Bass-catching ability not an easy task

Some anglers view bass as the fat, dumb and happy fish of the freshwater world, not particularly challenging to catch.
Tell that to the 2005 Bassmaster Classic qualifiers who spent the past few days roaming the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in and near Pittsburgh. Tell them bass are easy to catch and get ready for a stern rebuttal.
The world championship bass tournament makes its closest appearance to Youngstown in history July 29-31 and, based on reports from the Three Rivers area, it will be a true test. Fishing is the toughest any of the 46 qualifiers have ever experienced.
These are not your garden-variety bass anglers. To even earn an invitation to the Bassmaster Classic, one must be at the pinnacle of the bass tournament world. It literally is to bass fishing what the Masters is to golf.
Stars like Kevin VanDam, Rick Clunn and Larry Nixon made the field this year and they ran up and down the Ohio, Mon and Allegheny rivers to piece together something -- anything -- on which to build a strategy for the big tournament.
They are people who can catch bass in a roadside ditch. They've "been there, done that" on lakes and rivers all over the United States.
Rivers' ratings
None of them was impressed with the Three Rivers, even after coming to Pittsburgh directly from an Elite 50 tournament on Wisconsin's Lake Wissota where VanDam won with the smallest haul of the year and almost half of the 50-angler field zipped on the second day of competition.
We local anglers could have predicted the difficult (and in some cases, impossible) fishing they found during their official practice week.
Now the rivers are off limits until the lone practice day just 48 hours before the Classic competitors roar away from the shadow of the Steelers' Heinz Field in their boats at dawn the morning of July 29. And the competitors are left to try to piece together a game plan based on the meager results they experienced this week.
At stake is the world champion's title, a $200,000 check and enough notoriety to influence sponsors to knock on their doors with lucrative contract offers. All the drama will unfold in live and taped ESPN and ESPN2 coverage during the three days of competition.
The competition will be a slugfest (it always is), where the champ will be the man who perseveres in what surely will go down as one of the most difficult tests ever in high-stakes, professional fishing. He will be the guy who figured out a little something extra to trick up an extra few ounces of bass than the rest of the field.
The winner will catch bass that are far from fat, dumb and happy. Reports were the fish around Pittsburgh last week were skinny and scarce.
Those of us who have fished those waters know the pros are coming to the area in the midst of a down cycle. Had the Classic been in Pittsburgh in 2002 or 2003, the bass world would have been impressed by the fishery.
Fans would have seen 4-pound smallies and limits would have been the rule as anglers chucked crankbaits on gravel points and other current breaks, and pitched small plastic worms and jigs to hiding holes.
But the Ohio River system is subject to tremendous swings in productivity. The last up cycle peaked in 2003 and the fishing in 2004 was awful. So far, 2005 isn't any better.
Past competitions
In '02 and '03, one-day tournaments on the New Cumberland Pool, which flows past East Liverpool, were won with 12- to 15-pound five-bass limits. Smallmouth bass dominated and many of them were in the 3-pound-plus category. The story was similar up river in Pennsylvania.
The Ohio River has been (and someday soon will be again) a productive bass fishery. Unfortunately, the 2005 Classic will provide no evidence of the waters potential.
Regardless of the fishing out on the rivers, the Classic will be a great show. The daily weigh-ins will be in Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena, complete with entertainment, glitzy staging, dazzling lights and big-screen video of the anglers on the water. At the nearby David Lawrence Convention Center, the Classic Outdoor Show will feature aisles and aisles of fishing and other outdoor sports exhibits.
Anybody even remotely interested in fishing won't want to miss it.

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