The sport that floats the Brownings' boats
When I moved to Hot Springs nearly 13 years ago, I accepted a marketing position to promote the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, a project spearheaded at that time by Bill Fletcher, past president of B& F Engineering Inc. But because I was just your basic “I like to fish” gal, the first thing they did was send me to Alabama to attend a professional bass fishing tournament near Birmingham, Ala.
In my mind, I pictured a bunch of good old boys having fun catching fish and competing for prizes. What I saw when I got there absolutely blew me away: a multi-million dollar trade show that covered several city blocks; boats tricked out like NASCAR-equivalent watercraft, complete with more electronic gadgets than Best Buy; thousands of frenzied fans carrying Sharpies to snag autographs for their logo'd trading cards, ball caps and fishing shirts; and spectacular weigh-in ceremonies hyped with Olympic-quality theatrical lighting, rock concert-volume sound equipment and championship wrestling-style emcees doling out top prizes nearing a half-million dollars under Mylar confetti drops that would make the Milky Way jealous. All of which was broadcast on national television.
In one weekend, my fishing world view expanded from boats huddled around cypress stumps and sunken Christmas trees to a nationwide network of professional anglers whose efforts have catapulted the industry to become a prominent anchor for tourism and economic development. According to a recent study by the American Sportfishing Association, America's nearly 60 million anglers spend an estimated $46 billion per year on fishing equipment, transportation, lodging and other expenses associated with their sport. With a total annual economic impact of $115 billion, fishing supports more than 828,000 jobs and generates $35 billion in wages and $15 billion in federal and state taxes.
Other reports strongly indicate that fishing is identified by American families as one of the best ways to spend quality time together. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, fishing as a leisure-time activity ranks higher than playing basketball or softball, skateboarding, jogging or hiking.
And if you want proof up close and personal, meet Stephen Browning, a professional angler who lives in Hot Springs with his wife, Tammy, and 13-year old son, Beau. Browning competes in the Bassmaster Elite Series and Bassmaster Open Series tournaments. Since turning pro in 1996, he has competed in over 200 professional level events across the United States, qualifying for eight Bassmaster Classics and membership in the exclusive BASS Million Dollar in Career Winnings Club.
“I knew this is what I wanted to do in 1984 when I
volunteered to work the Bassmaster Classic event in Pine Bluff,” he said. “That's all I had ever done — eat, sleep and fish. My dad and granddad were outdoorsy people, and I had a bunch of older friends who could drive. Since I knew where the good fishing spots were, it was a win-win situation. I showed my friends the good places to fish; they drove us there to fish.”
In high school, Browning worked part time at a fitness gym.
“I worked a half day and fished the other half,” he said. “The neat thing was I met a lot of older guys who were willing to teach me the ropes of fishing as well as the techniques that worked best in this area. I started fishing local tournaments when I was 14.”
Stephen graduated college with a degree in wildlife and fisheries management, with which he secured a job with the state as a wastewater treatment plant inspector. Whatever time he wasn't working, he fished as a member of the Stuttgart Bass Club.
“When the Bassmaster tournament came to Pine Bluff in 1995, I stayed on the phone for two weeks to be able to fish it,” he said. “In 1996, I won the All American title plus $100,000, which gave me the financial backing to pursue my dream. In 1997, I left my job with the state and have been fishing wide open ever since.”
Beau is following in his dad's footsteps. Just recently, he and his fishing partner McCoy Vereen (son of Chris and Angela Vereen) won the Junior Bass Club state championship last month.
According to his parents, Beau caught his first fish from the bank of Lake Catherine when he was only 2.
“That's all I've ever known and that's all I want to do for the rest of my life,” he said confidently, having won his first tournament at 11. “My dad always says even when the going gets tough, you have to keep your head down and keep casting, because it only takes five good casts to win.” The Brownings have always fished together as a family. “Shortly after a friend introduced me to Stephen, he took me fishing in Stuttgart,” said Tammy. “He has always been a good instructor – very patient with Beau and me. We traveled full time with Stephen until Beau started kindergarten; and once he graduates from high school, we'll be on the road again, eager to watch Beau qualify for the Elite series while he is in college.”
All three of the Brownings describe fishing as a family sport.
“We grew up with other families on the fishing circuits,” Tammy said. “Even though our husbands compete against each other, we have shared life events like baby showers. And because a lot of the families camp, getting together for a tournament feels like a family reunion.”
I've gotten a taste of the family fishing feeling the past few summers when my 8-year-old grandson has come to visit. Beau has been our capable guide and instructor, clearly demonstrating the character and skills he has gleaned from his parents and his own hard work in the boat. Beau competes later this month in the national Junior Bassmaster Championship on the 1,000-acre Carroll County Lake near McKenzie, Tenn.
The common denominator in all three Brownings is their absolute love for each other and for fishing.
“It all started with a dream,” said Stephen, smiling. “In fact, I can remember talking to imaginary cameras. But that's only part of what it takes to make it in this sport, where maybe only 150 guys truly make a living doing it. You have to have a deep, deep passion to compete. I credit my dad's example as a baseball coach for teaching me how much it means to succeed, and also for the business sense he instilled in me – which has been a big help in developing relationships with corporate sponsors.” “It's a great life,” added Tammy. Beau probably summed it up best, saying “My parents sparked my love for fishing, and I've been hooked ever since.”
One of the best introductions to fishing is www.takemefishing.org, where you can get the latest fishing and boating information, find state-specific license and registration requirements, share favorite hot spots and play fishing games.
Beau Browning, son of professional angler Stephen Browning, caught his first fish at age 2 from the bank of Lake Catherine.
Family fishing is a great way to connect and to experience the outdoors together.