In 1980, Denny Brauer did what millions of guys threaten to do every year: he quit his job to go fishing full-time. His wife, Shirley, thought he was crazy. "I really did," she says, standing on the front porch of their 500-acre homestead in the foothills of the Ozarks, "but I went along with it. And now look where we are."
Let's see. Right now, Denny Brauer's on ESPN, starring in "Bass Class with Denny Brauer" on Saturday mornings; he's in the pages of Sports Illustrated, which went so far as to wonder if tournament bass fishing would be the "next NASCAR"; he's on "Late Night with David Letterman"; and he's the first angler ever to have his smiling face front and center on a box of Wheaties. And he's put more than a million bucks in the bank - strictly in winnings, by the way. Not a bad place to be.
Of course, success comes with a price. And the price Denny Brauer's paying right this minute is a high one. He's trying to teach me his patented "flip'n'pitch" casting technique, which is kind of like trying to teach your dog to paint. But Brauer's the archetypal optimist - as I continue to hang spinner baits in tree limbs, steadfastly refusing to cast toward open waters, he chuckles and points out that the weather couldn't possible be more perfect this morning.
If there's a key to Brauer's success, it's that willingness to always find the bright side. "The bottom line," he chides me as I mutter another string of curses, "is don't be afraid to embarrass yourself." Nonchalantly flicking his jig 15 yards under heavy cover, Brauer explains, "If you're just fishing to look good out there, to make sure you've got one or two fish, you're not giving yourself that opportunity to win. The last time we were at High Rock Lake, I finished dead last in the Classic, in front of 20,000 people. The first two days I got up there and didn't even get to weigh one fish. There's a reason for that. I could've caught two or three a day, but I didn't go to that tournament to catch two or three a day. I went there to win. And because of that, I never did relocate this big school of fish. This year, we went back, I relocated 'em and won the tournament. I didn't do anything really different."
He did do one thing differently. He cashed a winner's check for a cool $250,000. He also managed to finally shake the stigma of having won everything except the BASS Master Classic, the crown jewel of tournament fishing. And while he comes across as Mr. Happy Go Lucky when he's not in a tournament, Denny Brauer is as fierce a competitor as I've ever met. "I think it's a confidence deal," Brauer tells me. "I've seen this happen a lot of times. An angler will go along several years, just existing, getting by. Then, boom, he'll have that good tournament, get on that right bunch of fish or whatever and win the tournament. Huge shot of confidence. Suddenly he believes in himself, he believes he can win, he believes in every decision he makes. So he's fishing good instead of just going through the motions, and, boom, he wins another one. Then, all of sudden he has a bad tournament and he says, 'I guess I just got lucky those other two times,' and he loses that confidence and he's done. That's something I don't fight, because I know I'm gonna do well. And I don't mean that egotistically. But you know you're going to have bad tournaments. That's part of it. You may have two or three bad tournaments in a row. But you don't worry about that. You go out, you have confidence. Every time I go to a tournament, I'm surprised if I don't win. Most people are surprised if they do win. I think that's a big difference."
Hang around athletes very long and you see that difference a lot. It's the difference between a Hall of Famer and a journeyman. And it's why Brauer bristles at the criticism that's been leveled at his Wheaties appearance. Jim Rome, host of Fox Sports' "The Last Word" and his nationally syndicated sports radio talk show, has been one of the most vocal critics, calling Brauer's appearance a "joke."
"The box says, 'Breakfast of Champions,'" Brauer says, quietly emphasizing the word "Champions." With the '98 Classic title, the '98 FLW Tour Angler of the Year trophy in his living room, the '87 BASS Angler of the Year crown, and more trophies and plaques in his garage than I can count in an afternoon, Denny Brauer definitely qualifies as a champ.
"My goal's always been to become the best bass fisherman that there ever was," Brauer tells me. "You didn't even dream about things like the Wheaties box when I started."
When Brauer started, about the only thing a professional bass fisherman could afford to think about was winning enough money to make it to the next tournament. Maybe there was the occasional fantasy about scoring your own TV show, like Bill Dance or Jimmy Houston, but the big thing was just making enough to keep you from having to sell insurance or lay bricks to pay the rent. The lucky ones landed guiding jobs, like Brauer's at Lake of the Ozarks. The rest did whatever they could.
But over the past few years, tournament bass fishing has found its stride. Now there are two major tours, the BASS and the FLW, as well as several minors. ESPN and TNN feature not just fishing shows but bass tournaments, with talk of going live with some of the majors in the near future. "The way things are growing," Brauer agrees, "all the bars that we set are going to be jumped over by these young guys coming up."
One of those young guys is Denny's son, Chad, who happens to be sitting on his boat not 50 feet away, trading verbal jabs with his dad while we fish. Chad's no slouch when it comes to winnings, and while there may be a tendency to think of the Brauers as a fishing counterpart to NASCAR's Petty clan, I see a lot more similarities to the Stocktons of professional golf.
Denny sees the parallels between big-time fishing and big-time golf, too. They're both primarily individual sports that are more participatory than spectator in nature. Pro-ams are an integral part of tournaments in both sports. And if Denny has his way, TV will drive the growth of tournament fishing just like it's driven the growth of professional golf, especially if the tournaments are shown properly. In Denny's vision, "You have the tournaments set up to where you're paring the field down to five or 10 guys on the last day, with a camera on each of them. Then show it live, going boat to boat, like with golf where they take you from hole to hole."
It sounds kind of farfetched at first, but as I think about it, the idea starts making sense. For one thing, there are millions and millions of bass fishermen spending an average of $200 a month on gear, and that's the kind of demographic that makes advertisers drool. For another, if TV can manage to make an automaton like Davis Love III a compelling figure, it can make a full-on star out of a guy like Denny Brauer.
For one thing, Brauer wants to be a TV star. Not that his ego needs the stroking, but because he sees it as benefiting the whole sport, and he's a firm believer that what's good for the sport is good for everybody in it. As a result, unlike the Shaquille O'Neals and the Mike Tysons of the sports world, Brauer not only signs autographs and smiles for anybody's camera, he actually seems to enjoy it. I change rigs and start pitching a jig as Brauer tells me, without a trace of sarcasm, that he loves the Pro-ams. "It introduces more people to the sport," he says. "The amateur goes home and tells his buddies about how good a time he had, and suddenly his buddies are getting involved. So it's very important that we treat that guy in the back of the boat right. Because he could become just the opposite. He could say, 'Boy, those guys are a bunch of jerks. I don't want anything to do with this.' So I think every pro's responsibility is to treat that amateur as good as he can and make sure he enjoys that day."
I reel in another empty cast and try to imagine one of the guys charging kids $35 an autograph saying that with a straight face. I can't do it. But Brauer's for real. He tells me about inviting an amateur he met at a tournament to go hunting at Brauer's ranch. He tells me about the "great friendships" he's made through the pro-ams. And even though he normally can't say three sentences without at least chuckling, Brauer's dead serious. It's like fishing with a guy from a Norman Rockwell painting.
Then he starts talking about his grandson, Colby, and I know I've fallen through a time warp and landed in 1958. Just the mention of Colby's name makes Brauer light up like an aluminum Christmas tree. "I've got a real good farm pond," he says, grinning so hard he has to stop casting, "and that four-year-old grandson, and when I'm home, I don't have any choice. We're going fishing. I'll think, (sarcastically) 'Oh, just what I really want to do,' but you get down there and it's fun. You get involved on that end of it and watch him, and you wanna talk about obsessed? A four-year-old kid that can sit and watch one-hour fishing tapes? During tournaments, he'll get on the phone and he'll say, 'I think you need to fish a little deeper tomorrow,' or, 'You need to fish on the sunny side of the cover.' I mean, he's laying this all on me, and I'm thinking, 'If this kid keeps this intensity up, we're all gonna get a bad butt-kicking.'" Saying this, Denny Brauer, millionaire angler, cracks up.
Later, back at the fantasy fishing lodge that is Brauer's house, he goes through his mail while we gawk at his trophy room. You may think you get weird things in the mail, but they're nothing compared to a typical Brauer mail call. He opens a box filled with blue rubber worms, works a handful through his fingers, sniffs them, then tosses them back. Chad joins in, and the two of them go through the whole stack examining any number of prototype lures and fishing lines, lost in the minutiae of professional bass fishing.
Like any top pro, Brauer's name is prominently displayed on a number of products, from his signature Strike King lures to his own Daiwa rods and reels. But unlike some athletes who just sell their names, Brauer insists on taking an active role in product design. "I won't sell my name," he says with a shake of his head. "I've been very cautious over the years to only associate with companies whose products I'd actually go buy. Our consumer is so educated that he can see through the gimmicks. They know that I really use the products to make my living. I don't have some secret lure somewhere. What I promote is what I actually use, and I won't have it any other way." Besides, he insists, "That's a fun part of our job. It's very rewarding when you put some input in and then you get it back out in the product's performance."
I tell him that it sounds like there's almost nothing but fun parts to his job. After all, here's a 50-year-old guy with a wife who travels with him, a son who's followed his footsteps, a grandson he adores, who's managed to become not only one of the wealthiest anglers ever, but maybe the best. A lot of guys, I point out, would call that a pretty damn good life. He won't argue. "I've been real fortunate," he tells me over a Dr Pepper. "Right off the bat in my career I got Ranger boats and Evinrude motors to sponsor me, and without those two taking a gamble and sponsoring me, I'm not sure that I would've got on through those rough years.
"I think I've been thrown into the position," he says, "whether I want to or not, of being kind of an ambassador of the sport, where the pressure's on me, because of those things, to try to help move the sport forward. It's not one of those deals where you can say, 'No, I don't want to go do the Letterman show,' or, 'No I don't want to go do this project.' I think we owe it to the other anglers and to the sport to do that. It's almost like you're wanting to do as many things as possible to capitalize on these opportunities, and if you don't, you almost feel like you're letting down some people.
"The one thing that bothers me, is you get on a roll like this and you have those opportunities, and there might be some jealousy from the other anglers. But the sport has matured so much that all the feedback I've had from the other anglers, and I'm sure there's some behind my back I wouldn't like," he says with a big laugh, "has been real positive."
As I pack up and leave his farm, driving through the front gate adorned with a leaping bass, I realize there's not much in Denny Brauer's life that isn't real positive. And that's not a bad place to be at all.
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