Final exams for the 41 Red Man/All-American finalists began Friday.
After many tests in preliminary contests, passing grades high enough to qualify and a "study period" of two days to practice on area waters, Day One of the testing began with many questions and variables.
Most finalists had passed their earlier courses while fishing for largemouth bass. But 90 percent of the fish brought to the weigh-in Friday were smallmouth bass.
Research and planning were key elements on the first day. Thirty of the 41 contestants had ordered maps from Inland Sportsmen well before the tournament and had initially selected "spots" -- especially those in the open waters of Lake Erie -- well before the contest began. These color maps, accompanied with specific details for fishermen, clearly indicate all the rocky shoals so important to smallmouth bass fishermen.
Joe Thomas of Cincinnati, one notable exception, gained his knowledge of Lake Erie through similar fishing situations he has dealt with in the western basin of Lake Erie.
First-day variables, similar to practice on Wednesday, came from extremes in the weather. Following a day of high winds and a slight discoloration in waters within a mile of shore, winds gradually subsided to less than 5 mph by 8:30 a.m. But the high-speed boaters were met with 2- to 3-foot swells when racing out of Buffalo Harbor at 7 a.m.
By 10 a.m., the lake had returned to the windless, bug-infested outing Lake Erie offers during calm weather.
Book-learning still could not be set aside. In general, smallmouth bass are in their post-spawn pattern and should be feeding heavily after spawning. But contestants and recreational anglers alike were out there working what "presonar" experts referred to as drop-offs. Modern bass technologists refer to these underwater structures as breaklines -- "a bottom feature in which the bottom drops off along an edge . . ."
But breaklines do not exist everywhere and good bass-holding structures seldom occur along Lake Erie's New York shoreline. In fact, one piece of structure -- the Angola/Evans Bar west of Sturgeon Point -- supported 11 of the 41 contestant boats by mid-morning Friday. While four other massive rocky-shoal structures can be found in Lake Erie between Buffalo and Barcelona, tournament anglers learned the same lesson taught to young resident anglers -- find a school of boats and check it out.
No bass boats showed up at Smokes Creek, few boats appeared on Myers Inner Reef, fishing around Cattaraugus Creek was slow and few boaters chose to run past Dunkirk Harbor. So Sturgeon Point drew increasingly more bass boats as the morning progressed.
The jumping ability of smallmouth bass was another learning experience these veteran largemouth anglers willingly shared at the press conference Friday afternoon. When smallies are first hooked, their first response is to head for the surface and "spit the hook." That is, draw slack on the line and use that slack line to shake the embedded hook from its mouth. All four front-runners agreed that hook-setting and pound test of the line become considerations when bringing smallies to the boat without the use of a landing net.
The challenge combined the need for lighter lines (to entice smallmouths in relatively clear water) with the need for hook-setting power (to secure the fish while taking up the slack) and strength in trying to get the fish into the boat without breaking the line.
Theorists argue whether fishing is an art or a science, but tournament smallmouth bass fishing in open, clear waters requires both, the artful movement of an athlete and the science of a physicist to pass the skill test to bring in the five heaviest bass possible each of two days.
The final question came in two parts: water coloration and lure presentation.
Largemouth experts like Ronnie Lawrence of Clanton, Ala., have always fished stained water at or near the surface. Before Lawrence came to Buffalo this week, the experienced and highly successful angler had never caught a smallmouth bass. Yet he placed 13th on the first day by adapting to the water conditions and working deep-water structures.
For today's contest -- as in all smallmouth bass fishing in open waters of big lakes -- water clarity governs lure size and weight.
Once the contest has ended and winners have been named, previous day's leaders promise that they will reveal more test items such as lure names, sizes, weights and retrieval techniques.
Those "test results" will be available at the Buffalo Convention Center early this afternoon, along with the comments from the contestants when they arrive with their "final scores" -- the biggest bass possible.