By Todd Ceisner
The last fish catch logged on the ScoreTracker for the Knockout Round today at the Lake Conroe MLF Bass Pro Tour belonged to Stephen Browning. Three pounds, four ounces.
It’s been a while since he experienced a more exhilarating fish catch.
Browning hooked the fish with less than a minute remaining in the final period and got it in the boat with 30 seconds left. When the scale settled on 3-04, it moved him from 12th place to 10th, leaping over Keith Poche and Shinichi Fukae and into Sunday’s Championship Round.
“That was a fishing moment that I have not felt in a very long time,” said Browning, who finished with 25-13 (nine fish).
Browning’s electrifying catch punctuated a day that featured back-and-forth shuffling around the 10th-place cut line as weights remained tight throughout. At the end of the second period, seven anglers were within two pounds of 10th and three of them wound up advancing to Sunday.
One angler who never had to sweat the cut line today was Boyd Duckett. The co-founder of MLF, who finished 78th at the season opener, caught a tournament-best 21 fish for 38-05 (another single-day tournament high) and cruised to a first-place finish. He did the bulk of his damage in the first period by putting 11 fish and 21-03 in the boat to set a blistering pace along with Edwin Evers, who had 21-11 in the opening period.
“This is the hardest field I’ve ever competed against,” Duckett said. “I’m not going to be doing this all that much longer, so I probably feel obligated to win an MLF event before I move on. It would be the icing on the cake to work as hard as I have to put this business together and to win one would be all I need.”
As good as Duckett was early on, fellow MLF co-founder Gary Klein was just as good over the final two periods. Klein was 33rd after the first period, then tallied 28-00 over the next five hours to finish 2nd with 30-01 (15 fish).
Stephen Browning posted nearly a 3 pounds per fish average today.
Evers, the runner-up at the season opener, spent the majority of the day scouting out new territory for Sunday and finished 3rd with 29-02 (14 fish). Brent Ehrler was 13th after the second period, but caught 13-09 in the third to improve nine spots to 4th with 28-12 (16 fish). Jordan Lee spent the entire day in the top 10 and will get a shot to win back-to-back BPT events after finishing 5th with 28-12, losing the tiebreaker to Ehrler based on number of fish caught.
The weights for the final round will be zeroed, setting up a Sunday shootout in south Texas with $100,000 on the line. Now, it boils down to whether the winning weight will come out of the back of Little Lake Creek, which has seen heavy fishing pressure all week, especially from several of the finalists, or will it be elsewhere.
After catching one fish in the first period, Browning got back into contention with 17-01 in the second period. Things slowed down in the third and when he came to the last bit of water he fished it had been more than two hours since his last fish. Browning knew he was stuck in 12th with 22-09, just 11 ounces behind Fukae in 10th.
“I had just gotten to that stretch,” he said. “I only had a minute left when I saw a laydown log. I knew I had to make a good cast and my first one was horrible. That was all jitters with the time winding down and all. The second one, when the bait hit the water, I told my official that I felt like something could happen.”
And it did.
Browning set the hook, speed-reeled the fish to within a few feet of the boat and swung it towards him, grabbing the line with his hand before showing off how well the fish had been hooked.
“I knew I couldn’t make that many casts there without catching one,” Browning said shortly before being given confirmation that he was officially among the 10 finalists.
“I had spent so much time fishing unproductive water simply because I didn’t know (what to look for),” he said later. “When I started catching them, I tried to find other areas similar and couldn’t find it, so I had to move and move. At the end of the day, with 10 minutes left I went into an area that had the right deal and there were two pieces there. I messed the first one up but nailed the second one. I know what I’m looking for now.”
And with the water still muddy and the fish on the move to shallow water (or already there), Browning will be a man to watch on Sunday as this scenario fits his strengths as good as any.
“It’s just a typical pre-spawn type deal with shallow, muddy water like I like, and the whole lake is muddy, which is a bonus for me,” he said. “My confidence after the second period went up and now, I have a chance to win.”
David Walker rode this 6-pounder today into the finals.
Browning wasn’t the only one to catch a key big fish late in the day to put himself into the top 10.
David Walker, who started the third period in 4th place, had slipped to 12th by 2 p.m. and was in need of a bite to regain some momentum. He connected with a 6-03 brute at 2:05 to shoot up to 3rd. By day’s end, he retreated to 7th, but it was enough to advance.
“It’s awesome,” Walker said of making the final round. “That’s what you hope to do when you’re fishing tournaments. With the weights zeroed, you never feel like you have to make up ground – you just go catch as much as you can.
“That 6 could not have come at a better time. I’d gone forever without a bite and I was falling and falling. I needed something to go on and talk about exciting. When I got it in the boat, I couldn’t have been happier. That’s why we do this stuff – for moments like that.”
As for Sunday, Walker isn’t sure what’s in store. If his previous three competition days are any indication, it’ll be a series of random bites.
“Lunacy. That’s my program this week,” he said. “I don’t know what to make of it. I’m ntg going to act like I have this deal here or that deal there. I just keep fishing. It’s all I can do. It worked out. I was not real optimistic this morning. Yesterday was such a slow, painful day and I caught 10 pounds. I might catch 10 again or not even that.
"At this place, you have to endure long, long dry spells when people are gaining on you. You have to put up with them because there’s nothing else to do. You can’t go over here and catch little ones. Otherwise, I’d have been over there already.”
Jeff Sprague endured a nearly two-hour lull between bites at the end of the second period and was admittedly in spin-out mode. He sat in 12th place, just four ounces out of 10th, but he felt like things were slipping away. He used the 15-minute break before the third to reset his focus, then hammered four fish in the first hour of the final period and added two more in the final hour to move up to 9th with 26-06 for the day.
“The cool part about this format is we get an opportunity to sit down in those breaks and they can break your momentum or help you gain momentum,” he said. “I needed that to calm down and regain my composure. I knew the bass were there and I was able to put a few key fish in the boat.
“I needed that and I openly admitted it. Too often we get worked up over a missed opportunity or a lack of bites. I had a minute to chill and get back together and go back at it.”
He feels with fewer boats in the area he’s been fishing tomorrow he’ll be able to exploit it more thoroughly.
“I was kind of forced to stay in a smaller area, so maybe I’ll be able to move around a little more and make something of it,” he said.
> Day 5 stats – 40 anglers (First period: 148 fish, 296-01; Second period: 102 fish, 208-12; Third period: 132 fish, 256-12; Total: 382 fish, 761-09)
> Three anglers are making return trips to the Championship Round – Evers, Lee and Sprague.
> Sun., Feb. 17 – Mostly Cloudy - 66°/51°
- Wind: From the ENE at 9 mph
Knockout Round Results
1. Boyd Duckett -- 21, 38-05
2. Gary Klein -- 15, 30-01
3. Edwin Evers -- 14, 29-02
4. Brent Ehrler -- 16, 28-12
5. Jordan Lee -- 13, 28-12
6. Randall Tharp -- 16, 27-13
7. David Walker -- 11, 27-10
8. Wesley Strader -- 13, 27-05
9. Jeff Sprague -- 16, 26-06
10. Stephen Browning -- 9, 25-13
The following anglers missed the cut and will not compete in the Championship Round.
11. Shin Fukae -- 11, 23-04 -- $6,000
12. Keith Poche -- 11, 23-01 -- $6,000
13. Andy Montgomery -- 10, 22-06 -- $6,000
14. Jonathon VanDam -- 10, 22-06 -- $6,000
15. Adrian Avena -- 12, 21-15 -- $6,000
16. Gerald Spohrer -- 12, 21-02 -- $6,000
17. Dean Rojas -- 10, 20-05 -- $6,000
18. Matt Lee -- 7, 20-04 -- $6,000
19. Mark Rose -- 11, 19-13 -- $6,000
20. Bobby Lane -- 11, 19-05 -- $6,000
21. Greg Hackney -- 9, 18-03 -- $6,000
22. Jason Christie -- 10, 17-09 -- $6,000
23. Skeet Reese -- 10, 17-07 -- $6,000
24. Todd Faircloth -- 8, 17-05 -- $6,000
25. Mark Davis -- 8, 16-05 -- $6,000
26. Randy Howell -- 8, 16-00 -- $6,000
27. Alton Jones -- 9, 15-05 -- $6,000
28. Alton Jones Jr -- 8, 15-03 -- $6,000
29. Bradley Roy -- 7, 15-02 -- $6,000
30. Dave Lefebre -- 9, 14-02 -- $6,000
31. Kevin VanDam -- 7, 14-02 -- $6,000
32. Justin Atkins -- 7, 13-05 -- $6,000
33. Andy Morgan -- 5, 12-10 -- $6,000
34. Fletcher Shryock -- 8, 11-12 -- $6,000
35. Jeff Kriet -- 4, 10-02 -- $6,000
36. Zack Birge -- 4, 8-15 -- $6,000
37. Jared Lintner -- 4, 7-11 -- $6,000
38. Brett Hite -- 4, 6-13 -- $6,000
39. Casey Ashley -- 1, 3-04 -- $6,000
40. Chris Lane -- 1, 2-12 -- $6,000