When network television made its first telecast of a bass-fishing competition a week ago, the tournament gave a group of Maryland anglers in the field a glimpse of what the future might hold for their sport.
"It was still much cooler in person than it was on TV; I watched the tape," said Brian Lancaster, president of MARE Inc., one of the largest bass-boat dealers in the Mid-Atlantic Region. "I don't know what the big push was to go live, but the overall concept was great."
Not that there weren't a few glitches and disappointments through the four days of fishing that led to that live, 90-minute countdown to the final weigh-in Sunday afternoon.
The telecast by Fox Sports captured the final round of the Ranger Millennium 1M tournament at Cypress Gardens in Florida.
During registration, the computer crashed, causing a two-hour delay. On the first day of the tournament, a cold front swept across the chain of lakes in Winter Haven, Fla.
And by Sunday, Ranger Boats founder Forrest Wood found himself teamed with a pair of baseball play-by-play announcers calling pitchin' and flippin' instead of balls and strikes.
Throughout the tournament, Lancaster said, fishing was very tough and the chain of 14 small lakes was crowded.
"There were 212 boats in the tournament and, on the previous three days, there were 400 boats practicing," said Lancaster, who is 38 and has fished bass tournaments since 1985.
"You'd find a batch of fish and suddenly there were six boats on them."
Richard L. Allen Jr., a Baltimore County firefighter from Westminster, said he hired a guide to practice on the Winter Haven lakes a few weeks before the tournament and "the fish were jumping into the boat."
But when the cold front passed through on Thursday, with 20 mph winds and morning temperatures in the 40s, it slowed the fishing to a crawl.
"I'm used to tidal waters like the Potomac River, where you can limit out in a day in almost any conditions," said Allen, who is 38 and has fished tournaments for nine years.
"But down there, when a cold front goes through, it puts the clamps on. You couldn't catch a dink. It was tough."
At the end of Day 1, David Fritts of Lexington, N.C., led the pro side of the tournament with five bass weighing 13 pounds.
Lancaster was 55th (3 pounds, 2 ounces), and Allen and Lester King of Owings were tied for 93rd place (2-0) -- only two places behind nationally known touring pros Denny Brauer and Dion Hibdon.
"Some of the best fishermen in the world were out there, and they weren't doing any better than the rest of us, really," said King, a 35-year-old maintenance contractor with the Air Force. "There was a lot of pressure on the fish, but I felt good about the second day."
On Friday, King said, he had caught four bass by 11 a.m., but the batteries in his trolling motor went dead and he was forced to fish a single area within earshot of the weigh-in.
"I did catch a fifth fish, but it was a quarter-inch short [of the limit]," King said, "and I missed the first cut by 7 ounces."
More than 400 pros and amateurs fished the first two days of the tournament, and the field was cut to the top 50 on both sides of the field for Day 3.
Frank Ippoliti, a restaurateur from Mount Airy, was the only Maryland pro to make the cut (9-3). Jim Bitter of Fruitland, Fla., led the field at the cut with 16 pounds, 9 ounces.
He, too, was feeling pinched and pressured.
"When you figure the total square acreage of those lakes is about 4,000 and there are 200 very good fishermen out there, it gets pretty tight," he said.
And when you consider that the bass utilize only about 10 percent of each lake or pond, bass hot spots were few and far between.
"It became a matter of taking your time and waiting to get into a bank, dock or whatever," said Ippoliti, who worked grass lines early in the morning and switched to skipping his bait under docks as the days brightened.
"I found three docks in the whole chain of lakes that were conducive to skipping a finesse worm under them," he said.
On Saturday, Ippoliti figured he needed a catch of 5 or 6 pounds to make the top 10 for the last round.
But on one dock a 4- or 5-pounder wrapped Ippoliti's line around a piling and broke off. Later a 3-pounder spit out the bait.
"I looked up and said, 'Well, it just wasn't my day to go on,' " said Ippoliti, who finished 44th and did not weigh a fish Saturday. He won $3,000.
Darrell Robertson of Jay, Okla., won the final round with 10 pounds, 6 ounces and collected $600,000, the largest cash prize ever awarded in bass fishing.
Lancaster, King and Ippoliti said tournament organizers did a good job in selecting a tournament site that was well-suited to television coverage because cameramen, reporters and technicians needed easy access to the competitors.
Allen said the array of advertisers and products camped on the Cypress Gardens grounds was overly commercial.
"I was there for the fishing, and all I wanted to do was put in my eight hours on the water and get ready for the next day," said Allen. "I'm a tournament freak and it was disappointing to get there and struggle to catch one 2-pounder -- but I'd definitely do it again."
According to Lou D'Ermillo of Fox Sports, the national ratings were 1.8, with one point representing one percent of households.
D'Ermillo said Fox's National Football League telecasts average 10.8, while NBC's coverage of the Breeders' Cup rated 1.9 and NBC's one-hour taped coverage of the New York City Marathon "was even lower than that."
"That 1.8 is in the ballpark with what our research people expected," D'Ermillo said.
"We're pleased with it, especially when you consider it was up against NFL football on CBS, Tiger Woods and golf on ABC and NASCAR on TNN."