mean fishing the best bite – like at Beaver, when I stayed out of the bushes – but I fished clean and within my skin and was able to have a good finish."


> Hardin's career-best Tour finish was 5th at Beaver in 2004.

> How's he performed at Kentucky Lake and Champlain? Mixed, to say the least. His Kentucky finishes include a 194th, 60th and 161st. All three of those events were in early May (i.e. shallow). Champlain's much better. He recorded a 13th there last year, a 90th in 2004, and an 8th in 2002.