By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
A lot of Bassmaster Elite Series anglers are wary about the prospect of opening the 2013 season at the Sabine River – a Texas venue with a reputation as a less-than-stellar bass fishery. Stephen Browning, however, is a notable exception.
"That'll probably be my best tournament of the year," said the noted "river rat" from Arkansas. "You look at all the crappy places we've been to over the years, and that's usually when I do my best.
"I know going in that I'm going to have to grind – it'll be the same for everybody and it won't be easy. Those are really my favorite events, where 10 to 12 pounds a day is really good. Back in the day when I first started (fishing professionally), we had quite a few events where if you caught 12 pounds a day, you ended up in the Top 10 when it was over wish. I like those type of events because I feel like I'm as good as anybody mentally."
Rough Stretch in the Spring
For the first time since 2009, Browning will not kick off his tour-level season at the Bassmaster Classic. A miserable four-tournament stretch this year led to a 63rd-place finish on the final points list.
He opened the campaign in fine fashion as he logged a 15th-place showing at the St. Johns River in mid-March. Things started going south the following week with a 71st at Okeechobee, though, and he didn't get straightened out until the calendar had turned to summer.
"I think what really hurt me is I got away from fishing what I consider my strengths," he said. "At Okeechobee I thought I needed to be out there in the middle of a bunch of boats fishing those big flats, and I normally do good in Florida pitching and flipping around the visible stuff.
"It was one of those events where I caught a lot of fish, but I was on a 'dink pattern' that I couldn't get off of."
It got worse from there.
At Bull Shoals (94th), he insisted on throwing a ChatterBait when, in hindsight, he knew he should've been chunking and winding a square-bill. At Douglas (76th), he tried to make it happen out deep when he should've been pounding the willow trees.
Then came Toledo Bend, a place he dearly loves to go because he almost always fares well. Not this time, though, and he completed his quartet (half a season's worth) of bombs with an 84th.
"The worst thing that happened there was I paid attention to guys talking about how they'd caught them in the EverStart the week before. I listened to how guys pulled up on places and caught 20 to 25 pounds in the first hour.
"Instead of fishing a jig in the grass, which is what I like to do there, I kept trying to find that Mother Lode of fish that would carry me through the tournament. Needless to say, I didn't find it."
An Encouraging End
Browning eventually got just what he needed to end his skid – a moving-water event at the Mississippi River. He garnered his second check of the year there with a 42nd-place showing and went on to add two more money finishes to conclude the schedule, including a season-best 11th at Lake Michigan.
"I was fortunate that a river tournament got in the way of another train wreck," he said. "I got back to fishing the way I like to and I was at least able to cash a check, and that let me know that I still do know what I'm doing out here."
He admits that he's placed an inordinate amount of emphasis on winning recently and thinks that mindset was at least partially responsible for his early-season struggles. His lone tour-level triumph came in 1998 at a Top 150 at Logan Martin.
"It's been 14 years since I've won one, and in wanting to do the things that'll lead to a win, you can easily get out of your comfort zone. Instead of letting things happen, you try to make things happen and you can put so much pressure on yourself trying to win.
"I hate to say it, but if I don't cash a few checks every year, I'm putting my future in jeopardy as far as being able to continue doing this. It's an unfortunate situation, but the expenses aren't going down and there's only going to be eight big winners every year.
"There's very few bodies of water on a schedule – one, or maybe two at the most – where I'm going to have a decent chance of winning," he continued. "If it's a body of water where I don't feel I have a good chance, then I need to do whatever I have to do to get a check, get some points and go on to the next one."