2004 Bassmaster Classic: Brauer's back

In 1999, Denny Brauer was riding high atop the bass-fishing world.

In just a few short months, the Camdenton, Mo., angler had won four tournaments on the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail, including the granddaddy of them all — the Bassmaster Classic, on North Carolina's High Rock Lake.

During that span, Brauer saw his picture appear on a cereal box, found himself in the pages of Sports Illustrated, made a guest appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and claimed the angler of the year title on another circuit.

But as Brauer enjoyed the view from atop bass-fishing's highest mountains, a wild wave smashed into his boat while he competed in a 1999 tournament on Lake St. Clair near Detroit.

"When I came down, I had a stinger go down my left leg," Brauer told ESPNOutdoors.com before the 2001 Classic in New Orleans.

"I don't know if that was the total cause or the final straw, but I got up the final day (of that tournament) and couldn't stand up in the boat."

What resulted was a serious back injury that hampered Brauer's competitive angling career for the next few years.

Also to come was a series of surgeries, painful recoveries, complications and plenty of frustration as the all-time leading money winner on the BASS Pro Tour struggled to get back to the fishing form that once had him atop the angling world.

With his back finally healed, however, Brauer has been on a competitive angling tear in recent months.

The 1987 BASS Angler of the Year has posted tournament wins in each of the past three seasons along with a gold-medal performance at this month's ESPN Great Outdoor Games when he teamed with walleye-angling great Mike Gofron.

Just in case there was any doubt, Brauer is indeed back — no pun intended — heading into this week's CITGO Bassmasters Classic on North Carolina's Lake Wylie.

Not surprisingly, the bassing legend's desire for Classic title No. 2 is running strong.

"It's real important," Brauer said. "That's our major event. To win another Classic event would be just awesome."

"I look at every event as being important and I work hard and try hard to win," Brauer added. "But the Classic is another kind of an animal. You can't afford to get caught up in the hoopla.

"I know what I'm there for; I'm there to win."

While Brauer concedes that from an outdoor writer's perspective, local anglers like Chris Baumgardner and Jason Quinn are among the favorites, he also notes that locals often fail to win the Classic in their own backyard.

He also offers his theory on why.

"A lot of times, what they've got going just isn't right for that particular week," Brauer said. "Knowing where the fish are at and knowing how to win are two separate things.

"In a major event like the Classic, I'd rather know how to win than know where the fish are at."

The all-time money winner in BASS tournament history isn't kidding, either, wryly noting that he believes had he known some current angling truths earlier in his career, he might have another Classic title or two on his resume.

In 1992, Brauer finished the Classic as the runner-up to Robert Hamilton on Logan Martin Lake in Alabama by a bit more than 8 pounds.

In 1994, he finished third on North Carolina's High Rock Lake to the late amateur winner Bryan Kerchal by just 2.6 pounds.

And in 1997, Brauer lost a real heartbreaker to Dion Hibdon on Alabama's Logan Martin, finishing in fifth place but still less than a pound away from a Classic title.

Of course, the next year, Brauer finally broke through his string of disappointingly close Classic finishes in the 1990s by returning to High Rock Lake to claim the 1998 Classic crown by nearly 10 pounds over runner-up George Cochran.

Brauer claims that he had been able to factor in variables like the spectator boats, he might have been able to win another Classic title.

From what Brauer saw on his pre-Classic practice time on Lake Wylie earlier this year, he likes the 12,455-acre water body.

"This is a neat lake and it's got a lot of fish," Brauer said. "Obviously, you'll have to make the right decisions for everything to happen."

The ESPN Outdoors television show host was pleased with what he discovered during his practice time, but also noted that a lot can change between the practice period and the actual Classic itself.

"The practice period to me is just learning a lake, looking at every inch of it," Brauer said. "You're trying to make some sound judgments so that you can put yourself into position to come back and win it."

While he admits to having a good practice period earlier this summer, Brauer also wryly notes that when he won the 1998 Classic, he did not have a good practice period.

Still, he likes his chances next week.

"You really have to take what the body of water has to offer," Brauer said. "I always fish to my strengths and this lake lends itself to that, to fishing jigs around boat docks and stuff like that."

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