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BASS ANGLERS CAN LEARN FROM TOURNEY

YOU GAIN a lot of insights, watching 41 of the best tournament bass fishermen in the country for a week.

Some of what I saw -- fishing with competitors during practice and from the press boat during the Red Man All-American which ended here Saturday -- went a long way towards explaining why Buffalonians fish the way they do.

And, it suggested a few things we all could learn from these dedicated and extremely effective bass anglers.

First, you have to understand the peculiar nature of bass tournaments and how their rules shape them:

They require artificial lures and allow no landing nets.

"To have a partner or observer net your fish just adds another dimension, something else that can go wrong" said Operation Bass founder Mike Whitaker. "Lipping the bass, or swinging them aboard is an 'equalizer' of sorts."

Thus, the boats are low-slung casting and landing platforms. Then, because these events are run against a clock, the boats need to be hellishly fast to allow anglers to hit as many potential "hot-spots" as possible in the allotted seven or eight hours.

"The rules forbid trolling," Larry Rochelle told me, as we fought the currents at the "fish market" at the head of the Niagara River off the Buffalo Yacht Club.

"I can't fire up the big engine to hold against this Niagara River current, or I'll be disqualified. And right here the electric trolling motor won't hold the boat where I want to cast."

For many local anglers, trolling or drifting is the only method of catching fish from a boat they find effective on Lake Erie or the Niagara.

Indeed, fishing outside the breakwaters -- using the "big engine" -- is the only way to keep off the rocks in some conditions.

But for winner Joe Thomas and second-place finisher James Parker, allowing a boat to drift off fish-holding structure wastes precious time.

"I fished off Sturgeon Point on Friday," Thomas said, "and just held over the fish until the bite slowed down."

Thomas worked the offshore ledge off Angola starting at 19 feet, then moved out as the fish sought deeper water as the sun rose higher.

None of the anglers relied on their sophisticated "fish-finders" to locate fish, either.

"I don't put a whole lot of confidence on seeing fish," Parker said. "I look for bottom structure and contours" with the depth finder, "then I fish that structure."

Parker also invested $54 in local fishing maps, which he said, "you don't have to be a mental giant to read and understand."

Inshore, these guys fished places that few of us ever try. They worked every piling, found tiny inflows that most overlook, and worked the be-jabbers out of any spot that might hold a fish.

"I've fished here all my life" said local bass guide Jim Hanley, the local contact for tourney organizers. "I saw a guy fishing a creek mouth near Ontario Street that I never even knew existed!"

Lake Erie fish mostly fell to plastic grubs -- "Mister Twisters" or the newer "Gitzits" or 5-inch plastic worms.

Inside, hair-pin-style spinnerbaits were effective on everything from rock bass to muskellunge.

The trick is in precise, rapid, controlled casting methods.

Winner Joe Thomas, looks like he trains as seriously for this sport as any boxer or football player; and none of the others was a bit laid-back when it came to fishing, despite their press-conference "persona."

Each averaged 4,000 casts a day, keeping as many as a dozen rods rigged with different lures to waste no time when they decide to switch.

Still they enjoy fishing. For them, outsmarting the fish -- bringing the fight to them -- sets them apart from us. We don't have the lure of big bucks for our bass.

But when they get a strike, when they feel the pull of "a big ol' bass" they still grin, even serious professionals like Joe Thomas.

He smiled at every strike, and, now $100,000 richer, is grinning from ear to ear.

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