Around 3:30 next Saturday morning, a deputy sheriff, a motorcycle mechanic, an auto accessory salesman and some 200 others will wake up, get their fishing gear together and set out for Lake Oneida in upstate New York, just northeast of Syracuse.

The boats go in the water around 6.

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As the sun creeps over the horizon, these fishermen of the Bass Fishing League will embark on their next tournament, the third of five guaranteed competitions this year. The anglers come from different backgrounds, regions and careers, but as with any sport, the fuel of competition unites them.

Some have participated in fishing tournaments since they were teenagers, some for only a few months. Almost all fish only as a hobby.

"It's something about the competition, and it always has been," said Kyle Gabriele, who is in his fourth year competing in the Fishing League Worldwide. "When you're good at it, you want to test yourself against others. … You work at it like any other sport — you're out there trying to beat other guys. The more work you put in, the better you get."

Gabriele is a mechanic at Harley-Davidson. East Baltimore's Chris Malczewski works at Kustom Window Tint, an auto service shop in Parkville. Perryville's Roland Gittings is a deputy in the warrant/fugitive apprehension unit of the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

All three local fishermen are among the top anglers in the Northeast division, the nearest branch of the Bass Fishing League. The Northeast consists of five tournaments at four sites — the Potomac River on April 23, the Chesapeake Bay on May 21, Oneida Lake on July 9 and Aug. 13, and the Thousand Islands on the New York-Canada border Sept. 24.

At each tournament, the fishermen can weigh up to five fish, though they can still place if they catch fewer. The field consists of about 100 pairs of one boater and one co-angler, who are assigned randomly.

Each ranking in each tournament garners a specific point total. The 50 boaters and 50 co-anglers with the most points at the end of the five tournaments qualify for the regional tournament Oct. 6 at Kerr Lake on the North Carolina-Virginia border.

Through two tournaments, Malczewski sits in 29th among boaters after top-60 finishes in the Potomac and Chesapeake. A seventh-place finish on the Chesapeake vaulted Gabriele to No. 10 in the co-angler division, while Gittings made his debut on the leaderboard in 10th place to put himself in the mix for qualifying as well.

Their chase won't generate nearly as much interest as it would in another sport, and even among niche sports, fishing has a lower profile. But around the halfway point of the season, the competition starts to intensify.

When the fishermen arrive to the water, the first order of business for boaters and co-anglers — who are paired up the night before the tournament — is to meet. The two will spend eight hours on the water together during the day, and before they do, they compare notes about the best spots to fish and the best bait to use.

In some cases, the co-angler is at the mercy of his boater as to where they fish. Most boaters already know where they want to set up before they start. Some locations draw several boats, and some are sparser.

"Everybody has their own different style," Gittings said. "That's why I try to be as versatile all-around as I can. That way, if I can pick up on something, I can tell them. If they're onto something, they can tell me."

Malczewski fished as a co-angler in the BFL for four years and is now in his second as a boater. For him, the difference boils down to cost. The money spent on fuel piles up, and it takes extra time to research and prepare for going out on the water by himself.

Malczewski is self-employed, which gives him some flexibility in time and spending. He bought his first boat, a $500 Boston Whaler, when he was 16. At 19, he brought an 18-foot bass boat home to his mother's house.

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"What the hell have you got in my driveway?" his mother asked.

"Sorry, but it's going to have to stay here for a while," he replied.

Malczewski has had his current boat, a 20-foot Triton, for three years. Over the years, he has enhanced his boats with extra features such as power poles, which help keep the boat still without having to run the noisy troll motor and startle the fish. He also uses a GPS to save fruitful locations easily so he doesn't have to spend time finding them in the future.

Though he spends much of his time with it, he, too, sees fishing as just a hobby.

"I know my role," he said. "I know how to stay in my lane. I know for sure I'm not a pro fisherman. That takes a lot of skill and a little luck, and I have some skill and no luck. I gotta make my own luck."

Malczewski is one of many fishermen who use the adage, "A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work." He sometimes works at his auto shop six or seven days a week, but any time he does have off and doesn't spend with his children, he's out on the water.

The boater grew up in Canton with Gabriele, and the two still fish together often. Gabriele, who now lives in the Rosedale/White Marsh area, is seeking his fourth straight regional appearance. Last year, he sat in sixth place through two days on the Potomac River and had a chance to win, but he finished eighth.

While he has fished in tournaments since he was 15, Gittings is in his first year but making fast progress. He placed 10th on the Chesapeake in May, putting him in 52nd for the year with a shot to jump into the top 50 over the last three tournaments.

Though Gittings has fished since he was a kid, he put his hobby on the back burner initially.

"It was always a childhood dream of mine to fish and be a police officer, and I started being a police officer first," Gittings said. "I always fished when I had the chance. I had friends that had been to tournaments, and I just say, 'Hey, why not?' I fish well with them, so I gave it a try."

His job allows him more free time on the weekends, which he uses to fish. Gabriele, the mechanic, also has a flexible schedule and can find time to fish if he juggles his work and hobby. Sometimes, though, that means waking up at 5 a.m. to sneak in a couple of hours before work.

"It does make for long days," he said. "But it's my favorite thing to do in life."

twitter.com/jakelourim

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