SYRACUSE, N.Y. — It was with some sadness Howard Stephens acknowledged "it's the end of the line for me," prior to the start of the Bassmaster Elite Series Champion's Choice tournament at Oneida Lake.
The 64-year-old South Carolina resident was hoping to earn one more check from BASS, which had awarded him $143,128.92 in co-angler winnings since 1996. One more top finish would ensure 25-year-old Tom Frink wouldn't pass Stephens in the BASS co-angler career earnings list.
"If I can retire as the all-time career money-winner, that would be great," Stephens said. "That's one thing I could say I can still do, here in my old age."
As it turned out, Stephens didn't need another payday to retain his No. 1 spot. Frink, who needed to finish first or second to pass Stephens, finished 16th.
Win or lose, Stephens and Frink — and every other person who has enjoyed the co-angler side of the Elite Series tour for the past three seasons — knows the party's over. BASS announced in July that beginning in 2009, pros would no longer have to suffer co-anglers in the boat.
BASS Open divisions will continue to include co-anglers, but smaller payouts and fewer events means Stephens' earnings record is, for the foreseeable future, quite safe.
Before the Elite Series started in 2006, BASS' top pro tournament circuit included co-anglers. And Stephens has been participating as one since 1996.
"It's been fun," he said. "I've been fishing with these guys and visiting lakes I never would have fished otherwise.
"I told my wife when I first started doing this, I was going to give it a try, because it sounded like it would be fun, if I could just do well enough for it to pay for itself. Of course, it has turned out even better than that for me.
"I'm going to miss it. I'm disappointed in the change, but I understand."
Frink also acknowledges not having an amateur angler in the back of a pro's boat is a logical step to improve the pro competition.
"It's a great learning opportunity," Frink said. "It's unbelievable how much I've learned this year.
"But to grow the sport, it's probably what needs to get done. No matter what — good or bad — co-anglers are going to have an effect on the outcome."
Despite their 40-year age difference and growing up on opposite coasts, Stephens and Frink have a lot in common. Both are Air Force veterans. Stephens' service time stationed in Del Rio, Texas, was when he learned how to bass fish, on nearby Lake Amistad. Frink spent 4 1/2 years in the Air Force, serving three tours in Iraq: one in Baghdad and two in Kirkuk.
"I was real fortunate," Frink said of his time in Iraq. "I've had mortars come within 50 meters of me. You hear them get launched, and all you can do is hunker down and hope you don't get hit."
(Frink added that the sound of lightning crackling through the skies over Oneida Lake last week was eerily reminiscent of incoming mortar shells, and it wasn't a pleasant reminder.)
As their winnings indicate, both Stephens and Frink share a talent and affection for bass fishing.
Stephens owns a business and has a wife, grown children and grandchildren in the Columbia, S.C., area, where he has developed a reputation as one of the best bass fishermen on Lake Murray. His success there in local tournaments — and his winnings on the Elite Series co-angler trail over the years — have prompted friends to ask when he intends to take a step up.
"At my age, which will be 65 in October, I've found this little niche where I can compete," Stephens said. "I still get asked, 'When are you going pro?' I'm not.
"I've got a job, number one. I don't like to be away from my family that much. I know how hard these guys work. If I was single and in my 20s, I would consider it."
That's exactly what Frink is: single and in his 20s. He grew up in Simi Valley, Calif., and has known Elite Series pros Kotara Kiriyama and Aaron Martens since he was in high school. In his current role as a self-described "bass bum," Frink has traveled with both Kiriyama and Martens over the past two years.
Frink's co-angler career coincided with the beginning of the Elite Series in 2006. That year he won both the Bluegrass Brawl at Kentucky Lake and the Santee Cooper Showdown. With the increased prize money on the co-angler side, those two victories quickly put him in contention with Stephens at the top of the career winnings list.
By finishing in 16th last Saturday at Oneida, Frink pushed his career winnings over $136,000. And he's going to do just what Stephens said he'd do if he were that age and unattached: He's going to fish the BASS Opens as a boater next year and try to qualify for the Elite Series.
That has been his plan all along. As a co-angler, Frink's priority was learning from the pros, not pumping his ego in a self-manufactured competition with them each day on the water.
"The main thing is if you stay out of (the pros') way and let them do their thing, they'll usually help you out, too," Frink said.
Frink has been able to get the equivalent of a doctoral degree in tournament bass fishing from Elite Series University. And the university has now officially closed its doors. No one else will be able to get the education Frink has soaked up over the past three years.
"You can fish as a co-angler in the Opens, but you're not going to draw the caliber of fishermen that you do on the Elite Series," Frink said.
Frink and Stephens have become friends as well as competitors. Stephens wasn't shy about revealing how much he wanted to finish on top of the all-time co-angler money list. But he was also quick to say how much he thought of Frink.
"He's a terrific fisherman, and he's a nice young man," Stephens said. "We talk a lot. And I've become very friendly with him, this year particularly."
With his age and his 12-year career as a co-angler, it's Stephens who can provide the best perspective on this whole idea of fishing from the back of a pro's boat. He, too, has become close friends and traveled with some of the pros, Kevin VanDam in particular.
"It's a hard way to make a living," Stephens said of pro bass fishing. "You see some guys that can do very well at this. And then you see guys that are struggling. I've seen both sides. I've got the realistic picture.
"It can be glamorous, but it can also be heartbreaking."
When asked to recall the highlight experiences of his co-angler career, Stephens didn't have any trouble coming up with a top four:
"I drew Timmy Horton in one of the first tournaments he ever fished. I didn't know who he was. He looked like he was 14 years old. He still looks like he's 17. (For the record, Horton is 35.) We went up the St. Clair River — and what a day we had.
"When we came back down the river, he had 20 pounds and I had 20 pounds. We each caught about 30 smallmouth that day and culled to that weight."
"I fished with Mike Wurm — one of my all-time favorite partners and a terrific guy — at Santee two years ago. I was paired with him when he caught about 33 pounds on the second day.
"I lipped every one of those fish for him, because he was fishing with a spinning rod and 10-pound-test line. I had a good day as well, but watching that happen and lipping those fish for Mike was a highlight."
"Last year I was with Derek Remitz at Guntersville. He'd won at Amistad and been second out West (in the Duel in the Delta). Just a nice young man. We went out on the ledges at Guntersville, just like you're supposed to do.
"It was one of those days. I caught five fish pretty quick. He was paralleling the ledges with a crankbait and I was coming behind him with my crankbait.
"He said, 'Howard, you've got a limit already that's probably going to weigh close to 20 pounds. I'm getting rattled.'
"I said, 'Look, you're a good fisherman, you've proven that. Don't get rattled. I've seen this happen before. It's just one of those days.'
"At the end of the day, I had five weighing 24 pounds, and he ended up with 16 pounds."
"Kevin VanDam is one of my good friends. I've traveled with him and I've roomed with him at times. But I never drew him in a tournament until two years ago. Then I drew him twice — once at Oneida and once at Guntersville.
"Just fishing with him was a highlight. Just to watch him attack a lake was unbelievable. I was awestruck."
While Stephens has said he's too old and too interested in staying home with his family to pursue the pro side of bass fishing, he will admit he'll probably fish as a boater in a few BASS Open tournaments next year. He can't just go cold turkey. And he's good enough to have some success there.
"Howard is a professional co-angler," VanDam said a day after claiming the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title at Oneida Lake. "He knew exactly what he was getting himself into, and he came out here to win.
"If Howard wants to continue to compete, he should be fishing out of the front of the boat, without a doubt."
And, without a doubt, no matter where Stephens' fishing career heads, he can say he is the BASS co-angler career winnings leader. While it's an unofficial title, it certainly does have a nice ring to it.