When the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society announced that it had selected the Upper Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries as the site for this week's BASS Masters Classic, certainly more than a few eyebrows were raised.
The lower Chesapeake, of course, is best known as a saltwater fishery for blues, stripers and sea trout. The upper bay and its tributaries beyond Middle River are known far less for a rebounding population of black bass, the stuff of which BASS tournaments are made.
Now, two days before competition begins, certainly some puzzlement remains.
TC According to several entrants in the BASS Masters Classic, which will be fished in the Upper Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the state of the bass fishery may have been somewhat exaggerated.
"Maybe it is because this is new water to us and there's really no one to talk to about it," said Ron Shuffield of Bismarck, Ark., "but I think it is a fishery in its infancy, maybe three to five years from the best fishing possible here.
"I think it has been overrated by the DNR in terms of the quality of fish that is here. . . . The 3-, 4- and 5-pound fish they are talking about, there are probably a whole lot less of them than there are 1 1/2 - to 2-pound fish."
Estimates of total poundage of the 15 fish that may be weighed in over three days have ranged up to 50 pounds, but Shuffield and fellow pro angler Jim Nolan of Bull Shoals, Ark., said they think the figure will be between 25 and 35 pounds.
"It is a tough place to fish and it is as pretty a place as I ever have fished -- it has a lot of grass and a lot of wood and few fish," Shuffield said. "Trouble is that there are only a few spots that really hold fish and everybody knows where the same spots are."
Rick Clunn, who won his fourth Classic last year on the James River, said that the tournament waters have more potential than most people realize.
"I got the impression [during practice sessions before the July 1 cutoff] that only about a third of it ever gets fished very much and the other two-thirds is kind of an unknown area," said Clunn of Montgomery, Texas. "I think it could be interesting from that standpoint."
Nolan said the weather will have a lot of bearing on just how interesting it gets.
The opening practice session yesterday was canceled because Hurricane Bob posed a threat of 30-knot winds on the bay. The extended forecast for Thursday, Friday and Saturday is for fair weather, which might mean slow fishing.
"The best stringers come on overcast days," said Nolan. "The bright, sunny days with no wind at all is when the fishing is hardest.
"And because of [the forecast], it could be a real close and interesting tournament. I don't see anybody running away with it."
If one angler has an edge, Shuffield and Nolan said, it probably is Randy Romig of Spring City, Pa.
"This is new water for everybody," said Shuffield, "and right now Randy has to be the odds-on favorite because he probably has more tournament experience here than any of us."
Nolan and Shuffield plan to fish from the Gunpowder River north, with a lot of emphasis on the underwater grasses.
"I think the grasses hold the majority of the fish here," Shuffield said, "and if you want to catch them quick, that is the best place."
One confounding factor for many of the fishermen here will be the tidal patterns, which will be accentuated by the waxing moon.
"I learned a lot from the Potomac River last year," Nolan said. "I found that I could catch fish on high and low tides in the same place by just doing some different things, that there isn't such a big drop that the water is really going to suck the fish out of the creeks."
Shuffield said he finds the tides confusing.
"My way of thinking is that I can't believe you can go into any area with the tide at the wrong level and not do well, and then come back at the right level and catch a limit in 20 minutes," Shuffield said. "That is the hardest thing I have had to overcome."
A 14-pound stringer brought in on the first day, Nolan and Shuffield agree, will be the start to a total catch that should be hard to beat.
"I believe there are populations of fish out there that most people aren't even aware of," Shuffield said. "If one of us lands on one of those areas, then it could take a big string of fish. That's what is going to be interesting about it.
NB "I am going to gamble on the first day for that big stringer."
What: The XXI BASS Masters Classic, a 3-day, $200,000 competition among the 40 top qualifying professional and amateur fishermen for the greatest total weight of black bass caught.
Where: The Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries above the Bay Bridge, with fishing operations based at Dundee Creek Marina in Gunpowder Falls State Park. Weigh-ins on tournament days will be held at the Baltimore Arena.
When: Launching of the fishing boats begins at 6:15 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Dundee Creek Marina. Weigh-ins begin at 2:45 p.m. Thursday and Friday and the final weigh-in begins at 2 p.m.
Today: Practice day for the Classic, with 6:15 a.m. launch and 2 p.m. return. Weigh-ins closed to the public.
Tomorrow: Autograph session and photo day with Classic contenders at Centennial Park in Columbia from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Official launching of the BASS Master BP CastingKids program and BASS Master Kids Classic from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Thursday and Friday: First 2 tournament days, starting at 6:15 a.m., with the weigh-ins at Baltimore Arena starting at 2:45 p.m. BASS Masters Classic Outdoors show runs at Convention Center from noon to 9 p.m. No admission charge.
Saturday: Final day of competition starting at 6:15 a.m. Outdoors show runs 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Final weigh-in begins at 2 p.m., with light show preceding weigh-ins and announcement of Classic winner.