Stephen Browning Wins BASS Central Open Red River

When Stephen Browning won the Bassmaster Central Open at the Red River last year, he caught several key fish in a backwater that he went to as part of a final-day search for "new water." Those fish helped fuel his 12th-to-1st comeback charge. This year, when the Red River showed up again on the Central Open schedule, Browning made it a point to go back to that same area and learn more about it and why better quality fish tend to hang out there. What he found helped make him a winner again. The noted river angler from Hot Springs, Ark., spent his whole event in Pool 5, focusing on pad stems and wood. He was in the Top 5 all event and closed out the win with a 15-11 stringer on day 3 to finish with 44-03, nearly 3 1/2 pounds better than runner-up and day-2 leader Gerald Sporher. "It's tough to repeat anywhere, I don't care where you are, local or not," Browning said. "It's extremely tough to repeat in these events. It means a lot to me to repeat, without a doubt. Not only are you up against great fishermen in the Opens, you then throw in the best locals on top of that, it's a real chore. It's great sense of accomplishment to win again there." The win pushed Browning to the top of the Central Open points standings with one event remaining and clinched him a berth in next year's Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell. One of the keys was not spreading himself too thin and focusing on certain areas of the river, where fish were making their post-spawn transition. "Over the years of having fished (the Red) a bunch, I've just eliminated a lot of water that just doesn't fit me. When I go down there and practice, I'm not trying to cover the whole river," he said. "That's one of the biggest keys. When you look at it on Google Earth and try to pick out areas to fish, you can literally spend all day in one backwater and only cover half of it. "One advantage I seem to have is post-spawn fits me better and I have a decent grasp on where they're going back to. I feel like that played a role in my win."

The backwater pond he fished on the final day last year was an area he "just stumbled upon by chance." He hadn't practiced there and didn't have a complete understanding of its makeup. This year, he opted to go down the Thursday before Easter and spent all day in that area to learn it more. "I wanted to go back because I knew it had the potential of winning again," he said. "I figured going down early, there wouldn't be near the competitors in there practicing. "I didn't fish a whole lot, but fished enough to catch some. I maybe had 14 pounds and that gave me confidence and pumped me up. I left Friday and went home for Easter, but I had my mind made up thatŐs where it would happen for me." Upon returning to the Red on Monday, he checked out the areas he fished during the first 2 day of last year's event and caught about 13 pounds, which gave him another option. On Tuesday, he ran up the river to see if the water level and clarity were right, but he called it "a flop" and eliminated it from his game plan. The final day of practice he spent in other backwaters in Pool 5, again checking water clarity. "I got a few bites, but didn't set the hook," he said. "I had enough bites, though, that I knew if I needed to scramble around I had places I could stop at."

Competition:

More than 120 boats left the dock before Browning did on day 1, and cloudy and breezy conditions that were part of a mini cold front had him thinking he needed to get off to a strong start. "I felt like that was going to be the day to catch as much as I could," he said. "I knew with the clouds and wind that was going to be the best day to catch a really good weight of the two days before the final cut." He didn't run to his best stuff right away. Instead, he threw a spinnerbait around some lily pad stems and caught two kicker-quality fish to take the edge off. "When I was leaving takeoff, there was an area I'd found in practice the week before and I was like, 'I can't believe nobody's over there,'" he said. "I ran down a stretch of pad stems with mixed timber in it and caught my first fish there. "I got off to a good start and I really felt good after my first keeper on Thursday, which was a 4 1/2-pounder. I knew I needed to have a good bite to have a good day and two of my first four keepers were that 4 1/2 and a 4-pounder. After that, honestly I just got real relaxed. I didn't let off anything. I just got stuck with 2-pounders as my cull fish and I couldn't get rid of them." He twice looped through a milk run in the area before making a short run to another backwater, but settled for 14-15, which put him in 5th place. "For those who know my track record, I'm known as a comeback kid so it felt good to know I'd be up around the Top 10 before I weighed in," he said. He started day 2 in the same place, but noticed some water had dropped out and it hampered his ability to move around. "I was seeing stumps and stick ups I hadn't seen all week," he said. "That told me that I needed to start backing out and look for those little subtle drops. That's what I keyed in on." He honed in small depth variations and wood in 2 to 3 feet of water and picked them apart by flipping a Z-Man Zinkerz soft stick bait.

"We didn't have much wind that second day and it really put them tight on the cover," he said. "I just tried to pick over every little piece of cover. The average size of my fish went up, but I don't think I had a 3-pounder that day. The 2 1/2-pounders were fairly common on day 2. Having fished there over the years, I knew that was going to be a good day. I felt good when I weighed in. It wasn't one of those nail-biters where I had to sit back and hope I made the Top 12. I felt pretty comfortable I had enough." His 13-09 stringer pushed him to 2nd, less than a pound behind Sporher. He boated a limit pretty quickly on day 3, continuing to key on wood. The water had come back up and he sensed the shallow fish would be in a feeding mood. "With the sun out, every little piece of wood I came to, I either flipped it or cranked a square-bill by it," he said. "The water had cleaned up a bit and that bait was the exact one I caught them on last year. I just have a lot of confidence in it. "On a river system, a post-spawn fish are real lethargic, especially those better fish, and it just seemed like they'd rather eat a big bait than something smaller." While he had a limit fairly early, his co-angler on the final day seemed to be catching the quality fish. "I think he had about 9 pounds with three fish and I barely had that with five," he said. "I fished over a lot of fish, but I was fishing slow how I like to fish and wasn't getting in a hurry. I just told myself to be patient and believe and once the sun got up they'd have to find something to lean against." Around 10:30 a.m., he stuck a 3-pounder on the Zinkerz and then culled a couple more times with the crankbait. By noon, he'd moved to the area he caught them last year and culled up several more times to push his weight to 15-11. "I was the guy that was there at the right time," he said. "The fish got tight to the cover. I made one pass and it was over in 30 minutes. I had all the right ones. That stretch from 12 to 12:30 was definitely the high-noon magic." He'd averaged about 15 keepers the first 2 days, but without additional competitors on the water on the final day, he boated nearly 20 keepers. "It was typical river fishing," he added. "You have to run through those kinds of numbers to get up around 15 pounds. To me, I can't go out and hope to get five bites and them be the right ones. I knew I needed that many bites."

Winning Gear:

Flipping gear: 7'6" medium-heavy St. Croix Legend Extreme casting rod, Team Lew's Gold casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 20-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 5/16-oz. Strike King Tour Grade tungsten worm weight, 5/0 Mustad KVD Grip Pin soft plastic hook, 5" Z-Man Zinkerz (black blue laminate). Browning said he's done real well with the Zinkerz in the past. "It's just a confidence bait for me," he added. "It's a finesse-style of flipping."

Cranking gear: 6'10" medium-heavy St. Croix Mojo glass cranking rod, Lew's BB-1 Pro casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), same line, unnamed 3.5" square-bill crankbait (sexy shad).

Spinnerbait gear: 7' medium-heavy St. Croix Legend Extreme casting rod, same reel as cranking, same line, 1/2-oz. War Eagle Screaming Eagle double-willow spinnerbait (hot white/chartreuse).

Main factor: "Just being patient and being confident and believing and having hope. With the exception of the first morning, things didn't click until about noon each day and that helped me stay focused."

Performance edge: "It's no secre the Red River is brutal on equipment. My Mercury pushed that Triton over stumps to where I needed to go and my MotorGuide trolling motor was a key because you have to be stealthy at that place. Also, more and more (Kevin) VanDam and (Jeff) Kriet have made me a believer in that HydroWave. I know I caught fish behind guys I knew didn't have one on their boat. I have a lot of faith in that little machine."

Red River Winning Pattern Bassfan 4/29/14 (Todd Ceisner)