When the Elites kick off the this year at the Sabine River, Denny Brauer will also likely be in Texas, but at his new home in Del Rio rather than in the town of Orange. For the first time in over three decades, his Ranger will not be lined up with the other competitors’ boats on opening day. For the first time in that same time span, if there’s a solid flipping bite going on we can safely assume that there will be one more spot available in the final cut.
The tournament world will go on without Denny Brauer, just as it went on when Ken Cook left last year, just as it will go on when Rick Clunn finally decides that the travel is no longer for him. As every great athlete eventually learns, no one is bigger than the sport. Just when we thought no one would top Dr. J’s exploits, we were introduced to a tongue-wagging dunker named Jordan. No sooner was the ink dry on Jordan’s “greatest ever” plaque than along came LeBron. Indeed, we are all witnesses to the fact that “greatest ever” really means “greatest so far.”
Brauer’s not being forced out. The day did not come when Denny couldn’t “rise above the rim.” He won an Elite Series event as recently as 2011, and while he wasn’t necessarily the same world-beater he was in the 80s and 90s, and while he failed to make a top twelve cut in 2012, he’d still made it to Sunday in Elite Series competition eight times in the prior four years.
The Bassmaster Classic appearances may have been bunched more tightly together in the early days, too, but he’d been to two of the last three.
A lifetime ago, Denny Brauer left a solid career as a Nebraska brick mason to guide on newly-opened Truman Reservoir and pursue an uncertain career as a pro angler. He competed in 317 B.A.S.S. events, including 21 Classics. He won 17 times with B.A.S.S., including the 1998 Classic. He was also a dominant force on other trails, including FLW. Spread between those two circuits, his 1998 campaign may just be the best season a bass pro has ever put together. Prior to winning the Classic that year, he won back to back Top 100 events, first on Lake Russell in Georgia, then on the Neuse and Trent Rivers in North Carolina. Three weeks after the Classic, he won the season opener on the Potomac. He was also the FLW AOY that year, finishing in the money in 5 of 7 tournaments on the way to one of four FLW Cup appearances. The title put him on the front of the Wheaties Box and got him onto Late Night With David Letterman, where he taught a semi-coherent Ozzy Osbourne how to flip a jig. When Letterman reminded him of his bricklaying past, Brauer was quick to quip that his host had laid a few bricks over the years, too.
What I remember most about that season, though, is a little anecdote from his Potomac win. His main competition that week came from Indiana’s Ken McIntosh, a solid angler, but one whose career was almost the opposite of Brauer’s. Only 58 career B.A.S.S. events, only two top tens (both runner-up finishes on the Potomac) and zero Classic appearances. He’s been gone from B.A.S.S. competition for a decade.
McIntosh was catching his fish that week split-shotting a centipede in a clear-water area known as Blue Plains. In order to convince the pressured fish to bite he had to use 8- and 10- pound monofilament. When asked if he too was using such light line, Brauer offered up that he wasn’t even sure he owned anything that light. Therein lies the essence of Denny Brauer and the explanation of why he’s important to the history of the sport. While he could use a spinning rod when necessary and earned a fair number of top finishes with tools other than his flipping stick, he was committed to winning and that for him meant sticking with the big rod as long as possible. If you think he wasn’t versatile, you’re sadly mistaken, but you’d also be foolish to think that he truly liked to fish any other way in competition.
I suppose an argument could be made that Tommy Biffle is every bit Brauer’s equal when it comes to pitching and flipping. His resume is stout, too, although he doesn’t have nearly as many wins as Brauer and lacks a Classic title. Additionally, while he too can do a lot of things well on the water, it’s the meat stick that is his favorite. Finally, he remains competitive, having won an Open event in 2011 and an Elite Series tournament in 2010 (notably, not by flipping). But no matter where the two anglers compare in the pantheon of all-time greats, I think it’s reasonably safe to say that they are the last of their breed, anglers who come in determined to win on their terms with no true fear of bombing. In the next generation, I think that Ish Monroe and Kelly Jordon are the two anglers with the win-at-all-costs mentality, although neither seems as committed to a single technique as Brauer or Biffle. Lots of pros talk as if that’s their mentality, but from what I can tell most will bail before they freefall, often dragging their chances of winning into just-get-a-check-territory with them.
When Brauer came up, flippers were the exception, not the norm. Now everybody can do it and do it reasonably well, but it’s my firm belief that because of that we’ll never see another angler come up so closely tied to the technique. We’ll continue to see specialized geniuses – like David Fritts with a crankbait or Aaron Martens with a dropshot – but the days of people coming up with near-blinders on to anything but a single big fish technique are over. That’s the legacy of Denny Brauer: someone who wasn’t afraid to lay a brick, but also wasn’t afraid to win, and did it on his own terms.