For recreational fishermen, January is the worst month, the time of year when relatively few will fish, even on the warm, bluebird days. It is the month when cabin fever takes hold -- and the common cure often is found on a circuit of fishing shows and flea markets that stretch through winter into early spring.
"What else are you going to do," said Richard Novotny, executive director of the 7,500-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, "but go to the shows and hope for an early spring?"
The circuit opens today at the state fairgrounds in Timonium with the Bass Expo, Saltwater Fishing & Fly Fishing Show.
According to fishermen, guides, outfitters and retailers, this show, with an impressive schedule of seminars and demonstrations and more than 3 acres of boats, tackle and accessories, is the Baltimore area's biggest and best.
And it is the seminars and demonstrations -- with such celebrity anglers as bass-fishing expert Don Iovino, former Sun outdoors editor Lefty Kreh, ESPN fishing-show host Jose Wejebe and fly-fishing author Ed Jaworowski -- that seem to be the greatest attraction for fishermen interested in improving their skills and learning about new areas to fish.
"Fishing shows have changed over the years," said Baltimore's legendary Kreh, who has given fly-casting demonstrations at shows around the world since 1951 and will be at the Timonium show Saturday and Sunday. "It used to be more entertainment, like casting eight rods at a time or knocking a cigarette out of a woman's mouth from 60 yards away.
"But that changed years ago, and the emphasis now is to teach people to do a better job."
Throughout the four-day show, 75 seminars are scheduled on everything from chumming and casting for king mackerel to trout-stream casting techniques.
"Where else is anyone going to find all that talent in one place and have the chance to ask 2,000 questions and get answers to all of them?" said Bob Clouser of Middletown, Pa., an internationally recognized expert on fly fishing for smallmouth bass and many other species, who will be at the show.
Even in those years when a rare blizzard strikes the area, such as 1996, the 158,000 square feet of the Cow Palace are certain to be busy from open to close, with parents and children, tackle buyers and sellers, teachers and students.
"These people are crazy for fishing. They will line up outside the doors for hours waiting to get in," said Novotny.
For a dozen years, the expo was strictly about bass fishing, a competitive pastime well-suited to fresh and tidal waters throughout the state. But despite the popularity of bassin', show president Bob Dobart said, crowds and sales at the expo began to level off, and he started to look around for new attractions.
"Then, once the rockfish moratorium had been off a few years, bay fishing seemed to be on the upswing again," said Dobart of the early and mid-1990s. "And about the same time 'A River Runs Through It' was in the theaters, and there was an explosion in fly-fishing interest. So it made sense that it was time to expand the show."
Three years ago, Dobart added extensive sections on fly fishing and saltwater angling, and now many of the secrets to successful fishing in coastal, tidal and fresh waters in the state can unfold in an afternoon.
Popping and swapping
Norm Bartlett of Baltimore has been running fishing trips on the bay and its tributaries for many years, leading clients to record fish and teaching them how to catch. Bartlett said winter shows are important both as a source of business for the coming seasons and to pass along the skills he has learned in his years of guiding. Popping and swapping, for example, is a deadly method of teasing big fish within range of the average fly caster.
"You can get some real big stripers on popping bugs this way," said Bartlett. He finds the technique especially effective at bringing larger rockfish toward the surface in deep-water areas, such as the Bay Bridge.
"But you want to be there with a buddy before first light at the bridge's western shore stone pile for the best results," he said. "One of you, using a spinning rod, casts a 7-inch popper [lure] with the hooks clipped off and works it to tease the fish up and attract a bite.
"Because there are no hooks, the fish can't be caught by the first guy. But as soon as the fish is up, the guy with the fly rod throws out a popping bug and, often as not, the fish takes it -- and a big striper on a fly rod and a popping bug is pure delight."
Sonney Forrest, the top-notch captain of the charter boat Fin Finder, is an easy talker more attuned to traditional bay methods, such as trolling and bottom fishing.
"The majority of interest among fishermen is to hear a professional who has been out there on the water every day and has to be good," said Forrest. "They want to know the little secrets to fishing -- why it is that, even when they follow charter boats around, the professional captains catch fish trolling, for example, and they don't."
The reasons can be many, Forrest said.
"You have to know the right speed, which must be in ratio to the size of the fish and the different times of the year," said Forrest, who has been running charters for more than 30 years. "You have to know whether to use active or inactive lures, and you have to know how to get the right depth with the lures you are trolling."
Troll beneath the fish, Forrest said, and the quarry will never see the bait. It is better, he said, to start off trolling shallow and to gradually work the baits down to the depth of the fish by experimenting with weight sizes and the length of line let out.
"Fish don't often swim down to a lure," he said. "But they will look up and, if they see a bait above them, they will move up easily toward it and take it from behind and below."
For many anglers, bottom fishing is a staple -- laying to anchor or drifting over hard bottoms that hold trout, hardheads, spot, white perch or stripers.
"Most people think of bottom fishing as drudgery, winding away with oversized line for under-sized fish," Forrest said. "But on medium to ultra-light line in 30 feet of water, it can be a lot of fun."
Ed Darwin runs the charter boat Becky D out of Mill Creek near Annapolis, and when on the water, it seems he almost always draws a crowd of hangers-on hoping to take a good catch from the waters fished by one of the best upper bay captains around.
In midseason, Darwin admits, the private boats that follow in his wake can be bothersome. After all, when he's on the water, he is intent only on getting a good catch for his clients.
But at the mid-winter shows, he eagerly shares his knowledge of the bay from Poplar Island to the mouth of the Patapsco River.
"You don't really lose anything by telling them," said Darwin, retired from the Baltimore city school system after 31 years as a shop teacher. "I always have liked being able to teach, and it's pretty nice when they come back and say what you taught them really works."
River rafter and fishing guide Mark Kovach has come to the Timonium show for 14 years to sign clients and teach about the pleasures of an 8-mile stretch of the upper Potomac River rife with riffles, rapids, pools and big smallmouth bass.
"What's so nice about the area we run, from Dam No. 3 near Harpers Ferry to Brunswick, is that it is probably the most varied stretch there is on the Potomac," said Kovach, who is starting his 20th year running Mark Kovach Fishing Services. "There is a raw, powerful beauty to it, too, as you go through the Needles and the gap at the confluence of the Shenandoah, passing through the cut in the Blue Ridge."
In the spring, Kovach said, the river that runs through the Blue Ridge can be wild and woolly from the snowmelt upstream or heavy rains. In the summer, when flows are low, it can be almost tame, and rafters can get out to wade and fish or picnic or swim.
"There are some Class III rapids and times of big volumes, as you would expect with a whitewater rafting/bass fishing trip," said Kovach. "But we are always safe, and especially in the fall, the fishing really turns on."
The Potomac, Kovach reports, has made a tremendous turnaround since the winter and spring floods of 1996 ravaged the watercourse, killing fish and reshaping pools and pockets.
And whether on fly tackle or spinning gear, he said, the river is back.
At the Timonium show, children younger than 10 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult, and parents are encouraged to bring children, who can fish a trout pond or watch or compete in the CastingKids competition.
What: 15th Annual Bass Expo, Saltwater Fishing & Fly Fishing Show
When: Noon to 9 p.m. today and tomorrow; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: Maryland State Fairgrounds, Timonium
Tickets: $7; $3 ages 10-14; under 10 free (free parking)
Pub Date: 01/14/99