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If it were a horse race, Lance Perticone would be the long shot and the sentimental favorite.

But Perticone, 31, of Dexter, thinks he has a pretty good chance to win the $100,000 grand prize in the Operation Bass/Red Man All-American by weigh-in time Saturday.

"I fish smallmouth bass a lot," Perticone said, "and most of these fellows know largemouths better. And, because I get to Buffalo a couple times a month on business, I also know Lake Erie and the Niagara River pretty well."

Tuesday, Perticone landed several "keepers" as he explored shoals and points and rock walls in the Niagara River.

Like the other 40 anglers practicing for the two-day tournament, he had been daunted by the rough water on Lake Erie, sticking the nose of his super-powered bass boat out of the South gap near the steel mill, then ducking behind the breakwaters to race downriver for a day of exploring.

As we chucked a variety of exploratory lures, Perticone talked about how thrilled he was to be in the event at all.

"Normally, 40 anglers compete," he said, "but if no one from the host division makes the cut by winning divisional, regional and qualifier events, the top angler from the host division is also entered. I'm the top point winner in the northeast, which is hosting the All-American here in Buffalo. And I won that by one ounce -- in the last five minutes of my last tournament.

"You can't imagine how thrilled I am to even be in the All-American. In my home state, and as the only New Yorker to be competing."

Perticone started competitive bass fishing when he turned 18 and entered college, fishing in several smaller tournament circuits before he made the switch to Operation Bass three years ago. Now married (with two daughters, ages two and four months, respectively) he only fishes about eight events a year.

"It's not for everyone," he said, "but I'm pretty competitive at everything I do -- and I'm a lot better fisherman than I am a ballplayer."

Normally, competitors are paired for the one-day events that lead up to "the Super Bowl of fishing" (as qualifier Carl Maxfield calls it). And they learn from each other.

Fishing with as skilled an angler as Perticone showed me a few tricks -- even as he learned how to use a new lure in a new way with great success.

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"If this works on Friday and Saturday, you can write about it," he said, "until then, let's not say anything."

I can report that Perticone fishes plastic worms for smallmouths in open water, that he has a dozen rods rigged for a variety of baits and that he prefers spinning tackle and fairly light line for fishing plastic worms -- a departure from standard worming practice that calls for bait-casting gear and fairly stout line.

And, like most of the competitors here, Perticone has no serious plans for a "professional" fishing career.

"You can't make a living at this from the tournament winnings alone," he said. "Look, third place here is $10,000. That's not a living. But it sure is a great party."

To win the $100,000 first prize is something else, and Perticone says he wouldn't mind that at all.

"Even after the money is spent or invested, you'd still have the trophy. And you could strut a little at any regional tournaments you entered.

"But win or lose, I'll still compete.

"When I get on the water, all I do is think about the fish, where they are, how to catch them. I forget business, forget problems, and concentrate on that puzzle."

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