As they reached the end of the street on their bikes, the neighborhood kids had a choice to make. Most went one way, to the swimming pool and the ball fields.
Stephen Browning went the other way, to the woods or the creek.
The others came back with suntans and stories. Browning came back with mud on his tires and on his clothing, as well as various critters that werenât necessarily welcome at home. Of the salamanders and eels that tagged along with him â âsnaky, slimy things,â he called them â none found favor with his mother.
Three decades later, not much has changed. Browningâs still getting dirt under his fingernails every day, whether it be chasing little green fish on the Elite Series trail or surviving any one of a number of televised outdoor challenges. First he conquered ESPNâs 2003 âThe Wild Rules,â outlasting a bunch of other ultra-talented outdoorsmen through a grueling competition in British Columbia.
Apparently JM Associates approached several other anglers for that project before they focused in on Browning. The others balked at the fact that they would be gone for weeks with no guaranteed payout. âAll they were paying was like twenty-five dollars a day,â Browning recalled. Heck, he probably would have done it for free. Indeed, he said he âjumped all over it, more for the experience than for the chance to win a lot of money.â In the end, however, he walked away with both the experience and the hundred grand first prize. Thatâs ten grand for each dirty fingernail (assuming he didnât lose any in the process).
So when JM came back to him with an opportunity to boat the entire length of the Mississippi, âfrom the headwaters to mile marker zero south of Venice,â for a documentary, it was a no-brainer. âI was the first to raise my hand,â Browning said. It seems heâs developed a little cottage industry as an angler-turned-capital-O-Outdoorsman.
Besides just the sheer thrill of doing something no one else has done, Browning knows that the project has the potential to help his career as a bass fisherman. Not that he needs a tremendous amount of help right now, having qualified to fish the upcoming Bassmaster Classic, but given the state of the economy, it helps to be visible. For an âaw shucks,â easygoing, genuinely nice guy like Browning, thatâs not as easy as it sounds. His televised exploits paid off the first time â it led him to one of the first wrap deals on the BASS Tour, with Oberto Beef Jerky. Maybe something similar will result this time.
The experience also resulted in increased respect form his peers, and that meant the world to him.
âThe biggest compliment that I got since The Wild Rules came from Rick Clunn, who everybody knows really understands the outdoors,â Browning said. âHe came up to me and told me that I was one of his outdoor heroes. He really understood that it was more about survival than anything else.â More recently, heâs received text messages from the likes of Kevin VanDam wishing him well with the National Geographic project.
So if this bass fishing thing doesnât work out, and he canât get a full-time show of his own, does Browning envision a 9-to-5 desk job, perhaps as an accountant, an insurance salesman or a widget executive?
âI could do it,â he replied. âBut thereâs no way Iâd be happy.â
With his credentials as a conqueror of earth, wind and fire firmly established, Browning has vowed to skip the hotels and restaurant meals on tour. Instead heâs going to build a lean-to at each tournament site, give up bathing, start fires with sticks and scavenge for his food. OK, those last two sentences were complete lies. On tour, heâs still going for the occasional comfort of home. In fact, he kind of relishes the hotel experience.
âIâll be honest with you, the hotels were nice on the National Geographic project,â he said. âAfter four or five days without it, when weâd get to the big cities like St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, the crew would carry us to a hotel. Weâd hit the showers. It was quite refreshing.â
OK, he hasnât lost his sanity completely. And decades after torturing his mother with eels, salamanders and snakes, Browning still admitted to a fear of his own: âThe only thing that really kind of gets me is when I get in my sleeping bag and thereâs something in there with me. I can skedaddle out of it pretty quick.â