Back in the Game at Amistad

 DEL RIO, Texas — Twice last year on Lake Amistad, Jared Lintner had a shot at a big fish. The first day he missed the 10-pounder on a swimbait. The second, he returned, got the fish to swallow a Senko.

 "I somehow lost her," Lintner said. He'd just come from Falcon Lake, where he lost big fish after big fish. The 10-pounder on Amistad just reinforced his doubts.

 "I got it in my mind," he said. "I missed the cut by like a pound. And it seemed like, after that, every time I got a good one on I'd lose it. Mentally I'm thinking, 'How am I going to lose this one?' And I would."

 The result for Linter was a 47th-place finish in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, just one season removed from a third-place finish.

 For him and two other veterans who missed fishing the Bassmaster Classic last year — Stephen Browning and Kevin Short — making the top 12 cut this week in the OPTIMA Batteries Battle on the Border is a welcome development. Their strong start to the TTBAOY race means they're that much closer to returning to the Classic, especially in an Elite Series season that BASS shortened from 11 events to eight.

 "Every point is huge," said Short, who started Day Four in seventh place. "There's less opportunity to catch up if you get behind. It's like the years when we only had six tournaments. If you got behind? You were screwed. It was so hard to catch up, whereas if you got out front, and just continued to have a decent year, you could hang on. Now every fish is critical."

 Unlike Lintner, Short didn't have one single fish that haunted him on the way to his 53rd- place finish in the standings. Rather, he said, he made an ill-advised decision on the Kissimmee Chain in Florida. Instead of fishing Lake Toho, where he had succeeded in the past, he fished new water and finished 91st. Three months later, he bombed to 101st at Kentucky Lake, where he has never done well. "I have no idea what the hell happened there," he said.

 This year, he'll start with no lower than a 12th- place finish on Amistad before fishing Lake Dardanelle in two weeks — a lake an hour from his home in Arkansas.

 Dardanelle likewise looms large for Browning, of Hot Springs, Ark., who knows that lake well. The five-time Classic qualifier last year finished 78th in the points, and could stand to have two solid tournaments to begin the year.

 "You've got to take advantage of it when it comes to your house," he said. "It doesn't come to Arkansas very often. Two top 12s to start the year? All you have to do is stay consistent the rest of the year and you're in the Classic."

 Last year, he said, he fished too conservatively, having lost sponsor support from the year before. "I was fishing for the $10,000 check to help you make it to the next one," he said. "You just can't do that. Mentally you can't do that." When an angler worries only about filling a small limit and placing higher than 50th, his mind is typically a long way from winning the tournament.

 On Amistad, he gambled and won. Sitting in 25th place after Day Two, he made a run to a point where he has produced decent bags in years past. He knew it well, knew it wasn't pressured much, and knew that while bites might be hard to come by, they had potential to be big.

 His day brightened when he sacked an 8-pounder, a 5-pounder and a 4-pounder in his first half-hour on the spot. "You get pumped up and ride the adrenaline all day," he said. Browning wound up with 27 pounds on the day, and by reaching ninth place, guaranteed himself his best finish in a BASS event since finishing third on the California Delta in March of 2007.

 Lintner finished seventh in that tournament, and ninth a week later on Clear Lake. He added a sixth-place finish in the Bassmaster Memorial on Oneida Lake that summer, but hasn't gotten a top-10 since.

 Heading into this week on Amistad, he told his wife he wasn't sure he could catch even 10 pounds a day, after a storm scattered the fish he had found suspended in trees.

 But since then, everything has gone right for him. In the final hour on Day One, he caught two 4-pound fish. In the last 10 minutes of Day Two, he landed a 5-plus-pounder on a swimbait. Day Three, same story: after going until 11 a.m. without a bite, he started hammering 4-pounders on a grassline, then caught a 5-pounder late.

 He feels good again. Like he's ready to catch big fish.

 "The mental side of fishing is what everybody overlooks," Lintner said. "To survive out here, you've got to be mentally tough. Otherwise, these guys are so good, they'll step on your neck. When you second-guess yourself, you're done. If you don't think the decision you're making right now is the one that's going to put you over the top, you're done."

 Sitting in 11th place to start Day Four suits Lintner just fine. His highest finish last year was just 22nd.

 "If I don't catch 'em, I move down one," he said. "It allows me to go out and try for a 30-pound bag. It's the only way I'll moveup."

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