He’s back, and with a new “Velvick touch”

The pro angler known by TV reality show fans as “The Bachelor” has returned to the Bassmaster Elite Series competition.

“After a year of surgery and recovery, I’m back to fishing,” said Byron Velvick, just days away from the 2012 Elite season openers in Florida on the St. Johns River and Lake Okeechobee. “I’m not 100 percent — I’m stiff and sore at times, and sometimes still need to wear a neck brace — but I’m definitely better than I was when I had to withdraw for the season.”

Velvick sat out 2011 to recover from major neck surgery. His surgery was in November 2010, but just before the 2011 season began, he reluctantly made the call. He knew his body would not hold up against body-jarring boat rides and all-day casting. He asked B.A.S.S. for, and received, a medical leave of absence with automatic qualification for 2012.

An angler who is able to block out everything but the cast he is making at the moment, Velvick had tried in 2010 to “fish through” his pain and right-side body numbness. At first, that worked. He won in his native California on Clear Lake in March, then cashed a check in the next event. But after that, 2010 was over for him: 92nd, 73rd, 75th, 60th and 78th place finishes tell the story.

“The pain got worse and worse. I couldn’t even practice all three days anymore. I’d have to take a day off. I would look at the weather forecast and decide which day would be roughest on the water, and that’s the day I’d stay on shore. That was how I got through the 2010 season,” he said.

After surgery, he wore a hard neck brace. His activity minimized, he put on a few pounds. He graduated to a soft brace. Starting small, he worked out. He dieted and dropped the weight.

The medical ordeal made 2011 one of the hardest times of his life. But 2011 was also one of the best times of his life. He became father to a baby girl, got engaged, switched Texas addresses from Del Rio to San Antonio, and returned to TV by hosting “City Limits” on NBC Sports Network.

And now, the three-time Bassmaster winner who also was a 2004 star of ABC’s The Bachelor, who hosted the TV show Going Coastal, and who once gave his name to a blog for Bassmaster.com titled “The Velvick Touch,” is ready to compete on the water again.

“I feel like I’m in the best shape I can be in — I can cast, set a hook, bend over, land a fish, everything I need to do,” he said last Friday as he traveled to the Monday-Wednesday official practice for the first up in the Elite doubleheader, the March 15-18 St. Johns Showdown out of Palatka, Fla.

Velvick said he is concerned only about running in very rough water. If the wind is up and there’s a chop, he’ll wear the brace to protect his neck.

Pain is a good teacher. He knows he has to be careful. To give himself confidence about his spine and his fishing, he scouted both the St. Johns and Okeechobee this winter before the off-limits periods kicked in for the back-to-back events. He rode the water, reviewing the fisheries he hasn’t seen in years.

“It was a confidence booster,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m going in blind. I think I have a good game plan. I might fall flat on my face, but I have confidence because I know what I want to do.”

He also is encouraged that the skills needed to excel in Florida — sight fishing, swimbaiting, flipping — are among his strengths. He was pleased that Florida, site of several career wins, would be the venue for his Elite return — Okeechobee, in particular. In 2007, an Okeechobee victory qualified him for the 2008 season, keeping his Elite career alive.

“I think the first three events, and especially the two in Florida, will be good for me. I’m excited,” Velvick said.

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