Not only are the fish of the upper Chesapeake complex gaining respect among the field of the BASS Masters Classic, which started today, so are the rough waters hereabouts.
How many risks or how much pounding is an angler willing to take in pursuit of the $50,000 first prize in the biggest competitive event in sports fishing? It could come to that, said a concerned Roland Martin, who is one of the early favorites.
The 40 contenders aren't accustomed to the tough chop that often erupts in afternoon on the upper bay. The troughs between the waves are too short for 18 1/2 -foot bass boats to ride, yet too long to skim.
So what happens if a Classic angler is a normal 45-minute run from checking in at Dundee Creek Marina, plans on it, and then the winds and tides suddenly whip up rollers big enough to delight surfboarders? To be late checking in costs a pound a minute -- and Classics can be won on ounces.
Does he play macho, and go for it? Or does he play it safe, and lose money, as Martin once did? We're witnessing Square One -- the old small boat-big water dilemma.
A few anglers -- and some of their press observers -- already have their horror stories, and Forrest Wood, the man who produces the Classic's official Ranger 60-mph bass boats, admits he will breathe easier when the affair ends Saturday.
"Our boats have proven themselves time and again," said the Flippin, Ark., boating innovator. "We know they can take just about anything, but let's face it, bass boats are not made for the waters we're fishing." Each Classic craft rigged for fishing represents well over $20,000, but his concern is focused on the angler and observer on board.
Unless the upper bay unexpectedly remains calm three straight days, the Classic can be as much of a test on seamanship -- and common sense -- as catching fish.
Washington writer Gene Mueller accompanied Harold Allen on the only official practice day in Tuesday's rough waters. "We went 120 miles by the charts -- then another 120 miles pounding up and down at high speeds," said Mueller. "Several times the bow cut right through the waves, not over them. It was hairy."
Allen, 46, of Milman, Texas, incidentally is this writer's pick to get the $50,000. A journeyman on the BASS trail, he is not among the favorites; it's a sentimental hunch. He's an excellent boat handler who in June pre-practice found some some nice pockets of bass -- and relocated them Tuesday.
He came within a pound of winning the '89 Classic, is fishing his 11th, and always seems to catch enough in any affair to keep him in contention. He's due.
BASS Angler of the Year Guido Hibdon admitted it was unnerving Tuesday to look up and see the rollers "right on my head." He said his most miserable boating experience ever occurred last summer off the mouth of the Chester trying to get back to this side of the bay in stiff north winds.
"Water filled the boat clear a couple of times," said Hibdon.
"There's a potential for 10- to 12-foot waves," warned Randy Romig, who fishes here regularly. "It can get hairy to say the least."
Some press members were hinting they may have some unexpected assignments to work in the Inner Harbor Marriott's press room on competition days. Hibdon, Ken Cook, Bo Dowden, Woo Daves and Tommy Martin are popular among the press, but have a reputation for running full out -- so assignments on their boats have lost some luster.
Martin doesn't hesitate to admit being a conservative at the wheel, especially here -- and while less tumultuous waters of the Western Shore are closed for the test firing schedule of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
In the mid-1980s at New York's Seneca Lake, 7-foot waves erupted as Martin was about to head for the docks to weigh in a catch that would have guaranteed him at least a couple thousand dollars. The run was an hour and a half at full tilt; he considered it briefly, then sat it out.
Martin is concerned that some of his colleagues here will take that chance.