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TOURNAMENT PROVIDED PLENTY OF WINNING SITUATIONS

There were no losers in the Red Man/All-American Bass Tournament which finished Saturday with a weigh-in of the live fish caught by the leading finalists. A spotlight on stage highlighted each fish as it was shown to the large crowd gathered in the Buffalo Convention Center.

The fish -- mostly smallmouth bass -- did not lose because they were all successfully returned to the water immediately after they were shown to the audience.

The entrants did not lose, because all 41 finalists spent the past week in Buffalo at the expense of Red Man/All-American, learning about the fishery which Western New York waters regularly offers to anglers during the warm-water fishing season.

Randy Nichols of Mt. Vernon, Ill., leaving the launch at Erie Basin Marina for the second day of competition, said "Buffalo is the cleanest city I've been to for a fishing competition," citing the efficiency of the launching site and the helpfulness of the people he met on and off the water.

Nichols was "out of the money" after the first day, but fished until the last possible cast along the middle gap of the Buffalo Harbor breakwater before he headed to check-in. With only one qualifying fish in the live well, Nichols practiced some catch-and-release as he returned it to the water before starting a powerful 150 engine for a boat ride exceeding 55 mph.

Though science plays a part in competitive fishing, luck still has its role. John Eklund of Salinas, Kansas, covered the hot spots in both Lake Erie and the Niagara River with the same thoroughness shown by the winners. He found the major structures which hold smallmouth bass on the lake and he worked the river shallows effectively to find and catch largemouth bass . . . and still finished out of the money.

Wayne Bullock of Jackson, Miss., finished eighth through the application of the same jigging patterns used by the first- and second-placed finishers. Bullock saw the pattern shifts of bass in the post-spawn period and worked a jig down the outer sides of breaklines to catch fish as well as any seasoned veteran at Lake Erie bass fishing.

One of the benefits of the tournament was that area fishermen had the opportunity to see first-hand how full-time and semi-professional competitive anglers go about finding and catching fish.

Extensive technical data was shared at the press conferences following each day of fishing. These expert anglers developed a multitude of approaches with alternative "game plans" for each fishing situation encountered.

For example, Saturday's Small Craft Advisory from the U.S. Coast Guard forced tournament officials to exclude fishing on the open waters of Lake Erie. While catch results were considerably lower on the second day of competition, 41 high-speed bass boats scattered over the Niagara River, the Buffalo River and Buffalo Harbor in an intense effort to hold and/or gain standings in the competition. At one point Saturday afternoon, the first- and last-place finishers were passing each other while catching smallmouths in the weeds along the Bird Island side of the Erie Barge Canal.

All the boaters had ample room to pursue bass and could return with eye-opening stories about the bountiful fishing in waters once considered beyond recovery from extensive pollution. In fact, Buffalo area waters hold surprising numbers of largemouths which most anglers had not deliberately targeted previously.

Now that the Red Man tournament has ended and fishermen are learning location and techniques for serious bass fishing, more fishing boats will be seen moving along the calm-water inlets and eddies in Buffalo Harbor and along the Niagara River.

The greatest benefit to Lake Erie bass fishermen came from the nomadic wanderings of the anglers Friday, when conditions allowed them to run at full speed from Buffalo to Barcelona.

Runner-up James Parker of Fayetteville, N.C., saw the potential of rock structures around Barcelona, and winner Joe Thomas of Cincinnati keyed on similar waters at Sturgeon Point. But jigging techniques varied widely for the leaders and other successful bass anglers on the lake. Thomas credited a popping motion, with the hit coming as the line settled back into the water. Parker swears by a sweep during which the hit comes as no more than a slight tug on the line.

Vertical jiging versus side casting? Answers varied among the experts.

In all bass fishing situations, the one technique best shown by the experts was that hard work and a consistent pattern of change are a must when trying to put together a winning catch.

Fishing like these finalists can be exhausting, but the results are an improved understanding of methods, a reduced number of "shutouts" and better catches to show for it. There are no losers in that kind of fishing.

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