Professional anglers lured more than just fish this weekend on Lake Erie.
Hundreds of fans, hungry for autographs and fishing tips, gathered along the docks at the Small Boat Harbor, waiting for their favorite pro fisherman to return for the daily bass weigh-in at 3 p.m. Saturday. It was Day Two of the Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase tournament, and 108 anglers had been out on Lake Erie and the Niagara River since 5 a.m.
Only 12 will make it to the finals today.
The pros attract a following wherever they compete. So what do the fans do while waiting for the pros to return?
Some, like Matt Allison threw in a line from the dock. And he caught his own bass while waiting to catch a glimpse of his fishing hero, Shaw Grigsby, who hosts a fishing television show called "One More Cast."
"I watch Shaw Grigsby's show to see what kind of bait he uses and how to track weather patterns," said the 16-year-old Matt, who lives in North Tonawanda. "He is going to win this tournament. He's usually in the top 10 of all the tournaments he goes to. I'm going to try to get his autograph at the weigh-in."
Matt was joined by three friends, Luke Vorpahl and Joe Czyrny, both of Pendleton, and Danny Harrington of Lockport. All had lines in the water. The four said they fish together almost every day and agreed that the excitement of "getting a big one" keeps them hooked on the sport.
While they share a love for bass fishing, they disagree on which angler will take home the first-place prize of $100,000, awarded to the pro fisherman who brings in the most pounds of live bass, which are returned to the water after being weighed.
Danny is counting on his favorite angler, Michael "Ike" Iaconelli, named 2006 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, to be crowned champion today.
Iaconelli's loud presence out on the water, which includes screaming at the fish he catches, has earned him the title of being the sixth-most-hated athlete in professional sports, according to GQ Magazine.
But Danny, 14, is a fan of the angler's bad-boy antics.
"He break-dances on the boat, it's cool," he said.
While some fans patiently waited along the Lake Erie shore, others followed the anglers out onto the water and fished alongside them. Some even believed they had a hometown advantage over the professionals.
"A lot of these anglers have never fished this kind of water," said Duane Potter, 42, from Niagara Falls, who fishes out on Lake Erie every Monday on his day off from work. "Any day out here, I could put 100 fish in this boat," Potter said. "I think the pros are getting upset with us and all the fish we're catching. We've caught about 50 bass today."
Michael Dmochowski also felt Lake Erie was an unfamiliar terrain for most of the professionals.
"They are used to catching large mouth [bass] in shallower water," said Dmochowski, 23. "We got small mouth [bass] out here."
Dmochowski and his uncle Anthony DeVincentis, 53, said they were pulling for native angler Darrin Schwenkbeck, who also fished in last year's Elite Series.
"I'm rooting for him," said Dmochowski. "This is his turf."
Scott Gauld of Western New York Bassmasters, who helped organize the Elite Series tournament in Buffalo, believes the sport's popularity is rising.
"I definitely think there is a growing fan base," said Gauld. "NASCAR fans would love the opportunity to follow their favorite driver on the track. There you have to pay $50 for a pit pass. With [fishing] you can just follow them out onto the water, either to find good spots or just to cheer on your favorite guy."
Big-name anglers raised their catches to the crowd during the weigh-in ceremony . The largest catch of the day was a 5-pound, 5-ounce bass reeled in by Cliff Pace.
But Edwin Evers held the lead at the end of the day after bringing in 21 pounds worth of bass, raising his tournament total to 41 pounds.
Ike Baker and his family sat in their lawn chairs, not far from the stage during the weigh-ins, which will air at 9 a.m. Saturday on ESPN2. Although an avid fisherman, Baker admitted he wasn't familiar with any of the professionals.
"I couldn't name one of these guys to be honest," said Baker, joined by his wife Nancy and their two kids.