The first and only day of official pre-tournament practice thrust three new names into contention for the 21st annual $200,000 BASS Masters Classic, which opens a three-day run tomorrow out of Dundee Creek Marina.
Though until any tournament is over, contenders are as closed-mouth as a man cheating on his wife, the trio admitted locating nice patches of fish in a day marred by spasmodic stiff breezes and high rolling waves. Still it was obvious that the upper Chesapeake complex offers some good bass'n.
Zell Rowland of Montgomery, Texas, found them; so did Ron Shuffield of Bismark, Ark., and Ken Cook of Meers, Okla., all admitting to catching fish of several pounds after a practice
weigh-in at Baltimore Arena. It's not easy fishing, but the previously predicted 30 pounds to win might prove conservative.
So add Shuffield, Rowland and Cook to the list of favorites, in addition to Roland Martin of Clewiston, Fla., who upon his return to his old fishing grounds also admitted finding spots that added to his previous confidence level. None of the four did much catching -- just sampling -- because they didn't want to disturb pockets they depend on for winning the $50,000 top prize.
Baltimore will be put to the test once competition starts, and don't be surprised if her Chesapeake complex surprises the demanding pros, who are gradually accepting area potentials, though continue to gripe about rough waters and conflicting tides -- most of them high. The classic average winning catch is 39 pounds, and barring bad weather, this writer figures at least one angler is going to match it.
Who? Who will best read the water, its fish, and be at the right place at the right time?
Any of the 40 can be The One. Just one day of official practice can't decide a favorite, nor can success in pre-practice before the area was ruled off-limits July 1. Fishing has changed the past six weeks though many who came in early summer learned many of the waters.
The consensus seems to be Randy Romig, 41, of Spring City, Pa., who will be fishing waters in which he enjoyed spectacular local and regional tournament success in the past, including three one-day competitive catches of better than 17 pounds.
He finished one one-day Red Man Tournament with 1 pound 6 ounces. He came back the following week in another match for 18 1/2 pounds. That's fishing, and when asked whether he would accept the role as favorite, this bearded, quiet 6-foot-2 angler who frequently takes his wife Ethel on practice would comment only "I feel very confident." Classic tradition doesn't favor favorites. Few have won, and not once has a contender won when fishing his "home" waters.
The best thing Romig has going for him is that he knows the waters and fish well enough he won't waste much time. He has many alternatives; knows where to go under varying weather and water conditions.
Martin's refresher course on waters where he learned bass'n 30 years ago could be enough to turn the trick. The 51-year-old former Loch Raven Reservoir ace, nine times BASS's Angler of the Year, was BASS's first superstar.
But things changed here after Tropical Storm Agnes; gone are most of the duck blinds where lures plucked big bass consistently. The grasses are coming back in many areas, but they're not like they were when Martin frequented the area -- though he did well in pre-practice.
Martin's long and successful pro experience will also be going for him, so will the crowd at weigh-ins. Bass followers know where he's from. Curiously, the classic is the only prize that has eluded Martin, who in an unprecedented 18 classic appearances has finished second once, and fourth twice.
How can anyone overlook 45-year-old Rick Clunn, a hero's hero, clean-cut family man, confident yet down to earth, literally a professional fishing machine, who has earned nearly $600,000 (second best among the pros) on the BASS tour alone. More importantly, he has won an unprecedented four classics, and for 18 consecutive years has earned a classic invitation.
He did well in pre-practice in June, though he spent most of his time cruising to learn the area, not the fish. In 17 classics, he has finished in the top four eight times, and holds the record for a classic three-day catch, 75 pounds 9 ounces set on the #i Arkansas River with 21 fish -- an average of more than 3 1/2 pounds.
Clunn's philosophy is fish will bite sooner or later, so he sticks with his proven pattern and waits them out. No panic, just patience -- and for him patience has paid off time and again. He averages more than $4,000 a stop on the pro tour, and has placed in 72 percent of 148 events.
Clunn isn't intimidated by tide water bass. To him, they move within their territory more than sweetwater fish, maybe not far, but they don't hang to their haunts as tight. Best fishing times are last of flood and last of ebb, but Clunn says they still bite -- and he intends to be there when they do.