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Trip in dark throws light on gold fish


ONE MILLION dollars sleeps with the fishes today.

Tomorrow, who knows?

The state is releasing 2,000 tagged fish - striped bass, largemouth bass, croaker and white perch - from secret sites around the Chesapeake Bay. The right fish caught between now and sundown July 18 could be worth $1 million.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is rolling out the six-week tournament on the shores of Sandy Point State Park this morning like Santa Claus on Christmas morning.

But how do we know those fish are being sent a-swimming? Who's to say the Moby Dick of Maryland tournament fishing hasn't been pocketed, to be kept on ice until the right moment? Or, for that matter, that any tagged fish are being set free?

My questions are met with silence as the managerial gears and cogs at the Department of Natural Resources ponder a potential chink in the promotional armor.

The answers come hours later.

Blindfolded at 5 a.m., I am hustled into a state car outside DNR headquarters in Annapolis. The driver zigzags along back streets and down country lanes to avoid pursuit by other Sun journalists and to confuse the writer. Little do they know that they had me bamboozled just beyond the parking lot exit sign.

Forty minutes later, I am shanghaied again, this time to a Natural Resources Police boat for an hourlong run on the bay. My captors say the circuitous route is to further confuse me. I think they are lost.

Finally, we find a mangy 21-foot boat with a crew of four biologists laboring over a tub full of potential million-dollar fish.

Here's what I can tell you: $1 million smells a lot like an open can of tuna.

What can't I tell you? Where to find the can opener.

The fact is, I'm certain of where I am. But promises have been made.

Also, I have to live in this state, and I don't want First Son Drew Ehrlich showing up at my front door with a sad little face because I've spoiled Christmas.

The Maryland $1 Million Fishing Challenge is the first time in two decades the state is dusting off the idea of a fishing tournament to increase interest in angling possibilities.

The contest is simple in the way folding an origami bird is simple. Technically, there is not a particular million-dollar fish. But any tagged fish gets you the chance to win the pot.

Catch a fish with a neon-green tag in its side - no dynamite, no hand grenades, please. Leave the tag in the fish and place a call to tournament central (410-693-7706), which will send a biologist out to verify the catch and take a picture. Within 72 hours, the angler will be notified of entry into the contest.

At the very least, every tagged fish is worth a tournament T-shirt and a $25 gift certificate to Boater's World, one of the sponsors. There's no limit on the number of tagged fish an angler can catch, but each angler can only be entered once in the $1 million drawing.

Everyone who registers a tagged fish gets tossed into a hat - figuratively, of course. From that group, four anglers will be chosen on July 23. Those four get a shot at the million.

Each gets a money bag containing 40 envelopes with slips of paper inside. Contestants open envelopes until they get five matching pieces (kind of like a lottery scratch-off ticket) that add up to prizes ranging from $1,250 in Boater's World loot to the big payoff.

I'm told it's possible all four players could win $1 million, but then we'd have to put slot machines in day-care centers. Actually, it's all insured, and the state anticipates 10 percent of the tagged fish will be caught.

"We want people to catch the fish," says DNR's Megan Evans, who looks sweet until she has a blindfold in her hand. "This is only going to be exciting if people catch the fish."

Back on the tagging boat, Harry Hornick, Lisa Warner, Erik Zlokovitz and Craig Weedon pull striped bass and croaker from their nets and dump them into a tub filled with water and knockout drops. They wear baggy waders, perfect for concealing prize fish.

But instead of dropping fish down their drawers, they measure each one to ensure it's of legal size and then tag it with a thin, plastic tag the length of a man's index finger.

The groggy fish are gently released back into the bay so they can show their friends their cool, new tattoo.

Sadly, it all seems on the up and up.

So what do you do if you win $1 million? Take it from someone who has.

"Just enjoy it and have fun with it," says Doug Remsberg, who won $1.3 million in Ocean City's White Marlin Open a couple of years back. "It's really exciting. You never get tired of telling the story."

I'm all ears.

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