Stephen Browning right at home in California

STOCKTON, Calif. — Applying thirty-plus years of Arkansas River pedigree, Stephen Browning of Hot Springs, Ark., mastered the tougher-than-typical California Delta Thursday at the Trokar Duel in the Delta, the Bassmaster Elite Series season-opener.

Browning worked a large area containing six to eight dead-end slews for the entirety of the day, boating 21 pounds, 11 ounces, which was enough to hold off another accomplished river rat, Dave Wolak of Wake Forest, N.C., by more than 2 pounds.

A pre-tournament favorite due to his shallow water chops — perfected on the Arkansas River — Browning also scored a third-place finish on the Delta the last time the Elite Series stopped at the Delta in 2007. That finish, said the 43-year-old, played into his strategy Thursday and helped Browning remain patient.

And patience was a virtue. Browning went without a bite nearly three hours into his competition day.

"I'm really not sure what happened to turn them on," said Browning. "They certainly live in my area. I'm just not sure if it was the tide that helped them or what. I don't want to give up too much as far as what I'm doing but I will tell you that it's a deal I learned when we were here in 2007."

Not surprisingly, Browning, a six-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier, felt technique played a large role in enticing the bites. He withheld specifics but did say things turned on when he finally found the right combination. That first bite, a 6-pound, 1-ounce, lunker set up the day.

In contrast with Thursday's chamber of commerce-type weather, Friday comes with the prospect of ugly weather — forecasts call for a 80% chance of rain — but Browning found that encouraging.

"I'm thinking the bite could really turn on," said Browning, a one-time BASS winner. "I know I'm in the right area for things to really get crazy."

Fellow river rat Wolak grew up scouring tidal fisheries like the Potomac and the Hudson Rivers. And despite being a self-proclaimed "spastic" angler, the 33-year-old learned patience from his roots, like Browning, and applied them Thursday.

Despite boating 18 pounds, 9 ounces, the one-time BASS winner's day started slow, a common theme for many in the field. He couldn't entice a bite for the first two hours of competition. But his patience kicked into high gear and when the tide changed on him a bit, his area turned on.

"It was just a grind-it-out type of day," said Wolak, who is looking to redeem himself after a subpar 2009 season. "I know that sounds cliché but it's hard to describe it any other way. Things are just really tough right now."

Buoyed by the biggest bass of the day, an 8-8 brute, Russ Lane of Prattville, Ala., was third with 18-10. Also looking to rebound from a disappointing 2009 campaign, Derek Remitz of Hemphill, Texas, was fourth with 15-13.

Elite Series rookie Dennis Tietje of Roanoke, La., was fifth with 15-4.

While Tietje made it count in his first Elite Series event, many favorites struggled. Ish Monroe of Hughson, Calif., slumped to 54th place while Kevin VanDam turned in a pedestrian 37th-place showing. 2009 Bassmaster champion Skeet Reese of nearby Auburn, Calif., was 11th and within striking distance.

Elite anglers are competing for a $100,000 first-place prize and points toward qualifying for the Bassmaster Elite Series postseason and 2011 Bassmaster Classic, and the title to the first of eight tournaments of the Elite Series' fifth regular season.

Stockton, the state's 13th largest city and seat of San Joaquin County, is situated on the San Joaquin Delta Waterway — also known as the California Delta because the area forms a triangle with the three points being Sacramento, Stockton and Pittsburg, Calif. The Delta encompasses 1,000 miles of navigable, fishable water in a labyrinth of sloughs, canals, channels and islands, one factor that makes tournament fishing there so tough — and so good.

In March 2007, a haul of 85 pounds, 12 ounces, was the total weight Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., brought to the scales to win when the Elite Series last stopped in Stockton. In April 1999, before Mark Tyler of Vian, Okla., became an Elite pro, he set a record that still stands today: the largest bass caught in a BASS competition, a 14-pound, 9-ounce Delta lunker.

The full Elite field will compete Thursday and Friday, with the top 47 advancing to Saturday's competition. Only the top 12 will still be in the game the final day, Sunday, for the $100,000 top prize.