After starting the 2003 CITGO Bassmaster Tour season with a dismal 166th-place showing on Florida's Harris Chain, Roger Boler had no clue as to the kind of year that would unfold for him.

Putting that disappointing start behind him, the 43-year-old Louisiana pro has been on a tear since then.

Boler bounced back with a second-place finish at Lake Okeechobee. That was followed by 27th at Lake Seminole, 18th at Toledo Bend, 21st at Lake Eufaula, 15th at Santee Cooper, third at the California Delta and 12th at Clear Lake.

With two events remaining, Boler finds himself locked into a race for the lucrative and coveted Busch BASS Angler of the Year award - just a single point behind Clear Lake winner Alton Jones.

"It's been a heck of a year," he said. "Yeah, to be quite frank with you, I am a little surprised. You always know deep down you can do it, and I found out last year that I could compete at this level."

The key to his success: "Just staying focused and being patient. And not really putting a lot of pressure on myself."

It has been a whirlwind half-decade in the career of Roger Boler.

Fishing fans will be surprised to learn that Boler didn't start bass fishing seriously until six years ago. Although he had fished some as a kid, Boler didn't pick up a rod again until 1997 when friends convinced him to join them in fishing local tournaments. He won Angler of the Year honors in that first year with the Three Rivers Bassmasters club and went on to capture two state titles.

From there, Boler had enjoyed a steady climb upward. His first season on the Bassmaster Central Invitational circuit was good enough to earn him a Tour slot last season where, he says, "I learned a ton."

On Dec. 31, Boler decided to resign his position in the engineering department of a power company in Slidell, La., and become a full-time tournament pro.

"I've always loved fishing and it's always been a dream of mine to do this," he said. "The opportunity finally presented itself.

"It was a tough decision. I had a lot of heart-to-heart talks with my wife and quite a few restless nights. But it's all working out. It was great timing, I guess."

These days, it looks like a brilliant decision.

Boler put his stamp on this breakthrough season with an impressive trip out West where he finished third and 12th on lakes he had never fished before.

"I'd be lying if I told you that I wasn't a little apprehensive about going out there, but I was really cautiously optimistic, too," he said. "I was 10th going in (to California) in the standings and it moved me up to second."

As the season progressed, Boler has tried to keep from dwelling on the upcoming tournaments and his increasing chances of qualifying for the 2003 CITGO Bassmasters Classic on his home waters of the Louisiana Delta.

"All of my friends down home were telling me that I had to make it to the Classic this year because it's in New Orleans. They've been so much support for. I told my wife that it would be a dream come true to fish the Classic at home.

"It's always been in the back of my head. I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't. I've been told I've got the Classic made now, but I'm not thinking what way. I just need to focus on the next two tournaments and do the best that I can do - just like I've been trying to win the last six events."

With his 166th-place start, Boler could not have envisioned that he would make a run at the Angler of the Year title. He first started thinking about the prestigious title after finishing 13th in the fourth Tour event of the season.

"It was at the Toledo Bend tournament where I could have just as easily gone the other way, but to come back on the second day like I did, it's like I've been on a wave of momentum since then. After that tournament, I set my sights on Angler of the Year and it kind of turned my attention away from New Orleans. I figured if I could get close to this level, than everything else would come."

Don't expect this cool customer to be burdened by the pressure associated with the home stretch of the Angler of the Year war.

"I feel fine. I might would have felt pressure if I was leading. I'm right where I want to be."

BAD MISTAKE. With the biggest accomplishment of his career in sight, Ish Monroe made a blunder that he won't soon forget.

"I made the stupidest mistake anyone possibly could make in a fishing tournament - I ran out of lures," the California angler admitted. And that mental error contributed to being saddled with a runner-up finish instead of his first BASS victory.

Fishing his home lake, Monroe had done well all week, largely by using a Yum Wooly Hawg. During the final round, he found that his supply of the soft-plastic baits was exhausted.

LAST HURRAH. For young Washington pro Luke Clausen, making the finals of last week's Tour event on Clear Lake was bittersweet.

Although it was the high point of his year, Clausen also knew it was the final round of his season. He fished the finals with the knowledge that he would not be among the top 50 pros competing in the season's final two Tour events.

Clausen, a 2002 Classic qualifier, finished 63rd in the standings.

DID YOU KNOW? Florida pro Bernie Schultz is a dedicated collector of antique fishing lures, particularly those made by now-defunct Florida companies.

PRO BIRTHDAYS. Georgia pro Danny Kirk will be 47 on April 23. Woo Daves, the 2000 Classic champion, will turn 57 on April 25, while Arkansas' Stephen Browning becomes 37 on April 28. On April 30, Japanese pro Yusuke Myazaki will blow out 33 candles.

IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO...  Alabama pro Randy Howell would likely be a fishing pro in the Carolinas. He grew up working at his family's marina on Lake Gaston.

THEY SAID IT. "I knew I loved fishing at age 5. It was all I wanted to do. I sent my granddad a Christmas card when I was a kid, and my mom saved it. It said, 'Love, Alton, the bass pro.'" Busch BASS Angler of the Year leader Alton Jones.

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