Three days of practice, four days of competition and hundreds of casts a day can take its toll on an angler's body. The Elite Series is full of injuries, but with no injured reserve list or trainers to interview, you typically don't even know a guy is injured until he pulls himself off the circuit, like Byron Velvick did this year with his back injury.
One of the more recognizable injuries on the tour was Dustin Wilks'. Wilks was a hot young angler on tour in 2006, ready to tackle the inaugural Elite Series despite a nagging elbow injury. After missing the cut in the first tournament of the season on Lake Amistad, he couldn't take it anymore and pulled himself off the circuit to have Tommy John surgery on his ailing elbow.
The plan was to sit out a season, heal and be fishing again in 2007, but a series of problems with the surgery and recovery sidelined Wilks for two full seasons. He didn't fish another tournament with B.A.S.S. until the spring of 2008. So when Stephen Browning's elbow started giving him trouble halfway through the 2006 season, he did his best to ignore it. He was diagnosed with a severe case of tendinitis (also known as Tennis Elbow or even Fishing Elbow), but he didn't give the doctors much chance to help.
"I didn't want to let a doctor get in there and poke around because you see guys like Dustin Wilks, who have to sit out a couple years," Browning said. "So I just refused to go to a doctor because I didn't want to know what he would find. "I was afraid it might be game over. When you've had a career or lifestyle for 16 years, it would have been hard for me to quit or even take a couple years off."
Over the course of the next four years on the Elite Series, Browning took four cortisone shots in his right elbow and did a lot of left-handed fishing to try and avoid surgery. By the start of the 2010 season, his left elbow was almost as bad as his right and the cortisone shots were no longer helping. "For two years, I pretty much fished on ice, Ibuprofen and as much rest I could get," Browning said. "I started fishing to be comfortable instead of fishing my strengths. It's tough to come off the water and start popping pills. Your whole routine changes. When you should be tying on baits, you're laid up worried about elbows."
Sometime after the 2010 Classic, Browning read a short story on Edwin Evers that sounded identical to his own -- hurting elbows, fishing left-handed, trouble flipping, trouble setting the hook, and a series of cortisone shots that became less and less effective. In the article, Evers talked about a non-surgical procedure he had done in the off-season called Platelet Infusion Therapy, which is also known as Proliferative Therapy or PRP (Platelet Rich Plasma). Browning had actually heard of it before, he just didn't know it. Before the 2010 Masters, Tiger Woods was dealing with reports linking him to the controversial Canadian doctor Anthony Galea.
Galea had been linked to numerous cases involving Human Growth Hormone, but in a press conference at the Masters, Woods said the doctor visited his home to perform PRP therapy on his knee. Hines Ward had made headlines a year earlier when he said PRP treatment helped him come back from a sprained MCL in only two weeks to play in Super Bowl XLIII. Evers heard of PRP while getting his elbow checked out at the Tulsa Bone and Joint clinic a few hours from his home in Mannsville, Okla. When Evers expressed his fear of surgery, the doctor mentioned the procedure. He told Evers they didn't have the equipment in Tulsa, and referred him to Dr. Bradley S. Sloan, who runs The Sloan Clinic in Jefferson City, Mo.
Two treatments on both elbows and Evers said he fished 2010 -- the best season of his career -- 95 percent pain free. "I've never talked much about it, but I couldn't set the hook at all during the '09 season," Evers said. "Every time I'd try that jerk motion, it would just kill me. I really don't know much about injuries with most the guys on tour. I don't sit around and whine about it, and I don't think anybody else does either." After seeing Evers' pain-free success, Browning decided it was time to seek help. Evers referred him to Sloan, and Browning made the first of two 390-mile day trips in October to have the PRP treatment on both elbows.
PRP therapy is a quick, non-surgical procedure that uses platelets from a patient's blood to heal tendon inflammation (among other things). Sloan, who is one of only a handful of doctors in the Midwest trained in the procedure, uses an ultrasound to identify the troubled area. He then draws some of the patient's blood and spins it in a special centrifuge machine designed to separate the red blood cells from the plasma. The remaining PRP is injected back into the area of concern, and the healing begins. The entire process takes about 45 minutes, and patients are encouraged to resume normal activity within two weeks of the procedure.
Sloan said it actually helps with the healing process. By mid-January, for the first time in years, Browning said he was fishing with "no pain." He tested what were typically the most painful parts of his game -- flipping, setting the hook, and spinning rods -- but nothing he did brought the pain back. Although he hasn't put his elbows through the rigors of an Elite Series tournament or constant grind of a season, Browning said he considers them healed. "I don't even think about it anymore -- that's the great thing," he said. "I can use whichever hand or technique I feel is best at the time without worrying about it. And when I come home, I feel no pain whatsoever. It's a great feeling." Editor's note: For more on this story check out the March issue of BASS Times.