Denny Brauer admitted after two days of practice that he didn't have the bass figured out on Wheeler, site of the 2008 Southern Challenge. "Not at all," were his exact words as he described his frustration. Unfortunately — for him and his bank account — that statement turned out to be all too true.
Brauer, winner of the 1998 Bassmaster Classic, finished in the 58th spot and didn't earn a check.
"I missed what happened," he said. "I didn't see it coming before the tournament started and obviously didn't do very well as a result. I paid the price.
"A combination of falling water levels and rising water temperatures pulled the bass out of the shallows and put them on the ledges near the channels. As a consequence, ledge fishing became more important than I thought it would be before the tournament started. It hurt me and a lot of the other guys, too.
"But the guys who figured it out did much better than I expected. Some of them found big schools of bass — not the singles I found in practice — and carried a lot of weight to the scales as a result. They got it. I didn't."
Brauer admitted that his pretournament theory that Carolina riggers would rule the day suffered, too. "I'm surprised that big worms and crankbaits were so important. I didn't think that would be the case before the tournament started.
"But when I think about it now I realize those types of lures always catch hot weather bass, and this was a hot weather tournament. We've been using them successfully in Missouri on the big reservoirs at this time of year for over 20 years. Why would Wheeler be any different?"
He did much better with his cut-weight predictions, however. Brauer opined it would take "maybe 24 pounds" to fish on Saturday. In fact the final qualifying angler, Jeff Kriet, weighed 22-5 to earn his right to launch on Saturday morning. That's close.
Brauer also thought it would take something in the 45-pound range to make the Saturday night cut and launch on Sunday morning. Mark Menendez claimed the 12th place slot on Sunday morning with 41 pounds, 14 ounces. Again, close.
What did surprise Brauer about the weights, along with most of the observers, was the size of the winning sacks.
Jeremy Starks weighed 20 bass for a total of 78 pounds, 10 ounces. That's darn near 4 pounds per bass, much higher than almost anyone thought. Kevin VanDam finished a close second with 78-2.
"I think what happened was that a few of the competitors got on big schools of bass or areas along the channels where bass were moving in and out and they were able to catch a few kickers that pushed their weight up where it needed to be to win the tournament. The rest of us were catching two-pounders. That's not how you win a tournament at the Elite Series level."
Brauer is exactly right about that. The top three finishers caught scores of bass from the same spot every day and culled their winning weights an ounce or two at a time. That, along with one or two kickers during the tournament, made the difference between cashing a check and not cashing a check. They didn't weigh in two-pound bass, at least not very many of them.
Brauer was also right about the event being wide open.
Jeremy Starks won the first Elite Series event of his career, and several of the final 12 competitors haven't fished in the final 12 for quite awhile.
Overall Brauer did a respectable job with his pretournamnet predictions. His performance rates a C.