"Ah-ha," said the man at the bow of the bassboat. The fish hit like a trophy bass and took off.
He held the rod tip high, but the fish wrapped an old piece of a sunken barge, then swirled a farewell on the top with a yellow spinnerbait in its mouth. It was a rockfish of about 7 pounds, and we would see it a half hour later when it made a free jump -- the lure still dangling from its jaw.
By then, the angler was looking at a mutilated soft plastic bait. "From Sluggo to Nub-O," he said, referring to the thick phony worm made by Sluggo, and reduced to a nub by the sharp teeth of a hungry bluefish. "Hey, we're fishing for bass," I reminded him, and he grinned.
We had taken our share of bass, starting in the Dundee near the launching ramp, then more at Worton Creek below the mouth of the Sassafras. In both places, small blues roam; small but with sharp teeth.
"What will the [BASS Masters] classic fellows do when they run into this?" I asked, referring to the biggest event in sports fishing that comes to Baltimore next week, with competition starting Thursday out of Dundee Creek Marina. "Lose some lures," he said, "but they'll get some bass in between. Blues are everywhere -- they can't get away from them."
Meet Baltimorean Bob Dobart, the 44-year-old who almost made the classic, an event he had looked forward to with hopes of a win because the rivers and creeks of the upper Chesapeake are in his back yard.
He started on the BASS Masters tour several years ago, and this year started with a 16th-place finish at the St. Lawrence River, a sixth on the Potomac, then a 31st at Florida's Lake Okeechobee, all in fields of several hundred anglers. Then the bottom fell out. Sudden bad weather ruined the pattern he had figured for the Florida Invitational on the St. Johns River, and things were even worse in the last two tournaments.
But, he doesn't look back. "You do the best you can -- and that's the best you can do," he said philosophically. "I'll give pro fishing one more year to make it or break it," added the angler who founded Baltimore's BASS Expo in 1984.
So there we were checking waters to be fished by the contenders and had released several dozen bass, catfish, blues, yellow and white perch, rockfish, sunfish -- and he even had a strike from a gar.
"Upper bay tributary waters are clear; grass is coming back, and so are bass," said Dobart, who figures 10 pounds a day might win the 21st classic. And he expects a few trophy fish will be taken.
He likes the chances of Randy Romig, the Pennsylvanian who has done well in local competition here in recent years, but says he can't write off defending champ Rick Clunn, BASS Angler of the Year Guido Hibdon, or Larry Nixon, who has made nearly $1 million on the tournament trail. Danny Brauer and Tommy Biffle are his other favorites.
He has fished against all of them, and they all know how to fish tides. Dobart figures the last half of both the ebb and flood will produce best. Dock fishing with soft plastics will score well, he figures. Over the weedbeds he predicts spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and Sluggos will score, so will flipping worms, jigs and grubs.
"Bush River could be a sleeper," he said, "but a fellow could get stuck in there by the test firing at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Middle River doesn't have a lot of bass, but it has some big ones, especially at Frog Mortar Creek and Strawberry Point, but Galloway Creek doesn't have much grass this year."
Not a minute away from Dun dee's launching ramp could turn up several nice bass, added Dobart as he recalled one angler we encountered shortly after launching who had taken a couple 3-pounders there on spinnerbaits.
Some fishermen who can navigate the rocky-lined Susquehanna River might do well, he added, then there is Worton Creek where we caught keeper bass. Still Pond, just below the Sassafras, might be a big surprise, figured Dobart, who discounts the Magothy, but likes the heavily fished Northeast and Sassafras if the tides aren't too late.
Regulations for Classic anglers
* FISHING WATERS: Angling restricted to upper Chesapeake complex and its tributaries from the Bay Bridge to Conowingo Dam. No fishing in the C&D Canal above the Route 213 Bridge.
* SPECIES: Only bass of at least 12 inches, and only five fish per angler. Those who catch more can cull the smaller ones from their aerated live wells. Checking in an undersized bass (it has happened) costs a fisherman 1 pound in scoring -- in addition to the fish.
* ANGLING METHODS: Only artificial lures, and no trolling.
* TACKLE: Fishermen are allowed seven rod and reel combinations, two extra "standby reels" and all the lures they can fit into the official tournament Flambeau Classic Tackle Boxes. No landing nets allowed.
* MONITORING: With each contender will be a member of the press who will serve as an official observer, though he can fish "used" waters -- those that have been fished out by the contestant. Officials may board boats at any time.
* BOATS: All fishermen will fish identically rigged Ranger Bassboats equipped with 150-horse outboards. Maintenance crews will be available to service broken-down craft or provide backup boats.
* TARDINESS: A late check-in after fishing costs an angler 1 pound a minute.