Editor’s Note: Sixty-two-year-old Denny Brauer of Camdenton, Missouri, has battled through pain, disappointment and the haunting ghost of facing retirement to become a champion once again. A few years ago, Brauer had several back surgeries that would cause any professional fisherman to give-up the sport and restrict his activities to rocking in a chair on the front porch. But he overcame the pain and the surgeries, got back in his boat and continued to fish.
Since Brauer’s last Bassmaster Elite Series win in 2006, he’s had a total knee replacement and suffered torn cartilage in his good knee and tendonitis in his left elbow and left knee. But Brauer still took those rough-ride, bad-weather and heavy-competition tournaments to stay in the sport of bass fishing. On Sunday, June 12, 2011, the pain and agony that Brauer had suffered were rewarded with his 17th Bassmaster tournament win, claiming a $100,000 prize and proving that the older anglers who kept on fighting could win.
Part 1: Sandbars and Jetties Nearly Derail Strike King’s Denny Brauer at the Arkansas River
Question: Denny, when was your last win on the BASS Elite Series?
Brauer: It was in 2006 on Lake Champlain in New York.
Question: With all you’ve been through, most fishermen would have quit the BASS Elite Series. How close have you come to giving up and heading for the porch?
Brauer: When I have a bad tournament, I think about it. I’ve quit more than 100 times on the way home from a bad tournament. But by the time I reach home, I’m ready for the next tournament. I also think about it when I’m aching or not performing up to my normal standard. I’ve had a lot of success in tournament bass fishing, and if I don’t feel I’m able to continue that success, the urge to quit becomes very strong. When you’ve never been a winner or never won a Bassmaster Classic, you can accept mediocrity much easier than if you’ve reached those heights. I have a lot of pride in my ability to catch bass, and when I’m not catching bass, the “quit birds” sing much louder.
Question: This year you’ve had some good tournaments. In what place did you finish at the BASS Elite Series Tournament at Pickwick Lake in April?
Brauer: I finished third. I also had a 10th-place and a top-20 finish and this win, so I’ve had four good tournaments. But I’ve also had three bad tournaments this year that have kept me from competing for the 2011 Angler-of-the-Year title. When the Elite Series goes to Florida, I expect to be at the bottom of the rankings, because I just don’t do well in Florida.
Question: Where was the tournament that you just won held?
Brauer: It was held on the Arkansas River out of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Question: What did you know about the Arkansas River before you got there?
Brauer: In the 1980s, we had a couple of Bassmaster Classics in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, which is about 1-hour below Little Rock. We also had an invitational down there in the 1990s. I finished fourth in one of the Classics and fourth in the invitational. So, I had a track record on the lower part of the river. We had a major tournament in this area in 2006 that included 55 anglers, and I finished 27th in that tournament. I also filmed one of my TV show episodes a few years ago right in downtown Little Rock, but this was during the winter. I had a 17-pound stringer of five bass anchored by a 6-pound, 2-ounce bass. So, I had a little experience there, but not enough to think I could win the tournament.
Question: Before you went to practice on the Arkansas River, how did you think you’d have to fish?
Brauer: I was hoping the tournament would be a backwater-type tournament, so I could fish to my strengths (pitching and flipping). The river had been out of its banks and had flooded a lot of the backwater regions. When you’ve got backwaters because of flooding conditions, you probably think the bass will move into the new water created by the flood. I thought that perhaps I could take a Strike King buzzbait or a Strike King Pure Poison and be able to catch those new-water bass. I planned to fish mud banks and places most people wouldn’t fish. But I didn’t know until I arrived at the river that the water was going up and down quite frequently, which took away that rising-water pattern.
Question: What happened during the first day of practice?
Brauer: Disaster struck everywhere and all the time. I put my boat up on a sandbar early in the morning and stayed stuck for an hour before two other fishermen came and helped pull me off the sandbar. When I got off that sandbar, I fished for about 30 minutes before I got my boat up high and dry on another sandbar. It took three boatloads of fishermen and two strong ropes to get off that sandbar. Of course, Greg Hackney of Gonzales, Louisiana, one of my fellow Strike King professionals, was just rude enough to take a picture of me and my boat stuck on that sandbar and then send it out to the world.
When a river floods, the sandbars often change. When you go to a place you’ve been before, and there’s a sandbar there that hasn’t been before, you’ll get stuck. I got stuck on sandbars three-more times during this Arkansas River tournament, giving me a grand total of five sandbar mishaps. The last three sandbar encounters I was able to get out of the boat and push it off the sandbar by myself. But that wasn’t the end of the day. I also hit a jetty and tore-up a prop. I had a miserable first day of practice but still caught and released about 25 bass. But to make matters worse, only one of those bass was a keeper (15-inches long). I wrote that pool off and decided not to fish there. I was very frustrated and aggravated.
Question: What did you catch most of your bass on during the practice day?
Brauer: A Strike King Rodent and a Strike King Denny Brauer Flip-N-Tube. After the first day, I decided that the Rodent and the Flip-N-Tube wouldn’t win the tournament. On the second morning of the tournament, I trailered my boat down to Pine Bluff and put-in at the harbor. When I checked the water temperature, I decided that to win this tournament, I’d have to fish for post-spawn bass on offshore structure. I picked-up a Strike King Series 6XD and started cranking the ledges, but I didn’t catch any bass.
I started fishing the Strike King Football Jig, and the bass began biting. I put a little keeper rubber (a small rubber band used to hold a trailer hook in place on a spinner bait) over the hook, so the bass wouldn’t hook themselves. I could feel the bite but not hook the bass. On the second day of practice, I began to understand that the bass were relating to rough stuff on the bottom, and to catch them, I had to keep my boat in 20 to 25 feet of water and cast up to about 3 to 6 feet of water, working the Strike King Football Jig off the ledge. If I could find a rough bottom, that’s where the bass were holding. On the second day of the tournament, I had 33 jig bites.
Question: What size and color jig, pound-test line and rod and reel did you use?
Brauer: I fished a 3/4-ounce Tour Grade Football Jig in the green-pumpkin-craw color with a green-pumpkin Rage Chunk as a trailer. I fished 15-pound-test Seaguar TS fluorocarbon line with a 7-foot, 4-inch flipping and pitching rod and an Ardent XS1000 Reel. I learned that for the Strike King Football Jig to be effective in this tournament, I had to keep it in contact with the bottom. So, I dragged it on the bottom. I could move the jig fairly fast, as long as I kept it in contact with the bottom. That’s the reason I used the 3/4-ounce jig.
Question: What did you do on the third day of practice?
Brauer: The power lift on my boat was stuck on up, one of the relays had gone out, and I had other minor problems with my boat that needed to be repaired. So, I decided to meet the service crew the next morning and get every thing on my boat repaired and ready for the tournament. At that point, I’d made the decision to make the run to Pine Bluff. I knew when I got more than 30 bites that some of those were big-bass bites. I felt that I couldn’t find any-better spot to fish than this one. I was totally tuned-in to what the bass were doing and where. This was the first time I could remember skipping a practice day and not being on the water. In 30 years of tournament fishing, I’d always fished every hour I could until the tournament. When my boat was fixed, I returned to my room, unloaded the boat of all the equipment I wouldn’t need to lighten my boat for the long run I’d have to make, rested because of the heat and prepared mentally and physically for the tournament.
Question: How far of a run did you plan to make?
Brauer: Running time would only be about 1 hour from the launch site, but we had to lock through two locks. So, by the time I’d reach where I wanted to fish, it would be about 9:15 am or 9:30 am. We had to be back to the first lock by 1:00 pm. One day, we had to be back to the lock by 12:30 pm. So, I’d only have about 3 hours of fishing time per day.
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