The grand experiment that is this year's BASS Masters Classic begins in earnest today. By 5 p.m. Saturday, the minds that turned bass boats and bass fishermen loose in the upper Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries will know whether their plan was genius or folly.
According to tournament pros interviewed yesterday, the experiment could go either way. They are, you see, strangers in a strange land. "This water is very under-fished," said Rick Clunn of Montgomery, Texas, who last year won a record fourth Classic. "I am impressed with the area, and the little bit of fishing I did [during practice on Tuesday], the fishing was really very easy -- almost too easy.
"And if it stays like that it is going to be a horse race, and I don't like horse races."
Most of the fishermen, however, have found the fishing tough and the logistics required to make the best of a limited amount of time on the water imposing.
"A lot of the success in this tournament is going to be based on making the right decisions," said Ken Cook of Meers, Okla. "And a lot of those decisions are going to have to be made in accordance with the wind.
"It is going to have to be a thinking man who wins this, someone who can overcome problems on the move."
The problems that face the 35 pro anglers and five amateurs who qualified out of 35,000 competitors nationwide are many -- not the least of which are the tournament waters.
Major bass tournaments traditionally have been fished on inland impoundments or coastal rivers. Never has one been fished on waters such as these.
Basically, all the bay and its 12 tributaries above the Bay Bridge can be fished, although, except for the Chester River, little of the water below Middle River on the Western Shore and Still Pond on the Eastern Shore will be tested.
"There is tons of water here," said Guido Hibdon of Gravois Mills, Mo. "But out of this whole bay area, the fish are in only 5 to 10 percent of it and so, as big as this bay is, the people still are going to get crowded, even though there are only 40 anglers here."
Beating the crowd may be what it comes down to -- which puts an emphasis on site selection and the ability to get there first.
Getting there may require a little finesse because, except for the Middle and Gunpowder rivers and their creeks and coves, all the other prime areas require a run through the sometimes boisterous Chesapeake in 18-foot boats better suited to quieter waters.
"You just can't crank it up and run to the Sassafras and then back down there and then back up over there," said Hibdon, who has won the Classic. "Realistically, you cannot cover that kind of ground.
By the weekend, said former Classic winner Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., conditions will be worse as resident boaters take to the bay and its tributaries.
"When I was here [earlier in the summer] to practice, I fished on a Saturday and I never have seen anything quite like this bay, with those big boats charging around," said Nixon. "Fortunately, that zoo doesn't start until 9 or 10 o'clock."
Given the turmoil that will exist by the weekend, Nixon and several other pros said that it will be especially important to get good catches today and tomorrow.
What will make that hard, said Woo Daves of Chester, Va., who has excelled in tournaments held in tidal waters, is that there seem to be two successful methods of fishing.
"But one will produce 8 or 9 pounds of fish per day and the other will produce maybe 9 or 11 pounds per day," Daves said. "But you are going to have to commit to one or the other because there will not be time to do everything. The key will be choosing the right one."
That means fishing areas that have abundant grasses or underwater vegetation or areas that hold submerged wood, blow-downs or finite structures. The two areas, Daves said, are seldom mixed.
Last year when the Classic was fished on the James River, Tom Biffle of Wagoner Okla., caught 15 pounds, 9 ounces on the first day of competition and led the chase until Clunn caught more than 18 pounds on the final day and won going away.
This year, Biffle thinks that a good stringer early, 12 or 14 pounds, will be hard to beat "because if you look at the fish that are here, the chance of one real strong stringer is pretty good, but to pull good stringers for three days will be tough."
The tide cycle also will be a factor, as will the condition of water changed over the past two months by drought and confused earlier this week by the spinoff of Hurricane Bob and the rainy passing of a cold front.
In the waters of the Eastern Shore, from the Bohemia River to Still Pond and Churn Creek, the submerged vegetation that was almost lush during practice fishing earlier in the summer has thinned considerably. The thinning of the grass may be attributable to drought conditions and saltwater infusion.
The grasses at the top of the bay and on the Western Shore from the Gunpowder up seem to be in good shape.