Maryland has little fish in a big pond

Price will take on pros when the bass Classic casts off in Alabama

Outdoors

July 24, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Chris Price is going where no Maryland angler has gone before: the BASS Masters Classic.

The state has never been represented in what is called "the World Series of bass fishing," despite having some high-caliber reservoirs and rivers and a strong grass-roots network of fishing clubs. Even Japan and Zimbabwe managed to place competitors in the Classic before Maryland did.

So it falls to Price, a roofing contractor from Church Hill, to plant the flag tomorrow in the 32nd Classic against 51 professional and top amateur anglers on Lay Lake, outside Birmingham, Ala.

The three-day event has a top prize of $200,000 and endorsement deals that can increase the value to more than $1 million.

Will Price be right at the top?

"I don't know why not," said the 29-year-old, who has lifetime tournament earnings of $7,650. "One out of 52 guys has to win it. If I can catch my limit every day with one good fish, it could happen."

Only once has an amateur beaten the pros. In 1994, 23-year-old Bryan Kerchal, a cook from Connecticut, squeaked by veteran angler Tommy Biffle to win on High Rock Lake in North Carolina. Three years later, Dalton Bobo came up 1 ounce short of winning on Lake Logan Martin in his home state of Alabama.

Price qualified as the Eastern Division representative by finishing second in April at the B.A.S.S. Federation Championship on the Red River in Shreveport, La.

"That was a kick," he said. "That's when I knew all the years of studying and hard work were paying off."

The lessons began in Crumpton on the Chester River, where Price grew up and taught himself to fish. His competition days began in 1992.

"I had a lot to learn, but three years into it I noticed I was holding my own," he said. "I started thinking about going to the Classic through the federation or turning pro."

To hone his technique and learn about the pressure of competition, he put together a plan to fish eight or nine tournaments a year.

"Unfortunately, the plan didn't work for a long time," he said, laughing.

Then, two years ago, he was named the Delaware B.A.S.S. Federation's "Mister Bass." And in April, he put it all together under trying circumstances in the federation's championship tournament.

The rain-swollen Red River was murky and peak spawning was over by the time the 51 anglers showed up.

Price and eventual winner Ken Christ of Missouri tucked themselves away in a protected backwater in Port Lake, where the water was clearer and slower.

The two anglers agreed to share their piece of water and protect it from other anglers looking to cash in. Working nearly side by side in a small ditch, Price and Christ methodically began pulling in largemouth.

Price cast a Texas-rigged, 5-inch Critter Bait and a 3/8 -ounce X-Citer spinnerbait. He worked the wood cover and bounced the sandy bottom.

"The fish were waiting for the water to clear to feed and regain strength," Price said. "They were staging on the original shoreline."

The first day, Christ wowed spectators at the weigh-in with a five-fish limit of 17 pounds, 15 ounces. Price was right behind with 14-9, including one fish that weighed 5-1 that was good for "Big Bass" of the day and a $250 bonus.

The next day, the pair smoked the field. Christ brought in a five-fish limit that weighed 18-4, while Price weighed in with a limit of 16-7.

Christ put a punctuation mark on his federation title on the final day with a bag weighing 17-10, for a total of 53-13, good for $15,000. Price picked up $7,500 with a limit of 11-12 for a total of 42-12.

The pressure will be much higher at the Classic, in which Price will be fishing against legends and anglers who have made more than $1 million with a rod and reel.

"I'd like to say it doesn't bother me, but it does a little bit," he said. "They're basically my heroes, and most of them have fished [tournaments] on Lay Lake before. My strategy will be to catch my limit and block everything else out.

"Not much is expected of me, though, and I think that'll help by making me more comfortable."

Yesterday, during the only practice day on Lay Lake, Price hedged his bets. Instead of fishing shallow along the banks - his favorite pattern - he went deep and "did something totally different to have something else to go to as a backup."

His other piece of strategy involves off-water time. The Classic has plenty of sponsor parties, dinners and interviews for the anglers to attend, but Price will try to keep that to a minimum.

"Sleep is going to be hard to come by. If I'm staying out late at night, I won't make good decisions on the lake late in the day and late in the week. If I don't get in bed by 9 o'clock, I'll be in trouble," he said.

When the Classic ends Saturday, Price will jump back into his truck and head home so he can get ready for the first tournament of the new season, the Bassmaster Northern Open on the Potomac River, which begins Aug. 8.

But he's not thinking that far ahead right now.

"I just hope I don't embarrass myself," he said. "I'd like to make a good showing. But no matter what happens, I got to the Classic, one of just 52 guys, and they can't take that away from me."

Fishing facts

What: 32nd BASS Masters Classic

Where: Lay Lake, outside Birmingham, Ala.

When: Tomorrow to Saturday

Who: Forty-seven professional and five amateur anglers

Prize: $200,000 for winner

TV: ESPN2, with the final day's weigh-in live at 7 p.m. on ESPN

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