The whole atmosphere smells of hair tonic and Aqua Velva, chewin' tobacco and great, heaping levels of testosterone.
Burly men in jeans and flannel shirts crowd around booths hawking exotic fishing trips to Alaska, Canada, Montana, each booth featuring a montage of color photos depicting beaming customers triumphantly holding up huge salmon and steelhead against breathtaking backdrops of blue skies, towering fir trees and clear-rushing rivers.
But as you wander the aisles at the 15th Annual Bass Expo, Saltwater Fishing and Fly Fishing Show at the Maryland State Fairgrounds and gaze at all the high-tech equipment -- the lightweight composite rods and $30,000 bass boats, the chemically enhanced lures, the rods and tackle strong enough to reel in an oil tanker -- you're left with one overriding thought:
Do the fish even have a chance anymore?
It used to be man against fish in the eternal battle. Now, as the Bass Expo makes clear, the fish are going up against man and innumerable gadgets of modern science and technology.
At a booth not far from the main entrance stands Ken Penrod, a tall, friendly man who looks as if he just stepped out of a fishing documentary.
Penrod is a regional representative for Lowrance Electronics, a Tulsa, Okla.-based company that manufactures sonar fish-finders and Global Positioning System satellite units that help anglers get to favorite fishing holes and store the exact coordinates of up to 700 such locations.
Sales are booming, to the tune of $100 million annually, says Penrod.
Right now he's standing in front of the LMS-160, Lowrance's hottest "combo" sonar and GPS unit, the one with all the bells and whistles.
The LMS-160, which sells for $700, has a function that lets anglers upload customized maps of preferred fishing areas all over the world, as well as a "new, ultra-easy Point and Map Cursor navigation and route planning feature."
Explaining how the unit works to a small crowd, Penrod points to a series of squiggly lines, or "fish arches" on the screen, which represent fish swimming. There's also a contour map of the bottom of a bay, which helps fisherman identify submerged grassy areas, even sunken barges or piers, where fish are likely to congregate and feed.
"Here's your depth info," Penrod says, pointing to the upper left portion of the screen. "This also tells you water temperature, how fast the current is, how fast you're going."
"The fish don't stand a chance," someone says admiringly.
"It's not that easy," says Bob Dobart, the promoter of Bass Expo, shaking his head.
"It's an aid to the fisherman, that's all," Penrod says of the unit. "It's an embarrassing aid. Heretofore, we could say there was no fish. Now, though ..."
"I liken it to a polygraph test," Dobart says. "Lots of people can look at a polygraph [result], but not all of them can interpret it. You can see millions of fish. [But] when fish don't want to bite, they don't want to bite."
One showroom over from the Lowrance booth is Pete Vigneri of Cambridge, manufacturer's rep for Daiwa, the world's largest maker of fishing tackle.
Vigneri is showing off the latest technology in rods, something called the interline rod, made of a graphite composite. The rods, which sell for $90 to $190, are incredibly lightweight and durable.
But what really sets them apart, says Vigneri, is that the line is fed through the rod, not through a series of exterior guides, as with conventional rods.
"It really smooths out the drag," or the ability to pull the line off the reel, Vigneri says. "A jerky drag can break off."
And there goes that writhing monster you were planning to have mounted on the rec room wall.
"This is for the guy who really knows what he's doing when he fishes," Vigneri says. "It's like, you could give a guy a Ferrari, and if he doesn't know how to drive it, what good is it?"
Not 20 paces from where Vigneri stands, Brian Lancaster is showing off possibly the hottest tournament bass boat around, a 1999 Ranger Commanche 518 SVX, which retails for a cool $33,268.
Lancaster is the 37-year-old president of Mare Inc., with four boat dealerships across the state. The 518 SVX is a sleek, high-end neck-snapper: Imperial Red-and-slate snowflake paint job, mocha-colored seats, separately molded console, digitally fuel-injected, top speed of around 70 mph.
Speed, in a tournament bass boat, is important -- it gets you more quickly to where the fish are biting.
The boat so impresses him, Lancaster said, "I've ordered one for myself."
Then he shows you the new Mercury 225 Optimax outboard motor that he plans to put in his new boat. It's the size of a small file cabinet, but very "environmentally friendly," because it's 40 percent more fuel-efficient.
Back in the main showroom, a crowd is gathering where the new Mr. Twister Exude lures are being demonstrated.
On the market only a few months, these plastic lures, made with an "Exclusive Formulation," form a "natural slime coat" and leave a scent trail that supposedly drives fish wild.
It's like waving a meatball sub under George Foreman's nose, according to Mike Nutile, a staffer manning the Mr. Twister booth.
"It's soft, so fish find it more succulent," said Nutile. "The scent is strong and potent. The slime coat helps it go through cover, like brush piles and over branches."
Plus it's new, which may be equally important.
"Bass are pretty smart," says Nutile. "They learn quick. Once they see [one] bait a certain amount of time, they become educated and avoid it."
But gazing out over three acres of dazzling boats and space-age fishing equipment, you figure these days, a fish needs a Ph.D. to avoid getting hooked.
Pub Date: 1/16/99