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LAKE ERIE DEPTHS HOLD BIGGEST FISH, CREATE MOST FEAR

The trick to winning $100,000 in the Operation Bass/Red Man All-American is simple: bring in five fish that weigh more than anyone else's catch both Friday and Saturday.

At the end of the two-day practice session Wednesday, the experts all agreed the heaviest fish are going to come from Lake Erie, most likely from fairly deep water. They will be smallmouth bass -- and they may be caught by the angler with the most courage.

"I'll tell you, for a little old boy used to shallow little lakes in Mississippi, that lake is pretty frightening," said Larry Rochelle after braving the chop while drifting and casting near the mouth of Smoke's Creek at Bethlehem Steel.

An hour of that and Rochelle headed back behind the breakwaters where he amused himself catching several smallmouths, uncountable rock bass and a chain pickerel, and almost losing a lure to a four-foot-long muskellunge.

Rochelle, 35, typifies the kind of "average angler" the Operation Bass tournaments draw. An accountant for an oil business, he fishes "just about every weekend."

Mostly a "fun fisherman," he won the Mississippi Division and placed sixth in his regional qualifier that sent the top 10 anglers to this event.

"It's pretty rigorous to get into the All-American," he said, even allowing for the luck that played a part in his qualifying.

"Most of these boys probably are more serious about fishing tournaments than I am," he said as we waited in a giant raft of fishing boats, lined up in four rows near Crawdaddy's at the Erie Basin Marina.

It's worth coming down to the harbor about 6:30 a.m. either Friday or Saturday just to see the drill-team precision used to launch and line up these fellows, then sprint to the other end of the marina to see what they do when they leave the 5-mph zone for the open water.

As soon as Rochelle was clear, he rammed the throttle home. The boat reared up, then flattened onto plane and began slapping across the inner harbor chop in a 55-mph dash to the south breakwater.

"I want to see that Smoke's Creek," Rochelle said. "Heard there were bunch of bass there."

Happily, Rochelle is a careful driver, choosing the smoothest path he can, throttling back when he leaps clear of the water when cresting a roller.

That's good, for the bass-boat passenger holds onto a little grab-rail and seat-mounted strap, and tries to keep from pounding the base of his spine through the sports car seat.

Wave-running was not too bad, but for a flat-water fisherman, used to the riverine impoundments of the south, standing on a heaving deck and fishing effectively is not easy.

Rochelle ducked back to shelter early when he couldn't work his baits properly.

"I was fishing by one good old boy out there," another competitor was overheard to say later, "and he came over to show me his smallmouth. Good fish, too. But he was amazed we can use only plastic grubs and crank baits and spinnerbaits and all. 'Hell,' he told me, 'you-all can't use crabs or worms or leeches? You won't catch any fish!' Well, we'll have to see . . ."

In fact, these guys can and do catch fish solely on artificial lures.

But to fish those lures, some of which require skilled manipulation, a man needs a solid base.

The Ranger bass boats used in this tournament -- seaworthy as they are -- are flat fishing platforms. They have a "bar stool" for the skipper/angler, who fishes from the front deck and uses a foot-controlled electric trolling motor to position the boat. In a swell or chop, he has to hold on with his toenails.

Wednesday, 30 of the 41 competitors decided to run south on the lake to find fish.

Sturgeon Point was productive but the $250 Press prize for the largest fish went to Fred David's 3-pound, 9-ounce smallmouth taken off Dunkirk.

David, the outdoor editor of the Syracuse Herald Journal, was paired with Lance Perticone of Dexter, the only New York competitor to fish the All-American.

"These Ranger boats can take anything Lake Erie can dish out," Perticone said, "but I'm paying for it now. You get pretty sore trying to keep your balance all day."

But that's what it may take.

Unless the weather Friday and Saturday is so threatening no one fishes the "main lake" (as the visitors call it), that will be the place to be to haul in five of the biggest smallmouths possible between the 7 a.m start and 3 p.m. haul-out each day.

"I don't know if I can work those strong Niagara River currents," said Rochelle, "and I don't know yet how I'm going to handle that big lake -- or if I'm going to handle it at all.

"But you know I'm going to be out there chucking those lures the best I can."

Whoever is best at that will go home with $100,000 -- the biggest paycheck in tournament angling.

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