No clowning around at fishing tournament


RISON -- It takes all kinds to make a bass fishing tournament. Just look at the roster for the Bassmaster Northern Open competition that starts today, for example.

One angler is a former Kentucky Derby jockey. Another is a successful Maryland amateur trying to make it to the top again as a pro. Six men are using the Potomac River event as a tuneup for next month's 2003 BASSMASTERS Classic.

Then there is Baltimore County's Jo Ann Wheeler, one of only a few women at the event and possibly the only angler to have run away from the circus.

Bright and breezy, Wheeler has taken to the Open like clowns to a compact car. She admits to a case of the nerves, but has confidence in her ability.

"I'm going into this with a good attitude. I just want to have fish to weigh, and I will, mark my words," she says.

The Potomac event marks the start of a new season that leads to the 2004 Classic, the oldest and best-known tournament. The so-called "working man's circuit" has attracted 200 pros and 163 amateurs.

Maryland has 13 anglers registered on the professional side and 31 on the amateur side.

While it may seem that the pros have the most at stake, the amateurs know that a good showing can move them along toward sponsorships and pro status. The top 25 amateurs from each division at the end of the season can move to the pro side of the Opens the following season.

At age 49, Wheeler is in only her second year of competitive fishing and only her eighth casting a line. But, she cheerfully says, she's always been a late starter.

Her first time away from home was two years after high school when she joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus as a showgirl. The Maryland native got as far as Providence, R.I., when she snuck away in the middle of the night.

"[The circus] was something crazy I wanted to do," she says. "My dad laughed. He said I'd last three weeks, and it was three weeks."

At age 32, she joined the Army (another crazy urge), met her husband, George, after basic training, got married in 1987 and mustered out of the service the next year.

She caught the bass bug while George was teaching her to fish and began competing in Maryland B.A.S.S. Federation events.

Now, between fishing and taking her 11-year-old daughter, Morgan, to Girl Scouts, Wheeler is starting a tailor shop in her Upperco home, concentrating on evening gowns and wedding dresses.

Two of the Maryland pros have had a taste of the big time. Both are hoping to recover.

Aaron Hastings of Boonsboro is entering his third year on the circuit. In 2002, he finished eighth in the Alabama BASSMASTER Eastern Open, and was ready for a breakthrough season.

But in January, between the first and second events on the BASSMASTER Tournament Trail in Florida, bandits stole his truck, boat and all of his fishing gear while it was parked in front of a friend's house.

Hastings, 31, who owns a small cleaning business, had to compete with borrowed equipment and quickly slipped out of contention, finishing the season 155th out of 174 anglers.

This time last year, Chris Price was getting ready for the Classic, the first Marylander to compete in the 32-year history of the event. The Church Hill resident was entered as one of five B.A.S.S. Federation amateurs and finished 29th.

This season as a pro was nothing to write home about, he acknowledges. He finished 116th.

"I got the learning curve out of the way," he says. "There's no excuses anymore."

The pros will be competing for a total purse of $227,500 that includes a first-place prize of $15,000 and a $35,000 boat and motor. The amateurs' pot is $85,600, including the top prize of a boat and motor worth $24,000.

This is the 14th time the BASS organization has staged an event on the Potomac in Charles County. The heaviest winning weight, 77 pounds, 8 ounces, was set in 1999 by Tim Horton. The lowest winning weight was set in 1990, 37 pounds, one ounce, by Don Leach.

Potomac guide Ken Penrod says competitors won't have any problem finding fish. The water temperature hovers around 80 degrees and "it's about as clear as it gets in tidal water. This is probably the best I've seen the river in my 40 years fishing it," he says.

The boats launch today through Saturday from the Smallwood State Park marina at 6 a.m. The weigh-in begins daily at 2 p.m. Everyone will compete the first two days. The 50 anglers with the best two-day weight total will fish in Saturday's finale.

The best place to watch the action, Penrod says, is from a boat near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Anglers will be casting around the pilings and construction barges.

Among the pros the public might see are several who have qualified for the 2003 Classic in New Orleans: Michael Iaconelli, Curt Lytle, David Lefebre, Randall Romig and Kevin Wirth, a jockey who rode Mythical Ruler in the 1981 Kentucky Derby and finished 17th in a field of 21.

The winner of the 2000 Classic, Woo Daves, will be fishing the event, as will Classic qualifier and winner of the 2003 Horizon Award for most improved pro, Takahiro Omori.

The three-stop Northern circuit starts earlier than the three other regional circuits. The Central Trail begins in late August, while the Southern and Western trails begin in September.

The Northern Open Trail next moves to Buffalo, N.Y., and Lake Erie on Sept. 11-13 and concludes Oct. 2-4 at Oneida Lake in Syracuse, N.Y.

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