Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 39

September26- October 2, 2002

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Fishing for Money

What’s the hurry? If winning a tournament gets more important than fishing, you won’t see me in any more tournaments.
— Rayo Breckenridge, pro bass fisherman

Hey, Rayo Breckenridge wasn’t talking about winning any ordinary tournaments when he said that to me about 20 years ago as he lit up a cigarette after an unhurried lunch in his bassboat on a southern lake. He was talking about one of the biggest and richest bass fish-offs at the time: the BASS Masters Classic.

He was my kind of guy. First place in a classic at the time was worth, as I recall, $50,000, which is a lot of money — even in the top-dollar angling competitions of today. Sure, Rayo, an amiable Arkansas cotton farmer, would like to have picked up the check.

Doing so would have been a repeat for Rayo Breckenridge.

About decade earlier, he was virtually unknown when he won a classic, a contest that comes only once a year. It’s a tournament to which, to this day, to get an invite one must be among the top bass chasers on the pro circuit over the course of an entire season.

Even today, most pro bass fishermen consider it an achievement just to be among the 50 anglers who catch enough bass to earn an invitation. It’s like being named to an All-Star Team. You have to catch an awful lot of bass to fish a classic. There are no shortcuts to joining that select field.

In the Big Time
Over the years, I’ve covered countless tournaments from local affairs that pay out in merchandise to 18 classics and the White Marlin Open at Ocean City where a million bucks is up for grabs — with the first place winner usually picking up half of that. Few contestants on the bass circuit share Rayo’s philosophy of putting enjoyment and satisfaction above big bucks. The more money involved, the more serious become the competitors.

Bass’n is different from many of the other high-payoff contests. With bass, the angler has to cast artificial lures, no live or cut baits.

Every cast is planned, for one big fish can mean the difference in many thousands of dollars. And who knows which cast could get that big fish? So on the bass’n tour, rarely does one see a contestant even take time for a soft drink, forget lunch. Practically never does an angler sit back to enjoy a smoke, though I’ve seen many waste a few seconds to stuff smokeless tobacco in their mouths.

In bay and ocean tournaments for rockfish, blues, trout, marlin, tuna, it’s different. Rarely does a participant cast; trolling is the norm. The fisherman sits in the boat, usually with the rod in a holder, and waits for it to take a deep curve to signal a fish is on. Then, the fun begins — if you can call fun worrying whether that fish is big; more important, will it be landed; has anyone else caught a bigger one.

Look, I’m not knocking tournaments. In the early ’60s, I was on the tournament trail as it existed at the time, and I earned an invite to the first World Series of Sports Fishing. Might I add, I finished midway in a field of 50.

It was fun, though the week’s schedule was tough: long charter bus mileage each night to the next fishing location, banquets each evening, studying charts of areas to be fished, selecting tackle, rising at the crack of dawn, then fishing all day — and the whole routine over and over again.

It didn’t take me long to come to the realization that the pressures of tournament fishing weren’t for me. The camaraderie was enjoyable, so was the challenge — as, of course, were the winnings when they came my way.

Lucky Second
Incidentally, I once discovered it doesn’t always pay to finish first.

In the late ’50s, I tied for first place in a tournament at Marathon in the Florida Keys. The judges decided to flip a coin. First place was a lot at Key Colony Beach, an upscale development just being put together — and at the time, a piece of sand on the beach was worth about $15,000. Second place was a small fishing boat with outboard motor and a freezer to store the fish caught with the boat and motor.

Of course, I lost the coin toss and wished for that lot as an investment (I was confident the Key Colony concept would work big-time). But I had the boat and motor as well the freezer, which I sold on the spot to raise money for the trailer needed to get the rig back to Baltimore.

Turns out, within a couple of years, second place proved to be the big winner. I was told a hurricane swept away the lot, but I still had the boat, motor and trailer, thanks to losing the flip of a quarter. But winning by not winning is indeed a rarity.

Competing at Home
In the past couple of decades, here in Maryland, tournament fishing has really become big-time. There are numerous competitive events at Ocean City, and in the spring when big rockfish are around, there is a full schedule on the Chesapeake. Another rash of tournaments comes in the fall when again, hopefully, there is a surge of big fish from the ocean.

Occasionally I fish one of them, though most times I cover them as a reporter. Though the winnings can be mighty tempting, it can be tough concentrating on a column when the mind is filled with decisions on tactics and techniques to get that big winning fish.

I recall covering a banquet as a young reporter a half-century ago in Vermont when the well-known and popular guest speaker was the public address announcer at the race track in nearby Saratoga Springs, not far across the border in New York. I forget his name, but I never forgot what he said that evening.

He told his audience he never bet on a horse at Saratoga. Put your money on a horse, even two bucks, he said, and that’s the horse you’re watching — not the rest of the field. Without realizing it, you’re vulnerable. Describing a race to packed stands is “fast concentration” as he put it, and without realizing it, you’re likely to talk more about the horse you bet on whether it’s a nag or the winner. You lose perspective.

RoC October
But for those of you who don’t have to worry about writing a column, coming up October 12 and 13 is a big Chesapeake Bay tournament. RoC October, headquartered at Baltimore Marine Center in Canton. Hopefully, some of the big sea-run rockfish will be around by then. Breaking the Maryland record will be worth $100,000. Most boats will be trolling.

Fishing will be confined to waters between the Bay Bridge and Pooles Island/Worton Point. Top rockfish each day is worth $4,000; second, $2,500; third, $1,500; fourth, $1,000, and fifth, $500. Also, the best sea trout will win a cash prize. There will be skill-level pots that can pay much extra to those who participate. The entry fee is $300 a boat with four anglers.

If you want to play Santa Claus when Christmas rolls around thanks to a big fish, you can sign on by calling Jack Gardner at 410/675-8888 • www.baltimoremarinecenter.com

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly