I just got off the phone with the best competitor on the Bass Pro Tour. His name might surprise you.
Sure, Jacob Wheeler immediately comes to mind. I’m not sure it’s possible for a touring pro to have a more dominant year. But the guy I talked to, in my opinion, outperformed even the Angler of the Year.
In all seven regular-season events, as well as both the Heavy Hitters tournament and the 2021 REDCREST Championship, Stephen Browning advanced to the Knockout Round. Nine for nine.
And while nothing can approach Wheeler’s season in terms of sheer glory, technically, Browning was more consistent. In my mind, the BPT game is all about making cuts, advancing to the next round. Get past your initial group and the money follows. Never missing a knockout round, Browning moved from “thanks for coming” money to making a living.
So what’s his secret?
At 55 years old, Stephen Browning is no young gun. He’s not an offshore whiz kid or a finesse master. He knows this.
“I’m 55, but I’m not 55, you know what I’m saying?” Browning started. “I hustle. I don’t have a butt seat. I’ve got to be able to move around at a very fast pace. I don’t ever walk, I run (in the boat). It may be only 10 feet (from the front deck to the console), but I’m running that 10 feet.”
Browning’s in good shape, no doubt. At 5 feet, 10 inches tall, he nearly matches his high school weight of 175 pounds. He’s a very active person in all aspects of life. But there’s more to strong tournament performance than being active. Lots of guys are active.
As it turns out, there’s more to the hustle.
“I don’t ever take for granted the I’m going to catch something,” Browning added. “If it ain’t happening, I’m gone.”
Here, I started to learn more of Browning’s approach. There are a number of variables.
For starters, Browning unquestionably relies on the ScoreTracker more than any pro I’ve interviewed. When there’s a large amount of movement by competitors, it forces Browning to rotate faster and fish more aggressively. “Man, they’re biting somewhere,” is how he put it.
Yet, when things slow down for his competitors, again by evidence on the ScoreTracker, Browning still pushes. “Time to kick it into high gear and separate myself,” he said.
In any case, it’s clear the ScoreTracker motivates Browning to maintain a fast pace: “You just can’t be content.”
Move fast, fish fast, never settle. We’ve heard this before, and we’ve seen it work before. In fact, nearly all the star performers on the BPT whom I’ve interviewed have had a similar plan. For Browning, however, the format more closely fits his roots.
Take a trip with me back to when Stephen Browning was making a name for himself. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, traditional bass tournaments weren’t the slugfests they are now. For the most part, 12- to 15-pound bags were enough to put a competitor near the top, as most tournament venues were less productive.
Guys like Browning and others trained themselves to consistently catch numbers of “keeper” sized fish; we’ve heard this from several of the sport’s veterans. It may be this decades-old practice that’s now paying off. Browning admits that he rarely finds large concentrations of fish. “Mega-school” isn’t in his vocabulary.
“In the old days, it was all about just going out and getting bites. I use lots of moving baits, (attempting) to collide with pods of fish. Then I'd just keep rotating around.”
Not surprisingly, Browning’s lure choice matches movement. For the 2021 season, he credits roughly 85 percent of his catches to a JackHammer bladed jig. An additional 5 percent were caught on a spinnerbait and the remaining 10 percent flipping soft plastics.
Browning goes his own way, for sure. His unique approach finds him rarely sharing water.
“St. Clair; never saw a boat. Chickamauga: none. Harris Chain: one or two,” Browning said. That, again, is extremely unique in today’s tournament culture. Whereas other pros are doing all they can to keep up with recent technology and new tactics, Browning seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
But staying old-school could be a shortcoming. “I’ve got to learn some of the new tools Lowrance puts out to become better,” he admitted. And Browning concedes, even with a perfect record in terms of Knockout Rounds, Championships evade him.
Often, he finds the winner has indeed found the motherlode, and small groups of fish just can’t carry Browning to the winner’s circle. But they can surely get him paid.
“You’ve got to make the Knockout Round if you’re going to make the Championship,” he added.
To do so, Browning finds it important to have an accurate take on the fishery itself. “The one thing I do well is learning what it’s going to take to make the Knockout Round. You’ve got to give the lake credit,” he commented. “Just because practice sucked, doesn’t mean the lake sucks. The competition is just too good.”
Here, Browning guessed that much of his competition underestimates weights, while he pushes harder to reach a magic number. In the end, it pays off.
“There’s a whole lot of 2-pounders swimming around in these lakes,” he concluded.
I found my conversation with Browning giving me hope. While much of the sport concentrates on new ways to find bass and insist they bite, Browning turns back the clock and keeps winding. Maybe things don’t have to be so complicated after all. Maybe there’s still a place for guys like me, or him, or whoever enjoys the feeling of dumping in the trolling motor and going down the bank.
With Browning’s 5th-place AOY showing, qualifying for and fishing all possible BPT events, and taking home five figures at each stop, it appears there is.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)