Denny locks up win

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Relief, joy, exhaustion, stress, validation: Denny Brauer ran the gamut of a winner’s emotions Sunday as he claimed the Diamond Drive title on the Arkansas River, his 17th Bassmaster tournament victory, and the first Bassmaster Elite Series win since 2006.

Relief, he said, was his strongest emotion as he stepped off the stage after closing on what was one of the toughest tournaments of his long career, despite the fact he led each day and finished with 52 pounds, 2 ounces. Aaron Martens was second with 45-1.

“It’s truly been an emotional rollercoaster week and we had to make it really exciting at the end — that just totally topped it off,” he said minutes after winning.

Brauer’s wire-to-wire victory earned him $100,000 and a berth in the 2012 Bassmaster Classic.

Finishing third was Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala., with 40-8. Fourth was Ish Monroe of Hughson, Calif., with 36-9, and fifth was Brauer’s hardest charger on Saturday, John Murray of Phoenix, Ariz., who ended in fifth place with 35-9.

The “topper” Brauer referred to was the set of odd circumstances surrounding the final hours of the last competition day.

Sunday began well for him. Leading three days straight and with a 10-plus-pound lead on the neartest competitor, Brauer zipped through two river locks into Pool 4 and headed to his productive area in Pine Bluff Harbor. For him and the nine other finalists who elected to fish that far from the launch site, the trip took much less time than it had on previous competition days.

All to the good.

But the return trip was a different story. The pros had to wait for a barge to clear the second lock. It was soon obvious they’d all miss their 3 p.m. check-in time and incur penalties. Facing pound-a-minute late charges, pros without big sacks agreed among themselves to let those with more fish in their livewells be the first to idle out of the lock and run to the check-in point.

Brauer was one of those with enough weight in his livewell to survive a penalty. He checked in 6 minutes late. At the scales, he got credit for 7 pounds, 5 ounces. It was enough to stay in front of Martens by more than 7 pounds.

Martens almost caught Brauer. The Alabama pro was one of only two finalists who elected not to lock out of the starting pool. Martens got credit for his total Sunday weight of 10-11.

But in the end, Martens had to settle for the runner-up spot. Weighing 45-1 over four days, Martens said he was happy with second place, especially considering that he had been third going into the final day.

“Second’s good,” said the pro who’s had his share of bridesmaid finishes, including second to Kevin VanDam in the 2011 Bassmaster Classic. “I would have liked to win. When I heard there was a barge in the lock and maybe they couldn’t make it in on time, I knew then I could have won by ounces.”

Brauer’s many career accomplishments include the most prestigious two titles of the sport, Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year (1997) and the Bassmaster Classic (1998). But Saturday’s victory was special for him, he said, for two reasons. One was that he’d be returning again to the Bassmaster Classic.

“It’s a relief to get into the Classic,” said Brauer, 62. It will be his 21st Classic appearance; he had missed Classic  2011.

The other reason, said Brauer, is breaking his five-year dry spell.

“I think this has been the longest stretch in my career that I haven’t won,” he said. “That makes it extra-special right there. Every tournament you win, you wonder if maybe that was your last one. This is huge for me.”

Brauer said most of his bass came from the back of the Pine Bluff Harbor in one spot about the size of two football fields. He described it as a “washout hole” bordered by shallower water.

“A lot of the fish, as they were done spawning, related to the edges of the washout,” he said. “And to a bar in there too. I’d drag a jig, and find a little ‘rough’ area, and that’s when I’d get bit. I don’t know if the rough spots were gravel or shale or what, but the fish related to those even more than to the brushpiles there.”

His main bait was 3/4-ounce Strike King Pro Tour football jig in a green-pumpkin craw color with a green pumpkin Rage chunk trailer. One of his big fish, he said, came on a Strike King crankbait in sexy blueback herring color.

The Berkley Big Bass of the Tournament bonus went to Jonathon VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., for his 5-0 on Day Three. He won a $500 bonus from Berkley.

In the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race, Kevin VanDam, finishing seventh at the river event, took the lead. Edwin Evers moved up to second place, and Steve Kennedy up to third. Former AOY leader Terry Scroggins slipped to sixth in points.

Next up for the Elite Series is the season finale, June 16-19 on Lake Wheeler out of Decatur, Ala. There, the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year will be crowned, qualifications determined  for the 2011 Toyota Trucks All-Star Week in July, and at least 28 berths for the 2012 Classic.