Near the launch ramp at Dundee Creek Marina early yesterday morning, perhaps a couple of dozen fans of bass fishing strolled along the line of 40 metal-flake vans pulling matching metal-flake bass boats. A hand was shaken here, a hat signed there. Words of encouragement were called through the morning.
It is bass fishing's version of the players' gate at Memorial Stadium, the time and place where the spectators might steal a moment with or an autograph from a favorite superstar, veteran or rookie.
At this players' gate, Roland Martin usually gets a large share of attention. Yesterday, as 40 of the top bass fishermen in the country prepared for a day of practice in the BASS Masters Classic, the morning was no different.
Martin shook a hand here, signed a cap or program there -- and we were gone out on the Gunpowder River and northeast across Chesapeake Bay toward Churn Creek, Still Pond, Lloyd Creek, Pond Creek, Veazy Cove and points elsewhere.
In the lulls, between skipping across the water at 60 mph and worming dying grass beds, there was time to play 20 questions with Martin, the bass guide from Loch Raven Reservoir who holds the record for BASS tournament victories and has built something of a fishing empire since leaving Maryland all those years ago.
Question: Would you get a special feeling from winning the Classic in Maryland?
Answer: I could make up something to answer that, because it has a nice story line -- winning my first Classic in Maryland. But, truthfully, this isn't home to me anymore and winning the Classic anywhere really would be nice.
Q: You started out fishing for bass on these creeks and rivers. Will any of that background help you this week?
A: I fished here when I was 18 years old. Heck, that's more than 30 years ago. Back then you put in at the end of the creek with a 14-foot boat and a 15-horsepower motor and you fished the creek back. You didn't cross open water. Open water was the end of the world.
Q: Are we going to fish today where you will fish during the tournament?
A: Well there's fish in Still Pond. Churn Creek can be good. The Sassafras is maybe the best there is here, but there is also the Chester and there are 25 or more other places where there are fish.
Q: How much gamesmanship is involved in this tournament? How open can people be expected to be about where and when they will fish?
zTC A: You're not going to hear much but a lot of smoke from a lot of fishermen over the next few days. No one is going to tell where their fish are -- and if they do, then look out because that fisherman will be somewhere else.
The answer to No. 4 pretty much put his answers to questions No. 5 through No. 19 on hold until Saturday afternoon, when the tournament ends and most of the secrets will be told.
L So, Roland, what about the kid? Did it throw you for a loop?
"I try to take the position that it doesn't bother me," Martin said. "I am an adult and I know that I am not at fault.
"But it does bother me."
The kid is Chris Mathis, a 14-year-old from Rock Springs, Ga., who has an inoperable brain tumor and in March wished more than anything to fish with his hero before he died. Dream Makers Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., a group that sets up special trips for children with terminal illnesses, set out to fulfill the teen-ager's dream by trying to set up a trip with Martin.
But when contacts with Martin's marina office in Clewiston, Fla., failed to produce a definitive and affirmative reply, young Mathis was crestfallen, the story made its way to an Orlando, Fla., newspaper and the outcry since has been deafening.
"I have received more than 100 letters about this," said Martin, who this spring held three tournaments to benefit Easter Seals. "Bad letters cursing me, cursing my family. But those people don't understand how this came about, how I never would intentionally do any child that kind of harm."
In fact, Martin said, he never refused to take Mathis fishing. Rather, Dream Makers director Darlene Mangrum was asked to contact Outdoors Communications, an Atlanta company that produces Martin's television show and manages his business schedule, to determine what dates might be suitable.
The request had been to fish with Martin in the late spring or early summer, when his time was filled with the affairs of the empire, which includes the marina, a weekly show on cable television, tournaments on three separate bass fishing circuits, and personal appearances for sponsors from BP Oil to Rangers Boats.
The timing was bad, so Martin's camp offered a trip to Clewiston to fish with guides there and have lunch with Martin. Dream Makers refused.
"I am not going to hide it," Martin said. "I am a busy man. I know people might think of me as a dumb, old fisherman, but my schedule is tight and there are hundreds of people with hundreds of requests, and we can't fit all of them in our schedules.
"So I am screened by the marketing group [Outdoors Communications] until we can determine how legitimate some of these requests are, and Dream Makers did everything but call the right people."
Ironically, when Dream Makers finally reached Outdoor Communications, it was to set up a trip for Mathis with Orlando Wilson, another fishing show host the group manages. Wilson and Mathis have yet to go fishing, although Bill Dance, a third television host, reportedly has had the teen-ager out.
Martin has since offered to take Mathis fishing and talked with the Mathis family to explain the complications that prevented him from fishing with the teen-ager.
"But I don't honestly feel that I did him any wrong," Martin said. "And that's not coming from some dumb, old fisherman blowing smoke."