When's the best time to go fishing? The time-honored response is "whenever you can."
Probably so, but few tears were shed when yesterday's first practice day of the 21st annual BASS Masters Classic was blown out by Hurricane Bob. It wasn't that the 40 contenders were worried about rough waters in crossing the upper Chesapeake or while fishing the wide open and vulnerable Susquehanna Flats, it was a matter of confidence.
Sure, they've got confidence in their boating skills; their livelihood depends on that. But theirs is a confidence of another brand.
Practically all practice-fished the rivers, flats and creeks of the upper Chesapeake complex long enough to gain confidence in patterns established in their sampling sessions before the area was ruled off-limits for contenders July 1.
Guy Eaker, who caught and released 24 keepers in one day during two weeks of practice here in June, figured the off-day -- the first in classic history -- kept contenders from setting hooks in some fish during practice, which would have lessened chances of them being hooked again during the three days of competition, which starts Thursday.
Fish get smart fast.
"I've already got all the exploring out of my system," said Eaker, who has made eight classics. "These tidewater bass will be in the same areas, even if the waters turn bad. They might back off a bit to deeper waters, but they'll still be around. I'm confident."
Tom Biffle brushed off the lost day as nothing more than less time to look at new places. He thinks he found enough before the July cut-off.
"I like the day off; a lot of fellows do too," said former Marylander Roland Martin, enjoying an unexpected lunch yesterday at the Inner Harbor Marriott. Had he been on the water, there wouldn't have been any time for munching.
"We're all in the same boat now. One day [of practice] to do it all," said Carroll Hagwood. "We didn't need a rough water problem -- don't need any bad press in fishing."
Like Martin, Hagwood is fully confident he has found ways to catch bass hereabouts -- and that lost day of practice would have given other contenders another day to catch up.
Jim Kirkpatrick got a 4-pounder here in June and isn't concerned about losing a day of practice. Nor is first-timer Kevin Van Dam of Kalamazoo, Mich., who at 23 is the youngest in the field. Van Dam's regret is he had one less day to familiarize himself with the identical bassboats rigged for all contenders.
The fishermen got their first glimpse of the fully rigged Ranger craft Sunday, and there's more than just jumping in and taking off. It takes a bit of practice to handle these big 150-horse Johnson or Evinrude powered boats that can whip along at 60 miles an hour, not to mention becoming accustomed to different electronics including the controls of their smaller bow motors.
Defending champion Rick Clunn could care less. The four-time classic winner is known as a man who gets a pattern and sticks to it, confident it will eventually pay off -- as he did last year on the James River when on the last day he caught 18 pounds 7 ounces to win with a three-day total of 34 pounds 5 ounces.
Clunn's confidence comes from a routine contrary to the thinking of most bass chasers anywhere. When he goes to a new place, he listens to the locals -- but not to learn where they catch fish. He wants to know where they don't.
And that's where he goes -- and that's where he went during June practice sessions. Nineteen keepers came from waters the locals told him had no fish, said Clunn, who has won nearly $600,000 on the BASS tour. And those 19 fish were taken in brief casting spurts; most of his time was spent running to familiarize himself with the area.
Fish, he knows.
Though largemouth bass are the prime targets of most contenders, look for traffic on the lower Susquehanna River better known for its smallmouths. Some competitors found them in June -- and their rigs can go as far upriver as Deer Creek Riffles where 3- and 4-pounders are not rare.
But don't think the field is unimpressed with the open waters of the Chesapeake where tide conditions conflicting with winds of 20 knots or more can mean big problems -- especially for those who fish the Eastern Shore -- and have to get back by their assigned check-in times. Fishing late to try for that last fish, then encountering the dreaded upper bay winds could slow them down enough to cause forfeiture of their catch.
Or worse still, to challenge the treacherous upper bay.