COLUMBIA, S.C. — When Russ Lane crossed the stage with 18 pounds, 4 ounces on Day One of the Carolina Clash presented by Evan Williams, he said something that had to make all the anglers within ear shot a little jealous.
"I took it real easy during practice," Lane said in his laid-back, Southern drawl. "I slept in and just rode around the lake looking."
He then put in a plug for the tournament sponsor, which just happens to be his sponsor, adding how much it would mean for him to win this week, all things considered. There was desire behind his voice, but it lacked the angst carried since he struggled on his home water in the 2007 Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake.
Lane was all anyone wanted to talk about, going into that Alabama Classic, which was won by Alabaman Boyd Duckett. Lane got his start in Birmingham and had reportedly won an insane amount of money and tournaments on that body of water.
His 24th-place finish was more than disappointing — it was devastating.
"I just want to apologize to all the fans and media that have covered me this week," he said as he crossed the stage on the final day of the Classic. "Don't give up on me. I'll be back."
Lane spent the next 14 months trying hard — too hard — to deliver on that promise: After finishing 15th in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings in 2006, he dropped all the way to 69th in 2007, barely re-qualifying for the Elite Series.
Lane said it was two tournaments ago on Amistad he figured out he had to get back to what works for him — and ignore what the other pros were doing. Instead of fishing every possible moment of practice and forcing the issue, he decided to just take it easy and look around. The result was his best on the Elite Series (17th) since finishing 12th on the Potomac in 2006.
It didn't serve him as well on Clarks Hill where he finished 55th, but it certainly got him on track for Lake Murray.
"I knew the conditions were changing and anything you figure out in practice probably isn't going to work in the tournament," he said about his practice for the Clash. "I just did a lot of running around, looking at docks and looking for schools. I just saw some fish and went fishing for them. No big deal."
He said, regardless of results, it's nice to be back to doing things his way.
"Two years ago, when I had a real good year, that's all I did in practice," said Lane, who currently sits 52nd in the AOY standings. "I've gotten real frustrated in the last year and a half. I told myself this week I wasn't going to wear myself out in practice by fishing daylight to dark.
"I just wanted to get out and see what the lake has to offer and go fishing when the tournament starts."
On Lake Murray, Lane's not only bucking the practice system, he's also not purely hammering points like most of the field.
"I'm fishing everything: trees, docks, points, and my biggest fish, I actually caught it off a bed," Lane said. "I got up and [sight-fished] for about an hour. I caught her on my first cast. I threw a Vicious Trickster, a new swimbait we've got, and she swallowed it right up."
And he said he's going to stay on the "take-it-as-it-comes" train until it derails, and planned on completely forgetting everything he learned on Thursday, approaching the lake with a fresh mind on Friday.
That philosophy doesn't square on a tour obsessed with finding a pattern that will hold up and sticking with it, but Lane said he's got to do it his way or he'll fail.
"The last year and a half, I've been a head case out here, trying to make things happen too fast and trying to make a bunch of money," Lane said. "When I get relaxed, I fish a whole lot better."
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Carolina Clash, May 15–18, 2008. Thursday through Saturday, daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 3:00 p.m. ET. On Sunday, "Hooked Up" will air at noon and 2:45 p.m. ET, with the final weigh-in and live streaming video to start at 3:15 p.m. ET.