Still Very Much on the Radar
Twilight hardly quiet for retired bass-fishing legendArticle by David A. Brown
Brauer has had success even after announcing his retirement. (David A. Brown photo)
When you do what you love, you'll love what you do and that's usually enough to keep you doing what you love long after you need to do it.
Well, Denny Brauer loves fishing and he loves the business of professional fishing; so, it's no surprise that even after retiring from the professional bass stage, he's still one of the sport's most visible and endearing figures.
A pile of B.A.S.S. victories, including the 1998 Bassmaster Classic, certainly does much for one's public persona; as does his place entry as an inaugural member of the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame; as does an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman (1998). Oh, and the whole first-angler-on-the-Wheaties-box thing – enough said.
Notwithstanding the abundant accolades, anyone who missed the retirement news might have a hard time drawing that conclusion, what with the way Brauer kicked off his first year of taking it easy: On February 16, he won the FLW Everstart Texas Division tournament on Toledo Bend. A week prior, TV viewers saw him raise the first-place trophy in the Jack Link's Major League Fishing 2013 General Tire Summit Cup on New York's Chautauqua Lake. (MLF's made-for-TV format keeps tournament locations and results under wraps until they're broadcast.)
"The timing was kinda awesome, with me going to the Bassmaster Classic (Feb. 22-24) to work it for my sponsors, it was pretty cool," Brauer said. 'Having just accomplished those (wins), the feedback I got was just phenomenal and it was very, very gratifying."
Technically, the MLF win occurred prior to Brauer's retirement announcement last fall, but notching a big ‘W’ right before and then right after that transition could not have been better scripted. Brauer knows well that the timing of such news is simply invaluable – on a professional and a personal level. Competitive spirit is a force that defies completion, and two big wins at this juncture provided a great start to the next phase of his life – a beginning of complete departure from the thrilling ride of three prior decades.
"I think every win is very gratifying, no matter what stage of your career it happens in," he said. "But when it happens in the twilight years of your career, I think it really personally validates what you're out there trying to do more than anything else. I think we all go through these different mindsets of 'Will we ever win another event?' 'Are we still good enough to win another event?' 'Are these guys getting too good?' 'Am I getting too old?'
"A lot of those doubts and questions creep up, but really, we haven't lost the ability – it's just when the stars align or you get on the right bunch of fish and you have one of those tournaments where you're executing well and everything comes together and you end up winning. I've been at it long enough to know that hopefully, there are a lot more wins out there. That said, I'm not going to be competing as much, so when you do get fortunate enough to win a couple of events, you really do cherish them."
STATS AND SPILLS
After cutting his teeth in B.A.S.S. federation events while paying the bills as a mason, Brauer fished his first pro event in 1980 on Lake of the Ozarks. With skill and determination racing neck-and-neck, he earned his first of 21 Classic berths in 1982. In 1987, he captured the Bassmaster Angler of the Year award, while '93 brought a particularly meaningful win at the Bassmaster Superstars event on a particularly tough Illinois River.
From there through 2012, Brauer continued to amass wins and top-10 finishes that would take a good while to recite. Of course, it wouldn't be right to omit his stellar 1998 run during which Brauer won four Bassmaster events, claimed his only Classic trophy, earned the FLW AOY title and finished eighth at the Forrest Wood Cup.
Those who follow this sport understand that such a resume requires a level of commitment, time, energy and sacrifice that few can handle. In Brauer's case, you can add the kind of physical discomforts that really test one's mettle. To say he played through the pain would be an understatement.
Multiple knee problems led to replacement surgery, but two particular incidents delivered spinal cord injuries that could have permanently sidelined him. Once occurred on Lake St. Clair when a large speedboat passed him and kicked up a huge wave that popped his boat into the air and brought him crashing down hard enough to crush a disc in his lower back.
That was bad, but a 1989 float trip on the Osage River took a turn for the nearly-tragic when he and his son Chad went overboard and ended up trapped under a log jam. Forcing his way up through all that wood inflicted a similar injury to his neck.
"I had these potential career-ending moments that were very traumatizing because I didn't know how it was going to end up," Brauer said. "It was something you just had to fight through and you always ask yourself what type of career you could have had if you had stayed healthy. That was always a little bit of a negative thing that dwelled on me but the fact that I never had to quit and continued to fish through and they were able to patch Humpty Dumpty together – that was huge."
Brauer sure hasn’t waved goodbye to fishing. (James Overstreet photo)
Asking Brauer to share his favorite career memory presents a real head-scratcher – but not for any recollection deficit. He turned 63 this year, but Brauer's still sharp as the hook on his namesake Strike King Premier Pro Model jig. Fact is he's been blessed with not only a lot of tournament success, but also a lot people success. Here's just a sampling of the high points.
His Big Break: Rarely is the path of success trodden in solitude. Along the way, special people typically play key roles in the journey of those with great potential. Brauer said he'll always remember Ranger Boats founder Forrest Wood and his wife Nina for their early and ongoing support. After placing 20th in his first pro event on Lake of the Ozarks, the Woods approached him and stated that if he was interested in pursuing a pro career, they were interested in supporting him.
"I approached that event as a one-time deal to see whether I could compete," Brauer said. "I don't know if I ever would have fished another one if it hadn't been for sponsorship opportunities that they offered. Forrest and Nina and Ranger Boats were truly instrumental in me even having a career, so I think that's where it all started.
"You look at different things that materialize over your career, like my association with Strike King. John Barns is not only the owner of the company, but he's one of my best friends. I've been really fortunate to have been with the right companies and those associations have been long-term. It makes everything I do fun. Everybody likes to go fishing; some people don't like to do the business end. But the business end for me has been fun because of the companies I'm working with."
Profound Impact: One of the important points Brauer learned about business came from the tall man in the cowboy hat. In the early days of his public appearances, he did several seminars with Forrest Wood and noted that he always kept a note pad in his pocket. Each time he promised someone a post-event follow-up, Wood made a note. Didn't matter if it was business related, or a Ranger hat promised to a young fan – it went into the notebook for prompt follow up.
"He followed through with everything that he ever said he was going to do and never, ever let anything slip under the rug," Brauer recalled. "That just impressed me so much that I tried to make sure that, during my career, that I returned every phone call, every email, etc. and tried to conduct myself in that professional way. I thought that was a good lesson early on."
Cultural Crossover: Structurally, it was just a piece of folded cardboard with words and images on the outside. However, appearing on the Wheaties box in 1998 was an epic achievement for Denny Brauer.
"It ranks right up there because of the longevity of it," he said. "It's crazy how much of an impact that has outside our immediate industry. Year and years later, people still remember that and, to this day, when I do an appearance, almost every time somebody will come up with a box that they want autographed.
"It was a very gratifying deal. I recognized the importance and the value of that from a marketing standpoint. Career-wise, it was one of the most rewarding things that happened."
Reflecting back on his storied career, Brauer said he likes to look at each of his victories as equally important threads in a colorful tapestry. There is, however, no overstating the impact of his Classic victory. Retiring without reaching that summit would've been tough, he admits.
"The Classic was the thing that eluded me for a long time in my career," Brauer said. "I had the opportunity several times, but the fish went left and I went right. I'd show up at a Classic and the first thing the media would want to know is 'Will this be the year that you finally do it? So when I did finally (win), it was so relieving and so rewarding, not only from the fact that you've won the greatest thing in fishing, but the fact that it had been so hard for me to win. I just felt that my career would not have been validated, no matter how many tournaments I won, unless I won the Classic. When I won, I felt like I truly belonged."
Brauer said that seeing his longtime friend Larry Nixon win the 1983 Classic was a special moment, but he feels a respectful connection to all who've climbed the mountain. Each year since 1998, when he watches a new champion lift the trophy, he understands the momentary elation, as well as the long-term significance.
"When I see another angler up there holding that trophy, I hope they appreciate it as much as I did," he said. "That is a very special club to be a member of."
For those just starting their professional bass fishing journey, Brauer offers sage advice – words of wisdom he has personally followed with obvious results.
Time on the Water: The more you see, the better you understand complexities. Tournament fishing hinges on decision making and the more data you've mentally crunched; the deeper your well of knowledge.
Develop the Work Ethic: Practicing dawn-'til-dark is easier said than done, but so is winning a tournament.
Develop Self Confidence: "There's a lot of networking that goes on these days, but I think a lot of your truly great anglers try to do everything on their own."
Business Skills: Tournament checks and sponsor checks both cash the same way, but diligent blending of the two streams yields a river of sustainability.
"An angler can be successful on tournament winnings if he's a real superstar, but there are very few guys, if you look at the history of the sport, that could have made a living just off of winnings. If an angler's a really good promoter, he can probably make a living just off promoting.
"My advice to an angler is to get really good at the two and be able to balance both and you can make a great living and you're guaranteed to be able to get through those years when your fishing may not be up to par – and everybody's going to have one of those years – and the endorsement money will carry you through. Treat people the way you want to be treated and you're probably going to do really fine in the sport of bass fishing and really fine in life."
Although his days of national level competition are behind him, Denny Brauer's mix of tournaments and sponsor promotion remains. He just has more time for the latter now.
"All of my sponsors have stayed on board and (retirement) gives me a little more time to go interact with fans and do more promotions," he said. "It's very gratifying the support I have gotten from the fans, how much they follow your career and all the well wishes.
"We're just so fortunate – everybody involved in our industry – to be dealing with people who truly love what we do and love the sport. Now that I'm living in Del Rio, I can't pull into a gas station without meeting two or three new friends. Everyone's just so supportive – it's awesome."
One of the most enjoyable aspects of retirement, Brauer said, is the more relaxed pace his life follows without the nearly non-stop cycle of tournament preparation and competition. Weekends frequently find him flying out to promotional events, but weekdays are often spent fun fishing nearby Lake Amistad. Brauer's balancing this increased flexibility and fan face time with a schedule of regional tournaments that keeps him close to the game he still dearly loves.
"I'm still competitive," Brauer said. "I still have enough scattered tournaments in my schedule that I can still get that euphoric feeling of competition."
Tips From The Jigmaster
Denny Brauer has won a lot of money by flipping a jig and even though he helped design the Strike King Premier Pro Model jig that bears his name, he still checks each one to make sure each element is just as he wants it. Here's a few tips from the Jigmaster's prep routine:
When fish seem spooky, back away from the cover and switch from flipping to pitching presentations.