Don't look now, but there is an old, familiar name near the top of the Busch BASS Angler of the Year standings.

Zell Rowland.

The veteran Texas pro's disappearance from the upper echelon of CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail standings the last few years might have convinced some fishing fans that he had quietly retired. After all, the last time he made the finals of a Tour event was in 1999 when he won on Lake Mead.

All of a sudden, Rowland was the talk of the qualifying rounds last week at the CITGO Bassmaster Tour event presented by Busch Beer on Toledo Bend Reservoir when he broke through with the tournament's largest catch (23 pounds, 5 ounces) to qualify for the top 12 finals. He went on to finish seventh with 33-2.

And today, Rowland finds himself in third place - just 36 points behind yearlong leader Jim Bitter - in the Busch BASS Angler of the Year race after four tournaments.

"It felt good to get into the top 12 again," said Rowland, who caught his impressive limit on a Yum flipping tube and Excalibur spinnerbait. "It always feels good to catch them.

"It was a big thing for me to make the top 12. Every tournament I've fished this year I've been real close. I should have made the finals two other times. I was either one fish away or I lost one or two fish that I needed."

Although 2003 marks his 27th year on the BASS circuit, Rowland says he feels reinvigorated after enduring some mentally debilitating personal problems the last two years. Those problems included a messy divorce.

"That would be the understatement of the year," Rowland admits. "It's been a pretty hard deal, personally. Financially, it was hard, too.

"But things are starting to look up. I'm pretty much motivated on the fishing end of it. I've got a good lady helping me get everything settled at home and helping me on the road. Just to be able to work on my tackle and get all of my stuff prepared to go is a big relief. That's a big help.

"It's just a matter of getting back to where you can keep your head into the game to be able to really focus on what you're doing and be able to make the right moves when you're on the water. It's been a while since I've been able to do that.

"People don't realize that about fishing on this level. They think that you just put a rod and reel in the boat and go fishing and you either catch them or you don't. But you look at a guy like Rick Clunn or Denny Brauer, you will see them in a tournament catch 10 or 15 pounds today, and the next day they catch 25 because they're focusing better on what they're doing. You have to be able to maintain that focus."

A three-time BASS winner, Rowland, 45, is focused squarely on the Angler of the Year title, as well as qualifying for his 12th CITGO Bassmaster Classic appearance.

"I can't believe old Bitter," he said, laughing. "It could be his turn.

"That's a goal of mine, as much as winning the Classic. I'm taking it one tournament at a time, and I'm pretty focused going into each event and thinking that I can win each tournament that I go to. When I'm that focused on that one body of water, and I've got the time to prepare myself to go, as long as I do my homework and fish well, things should work out for me.

"I feel good about Eufaula (the next Tour event). I feel like I am as subject to win there as anybody. I've been second there before and I've finished ninth there."

WILKS' WOES. At Toledo Bend, young North Carolina pro Dustin Wilks endured his worst finish (112th) in four years of competing in Tour events. But he had a good reason - an illness that drove him to a hospital emergency room in Many, La.

Wilks had towed his boat to Toledo Bend, driven to the Shreveport airport and then flown to Orlando to do an appearance for Daiwa at Bass Pro Shops when he developed a fever, but persevered and returned to Many. On the first two practice days, Wilks could hardly do routine tasks like walk to his boat or lift the trolling motor up and down. He spent much of those two days lying down in his boat.

On Tuesday night, Wilks went to the emergency room for treatment. He was diagnosed with a nasty bronchial ailment and given drugs. Somehow, he toughed out the two competition days.

Still, it had to be disappointing for Wilks, who was in 9th place in the Busch BASS Angler of the Year standings entering the Toledo Bend tournament. But he still remains in good shape in the Classic race in 24th position.

Hang in there, kid.

WISE USE OF HIS TIME. That Marty Stone is a crafty angler. When foul weather canceled the second day of competition, most fishermen stayed in their hotel rooms working on their tackle, plotting strategy or just relaxing.

Not Stone. The North Carolina pro climbed into his truck and took a ride around Toledo Bend checking out how the water color of various spots had been impacted by the morning storm. All of the areas where he had fished a day earlier had become muddy. But Stone located one spot that still had fairly clear water.

That scouting trip saved him from having to make the same run the next morning in his Triton and enabled him to make a strategic decision for the next day. And it turned out to be a wise one, as Stone bounced back with a 15-pound, 14-ounce catch and climbed from 52nd place into the coveted top 12.

DID YOU KNOW? Lake Eufaula, the next Tour stop, once surrendered a whopping 138 pounds, 6 ounces of bass to North Carolina's Blake Honeycutt.

PRO BIRTHDAYS. Charlie Younger of Florida becomes 51 on Feb. 25. Venerable pro Roland Martin turns 63 on March 13, while Kentucky's Mike Auten will blow out 37 candles the next day.

IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... Louisiana pro Roger Boler would still be working as an engineer in Slidell. He took a buy-out deal from his employer last summer to become a full-time tournament angler. That looked like a good move when he finished second in the Tour event on Lake Okeechobee, earning $40,000.

THEY SAID IT. "What I learned from Bassmaster Magazine? Well, I started reading it when I don't remember how young. I learned all of my basic knowledge about serious bass fishing from Bassmaster Magazine. And still to this day, when it shows up, I can't put it down. I read it cover to cover, and then go back through it again and look at it. It's one of those things that I really look forward to. I don't care how much you know, there's still new things there." Three-time BASS Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam

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