Howell Sweet It Is

By Pete Robbins

Many are surprised but the winner was not.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Prior to his come-from-behind victory in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, Randy Howell was known as a utility player, someone who could fulfill any position on the field, but wasn't known as a master of any particular spot.

Denny Brauer and Tommy Biffle? Your mind automatically flips to a jig.

David Fritts? Crankbaits.

Zell Rowland? The Pop-R.

Randy Howell? More than any particular technique, fans knew him for his ever-present smile and his flattop haircut. He was a singles hitter who got on base again and again and again — qualifying for 11 prior Classics — who couldn't hit the long ball. In those 11 tries, he'd compiled a lackluster set of results, making the top 10 only once (2013) and finishing 30th or worse on five occasions.

The idea that he wasn’t a home run hitter was a bit unfair. After all, he’d won an FLW event on Wheeler Lake in 1998 and added a Bassmaster Elite 50 victory on Dardanelle in 2004, but then watched for nearly a decade as contemporaries like Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese and Mike Iaconelli racked up major titles and others like Todd Faircloth and Edwin Evers filled their mantles with Elite Series trophies.

The ultimate indignity came in 2012 at New York's Oneida Lake, when he led heading into the final day of competition but failed to heed the voices directing him to make a crucial change and fell one fish short of his limit. That allowed Boyd Duckett to pass him by 6 ounces and claim the trophy.

"It was the biggest devastation in fishing I'd ever had," he said. "I knew it was my fault. I had the voice that day in my head, telling me to go to another place, but I didn't do it until the last hour and I just ran out of time. I learned from my mistake."

Indeed, learning from mistakes has become the 40-year-old pro's mantra. Citing one of the self-help books he read, he said that the greatest lesson he's internalized is that "You have to lose a lot to learn to win."

Randy Howell fishing on Spring CreekHowell's spot in Spring Creek produced fish after fish. (Bob Payne photo)

It's hard to accuse anyone with well over a million dollars in B.A.S.S. winnings, 12 Classic appearances and a check cashing rate of over 60 percent of being a loser, but Howell's failure to take home the titles he coveted made him feel like one at times, especially because he'd seen potential wins — such as at Oneida — slip through his rod guides on more than one occasion.

This was a man who was destined to be a pro angler, guiding at the age of 13 and fishing his first B.A.S.S. tournament straight out of high school. While he may be a young 40, this win seemed like it was a long time coming.

In many respects, the turning point for the flat-topped North Carolina native was winning last summer's Bassmaster Northern Open on the James River that put him in the Classic. Although he would've made it through the Elite Series standings anyway, Howell’s win more importantly helped him get his mojo back. Despite a first day culling error that could've cost him dearly, on the last day he abandoned his primary area and made a gut-check call that improved his weight substantially.

" could've tried to make it happen in a place where it wasn't going to happen," he said. "Overcoming that hurdle gave me the same confidence to do that at Guntersville."

After that win, he earned checks in his next five events leading up to the Classic, but also understood that he had to listen to his voices. When the voice in his head told him early on Day Three at the Classic to head to Spring Creek — rather than his planned starting spot — he listened again, and once again it paid off. This time, he mined the voice's advice to the tune of 29 pounds, 2 ounces and held off a hard-charging Paul Mueller.

Which Way The Weather?

Prior to the Guntersville Classic, the anglers and media alike predicted that all Classic records would be not just broken, but obliterated. "You'll have to have 28 to 30 pounds a day just to be in the running," one poor prognosticator stated, to the nods and grins of many others. Mother Nature has a funny way of making such bettors look like fools, though. Howell won with 67-8.

After one of the coldest Alabama winters in recent memory, Guntersville's formerly lush grass beds were reduced to occasional patches of green and long stretches of nothing. Likely spots the pros had found in December's pre-practice were rendered fishless when they returned in February.

There was a warming trend leading up to the event, and indeed during the event the weather proved quite temperate, but a violent thunderstorm the night before the first day of competition muddied up key areas and made fish hesitant to bite. When they did strike, they just slapped at a bait instead of hooking up.

That was the problem that faced Connecticut's Paul Mueller. On Day One, he weighed in only three bass for less than 10 pounds, which had him so far down in the standings that no one paid attention to him. He was learning as the tournament went on: "In Connecticut, when you're fishing around 6 feet deep, that's shallow," he said. "Here that's deep."

Fishing an old creek channel off the main lake with eelgrass and hydrilla along its edge, Mueller tried to force feed the fish a lipless crankbait the first day, only to see two solid fish get off, one a sure 5-pounder. Had he landed either one, and still caught what he had on Days Two and Three, he would've easily beaten Howell. Instead, he “learned a valuable five-pound lesson. Don't fish a lipless bait when the fish are biting weird."

Switching to a vibrating jig on Day Two, Mueller did what many had predicted — they may not have expected that he would be the one to break the Classic record for a five-fish limit, but those in the know figured someone would do it, or possibly several someones.

Apparently he's a quick learner, because he chose the right day to catch the biggest bass and the biggest limit of his life, five for 32-3, eclipsing Luke Clausen's one-day mark of 29-6 in 2006 on Lake Toho. The 29-year-old fishing guide added another monster bag of 24-11 on the final day, but still came up 16 ounces short.

"I can't be disappointed," he said. "I was 47th after the first day. Any time you can climb each day is a good thing."

Had Mueller won, he would’ve been the first B.A.S.S. Nation angler to win since fellow Connecticut qualifier Brian Kerchal 20 years earlier. Others, like Dalton Bobo, have come close, but none have been able to close the deal. Mueller hopes that this top finish will be a springboard to a pro career as it was for his Nation predecessors Mike Iaconelli and Brandon Palaniuk.

"I guarantee you I want to come back," he said. "I've got the bug now. There's nothing like it."

The Rest Of The Top Five

While Mueller climbed in the standings each day, Randall Tharp stair-stepped down. He started the tournament with 27-8 to claim the lead on Day One, on a day when the 30-pound bags many had predicted failed to materialize. While Howell is a North Carolina native who descended upon Alabama 16 years ago, Tharp is a former resident of Alabama who now calls Florida home. He relied both on a solid practice and years of experiences on the Big G to catch his big bag, but ultimately his former state was not particularly kind to him. On Day Two, he suffered mechanical difficulties that robbed him of nearly two valuable hours and took him out of his rhythm. He fell to second, an ounce behind new leader Edwin Evers.

Photo of Randy Howell and Randy Tharp at 2014 Bassmaster Classic weigh-inThe Randys hold a stare-down as Tharp comes to the weigh-in stage. (James Overstreet photo)

On Day Three, when his fish on a main lake flat petered out, Tharp moved into a nearby tributary and started flipping boat docks and laydowns with a jig, putting down the hard baits that had carried him to that point. He quickly lost two fish on the first boat house he fished, and then a short time later hooked up in the brushiest part of a laydown. The fish bolted and got pinned to a limb, boiling on the surface. As Tharp moved in to lip it, the sow turned against the wood and leveraged the jig out of its mouth.

"That fish was 9 or 10 pounds," he said. After handling all of the prior disappointments with restraint, for the first time he showed despair, sitting down with his face in his hands for 30 seconds.

Tharp's ability to close out a win is well-documented: he has won three B.A.S.S. Opens and two FLW Tour tournaments, along with last summer's Forrest Wood Cup. In this case, though, it was not to be. Despite some last-minute heroics on a bridge, he couldn't climb out of the hole and finished fifth.

Evers, the Day Two leader, likely remains (with Faircloth) the top Elite Series pro without a major title. After faltering in the final event of the season to relinquish his longstanding Angler of the Year lead, Evers once again experienced last-minute disappointment. His bags got lighter and lighter each day, going from 26-13 on Friday to 20-9 on Saturday and 18-5 when he needed it most. Unlike Howell, he's nibbled around the edges of a Classic victory previously, finishing in the top 10 on three prior occasions, but hasn't been able to seal the deal.

Fishing in his third Classic, 28-year-old Ott Defoe notched his second top five finish. Like Howell, he had grass fish, but when push came to shove the key to his success was targeting bridges and causeways. As with Howell, many of his fish came on a Rapala DT6. Despite catching a bass over 7 pounds on Day Two, and one over 8 as the clock ticked down on the final day, Defoe could never catch two or more such fish on the same day to put together one of the 25-pound plus bags that Howell, Mueller, Evers and Tharp weighed in.

Howell Closes It Out

There may be no crying in baseball, but Howell showed that it still exists in fishing. He reported that as he made the 90-minute drive from the lake to the arena, he must've lost "10 pounds of snot" from blubbering. Then he weighed in relatively early, before B.A.S.S. had put together the "Super Six." He sat at rapt attention as each of the others toted his fish to the scales, alternating between tearing up in fear and crying with joy. As the only member of the top five whose catch increased each day, he certainly had something to be proud of, but without the hardware it wouldn't mean as much. When the final bag came up short, he and "Team Howell" — wife Robin and sons Laker and Oakley — celebrated what was very much a family effort. The days when "Master Card and Visa were (his) biggest sponsors," are now over.

Photo of Randy Howell and family taking their victory lap at 2014 Bassmaster ClassicThe Howells take their victory lap around the arena. (James Overstreet photo)

In earning the win Howell defied the pundits and prognosticators who'd ignored him. Pre-tournament favorites KVD, Skeet Reese and Iaconelli didn't make the cut. Nor did sentimental favorite and first ballot Hall of Famer Gary Klein. Gerald Swindle, an Alabama fan favorite, likewise worked the Expo on Sunday.

Meanwhile Howell, the transplant, became only the second angler to win the Classic in his state of residence, the first since Boyd Duckett did it in 2007, also in Alabama. Along the way he came back from more places than anyone else had to win the Classic – he was 11th heading into the final day. Others had overcome greater weight deficits, but not that many places.

It wasn't a matter of others faltering, because none of the competition rolled over on Day Three, but rather a piece of clutch hitting from an old-school pro who's just hitting his prime. End of story hook

— Published: Spring 2014

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