Twenty years ago, the upper tidal Potomac River below Washington was an open sewer. Waterfront parks and launching ramps were posted with signs warning people to stay out of the water.
The river, as any bass fisherman knows, has been changed. And tomorrow at Smallwood State Park near Waldorf, many of the top bass fishermen in the nation will open a Bassmaster BP Top 100 tournament on the Potomac, which now ranks as one of the better largemouth bass rivers on the East Coast, if not in the country.
Fishing with the pros will be 100 amateurs, including more than two dozen from Maryland, who will be paired with a different pro partner each day through Saturday.
If this were baseball, it would be almost like getting to stand on the mound with Mike Mussina or Ben McDonald and alternate pitches to Frank Thomas -- and have a chance to be paid for it.
Among the top pros who have entered the pro-am is 1993 BASS Masters Classic winner David Fritts of Lexington, N.C. Fritts won the recent Virginia Invitational as well and has been red-hot on the tournament circuit.
Fritts might have won this tournament last year had Jim Bitter of Fruitland Park, Fla., not found an odd, horseshoe-shaped hump in mid-river and walked away with the $46,000 first prize.
Under the tournament rules, the pro angler runs the boat, has first choice where to fish and fishes from the front of the boat, thereby gettingthe first -- and supposedly best -- crack at the fish.
The 100 amateurs entered were drawn at random from a list of entries.
Despite Bitter's success on the Potomac last year, the former Florida fisheries official believes the river is slowly changing and says the cause of the change is an increase in hydrilla, a type of submerged aquatic vegetation.
While underwater grasses, which filter impurities and provide cover for all types of fish, have been a key element in the resurgence of the Potomac, Bitter says the hydrilla may be becoming too much of a good thing.
"The hydrilla may be the downfall of the Potomac," Bitter said. "It crowds out the milfoil. It grows so lush . . . that it leaves little room for bass to get in. It is really useless as far as fish are concerned."
While hydrilla grows thick from top to bottom, milfoil is less denseand usually has spaces in it where small fish can hide from predators and larger fish can hunt or hide from excessive sunlight or heat.
"Hydrilla out-competes everything else," said Bitter, adding that in the past three years he has noticed an increase in hydrilla.
"I don't know what they can do about it. When you try to kill one [hydrilla], you end up killing both [hydrilla and milfoil]."
The expanse of the Potomac fishery for largemouth bass should leave plenty of room for tournament anglers, who may range the main river and Maryland and Virginia tributaries from Little Falls, just above Washington, to the Route 301bridge.
During practice days this week, anglers reported catching good numbers of fish, but windy conditions hindered fishing in the main river. Windy conditions also were a hindrance last year.
The minimum size for tournament bass is 12 inches and the daily limit is five. Weigh-ins will be held tomorrow through Saturday at 3 p.m. at the park.
The event, which is worth a $19,000 Ranger bass boat to the top amateur, is one of four pro-am tournaments on the season schedule, which ends with the BASS Masters Classic on Aug. 11-13 in Greensboro, N.C.