Classic berths up for grabs

KIMBERLING CITY, Mo. — Some bass fishing obituaries will probably be written this week during the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series' final event of the season — The Rock presented by TheraSeed on Table Rock Lake. This event will determine the final point standings for the 102 Elite Series pros. And only 37 will qualify for the 2007 Bassmaster Classic in February.

This week's headlines will come from the top of the leaderboard and the Angler of the Year title. But some professional bass fishing careers will live or die around that 37th-place cutoff spot in the point standings.

"I wouldn't be sitting here today if I hadn't made that '97 Classic," said Stephen Browning, the 40-year-old Hot Springs, Ark., resident.

If you don't understand the economics of professional bass fishing, you might question why it's so important to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic, even if you don't go on to win it. Browning had won the Red Man All-American and it's $100,000 first prize in 1996. He started fishing the BASS circuit the next year.

Even with that big Red Man All-American win on his resume, Browning's career was on the bubble.

"You simply can't do this when you're out there on your own," Browning said. "By qualifying for that '97 Classic, it made a lot of my sponsors at that time think, hey, this guy might have a career in the sport.

"As far as the sponsorship dollars, they quadrupled once I qualified for that first Classic."

Browning is one of the bubble boys this week. He entered the tournament with 1,784 points for the season, which is 42nd overall and 47 points behind Brent Chapman's 1,831-point, 37th-place position.

While Browning isn't facing a career decision if he doesn't qualify for the Classic, it certainly would make life easier. Browning has finished in the top 10 twice this year, but he's quick to admit this has been a frustrating season.

"I've left a lot of points out there on the water," Browning said. "It's been a lot about decision-making. I think I've been trying to do too much, not fishing like Stephen Browning normally fishes."

And that's another aspect of pro bass angling that many don't understand — the mental part of the sport. Right now, it's got Kenyon Hill tied in knots.

"I've had a terrible year," said Hill, who ranks 39th in the point standings, only 19 points out of 37th place. "Ninety percent of this sport is mental, and I have just not been doing a very good job. I'm fighting the financial side of it.

"I've talked myself into fishing safe a couple of times, and it's killed me. You start trying to just make 50th place, and you start making bad decisions instead of fishing intuitively."

Hill, a Norman, Okla., resident, has finished as high as 9th in the Bassmaster Classic (2003). He noted that by keeping your focus on the moment at hand, you give yourself a better chance to catch fish. And that creates an opportunity to finish near the top of the leaderboard, instead of that second-day-cut, 51st-place, no-man's-land. Maintaining that focus, however, is easier said than done.

"It's a constant struggle," said Hill. "I'm working on it. There's some mental exercises you can do. I'm trying to live for the moment instead of worrying about what tomorrow might bring, but it's just tough to do.

"You try to live in the moment, but it might be your last moment." 

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