Elites in the Opens

AUBURN, N.Y. — Stephen Browning’s wrapped boat and truck stand out in the parking lot where a dozen rigs are staged. It’s where the top 12 anglers are preparing to weigh-in for the last time at the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open. To either side of Browning are parked nondescript boats hitched to average trucks.

Browning is in contention to win. It’s the very reason why the Bassmaster Elite Series pro is here. He quickly blows off any suggestion that he’s here to play bully on the block.

“I’m here for the competition, first and foremost,” he said. “We have eight Elite events in a year. For me to be where I want to be competitively, I need to compete more.”

Browning came close to winning. At the Cayuga Lake event he finished second to Pete Gluszek, who is attempting a comeback to the top tier of B.A.S.S. competition. He’ll get a shot after earning a coveted berth in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic.

Meanwhile, Browning will pack up and drive a short distance to compete in the Elite Series event at Oneida Lake. He’ll be back to fish more Opens when the season begins next year.

“I came up through the Opens and that just so happens to be how the system is designed,” he continued. “I also feel like if the Elite guys have the time to fish the Opens, then they should come out and support B.A.S.S. and stay in tune to compete.”

Browning has done his part since making the big jump in 1995. That’s when he qualified to fish the forerunner of the current Elite Series. He’s chooses to fish Opens that work into his bulging calendar of competitions and sponsor obligations.

Things are different on the business side. Browning admits the sponsorship landscape is highly competitive. It takes long-term relationships that begin with a courtship with a prospective sponsor.

“If I were any of these Open guys trying to break into the Elites I would start forging relationships right now,” he suggested. “It’s all about making personal contacts. That takes time and developing a comfort level all around.”

James Niggemeyer claimed third place at Cayuga Lake. He stopped in route to the Elite Series for the same reasons as Browning.

“Tournament winnings make up a big part of my income, so to have an opportunity to compete here potentially helps offset my travel expenses,” said the Texas pro.

“But it’s also a good warm up for the next event,” he continued. “I want to stay in tune and competing in real time is the best way to do that. The competition at this level is highly skilled. In a lot of cases we’re also fishing with local guys. And I learn some things from them that can carry over to Elite events.”

The fifth-place finisher at the final 2012 Northern Open was Michael Iaconelli. He came here for the same reasons as Niggemeyer and Browning, with a personal twist. Iaconelli, an outspoken advocate of the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation, honed his competitive skills in club tournaments held on Cayuga.

“It’s a special place for me, that’s for sure,” said Iaconelli. “But to come back here is also a confidence builder. At any level of angling it’s good to get a boost of confidence. I’ll carry these positive vibes in my head next week at the Elite event.”

Browning says it best when weighing out the differences between Elite Series pros and the aspiring, skilled Open anglers.

“No matter what level you’re playing at, it comes down to man against fish,” he continued. “The status might be different but out on the water we’re no different, and many times no better, than the guy in the next boat.”

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