By Pete Robbins
Bill Brown is an unlikely bass angler, from a place – Grand Junction, Colorado – that’ll certainly never challenge Guntersville or Okeechobee or Clear Lake for a spot atop the list of best bass fishing spots in the country. Nevertheless, the comparatively recent convert from trout to bass recently won the B.A.S.S. Nation Western Regional on Lake Mead and now has just one tournament between him and a berth in the Bassmaster Classic.
Brown, representing the Utah B.A.S.S. Nation, led the Mead tournament from wire-to-wire, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. That’s emblematic of his fishing ascent, which has been aided by prominent supporters along the way, but continually thwarted by challenges, missteps and personal tragedy.
He’d been a fly rodder until 2005, when suddenly he got a wild hunch to join a bass club close to home. There he met Kurt Walters, a 1999 Bassmaster Classic qualifier through the Federation, who took him under his wing. “I was very fortunate to have someone to teach me,” Brown said. “It was an overload of information. There’s so much more to the tournament game than catching fish, from managing time to acting professionally.” They fished Brown’s first tournament together, and despite the fact that the relatively clueless newbie threw his spinnerbaits on trout rods – “He gave me hell for it,” Brown recalled – they won, and the die was cast.
The conversion from trout fiend to bass freak was quick, simply because the “bass is a much cooler fish,” he claimed. Additionally, he’d been an athlete all of his life, and the competitiveness and adrenaline that coursed through his veins were a better fit for the tournament game. He recalls himself “laying awake at night planning the next day out.”
In the decade since then, he’s become a formidable competitor on the western trails, with numerous high level wins to his credit, but the biggest ones have generally eluded him. In particular, he claims that he should’ve won the U.S. Open, generally referred to as the Iditarod of bass fishing, “a couple of times.”
“I know that my abilities are there,” he said. “I’ve found the fish to win and I’ve made the fish to win bite. I just didn’t execute.”
He came into the Western Regional with a heavy heart. Walters had died in December of 2012 of a heart attack while the two were ice fishing together. Earlier this year, while Brown was competing – and winning – a large event on Lake Powell, his father passed away and the subsequent weeks were painful.
“My dad was my best friend,” he said. “Fishing has eased the pain, so I’ve been able to keep my mind off of it a little bit. He got a lot of enjoyment out of seeing me do well, so I know he’s been smiling down on me, and may have had a big part to do with this last one.”
He headed into the Regional at Lake Mead a bit sad, a bit confident but ready to take on all comers, knowing that it’s a tough and rapidly-changing fishery.
“There is no home field advantage,” he said of the big desert lake. “It’s a level playing field and 20 pound bags are rare.” Nevertheless, he jumped out to take the Day One lead with a limit that weighed 20 pounds, 11 ounces, remaining mindful of the fact that everything could change from day to day, or even from hour to hour. That wasn’t the case on Day Two, when the same buzzbait that had treated him so well the first day produced once again and he retained the lead. “The first day I’d jumped off a couple over 4 pounds that I thought would come back to bite me,” he recalled, but at that point he had his foot on the gas and was coasting to a win.
Day Three was a different story. “The buzzbait is such a timing thing,” he said, and it appeared that he had his timing off. All of those past disappointments, in the U.S. Open and otherwise, replayed in his head, and while he was ready to run the buzzbait pattern “until the wheels fell off,” when nothing was happening he felt an obligation to his partner, who was leading the non-boater division, to at least put a few small fish in the boat with a jig or a dropshot. They headed to the outside of Government Wash and found wind blowing on chunk rock. Brown only had two little fish in the livewell, but started throwing a heavy Pepper jig and on the first cast caught a 3 ½ pound smallmouth, then a short one.
“Then I lost one that was 3 ½ or 4 pounds,” he said. “My head was about to explode, so I bombed another long cast and hooked up with one about 3 ½ pounds. It was walking and jumping, flailing all the way, and came off. Then I stuck a 4 ½ pounder and the jig fell out of his mouth in the net.”
He realized that he was having hook set problems on the long distance casts. The fish would chomp down on the big bait but not get a hook in their mouths. Finally, he started to turn things around with a 3 ½ pounder. At that point he put the trolling motor on 100, started hitting the juice and “went from 3 pounds to 15 pounds in 45 minutes.” While he wasn’t able to cull out both of his early rats, he did get rid of the smallest barely 13 inch fish.
In the end, that late cull didn’t prove critical, as he won by over 3 pounds over Travis Graham, also of the Utah team. What had been critical was his switch from the buzzbait to the jig, which he paired with a #301 Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog.
“It’s big and bulky,” he said of his trailer of choice. “I throw a ¾ ounce football jig with a Flappin’ Hog so much because it’s a big fish bait. In the post spawn, you want to throw the biggest bait you can put in front of them. It’s a mouthful and it’s soft, so they bite and they don’t let go.”
Next up is the B.A.S.S. Nation national championship, at a site to be announced, with a slot in the 2017 Bassmaster Classic on the line.
“I can’t wait until they announce the lake,” he said, admitting that he has previously visualized a Classic berth and a Classic win. “I’m already there.” If he takes that next step, he’d love to go out on tour full time, but admits that with a successful contracting business and a deep love of family, that’s probably not in the cards at age 42.
“I live in the wrong region,” he said. “My mom is here and I need to be here for her. She means so much to me. I’m a mama’s boy.”
That’s bad news for competitors throughout the west, who likely rue Brown’s continued attendance at their events. With only a decade of bass fishing under his belt, and so much success already, his future is bright.
Bill Brown is sponsored by Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits, Dobyns Rods, Pepper Custom Baits, Evinrude Outboard and Mattas Marine of Grand Junction.