The day was atypical for the second week of August on the upper Chesapeake Bay. Yet it was perfect to illustrate how the Chesapeake can confound weather forecasters and fishermen -- day that blew up wet, windy and dangerous, despite a forecast of 5- to 10-knot winds and intermittent showers.
A line of whitecaps marched across sheltered water, the inshore ends of the docks at Dundee Creek Marina were awash and, even in the heavy rain, wind socks on boat antennae strained horizontally.
"It must be you," bass guide Gene Kane said in the half light. "There can't be many other people crazy enough to be here in this weather at this time of the morning."
There were, in fact, two other bass boats preparing to launch in Dundee Creek, where this week the fishing operations of the BASS Masters Classic will be based.
In conditions such as these -- 20- to 25-knot winds, blinding rain and thick clouds that belied the dawn -- it must seem insanity to put a boat over to hunt for little green fish called black bass.
But it is a very fine madness, one that, after 20 years of experience, Kane practices very well in a maze of tidal rivers, coves and creeks.
The timing of our arrival and the cycle of the tides would simulate the conditions that might be expected 13 days hence when competition begins.
The weather factor? Mornings such as this are rare. But were the wind to kick up and the sodden gloom last until noon, the 40 contestants still would go out.
And so did we.
"Unless this weather blows through, I am only going to do what is prudent," said Kane, as the low-decked bass boat slid off the trailer. "We can deal with the rain and we can deal with some wind, but if the bay is ugly -- and right now I am sure it is -- then we will have to change some of our plans."
Kane, 36, is a plant supervisor in Baltimore who has several days a week available to guide parties for Tochterman's Bass Guide Service or fish in regional bass tournaments. He had been employed by The Sun as a guide to farther reaches of the tournament fishing area -- some more than an hour away by boat at 50-plus mph.
"Not that anyone needs to go that far to win this tournament," Kane said while warming the outboard and retrieving protective face shields from a deck locker. "You might be able to never cross the bay and still win this tournament."
After all, across or well up the bay lie the Chester, Sassafras, Bohemia, Elk, Northeast and Susquehanna rivers and Still Pond Creek, all prime bass grounds.
But Kane and Department of Natural Resources biologist Alan Heft, who was consulted after this trip, agreed that if one looks at the map of the waters open for this tournament, there are many opportunities on the Western Shore -- from the piers and pilings of Middle River, up through the bull rushes and submerged grasses of the Gunpowder and Bush rivers and their coves and creeks.
The marinas will be important in this tournament, Kane said, because fish hold year-round under docks and near pilings. During practice sessions, which ended July 1, these structures received lots of attention from Classic entrants.
According to Heft, the Middle, Gunpowder and Bush rivers and their coves and creeks have good natural reproduction and hold good numbers of fish well above the 12-inch minimum size, with the Bush the weakest of the three.
"The Middle River, I think, is a sleeper," Heft said. "The Gunpowder is really coming along good, and even in the Bush our spring sample this year turned up a lot of 14- to 15-inch fish and a 4- to 5-pounder every once in a while."
Bass in tidal waters are usually found upstream of the salt line, a movable boundary between fresh and salt waters.
In a normal year, the salt line, influenced by incoming tidewater and offset by freshwater flow from the rivers, would run well into the Magothy, Patapsco and Back rivers and then be reduced from the Middle River north. This year, with the dry spring and summer, the salt line might be expected to be higher than usual.
"No doubt," Kane said, "there will be times and locations during this tournament when you can catch bass, blues and stripers all within 150 feet of one another."
On the Eastern Shore, because of a natural occurrence called the Coriolis effect, the salt line extends farther north and rules out fishing in the tidal creeks from Still Pond Creek south to the Chester River, which is good for bass only upriver beyond Chestertown.
"What a lot of these guys might expect to happen is that the salt is going to push the bass into the backs of these creeks [especially on the Western Shore]," Kane said. "That's not necessarily true. Good bass have been caught on these main bay points, and so the salt line is a deceiving thing. But there is a distinct line that you can fish, and whether you are above or below the line makes a world of difference."