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DECATUR, Ala. —Stephen Browning, the 14-year Bassmaster Elite Series pro, was asked after the final weigh in of the Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel what his best-ever season finish on the tour.He needed a moment to squint and reckon.Seventh or eighth?" he said. "I know I've had a top 10. But it was — 1998?

In any case, it's been a while, and maybe never since he's been as high as he is now. Browning, who's behind only Alton Jones in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points, has enjoyed perhaps the best turnaround in the early part of this Elite Series season so far.Last year: 78th. This year: second.Likewise, Mark Menendez, who won on Lake Dardanelle a week ago and who finished eighth on Lake Wheeler, has bounced back from his 40th-place TTBAOY campaign of 2008 to take the third-place perch so far. And Mark Tucker, 67th in the 2008 points, is comfortably in sixth this season.


The lowest finish among those three this season was Menendez' 46th-place showing on Lake Amistad. Tucker hasn't finished lower than 26th and Browning, 23rd, both on Dardanelle. They all finished between seventh and 10th on Lake Wheeler this week.All three claim to feel the momentum of a season well-fished. But each has come to his success differently.Browning credits new sponsorships this year that have him thinking bigger than the minimum $10,000 check per tournament. Also he has been chummy with fellow pros Jeremy Starks and Greg Hackney. The three men share information after their practices, allowing them to figure out what's working and what isn't.


"When you get three heads going, it really helps," Browning said. "Hackney fishes similarly to me. If they're biting a spinnerbait for him, I know they'll probably bite for me."He has found this year that a few good decisions have yielded happy results. Those, in turn, steel his confidence to freelance on a given day. It's called being on a roll, and it's quite unlike what he felt last year.The fish that I found in practice, I tried to make them be there again," he said. "You have to get your guts together and go, 'I'm a good fisherman. Let's just go fishing.' It's like you have no fear about changing to new water."Menendez credited the security of his $100,000 payday on Dardanelle with loosening him up at Wheeler.

 "When you put that change in your pocket, you relax," he said. "Things come. You slow down and make different decisions, and it really helps."Regardless, the rules is the rules, and by rarely challenging for top spots, Menendez missed out on the biggest stage in the sport.Unlike Browning and Menendez, Tucker's recovery has been physical. A competitive bodybuilder for 15 years, Tucker, who's 49 years old, wrecked his left arm by overtraining a few years ago. His rotator cuff became arthritic, and by overcompensating for that injury, he ripped a bicep.


His injuries amounted to a handicap on the water. He couldn't cast or reel correctly, nor did he have the strength to properly set the hook even when he did feel a bite.Doctors continued to tell him his aches were merely age catching up with him. As soon as one correctly diagnosed the bicep tear and the rotator cuff damage, he underwent surgery, in September. Without it, he wouldn't have fished the Elite Series this season.He's no longer able to squat 500 pounds or knock out 80-pound dumbbell curls. "I want to go to the gym so bad I can taste it," he said. At least, though, he's hoisting far more big fish now.



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