Howell sprints to top of AOY race

It was a memorable display of athletic prowess: The sprint and leap to the weigh-in stage that Randy Howell made to join the other 12 finalists after Day Three of the Elite Series St. Johns River Showdown, the first Elite event of 2012.

Howell had weighed in early that Saturday, and he was in 12th place at the time, so he felt certain he would get bumped from the top 12 with so many anglers lined up behind him.

In fact, Howell had accepted his fate to the point of loading his boat on the trailer and preparing to leave the Palatka, Fla., weigh-in area when he heard his name announced as one of Sunday's finalists. That's what prompted his sprint through the crowd and leap onto the stage, a feat that any man his age – 38 – would be proud of.

It occurred during the first Elite Series tournament of the 2012 season, where Howell would eventually finish ninth. Now – at the midway point of the season – the Springville, Ala., resident is leading the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race.

Howell’s race to the stage that day in Florida was a sign of things to come. Howell just missed the Sunday finals at Lake Okeechobee and Bull Shoals, finishing 14th in both. Then he posted his best finish of the season last weekend at Douglas Lake, moving from 13th on Friday to 7th Saturday before climbing two more spots to finish 5th Sunday.

Howell's B.A.S.S. earnings have climbed over the $1 million mark this season. Four times previously he has finished in the Top 10 in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. But the tournament at Douglas Lake, more than his other three consistent performances this season, may signal that Howell is a serious contender for this year's AOY title.

"I've been fishing long enough. I ought to be getting better, don't you think?" Howell said with a laugh during Sunday's weigh-in. "I've been doing this a long time."

Howell has long been a top-notch shallow water fisherman. But the Douglas Lake Challenge marked the first tournament where Howell resisted the urge to fall back on his shallow water strengths.

"It's all between the ears," Howell said of his success this season. "That's the biggest difference. I'm getting better at making decisions, not getting too stressed and making stupid mistakes.

"Like (at Douglas), this was a big mind-game for me. It was a big personal accomplishment, not bailing out and going to the bank and fishing shallow for (AOY) points."

Howell and the previous AOY leader this season, Brent Chapman, who is now third in the standings, are best friends. Their families frequently camp together at Elite Series tournaments. And they talked last week about how you could catch a decent 5-bass limit every day by flipping shallow bushes and crankbaiting the banks.

But Howell knew the tournament wasn't going to be won that way. You'd have to fish deep to be in contention.

"My nature was saying to go fish shallow," Howell said. "But my gut was saying not to sell out."

Two days into the tournament, Howell had stayed deep, but he was still struggling with his decision. It was on the third day when Terry Scroggins showed him the long-lining technique with a crankbait, the method that proved to be so successful at Douglas Lake.

"Terry did it right there where I was, and he got the bait down to 27 feet," Howell said. "I was having to kneel-and-reel, and I'd catch one every once in awhile. But I was able to catch them better and faster when I started doing that long-lining deal."

In fact, Howell said he caught a 4-pounder the first time he tried long-lining with a Mann's 30-Plus crankbait.

"As soon as Terry told me, I was like, 'Why have I not even thought about that?'" Howell said.

He had been a competitor in the team tournament on Texas' Lake Fork a couple of years ago when Kelly Jordon showed how effective long-lining could be. (Jordon nicknamed it "strolling.") By making a long cast, then leaving your reel in free spool while using the trolling motor and stripping out more line before you stop and start cranking, a deep diving crankbait will reach depths that would be impossible with a normal cast.

Long-lining was how Jeremy Starks won the $100,000 first prize at Douglas Lake, where the technique created quite a buzz last week.

By long-lining, Howell bumped his weight up to 19 pounds, 15 ounces Saturday, then followed it with Sunday's biggest bag of 23-3. He had 16-1 and 13-9 the first two days.

"I don't know why I didn't think about that, because I've done it before," Howell said. "I think I was on the fish that could have won the tournament, but I just couldn't make them bite effectively the first two days."

But, again, the biggest thing for Howell last week was that he didn't fall back to the banks, as usual.

There's another factor working in his favor in this year's AOY race: No one else, particularly Kevin VanDam, has started putting together one of those sensational seasons of the past.

"I've had some good years," Howell said. "But every time I've done it, it has been those years that VanDam or Skeet Reese got on a big roll.

"This year it's all happening right, both for me and all those other key people that usually dominate. VanDam has had the most marvelous stretch of AOY titles and Bassmaster Classics, and I don't think anybody will ever match that.

"But he's still human. He may not catch them as good here or there this year."

VanDam has won the last four Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles and seven total. He'd also won the previous two Bassmaster Classics (and four total) before Chris Lane won the Classic this year.

VanDam is still in the hunt this year, in 11th place, 76 points behind Howell, with four events down and four more to go. But maybe this will be the year when Howell breaks through.

By the way, Howell thinks the long-lining technique will grow significantly in popularity after everyone watches how it's done on the Bassmaster Elite Series Douglas Lake Challenge television show, which first airs Sunday, May 13 on ESPN 2 (8 a.m. ET) and ESPN Classic (10 a.m. ET). But he doesn't think it will be a factor the remainder of the Elite Series season.

"We don't have any more tournaments where you have to fish that deep," Howell said. "On most lakes, 20 feet is deep, and you don't have to long-line."

No matter what happens, the confidence Howell has in his range of bass catching techniques is greater than it has ever been.

"This tournament helped me, confidence-wise, a lot," he said.

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