UPCOMING EVENT: TOYOTA SERIES - 2020 - Lake Erie

Chasing the Cup That Got Away

Chasing the Cup That Got Away
Denny Brauer

Sunrise greets a glittering Ranger bass boat near Paris Landing State Park. The boat is black and grey, and it looks to all the world like any nameless weekend angler navigating the early morning fog on a Tennessee River reservoir. But there’s something special about this one: Shimmering silver logos dot the gunwales, their names casting reflections in the fog. They read “Strike King, Seaguar, Minn Kota.” Above them, two bright red emblems peek over the console, “FLW, Ranger Cup.”

This boat, then, is special.

But it’s not special because of the glitter or the stickers, or even the forest of flippin’ sticks lining the rod box. Its uniqueness comes from the man behind the wheel, a man who’s peppered hair matches the boat’s trim. He’s long been considered one of the greatest bass fishermen of all time – Denny Brauer.

If things go well, the boat will be back on Kentucky Lake in the fall of 2017 for the Costa FLW Series Championship. And if things break right then, Brauer will find himself in contention for the 2018 Forrest Wood Cup, one of the few honors to elude him in a five-decade, historic career that carries a trophy room of achievements.

The 1987 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year, 1998 Bassmaster Classic champion, 21-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier and five-time Forrest Wood Cup qualifier is a living legend of the sport. His 1998 Walmart FLW Tour Angler of the Year title famously landed him on the cover of the Wheaties box. He was the first ever fisherman to receive such an honor, and he remains the only professional bass angler to ever be welcomed as a guest by David Letterman.

But before a New York night show, before a gallery of trophies and checks, and before 40 years of fiberglass bass boats, Brauer was just an impoverished kid roaming the dusty hills of Nebraska.

“We were dirt broke,” he recalls. “My father died when I was 4 years old, so I more or less had to come up with the money for anything I needed on my own.”

By his early 20s, it was clear to a young Brauer that he needed a bass boat. Fishing tournaments was a way to bring in money, and with a new wife and child at home, Brauer knew he could bring it in with a rod and reel, but he didn’t have a boat.

His solution was creative, to say the least.

“I bought half of a boat,” he laughs. “I couldn’t even afford to buy the whole thing, so I went in on it with a buddy. It was a 12-foot johnboat, and we had $87 invested in the rig. So I paid half of $87 for part of a johnboat with no big motor. All we had was a trolling motor. So, when the tournament started, the guys that had bass boats would take off down the lake, and I’d take off down a gravel road until I found a spot to launch.”

Brauer says those early tournaments were all measure-and-release format.

“Your partner had to verify, but I could get away without a livewell,” he adds.

By 1976, after several months of fishing in the johnboat, “back before they even invented the color teal,” he’d saved enough money to buy his first real bass boat, even then a Ranger.

“From there, I started to fish state and federation tournaments,” he explains. “After I did well there, I decided to give the pros a try.”

Nearly 20 years after giving it “a try,” he’d share the stage with Letterman and the cereal isle with Captain Crunch.

“Winning FLW Angler of the Year and the Bassmaster Classic in the same year got me on the Wheaties box,” he says. “And that got me on Letterman, which was crazy. It was such a neat opportunity to represent an entire industry. Bass fishing had a stigma back then of being this totally redneck sport, so to speak. I don’t think a lot of people looked at it as a legitimate way to make a living, so being on the ‘Late Show’ was a chance to cast aside some of that stigma. And it was nerve-wracking, because you knew an entire industry was watching, and you didn’t want to lay an egg. Thankfully, it went well, and they actually invited me back a few months later.”

Brauer has, arguably, achieved more mainstream recognition than any professional bass fisherman in the sport’s history. He occupies a short list of fame filled with former pros who gave up the tournament life long ago to pursue television shows. But unlike Dance or Martin, whose careers all began on the tournament trail, Brauer did the TV thing throughout his career but never left the road. He competed fiercely in both FLW and B.A.S.S. events for years, recording nine top-10 finishes with FLW from 1996 to 2001, and four top 10s from 2013 to 2016. In his 32-year career at B.A.S.S., he scored 17 first-place finishes and 80 top 10s.

Now, at age 67, Brauer continues to make his presence known at FLW events around the country, recording his most recent top-10 finish just over a year ago at the Oct. 29-31, 2015 Costa FLW Series Championship on the Ohio River.

But the path back to the top at FLW wasn’t always certain. For much of the 2000s, he knowingly competed with a heart arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation. And for most of that decade, medicine kept his condition under control.

Then in the early 2010s, Father Time finally began to catch up with the pro, forcing him to announce an official retirement in 2012.

 

Denny Brauer

The un-retirement

The Ranger comes off plane near an oak-lined cove, as Brauer begins to tell the story of his heart and a 2012 retirement that nearly took him away from the sport he loves:

“A few years ago, a virus attacked my heart. Because of that attack, I lost a large percentage of the use in my heart. The virus actually enlarged it, and that also took away some lung capacity, but luckily a pacemaker returned some of that functionality. Between that, two knee replacements and a need for shoulder surgery, I knew that my body was telling me to retire. But I’m not good at sitting around, so I’ve really looked to FLW events in the Costa FLW Series in Texas and Oklahoma to fill that competitive need, so to speak.”

Brauer made his return to professional fishing shortly after completing recovery from the medical procedure that he says fixed the “electrical wiring” in his most critical of organs. Once threatened with a final retirement, he was back to competing with FLW within 12 months of the initial retirement announcement.

Now, four years after the shadow of time threatened his career, the King of Flip is anything but finished. A shoreline home on the Rio Grande at Lake Amistad keeps him distant from the destitute dirt roads of his youth, and it keeps him close to a chase for the Forrest Wood Cup at Amistad and nearby Texas strongholds such as Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend. There, he has the opportunity to qualify for the Cup via the Costa FLW Series, by way of the Southwestern Division and the Costa FLW Series Championship. It’s a feat he achieved at the Ohio River championship in 2015, where he qualified for the 2016 Cup at Wheeler Lake. Brauer finished 38th at Wheeler. He then missed a follow-up chance at the 2017 Cup when he finished 32nd at the 2016 Costa FLW Series Championship on Table Rock.

“I was really excited about fishing the Costa Championship at Table Rock this year,” Brauer tells. “I fished it a lot in the ’80s, but hadn’t been there much in several years. I thought I had a pattern going on smallmouths that would give me a really good event, but it didn’t materialize that first day, and I had to change the game plan entirely on the second day due to a fog delay. The Southwestern Division is tough. You’ve got to be on your A-game to win in a hotbed like Texas or Oklahoma, where there are so many great fishermen.”

For a finally healthy Brauer, the challenge is set. To have a chance at hoisting the Forrest Wood Cup, he has to blaze a road through Texas and back to a fall morning at Kentucky Lake for the 2017 Costa FLW Series Championship.

“I’ve really got some good history on Kentucky Lake through the years. Even though that’s traditionally been in the spring and summer, I’ve fished a few events here over the years in the fall. I have an idea of what I need to do to have a chance.”

To take home the last trophy left out of his case, he’ll need to make the most of that chance. Eleven anglers will qualify for the 2018 Cup via the 2017 Costa FLW Series Championship, and then there’s the challenge of beating FLW’s best pros in a grueling summer tournament at the Cup if he makes it there. There are no guarantees – that’s fishing.

Still, at age 67, the heart of a champion beats – with a little help – under Denny Brauer’s jersey. The determination of a kid who once bounced an $87 boat through tournaments is still there. And, he’s got one more golden ring to grasp.

“It’s the one thing that’s eluded me my whole career,” Brauer says of the Cup.

In 2017, he might earn one more shot at it.

 

Tags: denny-brauer  forrest-wood-cup  joe-sills  article 

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